Back in May, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) questioned why school buildings still exist and announcing that he would work with Microsoft founder Bill Gates to “reimagine” and start “revolutionizing” public education. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos repeatedly says that education has to be overhauled; Arne Duncan, education secretary under President Barack Obama for seven years, is saying the same thing; and there is a chorus of calls from technology leaders and others to upend education as we know it.

This post takes a different view. Written by Daniel Willingham and Benjamin Riley, it argues that revolutionizing education as a response to the covid-19 pandemic is not what the country needs. The authors explain what the United States should be doing to improve education instead.

Willingham is a psychology professor at the University of Virginia who focuses his research on the application of cognitive psychology to K-12 schools and higher education. He was appointed by Obama to the National Board for Education Sciences, the independent and nonpartisan arm of the U.S. Education Department, which provides statistics, research and evaluation on education topics.

He is the author of several books, including “Why Don’t Students Like School?” and “When Can You Trust the Experts?” He also blogs here, and his posts have appeared frequently over the years on the Answer Sheet. He can be reached at willingham@virginia.edu, and you can follow him on Twitter @DTWillingham. (His identification on Twitter says: “Putting the funk back in functional brain imaging and the psycho in psychometrics. One study is just one study, folks.”)

Riley is the founder and executive director of Deans for Impact, a nonprofit organization that focuses on improving teacher education. He previously conducted research on the New Zealand education system, worked as the policy director for a national education nonprofit and served as deputy attorney general for the state of California.

By Daniel Willingham and Benjamin Riley

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently committed $180 million to drastically “rethink” school models, and — in rare bipartisan agreement — former education secretary Arne Duncan agreed that now is the time to “reimagine” everything. They aren’t alone. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) said he wants to “revolutionize” education, with Bill Gates working to help him do so, and educators from coast to coast appear eager to help them.

The nationwide shift to remote learning prompted by covid-19 and the closing of K-12 schools this spring seems to policymakers and philanthropists a pivotal moment, and in some sense it’s understandable: Shouldn’t we embrace this unanticipated experiment as an opportunity to transform our education system?

We think such bold steps would be reckless. And they neglect a more promising way to improve.

For starters, distance learning went poorly. Nationwide, only 27 percent of school districts required daily attendance be taken during the pandemic, and 82 percent of educators believe student engagement dropped. Twenty-two percent of parents said in one survey that their children spent less than an hour per day doing schoolwork. Even among college students, fewer than half report keeping a regular schedule.

No one’s surprised by this rough transition because everyone was unprepared for an all-encompassing crisis.

What’s odd is assuming that our “new normal” should become our actual normal, and that the current disruption requires frantic realignment to permanent distance learning. This is akin to preparing to fight the previous war.

History shows an education technology revolution is neither inevitable nor predictable, although new technologies often lead to prophecies of seismic change in schools. In 1922, Thomas Edison claimed movies would make books and teachers obsolete. In the 1980s, researchers predicted that computers would replace teachers. Now futurists foresee Zoom ousting brick-and-mortar schoolhouses.

Gambling that we can predict the future has rarely paid off. Instead, why not focus on what we’re certain won’t change?

The past three months have not transformed children’s brains, just the context where learning takes place. If you understand the mental processes supporting learning, attention, reading and so on, you can predict how students will be affected by a new environment, such as distance learning, and adapt teaching accordingly.

For example, research shows it’s very difficult to think of two things simultaneously. That’s why talking on the phone while driving increases accident rates, even if the call is hands-free. Distance learning often involves simultaneous visual and auditory information. If these complement one another — for example, the teacher describing an animation — learning is enhanced. But if they conflict — for example, the teacher saying one thing while different text appears — learning suffers.

Or consider the problem of attention. Learning at home means a whole host of new distractions for students. (One of us is married to a teacher and frequently overhears her pleading “Come back!” during Zoom lessons.) Researchers have shown that periodic quizzes interspersed during video lectures not only help cement new ideas into memory but also help keep students focused on what’s being taught.

If, in contrast, you’re not well-informed about how children learn, you may think videos are useful for visual learners (as an education consultant recently claimed in the New York Times), but you may worry such a lesson offers little to children who learn by moving, not seeing. This notion of learning styles has been debunked for years by scientists, but the idea persists.

Unfortunately, data suggests educators are unfamiliar with most principles of cognitive science. Recently, we tested more than 1,000 teachers-in-training and found that fewer than half could identify these principles, and when they knew them, they often couldn’t say how they applied in classrooms. Other research shows practicing teachers endorse learning myths: that children are less attentive after consuming sugary snacks, that students are “left-brained” or “right-brained” and that dyslexia is caused by seeing letters backward.

This needs to change. And while policymakers and philanthropists are right in wanting teachers to use technology wisely and to adapt nimbly to changing circumstances, the irony is that the best way to do that is to focus on what won’t change — the science of learning.

Here’s three steps to make that happen.

First, lawmakers should review teacher licensing examinations. Most require knowledge of principles of learning, but the expectations are low, and some even refer to scientifically discredited ideas (learning styles yet again).

Second, Gates and other philanthropists should help bring the latest scientific knowledge about learning to the nation’s 4 million teachers by supporting the development of better teacher preparation and professional development. There’s excessive emphasis in philanthropy on flashy but unproven new “school models.”

Finally, teachers should take a leading role in connecting scientific evidence to their practice. This is already happening, to a degree. Twitter has proved a surprisingly vibrant platform for teachers to access ideas from cognitive science, enabling educators to improve their practice on their own, and without waiting for school-led professional development. We’d love to see such grass-roots efforts grow.

We need fewer dreams of transformative systems and technological revolutions, and greater emphasis on the humans involved in education. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the future is unpredictable, so let’s help educators by embracing the stability of science.

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