Breakthrough Research Shows Role of Study in Learning

Education policymakers have long assumed that students who learn more have been taught more effectively. A startling new study conducted by an international consortium of scholars at Peutêtre University in Toronto has thrown this assumption into question. According to project director Pascal Feldspar, students who take a course in a subject—and study it—show more learning gains in the subject than students who do not. While gains varied slightly from one section of a course to the next, the starkest differences were between those who took a course and those who did not, and those who did the work and those who did not.

“It is too early to generalize the findings,” said Feldspar, “but we found, for instance, that students who took French for a year, and did their homework, showed significantly more learning gains in French by the end of the year than students who took no French.” The same applied to geometry, ancient history, piano, and Shakespeare. “We gave fifty students a test on Henry IV, Part 1,” he said, waving a copy of the play at us. “They were asked to identify a series of quotes, explain their meaning, and discuss their relation to the work as a whole. Before anyone had read Henry IV, performance on the test was uniformly poor. Then we split them up into an experimental group and a control group. At the end of the study, the members of the experimental group—the ones who studied the play—performed better than the control group by more than two standard deviations. Put simply, the more you study, the more you learn. Of course it’s more complicated than that, but that’s the idea.”

When asked about indirect exposure to a subject, Feldspar pondered for a moment. “We haven’t conducted any experiments on this yet,” he replied, “but our hypothesis is that indirect exposure to a subject plays a role in learning it as well.” He added that students who took courses but did no work showed negligible progress. “You learn something from just being in the environment,” he said, “but it appears that you learn a great deal more if you study the material, day after day.”

Asked whether the researchers had used standardized tests for their experiment, Feldspar shook his head vigorously. “You see, the American standardized tests don’t contain much subject matter,” he explained. “Their emphasis is on skills. In our study, we used tests that were directly related to what students had learned in the course.” Even then, he said, the tests didn’t show everything. “We know well that the test can’t measure all that was taught, and that the students’ performance isn’t an exact indicator of how much they learned.” All the same, he said, the test results showed differences between students who had studied a subject and students who hadn’t. “There are always some who study and study and still don’t learn,” he said, “but on the whole, so far, it appears that students who study a subject have a certain learning edge in that subject.”

Other scholars were quick to dismiss the findings. “The Peutêtre findings rest on the long-disproven axiom that you can only learn subject matter through a transmission model,” said Lorraine Caulk, professor of educational neurobehavior at Instructors College in Iowa City. “In fact, research has shown that when we empower children as self-initiating scholars, they start to exhibit strategic thought behaviors without the hierarchical modeling of traditional task performance.”

“I’m not sure what that means,” retorted Feldspar. “If Dr. Caulk would care to clarify her statement, I’d be happy to try to respond to it.” Dr. Caulk replied that she was using standard research terminology and that Dr. Feldspar should acquaint himself with the literature.

At this time it is unclear whether the findings at Peutêtre will have any impact on the classroom. “I like the gist of it—that we should teach actual subject matter,” said Nellie Nekogda, principal of the High School for Innovative Thinking in New York City. “The problem is, we have no money for books, and we have to bring up our test scores in ELA. I’d love to do it, though, if we could get the resources and the support.” She leaned back in her chair. “My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,” she mused, quoting from Henry IV, Part 1. “It has been years since I thought about that play. How great it would be to teach it here. Some day,” she said, “some day.”

No to Multiple-Choice Music Tests, But….

I’ve been following some of the recent news about the development of standardized music tests. Dana Goldstein’s Slate article met with responses from Diane Ravitch, Sara Mead, and Nancy Flanagan; many teachers and others offered comments. From what I’ve seen, most commenters oppose standardized tests in the arts because it emphasizes conformity over creativity, serves the wrong purposes, and restricts arts curricula. They do not oppose arts assessment in general; to the contrary, they argue for various kinds of thoughtful assessment.

I agree that multiple-choice tests are no way to assess arts performance or understanding. They could possibly serve to assess a small portion of the learning, but not the whole. That said, I believe some kind of common, standardized assessment has a place and could do a great deal of good. I will focus on music here.

My licenses are in ELA and ESL, but I have brought music into my teaching from the start. In my first four years of teaching, I directed my English Language Learners and other students in three musicals and a play that involved music: The Wizard of Oz, Oliver!, Into the Woods, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For many of these children, it was their first time singing in harmony or performing on stage. Some did not know at first how to judge whether they were in tune, so I included some ear training, which led to moments where things “clicked.” I also taught them how to breathe when singing, how to project their voices, and how to shape phrases. Some of them had great intuition for this and went far beyond my teaching. We practiced those songs again and again, and by the time the students could sing them, they were proud, amazed, and joyous. (Michael Winerip wrote a moving article for the New York Times about my students’ rehearsals and performance of The Wizard of Oz.)

The “assessment” here was built into the rehearsals and, of course, the performance. The audience could see how much the students had put into these productions and how much they had learned. Some of it was specific, concrete learning (such as scales, arpeggios, rhythms, and lyrics), some of it less tangible. Some of it came from the students and their own understanding; some, from the hours and hours of practice, and some, from the encounter with specific pieces, songs, and plays. The students were not only learning how to sing and perform, but also gaining exposure to musical theater, American and British culture, and (in the last case) Shakespeare. Some of this could be tested fairly easily; some of it, not easily at all.

I hoped to give my students certain kinds of music instruction I had missed. That sounds a bit odd, because I was unusually fortunate. I began taking cello lessons, at school, at age 8 and continued with formal study for another ten years. I spent two summers in the Young Artists Instrumental Program at Tanglewood, played in the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, played duets with a friend, studied with a member of the Boston Symphony (a wonderful teacher), sang in choruses, and played in the Yale Symphony Orchestra as a freshman at Yale. As an adult, I have played in various ensembles and bands, recorded with some of my favorite songwriters, and written songs. But it is painful to realize that I still have many technical flaws—due in part to my continued scrambling with fundamentals.

There was a strange discrepancy in my training. Along the way, teachers told me that I was musically gifted; some waxed euphoric about my abilities. Yet, for the first four or five years, each new teacher told me that I had learned just about everything wrong and had to start from scratch. Though I practiced and practiced, I did not overcome this scourge. Several times, when auditioning for a particular teacher or for admission to a music school, I was rejected flat out because of my poor technique. The main problem was that I had no technical core. Teachers had taught me different ways of holding the bow and fingering, but until high school, no one taught me the underlying principles of relaxation, breathing, and fluid motion. Also, I tackled difficult pieces early on before I was ready for them. Most of my teachers let me do this, as they didn’t want to stifle my enthusiasm.

It would have been great if I had learned some fundamentals at the outset, in my first few years of study. It would have been even better if cello teachers generally agreed on what those fundamentals were and insisted that their students master them. I don’t fault my first teacher; she gave me the gift of an introduction to the cello, and I have no way of judging now how well she taught me. I do fault a system that treats children as non-serious amateurs until they prove otherwise, and that lacks consistency in early instruction.

I have seen other approaches to music instruction. In high school, I spent a year in Moscow and attended music school in addition to regular school. My teacher in the U.S. had suggested that I study with the great Natalia Gutman. Thrilled and honored by this suggestion, I called her shortly after our arrival and spoke to her in halting Russian. She told me graciously that she wasn’t taking on students and recommended that I audition for admission to the pre-conservatory school.

The cellist who listened to my audition said my technique was seriously deficient. He referred me to a good district music school, where I was placed in the fifth grade (in regular school, I was in the Soviet ninth grade, the equivalent of our tenth or eleventh).

The school followed the Soviet music curriculum. I spent almost the entire year on the Goltermann Concerto in B minor (not one of my favorite pieces). I played many technical exercises, practiced about four hours a day, had private lessons twice a week, and took ear training and music history classes as well. My teacher wouldn’t accept a note even slightly out of tune. “Chishche! Chishche!” (roughly, “Cleaner! Cleaner!”) she would cry out. I adored her and appreciated her demands. She appreciated my creative work as well; when I brought in a composition one day, she took time out of the lesson to have the accompanist play it. At the end of the year, I performed before a jury, as all students did; I was awarded the highest possible grade.

I do not glorify the Soviet system of music instruction. (The curriculum was too rigid; I should not have spent a whole year on Goltermann.) One thing I do applaud: there was a common understanding of what good technique entailed and in what sequence it should be taught. This did not impede musicality or joy; my classmates at the music school delighted in what they were doing, partly because they were learning to do it well. The performance before the jury was scary but also exciting. (If I remember correctly, the jury recognized expressiveness as well as technique.) My musical experience there was by no means limited to music school; I attended many concerts on my own, including performances by Gutman herself. Her performance of the Shostakovich sonata stands out among my memories.

What does this have to do with assessment in the arts? A certain kind of standardization at the beginning levels, conducted in the right spirit, for the right reasons, and with room for exceptions, would help young students enormously. Now, music instruction in schools takes many forms and directions. A school may lack resources for instrumental instruction, so it may focus on singing (granted, the voice is an instrument), theory, music appreciation, and music history. Or it may offer band and orchestra electives to those who already play. That’s a separate issue in itself; since music instruction can mean so many different things, there’s no single test, multiple-choice or otherwise, that can measure it. But let’s say a school does offer violin, cello, piano, trumpet, and other lessons. Shouldn’t it have a clear understanding of what the basics are, an understanding that it shares with other schools? Shouldn’t it have a way of testing the students along the way, to make sure they’re learning properly? Wouldn’t this open up possibilities for students, instead of closing them off?

Fiction Is Not Fluff

A slew of recent articles have reported on the push for more nonfiction in schools around the country. The Common Core State Standards specify that by twelfth grade, 70 percent of a student’s assigned reading should be “informational” text, and 30 percent “literary” text. This ratio applies to the curriculum across the subjects, but English teachers are trying to squeeze more nonfiction in their courses. After all, they will be judged on their students’ performance on tests. Nonfiction is fine, but the pressure is not. In pushing nonfiction because it is nonfiction (or its non-equivalent, “informational text”), we are hurtling into a big mistake.

The rationale for the ratio is that students need to read widely. They must be able to understand informational texts in order to succeed in college and careers. Unfortunately, this argument often carries an overtone of hostility toward fiction and literature overall. If nonfiction is serious, essential, practical, and real, then fiction, according to some, must be a waste of time. A commenter on Jay Mathews’ blog complains that students don’t know how to read closely, because they have been fed a diet of “feelings books” instead of texts that explain how things work or what happened. Now, this may be true, but it has little to do with fiction or nonfiction. A nonfiction book may be primarily a “feelings book,” whereas a work of fiction, drama, or poetry may be intellectually and aesthetically complex.

The nonfiction mandate (mixed with rumor and anxiety) comes in response to a lack. Many elementary and middle schools around the country devote large portions of the day to “literacy blocks,” where students practice reading strategies on books of their own choice. Little or no subject-matter instruction occurs during these blocks. As a result, many children enter high school with scant background knowledge across the subjects. Many continue to struggle with basic reading. The problem affects students, teachers, and schools. A students might drop out of school, a teacher might lose a job, and a school might face closure, in large part because of curricular deficiencies in the early years.

Thus it makes sense to have students read across the subjects—to build their knowledge on a wide range of topics. This will ultimately make them stronger readers of literature as well as science and history. For some, it will make school interesting. Some students may find themselves engrossed in the anatomy of a beetle or the history of a river. It will enrich future courses as well; teachers can build on knowledge and insight that students have already acquired.

Very well. But it is folly to privilege “informational text” over literature—to imply that it is more serious, important, academic, advanced, or useful. We see this tendency even in this year’s ELA tests (or what little information we have about them). In a New York State test scoring guide, two sample tasks involve judging a fictional text against “facts.” Third graders are asked to read an Algonquin legend and then explain why it could not happen in real life. Sixth graders are asked to read a Nigerian folktale and an article on the sun and the moon, and then “explain how the folktale would have to change if it were based on the facts in the article.” Granted, these are just samples, but they suggest an effort judge fiction by fact. If we continue in this vein, we’ll be in deep trouble, and so will the students who have to tackle these strange tasks.

Such privileging of fact is not good preparation for college. Each field has its language and logic. It is as misguided to insist that literature be true to fact as it is to turn mathematics into a series of word problems. Moreover, any serious study involves play. In literature, we thrill in the paradox, the impossible, the imagined, the uncertain, even as we focus on details and structures. We stop to admire passages without knowing exactly why, even after years of analyzing them. We laugh and laugh over the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Tristram Shandy, Akaky Akakievich, and Humpty Dumpty. Other subjects, too, have their uncertainties, rumination, and delight. In mathematics, insights do not come when called. No matter how much we learn about methods, we are often left blundering, turning a problem this way and that, until suddenly the solution comes through. In history, no structure is perfect; we search for the one that will explain events clearly without oversimplifying them. Facts are part of each field but not the sum total. If they were, the fields would be dead.

The domain of literature is nothing to scoff at. Literature is made-up stuff, yet it takes us to old truths—not through data, not through statistics, but through story, image, rhythm. It shows us things we might not otherwise see; it reminds us of things we heard long ago. Take this passage from The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy:

Henchard bent and kissed her cheek. The moment and the act he had contemplated for weeks with a thrill of pleasure; yet it was no less than a miserable insipidity to him now that it had come. His reinstation of her mother had been chiefly for the girl’s sake, and the fruition of the whole scheme was such dust and ashes as this.

Even out of context, the passage shows mastery of language and form. The final phrase brings to mind the words from the Anglican burial service, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” (as well as Genesis 18:27 and Job 30:19). There’s a funeral in Henchard’s mind, a death of a fantasy and plan, combined with a “fruition,” a dream come miserably true. There is a cadence, a lasting quality, in the way the passage ends. This passage and the novel demand close reading; there is nothing trivial here.

Granted, not many students read Hardy in school or elsewhere today. But they certainly won’t read it if English teachers cut down on literature. Novels (and even poems and plays) will get short shrift; in some districts, apparently, teachers have been instructed not to teach more than one novel per year (see the fourth comment). (I’d be content with two superb novels per year; there’s every reason to make room for lyric poetry, epic, drama, short stories, and essays. But it should depend largely on the course.) Some students may read such works on their own, but most will not; they won’t see the point of doing so. Thus, a mandate intended to lift the intellectual level may end up bringing it down.

There are practical problems, moreover, with a fiction/nonfiction ratio. First, the definitions of fiction and nonfiction get fuzzy in places. Where would Homer’s Iliad fall? What about Plato’s Republic? What about Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio,” Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, or Auden’s “September 1, 1939”? If you answered fiction-nonfiction-nonfiction-nonfiction-fiction-fiction, you’re probably right by educators’ standards, but the terms seem somewhat arbitrary here. All of these works are worth reading; all could be included in a first-rate curriculum. What does it matter whether they count as fiction or nonfiction?

Second, there is no adequate way to measure the ratios. Shall it be by number of works? By word count? By some formula that weighs word count against difficulty level? Any approach will render itself absurd. The number of titles is certainly misleading, as some works are much more demanding than others. The same is true for word count. A formula will only prove frustrating; it could wield far too much influence over the actual selection of works. Teachers will find themselves testing various combinations on the formula until something passes. Out of anxiety, schools will err on the safe side and eliminate a good deal of literature from their curriculum. When people must follow foolish directives, they will often do foolish things.

What should schools do instead? There’s nothing wrong with including more nonfiction for its merits. Yes, students should be reading historical materials in history class. In science class, they could certainly read the textbook, and there may be room for classic scientific works and modern articles as well. In English class, students should read literature and literary nonfiction and perhaps other materials that shed light on them. The focus should be not on the proportions, but on the substance. In a good curriculum, the proportions will come on their own.

But policymakers get ruffled over the idea of a good curriculum. What is it? Should schools decide this for themselves? What if their definitions vary widely? How can we ensure any level of accountability? In addition, isn’t it likely that schools will find some rationale for what they’re already doing? All of these are worthy concerns, but let’s not assume that schools are devoid of good ideas and practice. There are excellent curricula that could inspire others directly and indirectly. There are teachers who create and teach substantial and memorable courses. We don’t need a uniform curriculum, but we can define some common elements and shape individual curricula from there. We could identify a few works that all students should study, and leave the remaining selections to the schools.

There is no substitute for good sense and good education. The push for more nonfiction (because it’s nonfiction) will not raise the level of learning in schools; it may even depress it. What’s needed is careful thought about what we’re actually teaching—the subjects and works themselves—and how we can make our offerings stronger and more beautiful. Yes, more beautiful too. Beauty is not a frill.