Learning and nonlinearity

This morning I had a quick, offhand conversation about literacy instruction with Mark Springer, the distinguished middle school teacher who founded Soundings, one of the more impressive experiments in democratic, student-centered education that I’ve ever seen. He commented that he’d had students who made huge jumps in reading ability in his classroom, despite the fact that the curriculum is thematic and integrated, and there is no set reading class.

In education (and especially in education policy), we tend to think of learning as linear and incremental: students progress a little bit in each subject each year until they reach some proficiency threshold, one that presumably allows them to attend and be successful in college. If you graphed it, it would be a straight line.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of where these thresholds come from, this view of learning is problematic. Learning is actually nonlinear. You could learn more in one day about something than you had in the previous year, despite steady effort. We’ve all experienced that sense of epiphany, of something clicking in our minds that leads jumbled images to resolve into clarity. It changes the way we see things, often permanently.

In order to experience these jumps, we need puzzles, because it’s their resolution that tells us that we’ve figured it out. The current schooling regime of drills, routines, “accountable talk,” pacing calendars, and benchmark assessments leaves little if any room for such opportunities.

Understanding that learning is nonlinear should also influence how we think about remediation. If getting to proficiency is simply a steady accumulation of knowledge, then moving a 10th grader from a third grade reading level to being on-grade looks like an impossible task: if the line is straight, it simply gets too steep to climb it.┬áBut the line isn’t straight, and this offers us some measure of hope if we can rethink what the curriculum is for. We don’t know exactly when or how an individual student will “get it.” But as educators, what we can do is seed school with as many opportunities as possible for that “click” to happen.