On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Jim Lang, author of six (6) books including Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It and Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. Lang also writes a monthly column on teaching and learning for The Chronicle of Higher Education.
On this episode of Bring It In season three, Jim sat down with Sam and discussed learning design and environments, the differences between mindsets, and finding meaning in work.
Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.
Below are some of the insights Lang shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.
Sam: So Jim, I guess maybe just starting off, can you talk to us a little bit about what made your background and what made you write Small Teaching?
Jim: Yeah, so my background is actually in English literature, and I have a PhD from Northwestern in that subject, but while I was finishing my time up at Northwestern, I got involved with the Center for Teaching Excellence at Northwestern, and I became kind of interested in the work they were doing, which was promoting better teaching techniques for the faculty at Northwestern. And I found it actually, what was most interesting in that work was to learn about how people learn and discovering what learning scientists had discovered about how the brain works and how human beings learn, and then translating those ideas into teaching recommendations.
So when I left Northwestern, which was in 2000, I became a regular faculty member at Assumption University in Massachusetts and spent the next two decades actually as a full time faculty member and also running a center, like the one I had come from, a center for teaching excellence.
And during that time, I just sort of continued to read and think about teaching and learning issues. And in 2016 is when I published a book called Small Teaching, and in that book, I argue that a lot of times teachers get our kind of these administrative fiats, we gotta do everything differently. We have to adapt this new program or get this completely revolutionary way to teach or change all our courses, all that kind of stuff. And I kind of realized that it doesn’t matter which approach you’re using, if you pay attention to the small things it can make a major difference in terms of the kind of experiences that we create for students.
So whether you’re using something like game based learning or traditional lecturing, both those kinds of things, they will benefit from knowing a little something about learning and paying attention to the small everyday choices that teachers are confronted with when they are trying to build their courses.
So small teaching really just has got two simple press premises. The first is to pay attention to those small choices. And the second thing is to use learning research in order to make better choices.
Sam: Sure. I would show you the whole book here, but it’s all marked up. Jim, one of the questions I had is cuz you speak a lot on this topic, when you share your point of view and your research, what surprises teachers most? Is there a specific strategy or tactic that someone leans back and says, wow, I never even realized.
Jim: Yeah. Actually, somebody just asked me this question the other day about why the chapters of the book are in the order that I put them in. And the reason for that is because the first chapter, which is about retrieval, is exactly that topic, but college and university teachers in particular don’t know very much about it and actually don’t think it is important.
And so, that chapter focuses on how our memories work and what kinds of strategies will help us get information into student’s heads. And a lot of higher education faculty think that that’s not important. What I’m trying to do is help students think about deep things and stuff like that.
But what we’ve learned is that you can’t really think deeply about things unless you know something about them. And so I think a lot of faculty think, ‘no, I’m gonna skip that how to teach information or core or foundational knowledge, and I’m gonna assume that students are getting that somewhere else or high from high school or from other courses.’
But what we really really learn is that if you want students to become problem solvers, creative thinkers they need to have a foundation of knowledge. And so what we’ve learned from the learning sciences is not that the important thing is not to sort of try to cram information into the heads of students. What’s actually important is to help them understand how to get information back out of their heads after they’ve learned it. After they’ve been exposed to it, they have to have multiple opportunities to rehearse and recite that information. And what we’ve learned is that the more times you do that the better mastery you will get of that knowledge.
You can see this kind of thing in everyday life. I’ve always noticed that when I have a student in a course and then a few weeks, the course is over. I’ll see that student a few weeks or months later, and if the first time I see that student, I might struggle with their name, but if I see that student’s name and I say their name back to them, then that name gets in my head. I will then be able to remember it the next time. Right?
So there’s lots of these kinds of everyday situations in which you can see this phenomenon at work. So that’s why I started with that chapter, because many faculty members don’t know about that research. They don’t think it’s important, and I wanted to kind of hook them in to say, ‘here, this is clear evidence for this. It’s easy to apply. And it’s something that will benefit your student.’
Sam: Yeah. The concept of retrieval practice and especially what you talk about with prediction and predicting the answer to something before you know it, it seems so powerful yet anytime we try to share that with a manager or an HR leader in the workforce space, I’m sure you with teachers, there’s just still skepticism, right? How do you overcome that?
Jim: Well, there’s a lot of reasons people don’t like that. Prediction and retrieval actually worked very well together because prediction is something at the beginning of the learning journey and retrieval then is something that you would be able to do after with your learner. I also will talk about this particular phenomenon also with faculty and there’s definitely pushback about it because I think that the goal, sometimes people think, ‘well, I’ve got this information, I’ve gotta get to the learner, and my goal is to focus on how do I get in front of that,’ but we really know that if I just come to you right now and say here’s some new information or a near a new theory or a new model, the first thing you’re gonna do is try to figure out how does it fit with the stuff I already know. You’ll try to cram the thing I’m giving to you into your existing mental models. Because as all humans, we’re kind of lazy. If there’s an easy way to just learn something and get it into our brains and use it, we’ll take that route.
So if I come to you with something that’s gonna really change your thinking, there’s resistance. And we all have that. It’s not just students, it’s not employees, whatever it might be. That’s part of the human brain. It looks for ways to save energy. And so that’s kind of the problem is people wanna just think, ‘no, I need to give this information.’ Well, the information is not actually gonna really change people’s thinking, unless you figure out first what they’re already thinking. And then you can actually tailor the presentation of that information to that person’s brain instead of just sort of having a kind of generic presentation of the information.
Some people are gonna be like, ‘okay, yeah, sure, I get that,’ other people are like, ‘no, I don’t believe that.’ No matter how many times you show it to me and other people, people can have all kinds of different reactions. So we have to try to figure out what the learner already knows first and prediction is the way to get to that. Invite them and say, ‘okay, tell me, what would you think about this? How would you have solved this first, then I’ll tell you some strategies that could help you.’
Sam: Sure. I’m sure through your work and your travel and your experience, working with teachers, have a perspective on what makes a great teacher. And I think for many listeners here, they may be leaders in an HR role or if they’re a manager of a sales force and they’re trying to again, not just get people trained up, but continuously developing, which I think in today’s workforce is so critical. We never stop learning. So I share that as the backdrop, to the question of, what makes a great teacher?
Jim: I mean, if you think about what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to design learning environments for students or learners, employers, employees, whatever it might be. So to me, that’s what I’m trying to look at is how well are we designing those environments? If I think about my own experience as a student, right, I had teachers who had all kinds of different styles, right? Like you had the kind of really charismatic teachers, you had very low key teachers.
So what I try not to look at is like the kind of, for example, the presentation style of the teacher. I don’t want to make this a charisma contest, when we think about what makes a great teacher. So for me, it’s really about how much thought is going into the design of the experience.
You can do that using all kinds of different models, right? As again, like inquiry based learning and problem based learning and games and traditional lecturing, these things all could be done well, but you really have to think about the design of the experience. So to me, great teachers are people who are thinking about the experience that the learner’s gonna have, as opposed to just kind of saying, ‘I’ve got information, I want you to sort of run through the paces on this particular assessment,’ whatever it might be. It’s to continually think about, what’s the learner experiencing? What does the learner need right now? How can I provide encouragement for that person? That kind of thing. It’s me really thinking about people who have really thought about the needs of the learner, the experience of the learner, that kind of thing.
Sam: One of the things I wrote down from your book was, you said organizations have a mindset. Can you talk about that?
Jim: Yeah. I mean, so mindsets are instead of thinking about people, for example, in an organization that people have, we can think about mind mindsets as being fixed or growth oriented.
So a fixed mindset is one in which we believe that our talents and skills have been given to us at birth and this is kind of how smart we can be, how good we can be at something. Growth mindset believes that people can improve and that we can get better at things by practicing them. So it’s not like we just have this little block of talent that we have, and that’s far as we’re gonna go, but that people can really improve. And so an organization can really kind of embrace that idea and assume that a person who came into the organization had this level of talent, doesn’t mean they’re gonna stay at that spot, right? If they’re trained really well, exposed to new ideas, new situations, given the opportunity to let their creativity flourish, that person might rise to the top if we have that mindset.
I always talk to people about this. For me as a writer, I wanted to become a writer when I was in eighth grade. But the stuff I look back on now, when I was in high school, was terrible. I don’t think I had any special natural talent as a writer. Now I do think there are some people that are a little bit more gifted in that area than others, but at the same time, when I look at my career, now having written six or seven books at this point and hundreds of articles, that just happened because of practice and because I cared about it.
There were tens and thousands and thousands of pages which are buried into my old files and, so to me, it’s a powerful way to think about things. The other option is to think, ‘no I wasn’t given the talent to be a writer. I should do something else.’ And that’s really debilitating. So for both, I’ve heard people and as an organization, we wanna have that more growth oriented mindset.
Sam: And unfortunately, not everybody is lucky enough to have great teachers, right? Depending on where you are and what your opportunities are, you may not be exposed to an environment where teachers have a growth mindset or parents have a growth mindset or your peers or people around you. I guess, how do your recommendations in small teaching and things you’re seeing change, or what is even more important given different socioeconomic conditions of schools or students or classrooms? What do you think about that?
Jim: Well, I mean, on this particular issue, actually, I mean, there’s a whole bunch of things that are pushing fixed mindsets onto people. These tests that we do, like external testing that students encounter in school, which is kind of ranking them according to like these state or federal exams. People have this idea of your IQ, that you’re locked into that spot for your life.
I have five kids, two of them, the twins, the youngest ones have just finished the college application process. That’s another place in which it’s like, ‘no, you can apply to this school, but not this one because you’re not smart to do this one or the other one.’ Actually, even in writing, actually, I was just reading about this poet who was saying if you don’t have the fire in you and you weren’t born with it, you can’t be a writer. And I was just going, oh God, slapping my hand against my forehead. This is not what we wanna be telling people. There’s a lot of societal pressure actually to accept this idea of keeping us fixed in the places that we are now. So actually a lot of those things really have a major impact on students who are coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.
We have to just keep promoting the message, right? These messages not only to the students, but to the teachers, to recognize that, no, you have to recognize that even that student who is kind of in the back room of the room who is maybe misbehaving, there is potential there. Believe me, my wife is a teacher, sometimes you get really frustrated and that kid can cause problems 10 months of the year for you, but still, it’s possible that, if we can use the techniques, if we can offer some kind of encouragement and hope that that student might need it can make a difference and that they can start to grow in ways that we would never expect.
So the message actually has to go out not only to the students, which we should be doing that, we should always be saying to the students you’re capable of more, right, that’s why you’re here in school, we’re trying to get more out of you, but also to students to teachers and parents to recognize that the way you talk to your students or your children about school makes a difference. Don’t discourage them from going to subjects or trying to do this or that instead of saying, ‘you know what, give it a try, see what happens.’ So it’s just a message that we have to keep trying to promote everybody like the students, everybody involved in education. Students, parents, and teachers.
Sam: Again, I think what you just said is why it’s also so important for managers, C level executives, folks that are in hiring roles, today we just got out of this moment talking about labor challenges and companies finding workers and reskilling workers. I share that because I think having an awareness for the things you’re talking about, especially in small teaching and the challenges should better inform managers as to why this is so important for them to to consider when they build onboarding programs or they’re building continuous development structures.
I know I came out of the book with a handful of tools. I’m like, if I could sprinkle this on this process. whether it’s interleaving or spacing. If you were to give a manager a piece of advice, there’s someone out there that’s a first time manager thinking about how to onboard my new summer class. Any tips for that manager that’s trying to figure out how to teach their people?
Jim: Yeah. I mean, the first thing I would just say is that there really has been an explosion of research and resources about learning and about how we can help people from kindergarten students all the way through to employees and adults. There’s a lot of stuff available right now, there’s lots of books about learning that are accessible to people outside of education. So just get a basic familiarity with some of those kinds of things. It really would make a big difference and like spacing is a great example of that, right?
So one thing that we know is much better to space your learning out over a longer period of time than it is to cram everything into one learning session. That’s a clear implication for you, right? So if you’re onboarding your employees, don’t do the kind of one day everything gets thrown at you and then you’re off to start, you’re doing your job. It would be much better to do eight one hour sessions then to do that cram exposure. And that’s an easy thing to understand and explain to people and could be used to design an onboarding experience.
So exposure to like five of these ideas immediately will increase the level of the effectiveness of your training. Just a little bit of exposure to some of these ideas can make a big difference in terms of the design of a learning experience.
Sam: That’s great. And I’m sure you talked about that a little bit, and I know your other book Distracted on why students can’t focus. We need a whole another 30 minutes probably to wrap on that one. I’m excited to read that one.
Jim: Yeah. That’s I mean, the main thing there is to kind of think about the fact that no learning happens unless there’s tension first. So you might think about that as even before the point where we can start thinking how to expose the learner to new information, the design of that. You just have to get his attention. And you have to think about what gets in the way of attention. And again, too, I think there are very small things and practical things that you can do in learning experiences that will kind of benefit the learner.
Sam: Yep. That’s great, Jim, last question. Appreciate you taking the time. Last question for you. What’s your hope for the future of work?
Jim: Hmm. Well, that’s a really good question. So I try to think about one of the things I actually talk about at the end of one of the final chapters of Small Teaching is about the purposefulness of learning, for example.
And so how often students are sitting in courses in which they are learning something and thinking, ‘why do I care about this? Why do I need to know this?’ And one of the things that we know about learning is that students are more likely to engage in the learning process when they recognize that the thing they’re learning may serve a greater cause, because it’s what we call self transcendence, right. So that can be, do something just to benefit myself or to do something that helps other people. And so having work makes it very clear to employers and employees that the work they’re doing has the power to improve other people’s lives.
The more that we can do that, we can help make work more meaningful to people. And so I think that’s a thing that we can think about, and there’s actually some of this research that shows, for example, people who are working and do custodial work, for example, when they’re reminded of the fact that actually the work that you do helps keep people healthy and safe. Right? So being a janitor or a custodian actually is really important in terms of helping people working in safe and healthy environments.
So that’s what I would like to see more of companies do, and find good ways to help the employees understand that the work that you’re doing is really making a difference. So I guess that would be the thing that I know, that actually even watching my two older daughters who entered the workforce over the last few years, they’re looking for that, they’re looking for that meaning in their work. And so I think the more that we can do that kind of thing the more it will help people find meaning in their career.
Sam: That’s great, Jim. Thanks for taking time.
Jim: You bet. Thanks.
Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Education, Training, Learning, Retrieval Practice, Mindsets, Teaching
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