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Oh Boy, Here’s Another Study I Don’t Quite Get…


Perhaps my brain is “fried” by this time of the school year, but — hot on the heels of not really “getting” what one publicized study meant (see Help Me Understand The Significance Of This New Study That “Finds Sudden Insights Key to Learning Words”), The New York Times has written about another one with which I am having the same difficulty.

Brain Calisthenics for Abstract Ideas is the title of the article.

It seems to me to say that inductive learning — pushing students to identify patterns and rules from what they see — can be a more effective instructional strategy than deductive learning — giving students “rules” and having them apply those to examples. If that is an accurate understanding of the study the article discusses, I don’t really understand the big deal. Tons of studies and teachers, including me, already know this, and many people have already written about how to apply the brain’s desire to seek patterns to teaching and learning. I’ve written extensively about it in two of my books, Helping Students Motivate Themselves and English Language Learners: Teaching Strategies That Work. In both those books I document multiple studies backing-up its importance and effectiveness.

However, I freely admit I might be missing something here. If so, it won’t be the first time and certainly won’t be the last, either. Please let me know — either way — your interpretation of the study.

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Larry,

    I’m with you, but I have a consideration as to why this is “groundbreaking.”

    We have had more than a decade (nearly a k-12 generation) of students who have been hammered with test prep, deductive teaching methods to perform on a test. So, media see this as something new and (r)evolutionary.

    Inductive teaching is like setting up a joke, wherein the punchline is the point that makes the set up worth the time. Perhaps a better analogy might be better.

    I consider my class (grade 7 social studies) a process of putting together a jigsaw puzzle, where I poor out all the individual pieces in the first 3/4 of the year. I tell my students this upfront. They will see pieces each day that give clues to the big picture. Sometimes, if the student has sufficient background knowledge they can place the piece in the right spot. If they don’t have the background knowledge, they now know a little about what the piece represents.

    As the year progresses, and highly focused in the final 1/4, I remind them of the pieces they had to put aside earlier in the year, and now they can use.

    By the end of the year, nearly all the students have a complete picture of what used to be a bunch of puzzle pieces. Some still have a few pieces that they cannot locate or place in the right spot. They require experiences and opportunities, and classrooms are not usually conducive to providing this need. That’s when trips to community meetings, museums, hiking trails, and historic sites need to happen. This is when interviewing others, having guest speakers, and video/documentaries becomes powerful.

    If you gain the trust of the students and families (longevity helps in this regard) then you can keep the attention throughout the year, because the students will know there is a big payoff at the end…a sense of accomplishment, contribution, and learning.

  2. Hi Larry, I’m an educational psychologist and when I saw the same article, I thought “Well duh! Obvious alert, reet reet!”

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