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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Hinton

Effective Learning for the 21st-Century

An effective teacher must master the professional skills necessary to deliver a high-quality 21st-century education to their students. In this blog post, I will discuss the importance of effective learning for the 21st-century.

At the heart of education for the 21st-century is effective learning. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, learning is defined as “the knowledge or skill acquired by instruction or study.” Students usually acquire knowledge and skills in schools due to their interactions with their teachers through well-designed learning activities. For effective learning to occur, teachers must possess the skills and attributions, as discussed in the last chapter. In addition, they must have a deep understanding of how students learn. Knowledge of teaching and learning is essential because they are not the same things. In other words, just because something was taught does not mean that students learned. According to Mary Immordino-Yang, associate professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at University of Southern California, “We think of teachers conveying info and students receiving it, but that's not how humans learn” she adds, “We need instead teachers who are trained to be thoughtful observers of the people around them and supporters of the adaptive behaviors that they see.” In other words, teachers must understand how to teach effectively, but they must also know how students learn and apply that knowledge of human learning to maximize learning and student achievement. Unfortunately, many teachers utilize methods and approaches that do not elicit the best long-term learning.

Myths About How We Learn

Much of teachers’ professional practice results from tradition, personal judgment, and experience, not evidenced-based best practices. A recent study indicates that "teachers' beliefs are often guided by subjective experience rather than by empirical data" (Fleckenstein, Johanna & Zimmermann, Friederike & Köller, Olaf & Möller, Jens 2015). In other words, teachers do what they have always done, regardless of whether the approach has educative value or is substantiated by educational research. The story of the pot roast best exemplifies the mindset and problem of teaching in this manner. As the story goes, a young woman was hosting a dinner party for a few of her friends. The main dish being served that night was a delicious pot roast. Upon serving the roast and taking a bite, one of the woman’s friends exclaimed how delicious it was and immediately asked her for the recipe. The host, flattered by the request, wrote down the recipe for her friend. Looking over their notes, her friend asked quizzically, “why do you cut off both ends of the roast before putting it into the pan?” The woman replied, “I am not sure, I learned this recipe from my mother, and she always did it that way.” The next day, the woman began thinking about her friend's question, and she decided to call her mother to find out. “Mom, why do you cut off the ends of the roast before placing it in the pan to cook?” Her mother responded, “I am not sure, I learned this recipe from your grandmother many years ago, and this is the way that she always did it.” Now the woman was really curious. The next day she decided to call her elderly Grandmother. “Grandma, mom told me that you taught her to cut off the ends of the pot roast before cooking it.” “I have to know, why do you do that?” She asked quizzically. “Does cutting off the ends make the roast more tender and flavorful?” The Grandmother paused for a long moment as she tried to remember the recipe, as she had not used it in quite some time. She finally responded. “I cut off both ends of the roast because the pan I had at the time was too small to fit the entire thing.” This story exemplifies a fallacy in which most teachers engage. Because a lesson, technique, or approach has always been used, it must be educationally sound. Instead of critically evaluating their methodologies, most teachers simply do what they have always done.

Listen to teachers during professional development seminars, professional learning community (PLC) meetings, or any other venue in which pedagogy and best practices are being discussed, and it is very likely that you will hear them engage in conversations about teaching approaches that have dubious or no benefits to student learning. One of the more persistent zombie educational theories that refuse to die is to teach students according to their learning style. According to the American Psychological Association, “Previous surveys in the United States and other industrialized countries worldwide have shown that 80% to 95% of people believe in learning styles.” First introduced by psychologist Walter Burke Barbe and his colleagues in the late 1970s. The theory posits that students learn best when they learn according to a particular learning modality. The three learning modalities are visual, kinesthetic/tactile, and auditory, popularly identified as VAK (Barbe, Swassing, Milone, 1979). Despite teachers' wide-held beliefs about student learning styles, there is no evidence to support the notion that correctly matching students to their learning modality results in increased student learning (Nancekivell, Shaw, & Gelman, 2019). All human brains learn equally well, whether it be from visual, auditory, or tactile input. As the Educational Endowment Foundation points out, “There is very limited evidence for any consistent set of learning ‘styles’ that can be used reliably to identify genuine differences in the learning needs of young people, and evidence suggests that it is unhelpful to assign learners to groups or categories on the basis of a supposed learning style.”

Another persistent but debunked educational theory is the Learning Pyramid. Although it is not clear who the progenitor of the theory is, many believe that it can be traced back to Edgar Dale and his Cone of Experience. The learning pyramid evolved from the cone in the early 1960s to the form we know today and has been perpetuated in staff development meetings and seminars ever since. The pyramid suggests that active learning is best for the long-term retention of learned content. That students learn in the following proportions:

· 10 percent of what they READ

· 20 percent of what they HEAR

· 30 percent of what they SEE

· 50 percent of what they SEE and HEAR

· 70 percent of what they SAY and WRITE

· 90 percent of what they DO

Educational psychologist Will Thalheimer explains, “People do not necessarily remember more of what they hear than what they read. They do not necessarily remember more of what they see and hear than what they see. The numbers are nonsense, and the order of potency is incorrect.” The fallacy of this theory is that many teachers believe that active learning can only happen when students are doing something. They will eschew approaches that require students to read, listen, and see in exchange for “hands-on” learning activities. And while learning by doing has been demonstrated to be a powerful learning tool. Students must learn how to actively engage in other learning processes to be successful, self-directed learners. Active reading and listening are skills that can be taught, and it is crucial that students learn these critical skills


No education psychology course would be complete without an examination of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. First posited in 1943 by Abraham Maslow, the theory suggests that human motivation is predicated upon meeting physiological needs, safety needs, love and belongingness, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs. The theory suggests that students must have their basic human survival needs met before they are motivated to higher levels of the hierarchy. These basic needs include food, water, shelter, clothes, safety, and security. Once these needs are satisfied, students must have their psychological needs met. These needs include love, belonging, friendship and closeness. The problem with Maslow’s Hierarchy is that Maslow never depicted his theory as a pyramid, never suggested that the hierarchy was an inflexible, fixed series of progressions, or that each construct needed to be entirely fulfilled before progressing up the pyramid in a way that applied to everyone. Maslow wrote that human needs are relatively fluid and that a person may have many needs simultaneously. According to Maslow, “We have spoken so far as if this hierarchy was a fixed order, but actually, it is not nearly as rigid as we may have implied. It is true that most of the people with whom we have worked have seemed to have these basic needs in about the order that has been indicated. However, there have been a number of exceptions.” And while most reasonable people would agree that it is difficult to learn while hungry or experiencing high levels of anxiety and stress, it is still possible to be creative, have intimate relationships, and feel accomplished under challenging situations. Additionally, Maslow’s work has been criticized for its lack of scientific rigor and empirical evidence. One of the most frequently cited critiques of Maslow’s work comes from researchers Wahaba and Bridgewell (1976). They point out that “The literature review shows that Maslow’s Need Hierarchy Theory has received little clear or consistent support from the available research findings. Some of Maslow’s propositions are rejected, while others receive mixed and questionable support at best.” One of the reasons why the hierarchy is not empirically supported is because his conclusions are difficult to replicate as he did not provide clear definitions for each need construct. Further, Maslow continued to add constructs to his theory throughout his lifetime.

In addition to the hierarchy not being based upon empirical evidence, it has been criticized for being highly ethnocentric. With an almost exclusive bias towards white, college-educated men, the highest need for self-actualization is almost exclusively concerned with individualistic needs such as self-esteem, achievement, and personal growth. Maslow did not take into account gender, socio-economic background, or the needs of collaborative cultures. In other words, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs seems out of step with the highly diverse schools and students most teachers find themselves.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post, I sincerely appreciate it. If you think this information would be beneficial to another educator, please consider sharing this post. Don't forget to sign up for my email list so that you do not miss future posts and content.

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