Video interview: On learning


While at the Reimagine Education conference in Philadelphia on Dec 4 and 5, I had the opportunity to engage with a conference leader to discuss education and learning.

You can watch the 3:25 video here.


Radio interview: Innovation in education with Wharton Radio


While at the Reimagine Education conference in Philadelphia on Dec 4 and 5, I had the opportunity to sit with Wharton Radio’s Dan Loney to discuss innovation in education.

You can listen to the 14:20 conversation here.

Panel: What makes learning effective?


I had the honor of participating in two panel discussions at the Reimagine Education conference in Philadelphia on December 4 and 5. This panel’s central question: What makes learning effective? In preparing for the panel, I put together these notes.


  • Jeff Dieffenbach, lead staff director of the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative
  • Our mission is to fund, connect, and disseminate learning effectiveness research
  • Our scope is birth to pK-12, higher education, and workplace learning
  • (The research addresses learning effectiveness questions at the learner, instruction, and policy levels.)
  • (My background includes 10 years as a school board member and 15 years in educational publishing strategy, sales, marketing, and product management.)

Lots of things make learning effective

  • We frame those things in terms of a learner-instruction-policy “triangle”
    • Learner: prior knowledge, motivation, interest, physiological readiness
    • Instruction: content, delivery, assessment
    • Policy: law, access, funding, management, measurement

We know things about attention span, spacing and interleaving, value of expressive vs. receptive, learning with peers, and much more.

Echoing a question from the Jack Lynch session Monday morning, while there’s an incredible amount that we don’t know about what makes for effective learning, there’s a lot that we DO know but don’t apply.

What we know about learning

Learning revolves around the movement of information from sensory receptors to short term memory to long term memory back to short term memory and out to our various ways of expressing ourselves.

What do we know?

  • We forget things … and we can minimize that forgetting by taking advantage of reinforcement over time
  • Long blocks of monolithic learning don’t work … so we can shorten the blocks and interleave subjects
  • Pre-testing improves outcomes
  • Interspersed testing/retrieval learning improves outcomes
  • Peer learning improves outcomes
  • Worked examples improve outcomes
  • Grit is real and improves outcomes
  • Growth mindset is real and improves outcomes
  • Preferred “learning styles” (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) don’t translate to better outcomes

The reading blip


Our eyesight has evolved over time. Same for our hearing. And our other senses. But a skill like reading? Natural selection simply hasn’t had enough time to do its work.

According to estimates compiled by Bruce L. Gary in his book “Genetic Enslavement,” only 5% of the global population was literate 500 years ago. The rate hit 10% in 1650, 20% in 1750, 50% in 1850, and currently sits at a 60% plateau first reached in 1900.

What will it take to jolt the system and restore the climb toward 100%? My bet is nothing.

In fact, I’ll double down and bet that a hundred years from now, fewer people … perhaps substantially fewer … will be reading in any sense that we currently associate with the term.

I won’t be surprised if reading eventually takes its place alongside arts like calligraphy as a practice of hobbyists but not a path to learning. As a means of receiving information, reading will give way to high speed video, immersive VR simulation, skill-on-a-pill, direct neural implant, or mechanisms we can’t yet imagine.

Don’t get me wrong–I love to read and have spend a considerable portion of my professional career helping educators help children learn to read. If I’m right and around long enough to see the decline, I’ll shed a tear.

But if you want to know what I think about the development, don’t come back here expecting an update. Instead, just tune your neuroport’s ultrabluefli scanner to //dieffenblog{history>arcane>reading}//.

Elements of effective learning


Multiple conditions contribute to successful learning. Intuition alone is insufficient to guide the understanding of these conditions—they must be backed by evidence. A key element of the mission of the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili) is to develop, collect, and share this evidence to improve learning.

“Making learning more effective” is too broad a challenge. To make the collection of evidence practical, MITili frames learning at three levels as shown in the illustration above: learner, instruction, and policy. Each of these levels can be broken down further to suggest research questions that can be asked and answered—the breakdown is not so much definitive as it is directional.

The learner, the instruction, the policy

The more that the learner, the instruction, and the policy are each set up to succeed, the more likely it is that learning will be effective.

learner1. The learner


If a learner has the right prior knowledge, motivation, interest, and physiological readiness, he or she will be in a good position to learn.

  • Prior knowledge
  • Motivation
    • Motivation as used here reflects external reasons for learning—to earn a credential, receive a promotion, or otherwise further a career. The topic might not interest the learner, but it could still be motivating.
  • Interest
    • Interest as used here regards internal reasons. There may be no external professional value to the topic, but it might still be intrinsically interesting.
  • Physiological readiness
    • The learner needs to be well-rested, well-fed, otherwise in good physical shape, and as important, in a good mental state that includes such traits as grit and growth mindset.

Having the right learner conditions in place isn’t sufficient for effective learning, however. Instruction must be right as well.

instruction2. The instruction

If the instruction has the right content, delivery, and assessment, the odds of effective learning improve.

  • Content
    • Content includes the breadth, depth, and accuracy of the subject matter and the production value with which the subject matter is configured.
  • Delivery
    • Delivery variables include human vs. digital, synchronous vs. asynchronous, duration of learning, user-requested vs. pushed-to-user, and device through which the learning is consumed.
  • Assessment
    • Assessment has to do with the frequency and depth with which the learner is assessed and the formative manner in which the responses are used to guide the next piece of content and delivery.

Having the right learner and instruction conditions in place also isn’t sufficient for effective learning. Policy must be right as well.

policy3. The policy

If the policy has the right law, access, funding, leadership, and measurement, the prospects for effective learning are better still.

  • Law
    • Laws and regulations must be conducive to learning.
  • Access
    • Learners must have access to learning. This isn’t access via funding, but rather, access via circumstance. For instance, a K-12 student who is prohibited from going to a better school by virtue of geography/school/district boundaries might have an access problem.
  • Funding
    • Funds have to be available to pay for the learning experience. These funds may be provided by the learner or the provider of instruction.
  • Leadership
    • Leaders of those providing instruction must have a philosophy conducive to/supportive of learning.
  • Measurement
    • Measurement as used here is different from the formative level of assessment guiding the learner’s next instruction. Rather, it addresses the summative level of what learners come to know, how their behaviors change, and what organizational improvements those behavior changes drive.

This working paper outlines a framework—one that’s a work in progress—with which to think about specific research questions that can be asked and answered to improve learning effectiveness.

For instance:

Q: What impact does prior learning have?
Q: How can motivation be increased?
Q: What’s the role of better content?
Q: What’s the right duration for learning?
Q: How much funding is needed?
Q: What influence does leadership’s embrace of learning have?