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Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every Tuesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

Some of the most celebrated education reform efforts today serve to make instruction more difficult. Personalized learning, project-based learning, mastery-based learning – they all require more work of teachers and more work of students.

But several speakers at the LearnLaunch Across Boundaries conference on education technology and innovation, held last week in Boston, argued that these reforms are not simply trends that will come and go, but the evolution of an education system that, in the scope of human history, is still quite young.

Devin Vodicka, chief impact officer at AltSchool and a former superintendent of California’s Vista Unified School District, pointed out that the last transformation of the education system occurred during the industrial revolution. Education went from being localized – think one-room school houses – to mass produced. Flexibility decreased over what would be taught and when, but quality went up and access went up. The number of students graduating from high school skyrocketed in the years between 1900 and about 1970.

At that point, Vodicka said, graduation rates plateaued and the pace of improvement in this “new” education system slowed to a crawl. Time for the next transformation, Vodicka argued — from industrial to post-industrial; from mass production to mass personalization; more flexibility, higher quality.

“This is a very different model [of how we learn], but it’s so inconvenient we ignore it.”

There is, of course, a problem. The method of instruction most often employed in industrial-style classrooms, “direct instruction,” is a relatively easy lift. Teachers, who have all the information, stand at the front of the room and deliver content to students, who sit passively, absorbing as much as they can before the teacher moves on. Many teachers already do much more than this to teach increasingly diverse groups of students, but for argument’s sake, let’s call this the basic instructional model in an industrial-era classroom.

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Sanjay Sarma, vice president for Open Learning at MIT and a mechanical engineer, sees a fundamental assumption underlying this model: “The mind is a sheet of paper for a professor to write on.” But that’s the wrong way to think about education, he said. The right way, he argued, is to think of a human as a plant to which educators offer fertilizer and water and sunlight when it needs it, or wants it, most.

“This is a very different model,” Sarma said, “but it’s so inconvenient we ignore it.”

Sarma catalogued a number of lessons for learning during his keynote address at the Across Boundaries conference. Virtually none of them fit neatly into what has been the “traditional” school day.

For example, cognitive load theory posits that working memory is limited. Students who hear new information store it first in working memory, but this is short-term memory, and all short-term memories will be forgotten. There’s no way around it. The key, according to Sarma, is reinforcing that information and getting it into long-term memory, where it will last. Students can only focus on new information for eight to 14 minutes before their minds start to wander, Sarma said, so the best method of instruction is to offer such new information in bite-sized chunks.

But lectures are easier.

Another characteristic of memory: information is stored in memories created by a chemical connection between neurons in the brain, Sarma said. Over time, that chemical dries up and the memory disappears. But if reminded of that information before the original memory disappears, the brain creates a new connection and one that is long-term. The best way to retain knowledge, according to memory research, is to learn about it once, wait until you’re about to forget it, and then learn it again.

But there’s often no time for this backtracking in classrooms.

Also in contrast to standard scheduling patterns in schools is the idea of interleaved learning. Sarma said the brain looks for contrast. Learning one thing and then jumping to another topic and back again is helpful for long-term retention, he said.

But most textbooks – and teachers – bundle all the information on a given topic into a single unit, teach it and then move on.

Sarma sees the future of learning as blended, individuated, fluid and hands-on. Learning science supports his vision. The question is whether schools can be reorganized to do the same.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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