August 20, 2019 · reviews cognitive science of learning theory

Book Review: Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, by James M. Lang

It's always comforting to encounter advice to slow down, take it easy, and get back to basics. In Small Teaching, James M. Lang encourages higher ed instructors to take small steps toward making a big impact in class. We don't need to reform our entire approach to curriculum and pedagogy, he argues. Most teachers don't have the time and frankly, wouldn't be interested. What we can do instead is to get clear on a handful of key findings from neuroscience and psychology, and translate those into good investments: relatively low-effort, high-impact tweaks to how we interact with students, how we assess, and how we organize our curriculum. While the book is framed by a discussion of teaching in higher ed, everything is generally applicable across the educational spectrum.

The book is organized into three parts: "Knowledge", "Understanding", and "Inspiration". Each part has three sub-sections, corresponding to a particular concept in the science of how students take in, organize, retain, and use new concepts, skills, or information. Each sub-section ends with a short description of actionable classroom tweaks or interventions that target that particular finding. For example, after describing the concept of interleaving – in which instruction and student practice is shuffled together in a pattern of alternation, rather than chunked into "blocks" – Lang provides a timeline for a series of concepts and suggests ways to go about introducing the strategy into a weekly course schedule.

Some of his suggestions are so utterly, remarkably "small" that they may seem too basic to even mention. During his discussion of the science of memory, Lang notes that spaced review can improve storage and retrieval of memories. One of his "small teaching" interventions is simply to ask students to recall concepts and ideas from the previous class period. While this struck me as strange – isn't everyone doing this already? – as a secondary grades teacher or administrator, we should keep in mind the the intended audience. University professors are not always trained as instructors; they are content experts. They learn from doing and are often burdened with the frustrations of trial and error in the classroom. Something as simple as "ask them what they already know about this" or "ask them to try to remember what happened last class" goes a long way, and speaks to the overall message of the book: you don't have to do much to tap into the benefits of cognitive psychological findings. Sometimes all it takes is a good question, framed in the right way, posed at the right time.

Here are a few conclusions that will either be useful new knowledge or at least useful reminders of what's effective:

None of the science is original. Lang packages it neatly and simply. He draws heavily on two well-known and also excellent titles in this space: Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology by Michelle D. Miller, and Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel. In turn, much of this is founded on work by popular science communicators like Daniel Willingham, psychology professor at UVa, who has built a successful career not only advancing the science of learning but helping teachers understand it and implement it. Lang is a professor of English, which is to say, he focuses primarily on the second task: communicating with teachers and doing what I believe is the noble work of improving pedagogy one teacher, one classroom, one lesson at a time.

Highly recommended for coaches and administrators, as well as instructors in middle school, high school, or higher ed. The science is applicable in elementary school, but younger grades have specialized processes and techniques; the framework of this book will almost certainly not be as interesting to elementary teachers.