psychology of teaching

“Invisible Learning” by David Franklin

Key Points

  • Teach from the student’s perspective.
  • Merits of encouraging students to take control of their learning.
  • Importance of “airport ideas”, key principles in a discipline that ideally should never be forgotten.
  • Using the class headwind, risks involved in opposing it, and when doing so is unavoidable.
  • Adaptive learning is invisible, and linked to mastery.

Description Of Book

David Franklin was considered one of the elite students at Harvard Kennedy School, studying in a program designed to teach potential consultants for public administration, for instance, on government policy. Within this program, Franklin’s professor (Dan Levy’s) statistics class inspired him to write a book about the way it was taught. I felt it is worth reviewing the book to better understand how Levy taught well enough to motivate a student like Franklin; this will never happen to me!

The first lecture in a course is always critical.  Blink (affiliate link below) describes how student impressions in the first course minutes correlate closely with end-of-semester evaluations.  Invisible Learning is full of good tips for optimizing that first impression.  Dan describes the course as more about the student’s relationships with statistics than about statistics itself, thus he relates this to what they need to know, with the objective of hooking students’ attention, and inspiring them.  That is the first airport idea for this review (an explanation of what that means comes later):

Teach from the perspective of what students have to gain from learning. 

Do not reel off what should be taught and let students figure out why.

“Syllabus” becomes a “Learning Contract” to foster the idea that students must take control of their own learning.  Dan insists all students email him a profile of themselves, with a picture, before the class.  The profile contains a few leading questions, things he can use as a segue to present a profile and talk about aspects, enabling the students to begin to get to know each other and let them know he is personally interested in each of them. 

Encourage students to take control of their own learning.

“Airport ideas” and stressed throughout the course.  These are key points Dan wants to engrave in students’ memories so that when they bump into each other in an airport five years later than they still can recall them.  This gives me the idea that a standard preclass quiz, “List three key ideas from the last lecture?” would be an excellent standard opener, encouraging students to be on time.  It would be wonderful for lecturers if this type of spaced, active recall enabled the students to know and capitalize on the key points to learn.  Airport idea as introduced prominently displayed on one of three screens flanked by a “cue” picture.  For instance, the dangers of cherry-picking data in statistics are shown with a picture of someone picking cherries.  Use of what I call “cues” is related to memory palace techniques.  However, I think any gimic could be used including mnemonics, funny stories, adopting a weird but relevant body posture in front of the class, or setting the concept to haiku; whatever works.

Identify essential fundamental concepts, present them prominently, and use effective strategies to make them hard to forget.

Active recall and spaced learning are stressed.  The final is cumulative consistent with the emphasis on long-term memory so it selects against students who cram.  Student-student interactions are encouraged to foster Feynman-like ideas on the value of explaining to each other and to build invisible bonds.  Student-prof interactions are promoted by allowing silences giving students time to think and respond to questions.

Spaced active recall is essential for good teaching.

Dan is aware of political capital in the classroom.  Student classes are like sailing boats in a wind that represents the general direction they want to go, and this is not always the same as the lecturers.  Repeated tacks therefore may be involved to stay on course.  The most difficult navigational feat is directly into a headwind; it may even be necessary to fire up the motor in some cases, ie use political capital, which is a limited resource.  Sometimes, however, it is necessary to but short a lively but distracting student-student dialog, or bluntly tell the class what they must and must not do.  The conclusion is to use political capital wisely.

Blatant use of authority is risky but sometimes unavoidable.

The most interesting part of the book for me was about adaptive learning.  That term represents situations in which a student has a core of foundational knowledge, but has to apply it in an unfamiliar setting.  Adaptive learning also encompasses the art of combining foundational knowledge in unusual ways, which is precious because it can evolve into transformative ideas.  Eventually, I realized adaptive learning is the core of the book because it is largely invisible.

Adaptive learning is based on the unpredictable application of the knowledge collected.

My Opinion

I like this book because it conveys how to teach without getting into the dogmas that pervade psychology.  It is written by someone who sincerely appreciated, then thoughtfully analyzed, the efforts of a lecturer.  This is a refreshing change from books on the psychology of teaching and learning.  Those books tend to be written by people who have some professional obligation to demonstrate scientific bases for their theses, but often the cited research is incorrect or misinterpreted, according to Nat Eliason’s thought-provoking blog post.


My conclusion from this book is that one thought is important and something I had not realized before:

Wisdom in teaching is knowing differences between understanding, memorization, and adaptive learning or mastery, and appropriate stages to focus on each.

Books That Combine With This To Give A Sum Greater Than Parts

How We Learn by Benedict Carrie

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