Leland Teschler's Editorial: Not that hard to learn

Nov. 23, 2008
Direct instruction centers on brief sessions of learning in small steps. Precision teaching comes into play after a direct-instruction session.

Here’s a frustration that’s particularly common among engineers and engineering students: It sometimes seems impossible to learn fast enough.

So our first annual How-To issue seems like a good time to examine whether there’s a trick to picking up a skill quickly. And as it turns out, there is.

Meet Kent Johnson. He started a school in Seattle called the Morningside Academy. Many of its students have learning disabilities. So it is noteworthy that Morningside students advance in the skills where they have their greatest deficits by about 2.4 grade levels annually.

Morningside’s methods don’t just work with kids. In one case, academically deficient adults improved by two academic grade levels after about 18 hours of Morningside-inspired coaching.

The secret sauce that makes these results possible is a combination of two techniques that are generally absent from conventional schools: direct instruction and precision teaching. Direct instruction centers on brief sessions of learning in small steps. Precision teaching comes into play after a direct-instruction session. Here students practice repeatedly using the material they’ve just learned, accompanied by measurements of their accuracy and speed.

Morningside students don’t just learn material, they “overlearn” it to the point of fluency: being able to respond accurately and fast. Nor can they proceed to the next task until they hit this high level of performance. The point of the exercise: Perform at a fluent rate, and you can retain the information for years even without using it regularly.

So what does a Morningside classroom look like? “It is a noisy, active place,” says Morningside Principal Joanne Robbins. “Instruction is designed so people will be correct, so you hear a lot of accurate responsing. You also see a lot of partnered work and peer tutoring. Timers go off to mark the start and end of segments, and people give each other feedback after every few minutes, so the whole room is very active.”

Don’t get the idea that Morningside’s approach only works with small groups. “When you peer tutor, you multiply the number of teachers you have,” says Robbins. “We carefully teach how to partner and show students how to listen to one another. We can go as high as 50 pupils in a room with tremendous success.”

Morningside has been teaching this way since 1980. Its methods have worked not just with the learning disabled, but also with nursing students, college kids, and youths on academic probation. Clearly its techniques are effective and have stood the test of time. So why don’t other schools mimic its practices?

“That’s a delicate question,” admits Robbins. “Part of it may be that people are not familiar with the procedures….We also have a fundamental difference in philosophy [with other educators] that everyone can learn efficiently. And it requires great dedication.”

So it is unlikely you’ll find Morningside’s techniques in other institutions. But you can apply them yourself, says Robbins. Her advice: “Set a goal and collect data about how you’re doing. Be a good observer, a good cheerleader, and keep a positive attitude. Though it can get complicated, you can make progress quickly if you set small, attainable goals you can reach in a predictable amount of time.”

— Leland Teschler, Editor

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