MIT Open Learning
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MIT Open Learning

Bringing Balance to the Forces of Education

In their online xTalk, Prof. Sanjay Sarma and Luke Yoquinto, co-authors of Grasp: The Science Transforming How We Learn, shared a bold vision for the future of teaching and learning, emphasizing science-based practices, engagement, and access for all.

“If we were going to produce content for the world, we had to base it on some science of learning. We would need to understand how the brain remembers, how it forgets, what the mechanisms of memory are, what the optimal length of a video is — and we didn’t have answers to many of these questions.”
— Sanjay Sarma

In a wide-ranging public xTalk on October 7, MIT Vice President for Open Learning Prof. Sanjay Sarma led a discussion of Grasp: The Science Transforming How We Learn, his new book with co-author Luke Yoquinto, now available from Doubleday Books.

Sarma shared the origin story of MIT Open Learning, which began with the MIT Online Education Policy Initiative, and his efforts to balance and reconcile science-based teaching and learning practices, access to content, and pathways to advancement beyond the traditional education and admission cycles. Weaving together four arcs — Sarma’s personal story; our growing understanding of how the brain learns through the cognitive sciences; the educational ethos of constructionism, as told through Prof. Woodie Flowers’ Course 2.007; and the battle between outside-in and inside-out educational theories — Sarma and Yoquinto shared the historical and scientific context on which the book is built.

Dewey vs. Thorndike
Sarma and Yoquinto dove into the ongoing tension between theories espoused by late 19th/early 20th century learning theorists John Dewey and E. L. Thorndike. Dewey advocated for what the authors termed an “outside-in,” holistic approach to learning research, which attempted to take into account the effect of complex psychological and social systems, including interpersonal relationships, on educational outcomes. In contrast, Thorndike, in his reductionist, “inside-out” approach, attempted to identify the individual nuts and bolts of the learning mind.

“By chopping up learning into measurable, manageable, countable chunks, Thorndike’s theory created a scientific rationale for what would become a decades-long, nationwide, ultimately international push for standardization of school — curricula, tests, schedules, GPAs, you name it,” explained Yoquinto. To put it another way, as educational historian Ellen Condliffe Lagemann wrote in 1989, “I have often argued to students, only in part to be perverse, that one cannot understand the history of education in the United States during the twentieth century unless one realizes that Edward L. Thorndike won and John Dewey lost.”

Sarma and Yoquinto’s contention is that the time has come to unite the two approaches: taking away best practices from each while avoiding their respective pitfalls. In a surprise guest appearance, MIT AeroAstro Professor Karen Wilcox, Sarma’s co-chair of the MIT Online Education Policy Initiative, remarked, “This inside-out vs outside-in view is so insightful and in fact encapsulates so much of what is going on in science with machine learning (outside-in) versus classical modeling. The real power is when you bring the two together. ”

One of the talk’s key themes revolved around a false equivalency between excellence and exclusivity that has traditionally dominated the teaching and learning narrative. “We need to fundamentally rethink education with the goal of turning everyone into superstars,” said Sarma. “We have lazily slid into the world of declaring winners and losers and damn it, we can do better than that.”

Other key takeaways from the talk include:

  • Cognitive science is a multi-level endeavor, and disruption of processes at any one level can hinder student success.
  • Spaced learning, or spreading out one’s studies over time, is key to retention. Meanwhile, short lectures of 10 minutes or less make the most of students’ ability to focus their attention.
  • In the future, it may make sense to prioritize classroom time for the sorts of coaching, hands-on exercises, and face-to-face discussions that are done most effectively in person, while moving lectures online.
  • Historically, class distinctions and racial prejudice have played a significant role in shaping public perceptions of intelligence and achievement. High-stakes testing may unfairly disadvantage students from underrepresented groups.
  • We need to fundamentally rethink exclusivity in education by placing a new priority on both access and the cognitive demands of learners.



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