I should have paid more attention. Last fall, a joint study on learning math was released by the University of California at Irvine (UCI) and Penn State University.
The goal of the study was to find out if some of the new, innovative math teaching techniques were really more effective. The study focused on classes with a lot of math-challenged students, because the teachers of these classes tend to use more manipulatives, music, movement and other innovations thought to help students visualize and internalize math.
The outcome of these teaching techniques: Fail. These things did not improve students' proficiency in math at any level.
It turns out that good old fashioned practice, drilling, worksheets and problems on the board are much more effective. The authors of the UCI/PENN study suggested that simply doing the math problems until they become as natural as walking frees the mind to think about higher concepts, or to simply make better decisions about which formula to use.
Environmental Studies: A lesson not learned
At the time this study came out, I was beginning my Environmental Studies class. (Think "Environmental Science light" with a heavy dose of Common Core).
I tried to incorporate hands-on activities at least once a week, with lots of class discussions and simulations. I didn't put much emphasis on vocabulary, math, etc. I just introduced this stuff at the beginning of each unit and made sure it was "baked in" the lessons.
Six months later, I see my results were similar to those of the math teachers.
In early March I began drilling vocabulary on a daily basis. I made students go through important processes again and again in multiple ways and forms.
It seems many of my students have learned more in the past month than they did in the previous five.
Science Tutors: A lesson learned
The implications are obvious and hopeful for tutors and for the future of education.
It all boils down to simple neuroplasticity. As you repeat a skill, the synapses become stronger and you can perform the skill more quickly and accurately in the future.
Tutors are usually hired to "help" the student, which means to tell him the answer when he can't figure it out himself. But a real tutor will do something much better. She'll talk the student through the process of finding the answer. Then make him do it again, with a different but similar problem.
Good tutors, whether science tutors or anything else, will help the student practice and drill the basics. Good teachers should learn to do this, too.
The best teachers already have been doing so for generations.