27 May 2014

On "Make it Stick" (Brown, Roediger and McDaniel, 2014)

Brown P, Roediger H and McDaniel A (2014) Make it Stick; the science of successful learning. London; Belknap imprint of Harvard University Press.

It was a rave pre-publication review in Times Higher Education (3 April) which grabbed my attention:
'If you want to read a lively and engaging book on the science of learning, this is a must. Two cognitive scientists, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel, and one storyteller, Peter Brown, have teamed up to explain how learning and memory work. [...] This is a rich and resonant book and a pleasurable read that will leave you pondering the processes through which you, and your students, acquire new knowledge and skills.
I went away for a couple of weeks and then tried to buy it in the best physical bookshop to which I have access (Heffers in Cambridge) only to be told that it had sold out. Even better!

So I resorted to the black arts of the net, and Amazon--I have to admit--delivered for free within 48 hours (yesterday--and I must say it is disconcerting to get a message in your inbox saying "Your order has been posted through your letter-box" and to go there and find it so...).

I finished it a couple of hours ago. I was looking forward to being the first (trivial pleasures loom large at my age) to spread the news across the course network, in time to get it on reading lists and library orders for the new academic year.

OK. It's good, but not that good.

If you haven't a clue how to teach (or indeed how to study academic material), and you want a primer, it's great. It talks to you directly (it uses the second-person more often that anything I have read for years). It is up-front about "everything you thought you knew about learning is wrong". It makes a good job of bridging from arcane research to practical application, and—its Malcolm Gladwell point—it has (mostly) terrific and engaging stories to support its arguments (although they do take over sometimes, like exhausted analogies...)

It is by no means unusual for academic authors aiming for a wider audience to engage ghost-writers (usually barely acknowledged) or collaborators. Leavitt and Dubner of Freakonomics fame are a classic example of the latter model. I can't remember which is the economist and which the journalist. In this collaboration, despite the detailed and scrupulous acknowledgements, the writer (Brown) seems to have taken the lead, certainly (going by the notes) undertaking much of the leg-work and interviews. That's not a problem, but it does influence the structure and the style of the book.

Its strength is therefore in its readability. I read it in about as long as it would take me to read a novel of similar length (main text; 253 pages). The authors are explicit about the structure of the book—it will, they promise, re-visit its main themes several times over, and it will inter-leave them. This approach mirrors their recommendations about studying, and is generally very effective. Where it does get rather repetitious is in the final chapter, which they introduce rather apologetically by saying that they had been explicitly asked by pre-publication readers to draw out the practical implications of the ideas. They were clear enough already, and in any case flagged by a "Takeaway" section at the end of each chapter. What they do not do, however, is make the connections; the ideas are consistent with those of Bruner on the spiral curriculum, for example, and a reference in the notes would have enabled them to point readers to further material and indeed debates.

I dislike it when reviewers complain that a book should really have been another book altogether, and I'm not going to do that—as an introduction to learning for beginning and even experienced non-specialist teachers it is excellent, but rather like a purely conversational approach to learning a language, it is in danger of being self-limiting. And there's an enormous amount which is not even mentioned, such as how to explain stuff to students, or even much on what the teacher can do to improve learning—apart from some examples and vignettes of practice. The key to learning is presented as memory and recall, and they are unapologetic about it being hard work—they make a good case for why it ought to be regarded as hard work, and indeed for the introduction of "deliberate difficulties" into the process.

The authors do quote Rumsfeld, of course, on "unknown unknowns" (p.17), but their approach to reviewing practice in order to correct and develop it does rest on the assumption that best practice in teaching and learning is well-known and not contestable. See also their account of Sternberg' "dynamic testing" (pp.151-152). As the argument proceeds, this becomes more of a hindrance, and the section on training in the final chapter raises more questions than it answers. (Here, a short discussion of Kirkpatrick's four levels of evaluation would have helped a lot.)

Similarly, there is over-simplification in their account of dyslexia (although they do enter a disclaimer about engaging with the "enormous body" of literature on it), but that chapter 6, titled "Get Beyond Learning Styles" is otherwise well-balanced, and even cites Coffield et al. (2004), although they do give Gardner's "multiple intelligences" a rather easy ride... On the other hand, that chapter, dominated as it is by a rambling eight-page case-study of an all-American self-made entrepreneur which totally loses sight of the wood for the trees, fails to tie the illustrations to the ideas. Occasionally, material seems to be dropped in because it is part of the cognitive science canon—such as the obligatory reference to Mischel's "marshmallow" experiments; mentioned (unnecessarily) at the start of chapter 7 and then ignored. And, saddest of all, all the invaluable material from Hattie's and Marzano's meta-analyses is not discussed at all. I haven't been through it all (there are some issues with varying terminology, too) but the authors' contention about the effectiveness of spaced versus mass practice is massively supported by Hattie (2009: 186), so why isn't the point made?

However, the book is certainly good enough to hope that there is a British edition in the pipeline; anyone unfamiliar with US sports will be baffled by some of the examples and illustrations, and even the educational terminology needs more background (although the arcane mysteries of UK A-levels are spelt out in some detail for the US readership; p.190).

And as the THE review highlighted, it is refreshing to have a book to recommend which a reasonably motivated student or colleague can actually sit down and read through—which is perhaps ironic given that that is a method the authors would not recommend.

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