Beautiful Questions: “How Humans Learn” and the Future of Education
By Ryan BoydMay 27, 2019
How Humans Learn by Joshua R. Eyler
A skeptic might object that while this is all very poetic, such idealism doesn’t hold up in the real world. Sure, you can gush over hooks or Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) in your graduate seminar, but what about the universe outside? Don’t we need grades and standardized tests? Don’t we need centralized curricula? Shouldn’t college be practical? For God’s sake, what about job prep? As it turns out, though, there is a large body of evidence suggesting that hard-headed pragmatism and poetic idealism might not be so far apart when it comes to something teachers constantly debate among themselves: the question of how to best educate young people so that they can live sane, meaningful, reasonably happy lives in a pluralist democracy.
In How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching, Joshua R. Eyler takes up this question. He starts with a pair of disarmingly simple queries: What can sociological and neurological research tell us about learning, and do our dominant pedagogies align with these insights? The short answer to the first question is a lot; to the second, not nearly enough. Yet although Eyler uses a wealth of evidence to persuasively show that the best classrooms are the kinds hooks describes — spaces where students became true active thinkers and writers — he misses larger structural issues in higher education. Individual teachers can learn a great deal from his book, but their work is circumscribed by forces that we also need to confront.
Eyler’s method is consistently rooted in both quantitative data and larger humanist narratives about what it means to learn. He takes an interdisciplinary approach, noting that “pieces of the puzzle were isolated in fields that do not talk to each other very often” — disciplines ranging from neuroscience to education theory to sociology to evolutionary biology. Further, while there is plentiful research focused on K–12 pedagogy, the higher education side of things is less developed, which creates significant gaps in college teachers’ understanding of their own work.
A humanities professor with a background in medieval studies, Eyler directs the Center for Teaching Excellence at Rice University, and as a writer he practices what he preaches — he is a very good teacher here. His prose is brisk and lucid, if not literary, and while the book has a rich scholarly apparatus of endnotes and cited works, he minimizes the intrusion of these into the main text. If you want, you can certainly read up on mirror neurons and natural pedagogy and “zones of proximal development,” but Eyler doesn’t lose sight of his bigger narrative.
Midway through How Humans Learn, he calls faculty attention to “our position as intellectual models for our students.” This modeling entails both critical thought and deep feeling: good teachers are empathic, in that they must recognize the individuality of each student (however frustrating that person might sometimes be) while also giving that student a vision of a meaningful intellectual life, by showing enthusiasm for the subject. It is a way of passing the world on. Or, as hooks writes, “Teaching is a performative act […] meant to serve as a catalyst that calls everyone to become more and more engaged, to become active participants in learning.” Crucially, this approach — which Eyler calls “pedagogical caring” and “a pedagogy of empathy” — does not mean that teachers cede all authority to students or that they are lenient about academic and intellectual standards. Doing the latter would be condescending and cruel to students, because it would mean failing to actually educate them.
As humans we come equipped to learn; whether we are well suited to the kinds of schools that dominate the United States is another question altogether. There is, Eyler notes, a “completely unbridled curiosity” in children, who constantly — sometimes to their parents’ consternation — touch and grab and taste and prod and stare at the world around them. Playing, they comprehend its realities with increasing depth every day. “Homo sapiens is the species of curiosity,” and this playful curiosity informs the work of grown-up intellectuals and creators, including scientists, graphic designers, and journalists.
Unfortunately, American schools usually throttle these evolved neurological impulses, Eyler shows. Thanks to standardized tests, strict schedules, timed essays, grades, the pressure (for some) of applying to college, lecture-hall courses, and other systems, “habits of mind that wall off curiosity” are engendered by school starting with kindergarten and running through college. Continually processed and evaluated, young people end up anxious, resentful, and bored in school. In my own experience, this stacks the deck against college teachers, who encounter students who have been primed to dislike setting foot in a classroom, let alone the challenge of learning complex material. Many students arrive in first-year writing seminars with a great deal of cognitive bias against the idea of formal education. They have very good reasons to be wary, but — as the teacher and writer John Warner explores in Why They Can’t Write (2018) — that wariness often leads to disastrous results.
If you wanted to freeze students in anxiety-oblivion, it seems to me, you would invent the 4.0 grade scale; if you wanted to stultify and irritate them, you’d pen them in the kinds of lecture-based classes that many American schools rely on, particularly in crucial introductory courses. To a large degree, the nation’s idea and practice of college “prizes success over development,” as Eyler says; it values individual achievement over collective productions of meaning and knowledge; it replaces intrinsic motivations with goads like grades.
Eyler is dead right about grades, which he repeatedly emphasizes are toxic and “antithetical to the natural processes by which humans learn.” They “become prizes for students to win rather than signs that point to actual learning. In the end, grades are the quintessential extrinsic motivator, whereas educational pursuits need to be primarily intrinsic if they are to be transformational.” This is something that I’ve noticed in my own teaching career. Intelligent, hardworking, otherwise confident students will be laid low by a perfectly respectable grade like a B+, simply because it’s not a perfect score, and because they have been told all their lives that only As will suffice for success, however poorly that is defined.
But while Eyler’s critique of these scoring systems is resonant, his remarks on how to actually end or subvert “the despotic reign of grades” are somewhat limp and elide the significant institutional factors, such as the existence of for-profit testing companies that stymie change. “Let’s all agree to get rid of grades,” he writes, “What do you say? Not possible? Okay, then we’ll need to find more ways to give feedback independent of grades so that our efforts to help students learn […] will be more fruitful.” That sounds very good — but how do we actually implement it? He doesn’t say.
Besides grades, Eyler’s other enemy is the lecture. He echoes the concerns many professors have about this format, which dominates the introductory courses students take at many medium-sized and large universities. Basically, extensive lectures just don’t work — they short-circuit the kinds of participatory, active, engaged scenarios where people actually learn to retain information and think critically about it. Granting that there are gifted performers who give scintillating lectures, and qualifying his claim by noting that short lectures can still be effective, Eyler writes, “Those situations where instructors are talking for the bulk of the class period […] are the least authentic of all classroom environments […] Our brains are easily able to detect and ignore these kinds of contrived scenarios (unless we force ourselves to pay attention for the sake of a grade).”
There is a good deal of research that backs this up. For instance, a 2014 National Academy of Sciences report looking at STEM courses found that lengthy lectures may increase failure rates on exams by over 50 percent compared to more active learning methods. As I’ve discovered in my classes, the quickest way to kill the energy in the room is to drone at my students for more than five minutes, no matter how important the topic at hand is. Most people simply zone out when they aren’t actively participating in learning. Professors might gripe about students checking Facebook during class — I, too, dislike it — but there is a reason they are drawn to distraction.
So what would alternatives to the 600-seat General Chemistry lecture look like? Our overarching goal, Eyler contends, must be “providing our students with beautiful questions” relevant to their existences while preserving “the importance of wonder in learning.” Besides the urgent need to do away with, or at least downplay, the 4.0 grade scale and reduce the scope of lectures, Eyler follows a number of education scholars in arguing that genuine learning situations grow from immersion, from having students conduct work that is similar to the intellectual labor done by their teachers. He calls this “cognitive realism or cognitive authenticity.” Here, he follows Warner’s argument about writing classes in Why They Can’t Write, which is that students need to be given work with real stakes, not “Potemkin essays” (Warner’s term for things like the five-paragraph paper) or projects that are only relevant to one’s grade in a single course. This might take the form of increasing opportunities for undergrads to do research alongside professors and PhD candidates; in my classes at USC, it means involving students in the same revision-process problems that my colleagues and I wrestle with in our academic and public writing. “Give students work that is deeply rooted in disciplinary contexts and that replicates the activities of scholars in the field,” Eyler observes, “and they will learn the material more than if we simply ask them to build knowledge in environments that are devoid of contextual frameworks or artificial in design.”
He also argues passionately for embracing the role of emotion in learning, whether these are positive feelings like wonder and joy or negative ones (like anxiety) that impede education. Given what neuroscience tells us — that you cannot divide the brain into “cognitive” and “affective” processing regions, because these pathways are intertwined — it makes sense to conceptualize education as a practice for helping students understand and feel connections between course material and their own lives, which extend far beyond campus.
A good classroom is also a situated space: it exists in and affects the rest of the universe students inhabit. Eyler notes that “the social world is always a part of the classroom.” This means constituting classes as participatory modes of being and thinking. In what he calls the “social classroom,” teaching is “an augmentation of our sociality.” Students work together to generate collective knowledge by, for example, collaborating on research or revising essays in a team. Crucially, this means that classrooms must be shared physical locations; as ever more research suggests, online classes fail to provide this kind of catalyzing opportunity. They might help a university’s bottom line, but “it is impossible to discount the educational value of being together in the same place and at the same moment.” I would not know how to teach writing in a format that wasn’t discussion-oriented, open-ended, experimental, and strictly limited in size. I have no idea how lectures could possibly help students improve their writing practices and strategies. If I were not physically located in the same space as my students, I would fail to help them develop.
How Humans Learn is a splendid repository of ways to rethink how we teach college. But to expand the reach of Eyler’s work and help it enable action, we have to embed it within a wider critique of the institutional structures, both material and ideological, that circumscribe particular classrooms. After all, a course lasts a term; as institutions, colleges and universities have much longer lives and deeper effects on the society around them. Eyler’s book is best read alongside texts like Christopher Newfield’s history of how a privatization fetish wrecked public universities, The Great Mistake (2016); Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed (2017), which examines how for-profit schools damage the prospects of their students by loading them down with debt in exchange for spurious job training; and Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s just-published Generous Thinking, which underscores the modern university’s obsessive focus — central to administrative, faculty, and student thinking — on competition, scarcity, and prestige.
Eyler does acknowledge some broader structural concerns, such as when he critiques the popular notion of “grit” for downplaying the fact that privileged white students have enormous advantages over their peers of color and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s easier to be gritty if your parents have money. But his theory of pedagogy is, at least here, generally more individualized, relying on particular instructors to improve their methods, albeit by learning from other master teachers. He says nothing about student debt (which raises anxiety just like grades do) or the adjunct crisis (which limits the ability of broke, overstretched teachers to innovate) or union solidarity (which demands things like smaller classes in the face of a managerial elite often bent on cutting instructional budgets).
In the closing pages, Eyler admits that “I don’t think we actually need a revolution.” I paused over that line, because it depends on your definition of “revolution.” Eyler is fundamentally a liberal reformist, with an abiding faith in the ability of good professors and administrators to change The System from within. But if the recent wave of teacher strikes, which has now spread to higher education, teaches us anything, it is that labor solidarity — collective political action — is perhaps the only thing that can save education from privatizers, business-minded managers, and standardized-test racketeers. Expecting individual pedagogical innovations, however brilliantly informed by new research, to override the status quo would be naïve. There are real antagonists in the world who have a vested interest in not pursuing the insights Eyler uncovers here, and they have to be confronted by teachers, students, and families. How do humans learn best? In democratic schools with small classes enjoying a range of resources, including well-paid teachers who aren’t bogged down teaching 80 or a hundred students at a time. What Eyler’s book misses is that the future of higher education is ultimately a political question, as much as it is a pedagogical one.
But this is perhaps somewhat uncharitable of me, given that Eyler’s declared focus is science and sociology, not the politics of universities. And he does succeed admirably at his core goal: connecting the dots between the modes and processes by which humans learn and narrating ways that we professors can build our classes around those realities. Although Eyler’s scope is ultimately too limited, anyone who has thought about or spent time on an American campus could do much worse than read his book.
Ryan Boyd teaches at the University of Southern California.
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