Pedagogy Playground – Book Review: Small Teaching by James M. Lang

James M. Lang’s Small Teaching is a helpful guide for educators to determine the best current practices in the field. After listening to Teaching in Higher Education podcasts and numerous other education related podcasts, the subject matter felt familiar. Though, Lang’s examples and challenges to academic orthodoxy made the material feel new as well. Because of this, teaching related graduate programs should make this book required reading. Even seasoned educators would find this book useful as a review of best practices with some new insights as well.

Higher Order Thinking and Lower Order Thinking

Small Teaching begins by challenging the tendency of college instructors to skip over lower order thinking like “gathering facts” and memorization; instead, we tend to focus on higher order thinking – often, critical thinking (13-14). Most of us, who have studied pedagogy, have at some point come across the Google example explaining why we should focus our efforts on critical thinking rather than fact gathering. Basically, prior to Google, the hardest educational work was based in gathering facts. Often, days of working in a library using a card catalog would only result in a handful of useful facts. So, while the goal was still critical thinking, fact gathering was a primary emphasis as well. Memorization was also important because of not having ready access to this information.

Since the rise of Google, there are now billions of facts available with a few keystrokes. Because of this, there have been studies showing that students do not internalize information in the same way that they did decades ago. With the information widely available, why should they? The example is widely used to show why instructors should focus on critical thinking over fact-gathering and memorization.

I have often used the Google example in my classes to justify numerous critical thinking exercises, while having much less of a focus on fact-gathering and memorization (with the exception of research based classes). Lang suggests that there is evidence to support this approach; however, he argues that higher education (especially liberal studies) may have over-corrected. He suggests that higher order thinking cannot occur without lower order thinking, and that instructors often assume that their students are experts with lower order thinking (fact-gathering, memorization, etc.). The research does not support this (14-16). He argues that instructors should walk students through lower order tasks often, even if it is just as review.

When I started teaching, I would estimate that I spent ten percent of my classes on lower order thinking and ninety percent on higher order thinking (with the exception of research classes). After fourteen years teaching, I have found that it is much more effective to have a balanced approach. Though, because of the ubiquity of the Google example, I have often questioned my current approach. Thankfully, Lang’s work suggests I have moved in the right direction.

Retrieval Practice Application

The most effective element of Lang’s book is that there is a focus on application. In “Part One Retrieval Practice” (20 – 36), he gives a number of methods for teaching retrieval, including:

  1. Using different methods: oral, written, formative quizzes, summative tests, etc.

2. For formative quizzes, short answers are more effective than multiple choice for knowledge acquisition, even when students get the answers wrong

3. Have students summarize the previous class – students will inevitably struggle with this at first, but over time they will come to expect it

4. Have students retrieve the information from their brain – not open book or notes

5. Create a consistent schedule for retrieval that is interleaved (not massed)

These are just a few examples of the helpful information that can be implemented quickly and easily from this book. Each chapter has a similar list for application that is invaluable for educators looking to sharpen their skills.

Interleaving and Project Based Learning

Chapter Three of Small Teaching focused on interleaving (leave spaces between learning / mix up lessons and skills) vs. massed learning (learn a section or unit, then move onto the next one). Lang suggests that interleaving is frustrating for learners, but the research shows it is much more effective for knowledge retention (65, 69). When instructors put all similar information into one unit, or have similar problems together, then the brain tends to go into autopilot mode (71). Instead, it is better to provide a mixture of information with spaces in between for more effective retention. For example, if a student is given twenty addition problems, then the next week twenty subtraction problems, that is less effective than twenty questions of addition and subtraction mixed together. The student is forced to stop, think, and retrieve before each problem, which improves knowledge retention.

While Lang doesn’t explicitly make this connection, I couldn’t help but think about the book Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools by Roger Schank. In this book, the author argues that the western education system is built in a way that prohibits learning. He argues that the focus on individual subjects (Math, Science, English, etc.) works against the way that the brain works. Schank then advocates for methods like Project Based Learning that weave these subjects together for a greater purpose. To me, this seems to correlate with interleaving in that Project Based Learning leaves spaces between knowledge. Because it pulls from many different subjects, the students’ brains never go on autopilot. In contrast, our traditional education model based on subjects (similar to massed learning) might encourage autopilot. For example, a student in an English class knows that they are not going to confront math or scientific problems, so their brain turns towards autopilot. Overall, this seems like a great argument for Project Based Learning.  

Lang does leave the reader with a warning with interleaving: students will not like it at first (69). Students are used to massed learning; it is what they know. Because of this, they will not like the fact that their brains do not get the chance to go on autopilot. When surveyed, they also strongly believe that massed learning is more effective, even though it is not. Because of this, Lang suggests that instructors spend some time explaining interleaving and referring to the research on the subject.

To be continued…

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