How to Make Learning Stick
A Conversation with Bryan Goodwin
If we teach a skill or an idea, and students didn’t learn it, how do we respond?
Often we lean on more time or individual/small group support. Yet if the problem is the instructional strategy itself, more of the same will not be helpful. A student may need something different that is more effective at meeting students’ current needs.
This is where cognitive science can help. Bryan Goodwin, co-author of Learning That Sticks: A Brain-Based Model for K-12 Instructional Design and Delivery (ASCD/McREL, 2020), provides a model for teachers to prepare instruction with intention.
During our conversation, we discussed:
What “brain-based” actually means,
Why it’s wise to identify what’s in it for kids when preparing instruction, and
How to revitalize units of study to make them more effective and engaging.
Effective teaching is not only knowing what to do; when and why are just as important.
Matt Renwick (00:06):
Bryan Goodwin (00:09):
Good to be here. I'm glad to have this conversation with you.
Matt Renwick (00:12):
You're the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education, research and development organization. You're a former English teacher, correct?
Bryan Goodwin (00:21):
Matt Renwick (00:23):
And former journalist. And you've been at McREL for over 20 years and you previously served as a chief operating officer and director of communications and marketing. You've had several books out; you write regularly for Educational Leadership. I know I've used a couple of your articles when I taught curriculum leadership at a university, I've used some of your content and that's great. I appreciate how well you distill down these complex ideas into things that are manageable.
Bryan Goodwin (00:53):
Appreciate that. That's great to hear.
Matt Renwick (00:55):
And this book really helps people manage brain-based instruction: Learning that Sticks: A Brain-Based Model for K-12 Instructional Design and Delivery. And you wrote it with Tonia Gibson and Kristin Rouleau.
Bryan Goodwin (01:09):
Kris Rouleau, yep.
Matt Renwick (01:12):
I guess that would just be the first question is, how do you define brain based?
Bryan Goodwin (01:19):
That's a good question. Really, what we were looking at is a combination of cognitive psychology, the science of learning, and some neuroscience, but cognitive science has been around like for decades now. What cognitive science tries to just figure out is, how do our brains actually process information? So there's something in cognitive psychology called the information processing model and the six phases are based on that. I'll give you an example: One of those early studies where they figured out one of the keys to memory is actually repetition. They figured that out entirely by accident. They were quizzing people to see, when do they forget things?
Bryan Goodwin (02:02):
They found that the more they quiz people, the more they actually remembered something. So that becomes one of those key principles that comes out of cognitive science: that quizzing to remember, or repetition, is the key neuroscience. Meanwhile, in a newer endeavor, maybe only the last 20 years or so, but in neuroscience, we figure out why that works. So the cognitive science tells us how the brain works. Neuroscience often gets down to the chemical level of why that works. For example, with repetition, we know from neuroscience that there's a substance called myelin that's basically a fatty substance that wraps itself around our neurons, kind of insulating them like electrical wire. Well, that means those neurons can start to fire together better. So we now know from neuroscience what we found out in cognitive science actually works. So we've combined both of those things in this book to hopefully provide teachers with the clear sense of how this process of learning actually happen in my own brain, but more importantly in my student's brain. So we can design learning accordingly.
Matt Renwick (03:01):
Yeah. I remember that in your book too, you've mentioned that often instructional plans are designed more from a teacher perspective, like what kind of strategies do I want to use to teach this content? And you're suggesting, recommending that we think from the student's perspective, what's going to benefit them the most, the content and the skills.
Bryan Goodwin (03:20):
Yeah. I think that's a key paradigm shift, that you start to think about students' brains and what's happening there. One example is learning objectives. What we all know is we have to have learning objectives. We put them on the board, but that's like a tree falling in the woods with no one to hear, if the students don't actually take that learning objective and make it their own learning goal. And so as we think about what has to happen in students' brains, we go, "Oh, that's students need to set a goal." So that we also know from brain science, when they achieve a goal, they get a dopamine hit. Right? So there's a reward that makes learning fun, enjoyable, even addictive in all the right ways.
Matt Renwick (03:56):
So, instructional design and delivery...how does that look different when you overlay it with a brain-based model?
Bryan Goodwin (04:07):
In addition to thinking about, "What's happening in students' brains?", we also want to make sure that we don't skip a step or that we don't move on. If we realize our kids aren't making sense of this, we need to give them more time to make sense of arguments. That's the fourth phase of learning, but the six phases basically are this: the first phase is saying, let's get kids interested in learning. That's the first thing that has to happen because there's a million distractions. Our brains are really good at ignoring stuff. And there's a pecking order that they follow and, believe it or not, 'Turn in your books to page 42" is nowhere on that pecking order of interest for kids. So we have to make learning interesting. We have to make the environment feel emotionally safe, too.
Bryan Goodwin (04:44):
Emotions are the first trigger. Once we feel safe to learn, then we want to be interested in learning. So that's the first phase. The second phase is we know that our brains are kind of inherently lazy. Daniel Kahneman, one of the giants in the field of cognitive science, writes about this, that learning is a lot of effort, that we have to power on our brains. People are listening to this podcast right now. You're having to keep your brain powered up. This is probably more difficult than say, listening to music, right? So your brain has to stay powered up. That means we need to convince our brains all the time. "Hey, keep paying attention." So that's where goal setting becomes so important, right? That we have to tell our brains, "Hey, this is important enough that I need to stay focused on this." The next phase is really focusing on new learning.
Bryan Goodwin (05:23):
We've learned a lot of things from cognitive science, about what's called dual coding. We process information better when it's visual and it's verbal. So we think about what that focus on new learning phase looks like. Then we know that our brains always work by connecting new learning with prior learning. So we need to give kids the opportunity to process their learning in small groups, oftentimes through their own reflection in writing, but give kids a chance of process learning. Then we know that repetition is the key. Like I mentioned, myelin, right? We've got to give kids opportunities to repeat over time, not cramming. Cramming leads to fast learning and fast forgetting. And then ultimately, I think what's missing in a lot of classes, and maybe this is the biggest difference with really designing learning with the brain in mind, is that extension/application activity.
Bryan Goodwin (06:07):
Right? So, we have to actually not just repeat information, but come at it from different angles and like, "Oh, now I'm going to take this new learning, I'm going to apply it to solve a problem, or I'm going to do some creative synthesis of this, or I'm going to do a writing project or a research project," and to extend and apply is really key. And that's what overcomes what John Medina writes about this, that students typically forget about 90% of what they've learned in the classroom within 30 days. Well it's because we don't provide that final phase of learning. So I think that's how learning looks different. We were thinking about the brain and saying, "Well, it's not just about teaching something kids study. We give them a test that's going to lead to fast forgetting. How do we really design learning that that keeps kids brains actively engaged throughout the entire process?"
Matt Renwick (06:52):
A lot of the shifts you suggest are not huge shifts. Like you said, it's maybe adding a visual with the text and that helps cement some of that knowledge into your long term memory.
Bryan Goodwin (07:03):
New Speaker (07:04):
What about content? Like, no matter how hard you might work, there's just maybe certain content or skills that just kids aren't going to find relevant. I mean, do you ditch it? Do you reformat it? I mean, how do you deal with that situation?
Bryan Goodwin (07:21):
Bryan Goodwin (07:22):
I think about myself as an English teacher. I remember teaching The Scarlet Letter to kids. I was in the Virgin Islands and like trying to get them to relate to this and honestly I didn't have it figured out. I didn't have what we talk about as a marketing term called "What's In It for Me?", WIIFM is the acronym, what's in it for me. And if you don't have that figured out, it's really difficult to teach something. And honestly, I think back about the travesty that I perpetrated on my kids, trying to teach The Scarlet Letter when I didn't actually know what's in it for them. Why should they read The Scarlet Letter? I was like, "You know, the Puritans are interesting. I don't know, but had I thought about it and sometimes where you get through that with them is, were what's the enduring understanding?
Bryan Goodwin (08:00):
What is it that I want them to learn when they're 18 that they'll remember when they're 80? Thinking about how do adults apply this in the real world and, honestly, if you come to the answer, you're not bereft if you don't read The Scarlet Letter. Maybe you cut it out and say, it's not really important anymore to teach. Or if you do, it's like you're thinking about those key themes, those key ideas that I really want kids to be thinking about. And so I think, you know, with mathematics or science, there's some practical application, but you really do have to get to why, why do adults learn this stuff? And why is it important for you to know? And if you can't answer that question, I think it is really difficult to do that. So then maybe from moments of reflection...I've teachers and workshops where we do this, having maybe an existential crisis, like "Why do I teach asset theory?" Right? I need to figure this out. And if I don't have it clear, I know my kids won't figure it out. So I think short answer, you have to dig deep into what is, why is this important to teach? And if you honestly can't answer the question, then you probably should talk to colleagues and others and say, why are we teaching whatever.
Matt Renwick (09:02):
It might be. That's a good point too: if you don't just assume there's not some kind of an enduring understanding, theme, to take the time to look into it. Kind of walk us through the phases of a brain-based model. How do we know that these phases support student growth and achievement?
Bryan Goodwin (09:24):
Yeah, that's a really good question. In fact, something that we've done a bit in the book Learning That Sticks, but also we're actually doing right now - I'll forecast something - we are reexamining research that supports a title we've had out there for quite a while called Classroom Instruction That Works. So we're looking now at empirical studies and here's what we can find from empirical research in classrooms, that something like goal setting has tremendous effect sizes for learners. And so it is getting kids to set their own personal goals, to track their own progress. And so we know that works as a classroom instructional strategy. If you understand how the brain works, then you see why that would work, right? Now. I understand, "Oh, I'm helping kids get those dopamine hits," right? When they achieve a goal or I'm helping them and sometimes set small goals...
Bryan Goodwin (10:09):
...so that every day they're moving, they're making progress towards where they wanna get to. And I'm helping their brains to: "Hey, this is important. Stay focused, persevere, you know, productive struggles. So we do actually know kind of each step along the way. And that's where in the book we have provided those evidence-based strategies. We also know, for example, like queuing cognitive interest or getting kids interested in their learning has tremendous effect sizes. Also we actually know from neuroscience why that is true because there's a dopamine reward when you're curious about something and you solve your curiosity, resolve your curiosity: You get a dopamine hit. We also know neuroscience studies have found that we tend to learn things that are even unintentional, that there's accidental learning that happens. It seems that somehow how curiosity primes our brains for learning. So we learn more. So we can see both from like laboratory studies that are cognitive science studies, but also classroom studies, why each of these spaces are really important.
Matt Renwick (11:08):
You've spoken about this already, just why we need to get kids first interested and committed to learning. Maybe to that question then, just what we've noticed in our schools, and I think other educators are noticing this too, is kids have had a harder time getting back into independent reading, writing, even holding a pencil for younger kids because they just haven't had that practice. Any ideas of what as we, as educators can do to get them reinterested and recommitted to some of these more independent and kind of solitude-centered, I guess, activities, like you said, in a world of connections. That's been a challenge for us. Any thoughts on that?
Bryan Goodwin (11:53):
Yeah, I think that's where also goal setting is really important. We work with schools a lot on making the shift from learning objectives to success criteria. And that's not a new idea, but for a lot of teachers, it's not until I define how will I know when kids know it, how will they know when they know it? That usually then also kind of forces that question about, so why are we asking kids to learn this? And I think we do need to spend time helping them become interested in learning. There are also things we know from studies, like "What does peak curiosity?" Well, things like mysteries, right? Trying to solve a mystery. So sometimes we might wanna flip history around, like, "Why did the Roman Empire fall? Let's figure that out," right? When actually there's a debate.
Bryan Goodwin (12:35):
That's the other strategy that creates curiosity, is controversy. When kids realize that historians still don't agree two thousand years later why the Roman Empire fell, or just 1700 years later. So we can use controversy. We can use things like cognitive conflict when something doesn't quite square with our expectations. I live here in Denver, Colorado. And interesting that what happens in the wintertime is when the wind is blowing out of the mountains, it actually makes Denver warmer. It's Chinook winds, but that seems contrary to what we would think, because it's cold in the mountains. Why does that work, right? So posing those kind of conflicts, I think also we can use like just even suspense, right? Literature is full of suspense, or a science experiment. What do you think is gonna happen? I actually write about this...
Bryan Goodwin (13:19):
...in some of my books. My daughter, Molly, who's now a freshman in high school, years ago - I think she was in second grade - snowy morning here in Denver. She's coming down the stairs as I'm going up the stairs. And she asked, "Dad, is it a school day?" You know, I'm thinking she wants it to be a snow day and I have to inform we're in Denver. So it's gonna have to snow sideways before it's a snow day. Right? So like Wisconsin, I'm sure. So, no, it's still a school day and I thought she'd be dejected and bummed out. But she pumps her fish, like she's excited, right? She can't went to go to school and it wasn't because of the cafeteria or seeing friends. It was like they were doing an overnight science experiment. It was that that made her want to come back to school.
Bryan Goodwin (13:56):
So I think what we have to recognize is that our kids' brains, these days have more distractions than ever, right. There's so much media that's out there. We have to figure out how do we cut through all the noise with the signal that makes them say this is interesting, right? The good news is that we don't have to teach curiosity to kids. We're all born curious. And so if we can tap into that, that's a good way to start the whole process. And then you build in the rest of the six phases of learning. But I think to your point, I mean, if you skip that first (phase) - get kids interested- the train leaves the station without them, right? <Laugh> So we want to figure that out. It's worth spending some time doing that. And honestly that tends to be more of a collaborative activity. Teachers should come together to say, "How do we hook kids' interest in, you know, American literature or American history, whatever it is - that's what I used to teach, right- so how do you get kids interest in that?
New Speaker (14:46):
So I hear the three Cs: curiosity, controversy, and conflict.
Bryan Goodwin (14:53):
Yeah, exactly. And it's productive conflict, right? So another great example is, "Should we list the wolf as an endangered species?" You can hear what environmentalists have to say about that. You can hear what ranchers have to say about that. That's actually a study that was done and found kids were so interested in learning about the wolf in that frame, they would stay in from recess to watch a film and to learn more about it, because we all want to sort out ideas in our minds of where do we stand on this. So instead of shying away from controversy, there are certainly some very productive conversations kids can have around controversy.
Matt Renwick (15:32):
You can weave in reading, writing, speaking, and listening...
Bryan Goodwin (15:34):
Matt Renwick (15:38):
That would be a relevant topic here in Wisconsin too. The final question is, what does this look like? You work with schools and teachers...what do you see when you see teachers engaging in this brain-based model for instructional design?
Bryan Goodwin (15:57):
I think one of the key things that happens, Matt is, it's intentionality. Teachers become metacognitive in their practices. I think about my first year as a teacher. You would've seen me doing some of the right things, right? Cooperative learning, but if you'd ask me, "Brian, why are you doing cooperative?" I'd say, "I've been lecturing all week. You know, I need to do something different." That's not why we do cooperative learning. It's not Cooperative Wednesdays, right? It's, "I'm at a point in the learning process where I want my kids to pause and process together and make sense of their learning." So I think that's the first key shift is teachers become more intentional. I think something else that we see oftentimes though is while there are six phases and several teaching strategies that hang under each, sometimes schools will say, "We just need to focus on one thing right now."
Bryan Goodwin (16:43):
And sometimes it is. So those success criteria, let's be really clear about why we're asking kids to learn this and why we'll know that they've got it, how they will know they've got it. And it's those "I can" statements, but embedded with this idea of "what's in it for me?". So we find that sometimes it's great for schools or teachers to have the overall model in their minds, but then say we're going to work on one phase right now. That seems to be where learning is breaking down. That's another way to think about this, is like when learning is breaking down or doesn't seem to be happening, is it because kids aren't interested. So maybe we start there. Is it because no, we, we got their attention, but they don't seem to stay focused. We're going to think about that commit to learning phase for wherever it may be breaking down. So sometimes it becomes a really great diagnostic tool as well. If learning isn't happening the way we think it should. what phase did we miss? You know, when did the train leave the station without the kids, and let's go back and be sure we got that figured out.
Matt Renwick (17:36):
I remember using the Classroom Instruction That Works book for professional learning in my first stint as an administrator, as an assistant principal. And we followed what you mentioned now that you mentioned it: I think there were like nine, correct?
Bryan Goodwin (17:50):
Matt Renwick (17:50):
So we focused on three per year, over a three year period. And then within that, a teacher could pick one. And really made it personalized, but also schoolwide and we're kind of moving together.
Bryan Goodwin (18:02):
I think it's a great strategy, to have PLCs come together, a grade level team come together to say, "Yeah, let's get really good at this one particular phase of learning." Becaise we think now it's the biggest inflection point for us, if we can do this well consistently and intentionally.
Matt Renwick (18:17):
Well, your book lays it out very nicely in Learning that Sticks: A Brain-Based model for K-12 instructional design and delivery. Where can we learn more about your work, Brian?
Bryan Goodwin (18:27):
Just come to our website, www.mcrel.org. There are a lot of free resources. There's in fact a free download that relates to this book. You can find lots of materials there. You'll find me there as well. So you can reach out to me. I'm always happy to answer questions and to chat with folks about this work.
Matt Renwick (18:47):
And you also have an eCourse that can goes with this too.
Bryan Goodwin (18:50):
That's correct. Yes. We have an online course that provides an overview of this and we've designed it also really to be effective professional learning. So ideally, you know, teams would come together, do the eCourse, but then have a chance to meet together. So that one of the things we talk about is the importance of processing learning in a group. So we've designed the eCourse that way too.
Matt Renwick (19:11):
I saw you had some discussion boards in there and so you’re trying to practice what you preach, right?
Bryan Goodwin (19:17):
Exactly. That's right. Modeling the practice too.
Matt Renwick (19:21):
So thanks Brian. It was good to talk to you and I encourage everyone to check out this book.
Matt Renwick (19:26):
Thank you so much, Matt, for the opportunity. And I look forward to hearing from listeners too.