Kimberly Nix Berens Ph.D.: “Here Are 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System”
First and foremost, teachers require training in learning and behavioral science. Currently, teachers are expected to produce learning outcomes with their students without training in the science regarding how learning actually occurs. Imagine if engineers were expected to build stable and safe bridges without training in physics, or if doctors were expected to successfully treat their patients without training in biology. Neither of those scenarios make a whole lot of sense, right? The thought of either of those possibilities is actually quite alarming! But, more often than not, colleges of education do not train teachers in learning and behavioral science. Teachers are not trained in the principles of learning or how to design instruction based on behavioral science. As such, they are thrown to the wolves every day, expected to educate a majority of our nation’s youth based on theories and beliefs about what children should learn and how they should learn it. It’s beyond time to bring scientific practices into the classroom.
I had the pleasure to interview Kimberly Berens, Ph.D.. Dr. Berens is the Founder of Fit Learning and Regional Director of Fit Learning Tri-State. In 1998 as a doctoral student in learning and behavioral science, Dr. Berens founded Fit Learning in a broom closet on campus at the University of Nevada, Reno. Since her humble beginnings, Dr. Berens has driven the expansion of her organization by establishing a formal certification and licensure in her powerful method of instruction. As a result, Fit Learning now has 31 locations worldwide, with 3 to 5 new locations opening each year. In 2010, Dr. Berens relocated to New York to open locations throughout the Tri-State area and beyond. For 20 years, Dr. Berens and her team have been developing and refining a powerful system of instruction based on the learning, behavioral and cognitive sciences. This system consistently produces over one year’s growth in 40 hours of instruction. Her learning programs target areas such as basic classroom readiness, phonemic awareness, reading fluency, comprehension, inferential language, basic and advanced mathematics, grammar, and expressive writing. Dr. Berens is also an experienced educational researcher who has published and presented extensively on science-based approaches in education. She has been an invited speaker at over 30 regional, national, and international conferences and has given over 100 presentations throughout her career on a variety of topics such as 1) the need for learning science in education, 2) the learning disability epidemic and its relation to current educational practices, 3) component skill fluency as a true measure of mastery, 4) the importance of cognitive fitness and how it is produced, 5) essential teaching skills and how to train masterful teachers, 6) the need for deliberate, purposeful practice for the production of expert performers, and 7) how to design learning environments to optimize academic outcomes for all learners. Following an appointment by Governor Jim Gibbons, she served on the State of Nevada Board of Psychological Examiners from 2009–2010 where she assisted in the development of best practice guidelines for practitioners. She has also provided clinical and research supervision to undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral students in learning and behavioral science. Dr. Berens is currently writing her first book on accelerating academic outcomes through instruction guided by learning and behavioral science.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory”behind what brought you to this particular career path?
I first became passionate about behavioral and learning science, and its application to mainstream education, during my undergraduate training in psychology at Rollins College. I have hit the metaphorical lottery several times in my life, but the first of those moments occurred during my freshman year when I met Dr. Maria Ruiz, a professor of behavioral psychology at Rollins. She subsequently became my mentor and fostered my interest in understanding learning and human behavior from the perspective of natural science.
As a result of her influence, I began working in a residential setting with another mentor, Dr. Eb Blakely, where I was trained to apply behavioral science to improve the quality of life for developmentally disabled adults. I eventually assisted Dr. Blakely in the development of Quest Kids, an early intervention program, where we used behavioral methods to establish essential early learning, language, and academic skills with young autistic children.
Following that early academic and applied work, I began my doctoral training in behavioral science at the University of Nevada, Reno where I was also appointed Director of their Early Childhood Autism Program. Although I was, and continue to be, passionate about improving the lives of individuals with disabilities, I was increasingly alarmed and confused that behavioral science was not being used in mainstream education. I hit the lottery again when I met and became mentored by Dr. Ogden Lindsley, a giant in behavioral science and the founder of Precision Teaching — a system of measuring learning and implementing instruction based in behavioral science. All of this culminated in my eventually Founding Fit Learning, an academic skill building program designed for every type of learner: average, struggling, gifted, or learning disabled. We have developed a profoundly effective instructional method that transforms the academic and cognitive abilities of learners and we consistently produce over one year’s growth in 40 hours of instruction in essential skill areas such as reading, math, writing, and critical thinking. Since our early beginnings in 1998 running sessions out of a converted janitor’s closet on the UNR campus, we now offer a formal certification in our method and have grown to over 30 locations worldwide with hundreds of learners enrolled each year.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
It’s difficult to pick one story from a 20-year career working with kids and families, so I will say that the most interesting aspect of my work is the discoveries we have made about how to rapidly accelerate learning gains with every type of learner. Through our use of behavioral science with every learner as an individual, we have discovered how to precisely design learning environments to dramatically enhance learning gains. For example, we have discovered that repeated, reinforced practice of skills over time leads to fluency — automatic, effortless performance of skill. We have discovered that fluency predicts that a skill is remembered, resistant to distractions and fatigue, and easily applied to the learning of more complex skills. We have discovered that complex skills must be broken down into basic, component units in order for fluency to be achieved and that movement through a sequence of skills must be based on prerequisite skill fluency in order for complex repertoires to be effectively learned. We have discovered that even the most impacted learners, like those with acquired brain injury or Downs Syndrome, can achieve fluency on essential skills if such skills are properly sequenced and if repeated, reinforced practice is properly designed. We have discovered that NO learner masters a skill at the same pace or follows the same path to fluency — variation is the fundamental nature of human learning. These kinds of discoveries have allowed us to evolve our methods in such a way that we are able to accelerate learning gains with every student such that they experience long-term academic and personal success.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
A few years ago, two of our Fit Learning Co-Founders established a nonprofit organization, Empower Youth, in Reno, NV such that low-income learners can access our powerful method of instruction. They have achieved amazing outcomes with these kinds of kids, so we are in the process of taking Empower Youth to the national level, with the intention of opening chapters throughout the U.S. Nothing excites me more than the possibility of accelerating the learning gains of disadvantaged kids such that they can access higher education and achieve greatness in their lives despite the unfortunate circumstances into which they were born.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
First and foremost, I am a learning scientist. Since 1993, I have been in the trenches, conducting applied behavioral science with learners to discover how to rapidly accelerate learning gains. As a result, I have gained a profound understanding of the variables that impact learning, how to design instruction and individualize it for every learner, how to measure learning in a precise manner such that timely instructional decisions can be made, and how to determine when mastery of skills has truly been achieved. As a result, I have been an invited speaker at dozens of regional, national, and international conferences. I have written peer reviewed and popular press publications on a variety of topics regarding learning, instructional design, and educational reform. I have also just finished writing my first book on how to redesign American education and dramatically improve our nation’s educational outcomes through the application of learning and behavioral science.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
Sadly, our educational system fails a majority of students. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) evaluated the reading and math skills of 4th and 8th grade students. Results showed that 59% of 4th graders and 66% of 8th graders are below proficiency in math, and over 60% of both 4th and 8th graders are below proficiency in reading. Proficiency rates are even more alarming for minority and low-income students, with well over 70% of minority and low-income 4th and 8th graders below proficiency in math and reading. Moreover, with the exception of 4th graders in math, all scores declined on the 2019 NAEP as compared to those from 2017. 4th grade math scores increased by one point in 2019.
For close to 3 decades, results of the NAEP have indicated that a majority of American students are below proficiency in essential academic areas. Results also show the alarming trend that students in the American education system actually become less proficient over time. In other words, a greater number of 4th graders score as proficient than 8th graders, and a greater number of 8th graders score as proficient than 12th graders. In fact, when 12th graders were last tested in 2015, a shocking 75% or more were below proficiency in math, science, US History, Civics, and Geography. This percentage of students below proficiency increases to 80% or more for graduating low-income and minority students. I have included two figures below to illustrate these alarming trends. I generated these figures from data available on the NAEP website (www.nationsreportcard.gov)
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
Unfortunately, that’s difficult for me to do. I will say that, for the most part, the intentions of educators are highly admirable. Teachers fundamentally want their students to be successful. There are some truly inspiring heroes in our midst, and many of them are our nation’s teachers.
There have also been significant research findings brought to light regarding best practices in reading instruction — all of which point to the importance of phonics and phonemic awareness for the achievement of proficient and advanced reading levels. As a result, I do think that more schools are moving away from “whole-word” based reading instruction and towards phonics-based reading instruction.
Also, there were significant gains made in math outcomes during the 90’s and early 2000’s for 4th and 8th grade students. I am including two figures below to illustrate these gains. Again, I generated these figures from data available on the NAEP website (www.nationsreportcard.gov)
However, these gains in math achievement have since leveled off, with static or declining scores obtained over the past decade. Also, no such gains have been made with 12th graders. In other words, any gains made with 4th and 8th graders are lost by 12th grade. I am including a figure below to illustrate this point.
So, although gains have been in math achievement with 4th and 8th graders since the 90’s, more needs to be done to produce proficiency with the majority of students and to ensure that such gains persist through 12th grade.
I will also say that there are a significant number of schools around the country using Curriculum-Based Measurement (CBM) to precisely and frequently monitor student progress throughout the school year, rather than only monitoring progress via grades and yearly standardized tests. CBM has over 30 years of empirical validation as a highly effective method for monitoring student achievement that enables teachers to identify, and subsequently intervene with, struggling students earlier on in the school year.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
- First and foremost, teachers require training in learning and behavioral science. Currently, teachers are expected to produce learning outcomes with their students without training in the science regarding how learning actually occurs. Imagine if engineers were expected to build stable and safe bridges without training in physics, or if doctors were expected to successfully treat their patients without training in biology. Neither of those scenarios make a whole lot of sense, right? The thought of either of those possibilities is actually quite alarming! But, more often than not, colleges of education do not train teachers in learning and behavioral science. Teachers are not trained in the principles of learning or how to design instruction based on behavioral science. As such, they are thrown to the wolves every day, expected to educate a majority of our nation’s youth based on theories and beliefs about what children should learn and how they should learn it. It’s beyond time to bring scientific practices into the classroom.
- The traditions that dominate education are profoundly ineffective and are based, not on scientific evidence about human learning, but on beliefs or ideas about how education should be designed. One such tradition involves grade-level advancement based on age. It is a common belief that as children grow physically older, they also become capable of learning more complex skills. Such a notion is actually false. Higher-level skills can only be successfully learned if component, prerequisite skills have been learned to mastery. Learning a skill to mastery requires effective concept instruction and repeated, reinforced practice of that skill until it is fluent. Unfortunately, our educational system is not based on this principle of learning. As such, students are moved ahead through a sequence of skills based on the passage of time, and they are advanced ahead to a higher-grade level based on their physical age — regardless if they have mastered the prerequisite skills required to successfully learn and master more advanced skills. This tradition has tragic implications for students, as evidenced by the fact that the proficiency rates of American students actually decline over time with 75% or more of graduating students below proficiency in all academic subjects.
- Grades are another tragically ineffective educational tradition. Grades do not reflect empirically validated measures of learning. Grades are often subjective, arbitrary, and do not reliably measure when true mastery, or fluency, has been achieved. Even an “A” grade does not guarantee that a skill will be remembered over time or be usable for learning a more advanced skill. Mastery is only achieved through repeated, reinforced practice over time. Many students can cram the night before a test and get an “A” grade without being able to remember any of the tested material even a week later. The measures used in our nation’s schools should reliably predict permanent learning outcomes — otherwise our teachers and students are just wasting their time.
- Schools need to stop the tradition of hand raising. This is a tragically ineffective tradition, and research has shown that active, choral participation by every student in the class is profoundly more effective (see National Institute for Direct Instruction, www.nifdi.org). Behavioral science has led to the discovery that for learning to occur, a person must repeatedly behave in the desired way, and most importantly, that behavior must be repeatedly followed by reinforcement. When students are required to raise their hands, only one student has the opportunity to answer whatever question was presented by the teacher and have that response be reinforced or corrected. Moreover, it is only students with effective learning histories who are likely to participate in class. Sadly, the most failed students are the least likely to actually raise their hands. By requiring the entire class to respond in unison, a teacher ensures that every student is actively engaging in the lesson, responding to concepts, and receiving feedback for those responses.
- The tradition in American education involves exposing students to lots of content, with little to no opportunity to practice that content. What little practice does occur happens after school during homework activities, and even that does not provide the type of practice required for the achievement of true mastery. Behavioral science has led to the discovery that skills are permanently learned through repeated, reinforced practice until those skills can be performed fluently — automatic, effortless performance of a skill that occurs at a rapid pace. It has also been discovered that when students are given the opportunity to achieve fluency in basic skills, they can learn more advanced skills quickly and easily — and even begin leaping ahead through curriculum sequences. We call this outcome cognitive fitness where students resemble well-trained athletes who are agile learners with endurance, perseverance, and critical thinking skills. Particularly during the early primary grades, schools should push less content and provide more opportunity during the school day for repeated, reinforced practice of skills to mastery. As such, all students would arrive at the higher-grade levels with the fluent foundation required to easily learn advanced content.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
STEM requires a fluent foundation in core academic skills — particularly in math. Exposing kids to STEM activities may increase their interest and provide some entertainment, but students cannot successfully pursue degrees or careers in science, technology or engineering without advanced math skills. And students cannot acquire advanced math skills without fluency in basic math skills — like numeracy and computation. Unfortunately, it is basic math skills that most primary school math curriculums tend to skip over or ignore.
My organization has consistently produced dramatic gains in advanced math skills by training basic math skills to fluency. In other words, we get collateral gains in achievement on advanced applications of mathematics only by training basic math skills to fluency. The figure below reflects gains made with 160 of our learners on a standard M-CAP assessment, which evaluates higher level math skills involving figures, problem solving, and advanced applications of mathematics. The blue bar reflects our learners’ average percentile rank on this assessment at intake, the orange bar reflects our learners’ average percentile rank following 40 hours of instruction and fluency training in numeracy, computation, and fractions skills at Fit Learning. The figure reflects that our learners gain an average of 34 percentile ranks in 40 hours of training on advanced math skills, and we achieve these gains by providing our learners the opportunity to achieve fluency on basic math skills.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
Women have historically been underrepresented in STEM fields. In fact, it is relatively recent that girls aren’t required to take high school courses in Home Economics and Domestic Arts. The notion that females should be encouraged to pursue careers at all is actually a relatively recent shift in our culture’s view regarding women’s roles in our society. As such, we naturally have some catching up to do to ensure that females have equal opportunity to pursue careers in STEM fields. However, simply providing girls the opportunity to participate in STEM activities does not guarantee that they will ultimately pursue careers in these fields. Rather, female students — like all students — require effective instruction in math, science, and critical thinking, and the opportunity to truly master the essential component skills required to experience success in higher level math and science content.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
The gender gap in science and math achievement is closing as evidenced by our NAEP scores. I am including a figure below to illustrate this trend. Again, I generated this figure based on data available from the NAEP website (www.nationsreportcard.gov).
Although a greater number of females still score as below proficient in math and science as compared to males, it reflects a relatively small difference when considered historically. More alarming is the lack of proficiency in math and science by students regardless of gender, and the fact that a frighteningly small number of students are achieving advanced levels, which are required to obtain degrees or pursue careers in STEM fields. As such, all students — particularly females — require effective instruction and repeated, reinforced practice of basic math skills in the early primary grades such that mastery of core math skills is achieved. In this way, students will have the fluent foundation required to acquire advanced math and science skills in later grades to increase the likelihood that they will pursue advanced degrees and careers in STEM fields.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
It is my position that all students have the right to an effective education — an education that ensures the achievement of true mastery in basic skills across the core subjects. It is only then that students can make an informed choice regarding where their interests ultimately lie. To many students are forced down a particular path because they have been failed in one or more academic areas. “Choosing” to pursue the arts, humanities, or language-based subjects is not actually a choice if a student has simply been failed in math or science. Conversely, “choosing” STEM subjects is not an actual choice if a student has been failed in reading or language arts. When all students have the opportunity to truly master skills in core academic subjects, then they are capable of making an informed choice of where their interests actually lie — not a forced choice based on an ineffective learning history.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I have mentioned many of these things in my previous responses. Teachers would be trained as learning scientists and empowered to act as scientists in their classrooms. Students would not be advanced ahead to higher-level skills and content based on age or the passage of time, but rather based on true mastery of prerequisite skills. We would get rid of grades and adopt measures of learning and mastery provided by behavioral science — those measures that have been empirically validated to predict long-term memory, increased attention span, and the effortless application of skills to the learning of more complex skills. We would get rid of hand raising and require choral responding of every student in the class during concept instruction. Repeated, reinforced practice opportunities would be provided throughout the school day — not as an afterthought during homework activities. Primary grades would focus on less content and more on repeated reinforced practice of essential basic skills to mastery.
All of my recommendations above relate to “bottom-up” changes that would occur at the level of instruction. In fact, it is bottom-up efforts like these that have been noticeably absent from educational reform efforts throughout our nation’s history. Most reform efforts reflect “top-down” changes that occur at the level of policy — such as allocation of school funds, increased administrative oversite, increased school and teacher accountability, and greater choice regarding the type of school a child can attend. As our NAEP data indicate, these top-down, policy-level reform efforts have never resulted in the majority of our nation’s students being effectively educated. To improve educational outcomes, teaching practices must improve.
However, two major policy changes that I would push for involve reforms to districting and the funding of schools based on local property taxes. Current policies in both of these areas result in tragic inequities in educational resources for low-income and minority students, as well as the pervasive segregation of our nation’s schools despite the fact that Brown v Board of Education was passed over 50 years ago. A comprehensive explanation of these issues is beyond the scope of this interview. However, I recommend your readers to two books by Jonathon Kozol on these issues: Shame of a Nation and Savage Inequalities.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The Learner Knows Best. This was a favorite mantra of my hero, mentor and dear friend Dr. Ogden Lindsley — who I mentioned previously. I live by this mantra every day in my work with students, conversations with parents and professionals, and the training and mentorship I provide to my staff. It is the learner who informs us about the effectiveness of our instruction. It is the learner who informs us if we need to make an instructional change to ensure that learning occurs more rapidly. It is the learner who informs us of when a skill has been mastered and when they are ready to move ahead to a higher-level skill. However, the learner doesn’t inform us by directly telling us or giving us their opinion — just as it shouldn’t be based on the subjective opinion of the teacher. Rather, it is the ongoing and precise measurement of the learner’s behavior over time that tells us. The objective measurement of the learner’s behavior tells us everything we need to know about the impact of our instruction and the effectiveness of the learning environment we have designed. This precise measurement of each learner’s behavior over time allows us to be 100% responsible for the learning outcomes we produce.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Bill and Melinda Gates clearly have an interest in improving education. They have created a foundation and donate millions of dollars to this end; however, I don’t believe they have an awareness regarding the importance of reforming educational practices based on the science of human learning. It is individuals like this that I feel could greatly benefit from reading articles like this one.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
They can like us on Facebook at Fit Learning (our general page) or Fit Learning TriState (the page affiliated with my region). Similarly, they can follow us on Instagram at fit.learning (general) or fitlearningtristate (my regional page). There are LOTS of other regional pages for our various locations. Readers can find out if there is a location in their area by visiting our website at www.fitlearning.com.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!