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Harry Potter and the Magic of Learning Science

By Kip Glazer
 | May 25, 2016

ThinkstockPhotos-77888472_x300On the Advanced Placement (AP) English literature test, one question allows the test taker to choose a novel or play of literary merit and respond to the prompt, using the selected text as the support material. When helping my students, I told them they should never use texts such as Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. Why not? Because such books use magic to solve human problems, and magic is not available to mere mortals.

For teachers who are unfamiliar, learning science sometimes seems like magic beyond the resources of mere mortal teachers. Just as the characters in the classics have to deal with real-life problems, mere mortal teachers struggle to deal with human problems that real students have such as poverty, lack of technology, and zero Wi-Fi access. Learning scientists seem to be outside of the struggle and are like wizards practicing magic with brand potions like advanced computing technologies and spells using academic jargon in enchanted faraway places with uninterrupted Wi-Fi connection known as colleges and universities.

I remember learning about the educational theories of B.F. Skinner, John Dewey, and even Lev Vygotsky as a first-year teacher candidate. I remember discussing with my future colleagues, who often thought it was a waste of time for all of us to read the theories. Now, after having taught high school English for more than a decade in a school district where the majority of students receive Title I federal funding, I believe a little bit of a true and practical magical ingredient known as “learning science” might just be what teachers truly need to understand the pedagogy behind our practices. When I say magic, I don’t mean the hocus-pocus variety that will fix all problems for teachers—I mean the magic that all of us can bring to the classroom to make learning impactful and powerful, by understanding what makes our practical strategies effective.

For example, Harry Potter learned to use the power of magic and became a hero through his unwavering grit, a concept which Angela Lee Duckworth, Christopher Peterson, Michael D. Matthews, and Dennis R. Kelly described in “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals.” In addition to his deep friendship with Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, Harry received help from more knowledgeable others including his professors as he worked to overcome obstacles, and his countless hours of magic training was created by his professors’ understanding of zone of proximal development, not unlike what Vygotsky wrote in Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes.

In my own classroom, I began requiring my students to write daily reflections after learning about the importance of metacognition and its impact on academic writing skills development that Arthur N. Applebee wrote about with Judith A. Langer and on his own, as did John H. Flavell.

Of course, Harry encountered false or pseudo magic, as teachers are sometimes led astray. Take learning styles, for example. Many educators have been told learners have different learning styles, and our job is to differentiate our instruction to target these learning styles when teaching. Despite numerous and strenuous repudiation by respected learning scientists (as seen in this video created by Smithsonian Science Education Center and in this article by Olivia Goldhill for Quartz), teachers are still being told that we must adapt our lessons on the basis of false information.

Where is Professor Snape when we need him to set everyone straight?

I am sure that in a learning science course for teachers, he would tell teachers to learn about the Universal Design for Learning framework and ditch learning styles forever!

If you are a teacher, you might wish for that one book of spells that would teach us to become true wizards of teaching. The truth is that we simply don’t have it. As a matter of fact, we have too many resources that promise a quick solution to all educational ills.  And many such books do not provide the necessary information based on strong learning sciences principles. So how will we know the truth? Remember Harry? Despite being born a wizard, Harry needed to attend a school to hone his magical abilities. Teachers need similar support from reputable learning scientists. There are also a few books that teachers should read. One such book is How People Learn (downloadable for free here) that provides basic learning science information to anyone interested in learning, which should be the focus of good teaching.

Learning is a complex endeavor. All of us in learning and education need to be mindful of real human issues that teachers face, so that all teachers have the right type of support. By working together, we can create magic more powerful than Harry could ever achieve!

Kip Glazer is a native of Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the United States in 1993 as a college student. She holds California Single Subject Teaching Credentials in Social Studies, English, Health, Foundational Mathematics, and School Administration. In 2014, she was named the Kern County Teacher of the Year. She earned her doctorate of education in learning technologies at Pepperdine University in October 2015. She has presented and keynoted at many state and national conferences on game-based learning and educational technologies. She has also consulted for Center for Innovative Research in Cyberlearning and the Kennedy Center ArtsEdge Program.

 

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