Obvious though it may seem, we have a long way to go before we can say that our theories about learning and teaching are grounded in any kind of empirical science. Currently predominating much of our academic pursuits are a mishmash of "tried-and-true" methods that have been passed down over the years, loosely held together with anecdotal evidence and folk-scientific theories.
Now, that's not to say that all of that is necessarily wrong, but if we're going to make a statement about the best way to teach others, let's try and be thorough and meticulous in making sure that it actually works.
Such was the topic of an article that recently appeared in the New York Times. In it, the authors cite a growing body of research that may lie counter to what has traditionally been held as good study habits. Certainly, a lot of it provides solid evidence for things we already know (like breaking your studies up into shorter, more frequent sessions is more helpful than cramming), but there were a few curveballs in there as well.
One in particular that I found interesting was the context and manner in which people study. A long-held tenet of good study habits is that you need a quiet, isolated location to get your work done so that you can concentrate fully on the task at hand.
Interestingly, researchers have found that the opposite may be true. While concentration is certainly necessary to study well, learning information in a variety of contexts with various kinds of external stimulation might be a better way to learn. This is likely due to the fact that your brain naturally associates all kinds of daily experiences with one another, and by pairing information with a number of different settings, you are increasing its presence in the memory of your day to day life.
Another new method comes in the form of breaking up the topics that you study in one period. While many scholars have stressed that learning is best accomplished through total immersion in a subject, research suggests that switching between different (but somewhat related) subjects leads to greater overall recall and performance.
While such tidbits of knowledge don't necessarily call for a total restructuring of our educational system, I think that it's very important that educational policymakers and teachers pay close attention to what science is able to come up with when it comes to teaching others. It may not have the wisdom of centuries being passed down through the generations, but it's just as important.