Dr. Kimberly Berens grew up around psychology as her father was a psychiatrist. Her mother was a biologist, so she was also very interested in the natural sciences. She recalls that family dinner time conversations were always interesting as they talked about various mental health issues, general psychology, and human behavior and development. As a result, Dr. Berens originally planned on majoring in biology and minoring in psychology when she started her undergraduate career at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. Although her introduction to psychology class was unique in that each section of it was taught by a professor known in that area of psychology, she was somewhat unimpressed as she “didn’t see a lot of science involved in those sections.” However, that all changed when Dr. Maria Ruiz, her first mentor, walked into the classroom. Dr. Berens shares that Dr. Ruiz was “teaching the section on behavior science and that day changed my life forever because it was at that moment that I discovered that actually there is a natural science of human behavior, and that is what behavior science is.” She ended up switching her major from biology to psychology and Dr. Ruiz remained her mentor through her time at Rollins and beyond.
Dr. Berens shares her academic and professional journey in this podcast and reveals how she applied her degrees in psychology and behavioral science to co-create a powerful system of instruction based on behavioral science and the technology of teaching, which has transformed the learning abilities of thousands of students worldwide. As a doctoral student at the University of Nevada, Reno, Dr. Berens founded Fit Learning in a broom closet on campus and has expanded her business to more than 31 locations worldwide with 3 to 5 new locations opening each year. For more than 20 years, her system of instruction has produced one year’s worth of academic growth in only 40 hours of training.
In addition to Dr. Maria Ruiz, Dr. Berens discusses how other mentors have helped influence and shape her knowledge, career, and passion for helping improve the education and quality of life for students. She discusses, among others, Dr. Elbert (Eb) Blakely, Dr. Ogden Lindsley, and Dr. Seven C. Hayes who also appeared as a guest of the Master’s in Psychology Podcast in November, 2022. She explains that she received her theoretical basic science mentor in Maria and her clinical and applied mentor in Eb. Steven was another one of her mentors while in undergraduate school and she recalls, “I knew that I had found what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”
Dr. Berens explains why she attended the University of Nevada for her doctorate in behavioral sciences and provides advice to those who are interested in the field of psychology or behavioral sciences. She recommends that you find a mentor who you look up to and who is doing research in the area of study you are interested in so that you can learn from them. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself and say, “I’m looking for a mentor” or “I’m looking for someone to guide me through the process of potentially exploring doctoral training or masters training in the field.” You may be surprised to learn how many faculty members are overjoyed when a student seeks them out for help and asks them to be their mentor.
Dr. Berens also discusses her newest book, Blind Spots: Why Students Fail and the Science That Can Save Them. Close to 70% of kids are now below proficiency in all academic subjects in America and this increases to more than 80% for students of color and those living in poverty. Dr. Berens explains “the reason is because science isn’t used in instruction and teachers aren’t trained in science and education is actually an ideological institution, not a pragmatic or scientific one.” We discuss the fact that most teachers are not taught how to effectively teach. We have all had that teacher or professor who obviously knew their subject but didn’t know how to teach it to their students. Dr. Beren’s states, “one of the greatest misunderstandings is that a subject matter expert will naturally be able to teach that subject, and if a student can’t learn from a subject matter expert, then that means something’s wrong with the student because there couldn’t possibly be something wrong with the subject matter expert because they’re so brilliant at their subject matter.”
Dr. Berens believes education is more important than ever right now and it is time for our educational system to evolve. Blind Spots is a book that every parent, teacher, and policymaker should read as it explains the dismal situation the American education system is in but also provides hope and a system of instruction based on learning, behavioral, and cognitive sciences that markedly improves how students understand and achieve when science is at the heart of instruction. She believes “when you’re not training teachers to be more effective, when you’re not actually bringing science into the design of instruction, nothing is going to change.” She points out that “just because kids fail academically doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with their brains. It doesn’t mean they have a learning disability. It doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with them. That means that there’s actually something wrong with the way they’re being instructed. There’s actually something wrong with the way schools are designed and teachers are trained, but that’s a difficult thing to get people to understand and not do it in a way that offends people and makes people defensive.”
When asked what she loves most about her job, Dr. Berens response was “the best thing about my job is changing a kid’s life. You know, you have a kid who’s coming in and has been told they’ll never learn to read. Has been told that they have something wrong with them.” She further explains “And having an opportunity to actually produce an unbelievable level of mastery and competency with that learner very quickly in an area that they were told they’d never master. That is life changing, and it’s not just life changing for the kid. It’s life changing for the team who gets to have the power to do that for that kid and it’s life changing for the whole family. So, my, you know, the best part of my job is transforming kids’ lives. That’s it. Period.”
Interests and Specializations
Dr. Berens applies behavior science to rapidly accelerate academic and cognitive skills with kids and adults. She specializes in applying natural science to instruction and to the education of students. She co-created a system of instruction based on behavioral science and the technology of teaching, which has proven to produce one year’s worth of academic growth in only 40 hours of training.
Bachelor of Arts (BA), Psychology (1996); Rollins College, Winter Park, FL.
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Behavioral Sciences (2005); University of Nevada, Reno, Reno, NV.
Other Sources and Links of Interest
Welcome to the Master’s in Psychology Podcast, where psychology students can learn from psychologists, educators, and practitioners to better understand what they do, how they got there, and hear the advice they have for those interested in getting a graduate degree in psychology. I’m your host Brad Schumacher, and today we welcome Dr. Kimberly Nix Berens to the show. Dr. Berens is a scientist-educator, Founder of Fit Learning, and author of Blind Spots: Why Students Fail and the Science That Can Save Them. She co-created a powerful system of instruction based on behavioral science and the technology of teaching. Dr. Berens has expanded her business by establishing a formal certification and licensure program to the point where Fit Learning now has 31 locations worldwide, with 3 to 5 new locations every year. Today, we will learn more about her academic and professional journey, more about Fit Learning, and hear her advice to those interested in following a similar career path. Dr Berens, welcome to our podcast.
Hi, thanks for having me.
Well, thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to talk with us. As you are aware, we kind of go through your academic and professional journey and I see, first off, that you received your bachelor’s degree in psychology from Rollins, Collins Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. Based on my research, it appears that those years at Rollins were very instrumental, as you found a couple of important mentors. Can you share with us your journey and background in the field of psychology and education that led you to your career path?
Yes, well, you know, I grew up around psychology because my father was a psychiatrist, so we always would have, you know, our dinner time conversations were always pretty interesting, you know, talking about various mental health issues and just general psychological, you know, questions I had about human behavior and so I, you know, I kind of grew up interested in in human behavior, to be quite honest. But my mother was a biologist, so I was also very interested in the natural sciences. So, when I ended up at Rollins College, which is a really small liberal arts College in Florida, I was actually planning on majoring in biology and minoring in psych. And then you know, I started taking my first intro to psychology course and I have to say, you know, the intro to psych course at Rollins was broken into sections. And so, each professor that specialized in that area of psychology taught that section. And so, you know, we went through the normal personality and neurosis, you know, neuropsychology and, you know, we went through some of those sections. And I have to say, I was a little, you know, unimpressed because a lot of it seems like theories and opinions and, you know, I didn’t see a lot of science involved in those sections. And then I’ll never forget the day that Maria Ruiz, was my first mentor, walked in the class and she was teaching the section on behavior science and that day changed my life forever because it was at that moment that I discovered that actually there is a natural science of human behavior, and that is what behavior science is. And so, although it’s psychological in nature, because we’re dealing with why human beings behave the way they do. It’s also, you know, natural science is applied to the understanding of it, which I, which really spoke to me. So, I actually ended up switching from bio to psych. And Maria became, you know, remained my mentor all through Rollins. And then I also started working in the fields, applying behavior science in my work with developmentally disabled adults in a residential treatment center in in Florida when I was a sophomore, I started doing that, and I acquired a mentor, his name was Eb Blakely, Dr. Blakely. And so, I had my kind of theoretical basic science mentor in Maria, and I had my clinical kind of applied mentor in Eb. That was it. I knew that I had found what I was going to do for the rest of my life.
Well, there you go. It’s a nice summary. And I did see that in the lot of your history as well. And Maria has passed on since then…
…But I’m sure you gained a lot from her and Eb as well. You then attended the University of Nevada, Reno for your doctorate in Behavioral Sciences, which I believe at the time and still is housed in the Department of Psychology. So, there are many schools in Nevada that offer graduate psychology and behavior science degrees. What led you to UNR?
Well, I will say that. You know when you’re dealing in an with an area of specialization like I am in, so you know, clinical psychology programs are vast, you know, they’re why they’re there, there are a lot of them. But I’ll tell you that behavior science and you’re showing Steven Hayes on the screen, who was one of my mentors in under, in undergraduate school as well. Behavior science is actually they’re less, you know, the programs are fewer and farther between. So, UNR is one of the top programs in behavior, behavior science or behavior analysis in the world. And I’ll, I’ll be honest, you know, when I was looking at, I looked at Temple University. I looked at the University of Kansas, you know, I was just looking at behavior, you know, opportunities for doctoral training in behavioral science and when I visited UNR, I will tell you that that program blew my mind because a lot of times you’ll be able to train in experimental behavior analysis. So basically you’re working with animals in a basic setting, or you’re doing organizational behavior management, or you’re working in the area of developmental disabilities or autism like so all the graduate programs that are kind of highly specialized, whereas you and our was the program that I found to be so vast in terms of the theoretical and philosophical work, the basic experimental work and the opportunities to do applied work. So it was, I felt that it was a broader breadth program for me, and I that was my first choice. So, after I went and interviewed a few doctoral programs, I knew I wanted UNR more than anything else. And so luckily that worked out. And I ended up being able to go there, which was pretty great.
I know a lot of our guests talk about the process involved related to searching for graduate schools and programs, so in hindsight, for you and your experience, would you do anything different in terms of that process and if so, please explain.
You know, I don’t think I would because again, I will tell you that I got lucky because I went to a small liberal arts school, 1500 students all together at Rollins. My and I was an honors in a major field, so I in psychology. So, when you’re in honors in a major field or in the honors program, it’s even smaller. You know, I had classes with, you know, 15 students in there, 20 students and Maria or another very high-level faculty. There weren’t teaching assistants. You know, I didn’t get. I didn’t have graduate students teaching my courses. I had faculty teaching my courses, and so I’ll tell you that because I had the opportunity to have a graduate level mentor, which is what Maria Ruiz really was to me as an undergrad that changed everything because I she really guided me around what program she thought would be best for me based on who I was as a student and what my interests had evolved to be under her mentorship. But I think that if you are not, if you are in a very big university. And you don’t have a mentor, let’s say a lot of your courses are taught by TA’s or graduate students and you haven’t had as much contact with faculty, I cannot recommend enough changing that somehow doing whatever you can to become, you know, develop a relationship with one of the faculty in your department to provide you that kind of guidance. And obviously I would, I would, I would work to connect with a faculty that’s an expert in the area that interests you most, obviously, you know, don’t just pick one at random. You know, if you’re interested in experimental, then by me, you know, by all means go and seek out the faculty who’s in the experimental psychology program or whatever it may be. Because you’d be surprised, even at large universities, how actually eager faculty are for students who take initiative like that. You know, students who actually wait outside your office and until you get back from whatever class you’re teaching and introduce themselves and say I I’m, I’m actually and being very frank, I’m looking for a mentor. I’m looking for someone to guide me through the process of potentially exploring doctoral training or masters training in the field. You know, you’ll be surprised how many faculty actually are overjoyed when that happens, even in very large research institutions. So, I that that I cannot emphasize enough is that a mentor at all levels of your career. I mean, I’m a 48-year-old and I’m you know kind of at the height of my career at this point in my life and I still have mentors. You know, I still have people that I turn to and for advice and to bounce things off of. That still happens, and I’m almost 50, so it doesn’t change, and it should start as an undergraduate. That’s when that should start for you.
I like your emphasis on mentors and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there because a lot of people think, Oh my gosh, these guys are so famous.
They’re giants in their field.
Who am I coming out of undergrad going into grad school? They’re not even going to give me the time of day, you know?
And so no, don’t underestimate yourself and feel free to approach them. I should mention. As I said, you received your undergraduate degree in psychology bachelor…was it a Bachelor of Arts or Science?
It was a Bachelor of, a BA, Bachelor of Arts in Psych.
OK. And then you have your PhD in behavioral sciences, and the reason that I want to pause here for a second is behavioral science is a lot of people are thinking, well, what is that? And behavioral science is basically is looking at the subject of human actions. It includes multiple fields. You already mentioned, a couple of them, cognitive neuroscience, psychology, and even economics and the behavioral aspects of biology, law, psychiatry, political science. All of those fall under that rubric or umbrella of behavioral science. And so, most of the time when we’re on this podcast, we talk about a specific branch of psychology.
But now we’re almost going up higher and doing kind of an overall umbrella. And so, at this point, when I usually ask my guest, hey, any advice for any aspiring students who are just starting their academic journey? One you already mentioned, don’t be afraid to ask and reach out to find mentors. Any other pieces of advice?
Right. Well, I think you know one thing I know that really helped me was understanding what you know, looking at things with through the lens of what your goals are, for example. So, for instance, if you know I discovered through working with a mentor, 2 mentors, that my goals are to are, you know, taking effective action to improve quality of life for human beings, particularly I do this in the area of mainstream education with children, so I apply behavior science to rapidly accelerate academic and cognitive skills with kids. So, I discovered quickly on that that was like my primary reinforcer, so to speak. Like I found that to be the most rewarding and fulfilling was when I was actually making a profound impact on a human being and changing their quality of life. And so, I knew that that was what my goal is. And so, in order for me to best accomplish that goal, I discovered that applying science to, and I’m talking natural science, to my work allowed me to be the most effective. So, I think that what, you know, if you’re it depends on what your goals are. Like you know what I would say is if you’re interested in, you know, in a in a more of a therapeutic relationship, if you know you’re interested in in having, you know, being a the type of psychologist actually sees clients in an office and does psychotherapy or something of that sort. I think it’s discovering like what, what is actually something that fulfills you and actually makes you feel that you’re doing something worthwhile for yourself because it’s a lot of hard work. I mean, you know, getting a doctoral degree or even a master’s degree is not easy. And so, you know, doing it, you should only be doing that if it’s really in service of something that you want to be doing in your life, not just cause you’re following a formula. So, I think it’s like, what are your goals and then trying to explore all the different branches of psychology and identifying which branch, you know, you feel would have you best accomplish those goals, and would allow you to be the most effective, which is what I feel that I did that. You know, that’s kind of what guided me down that path.
Well, thank you for summarizing that. The other thing to keep in mind and you know don’t be afraid to pause. I remember going through undergrad and graduate School and all these people are telling me you should do this.
You should do that. You should prep for this.
Don’t be afraid to pause and ask yourself. Is this what I want to do and because that will help dictate.
Well, and I think even more than I totally agree because I took a whole year off. So, I graduated from Rollins College in ‘96. And then I didn’t start my doctoral training until 1998, and so I took a year off and continued working in the field. So, I was doing applied behavior analysis at that time in a residential treatment Center for adults with autism. And then I started working in the area of I started to help start a preschool for children with autism. So I did a year of really important applied work and got a lot of experience and I think it’s really important to do that in whatever capacity you can to really determine if this is what you want to spend your career doing, you know, getting some applied experience, having to go right from undergrad into graduate training is actually not a rule, and it’s actually not that desirable to be quite honest. I mean, a lot of programs actually prefer a person who’s had who’s gotten experience in the field at some level, before they apply because it shows you’re serious, it shows that you’ve actually, you know, you’re familiar with what the field actually is. You’re familiar with what you’re going to have to be doing. So, I think taking a year off and getting experience in a field is very, very important.
And whether that experience is applied, whether it’s research, whether it’s whatever you’re doing, go in and show them, hey, I’ve done this, and I still want to continue down this path because they’re going to be investing all this money in you.
Right. Yes, right.
When you go on for your masters or your doctorate and they want to know that you’re going to hang in there and finish the program.
So, I in the introduction I introduced you as a scientist-educator and founder of Fit Learning and you have established yourself as an authority in the education field. So, tell us why you consider yourself a scientist-educator, and then tell us what inspired you to create Fit Learning.
Yes, well, so when I when I use the term scientist-educator, you know what that what that means is unfortunately oftentimes educators do not function as scientists. You know, teachers in in colleges of education are trained as scientists, and actually the College of Education is not is not a scientific institution. So what I mean by a scientist-educator is that I apply natural science to my work with human beings in in instruction. So, I apply. I basically apply natural science to instruction or and to the education of children. And so, what that means is I measure every single thing that a learner does with me in a session or my entire team, whoever’s working for me, we apply our scientific measurement system to every interaction we have with the learner. So, in behavior science and it’s in behavioral science, as you were saying with an “al” actually relates to that whole overarching all the things you mentioned before, but behavior science actually refers to the application of really Skinners operant psychology to understanding human behavior and learning. So that’s what I do. So, we measure behavior as rates of response, which is count per time or count per minute. And then we measure rate over time to get a measure of learning which we call celeration, which is basically a slope of a line that can get steeper or less steep depending on the environmental variables you might be manipulating with that individual. So, I apply that science to academic and cognitive instruction. So, I measure, for instance, if I’m teaching reading skills, I would, you know, evaluate a learner’s ability to identify phonic sounds, for instance, and I would measure those phonic sounds as rate of response. So, I would count. I’d start a timer and they would practice their phonic sounds and I would count correct and errors and then at the end of that timing period I would have a rate I would have for instance 40 correct and 5 errors and then those get put on a very specific tool called the standard acceleration chart that allows us to evaluate learning over time. And then I make systematic manipulations of the instructional environment in order to make those celerations steeper and make learning happen more quickly. So that is what I mean by a scientist-educator is that rather than, you know, we’ve taught a few concepts of fractions today. And now my lesson plan says I have to move on. So, I have to move on today. That’s not. That’s not a scientific enterprise. So, a scientific practice is got instruction is guided by the scientific process, which is what we do at Fit Learning and is what my whole career is really based on.
And I’m glad that you brought that up because you actually the technology of learning and teaching basically is you have transformed, and I’m reading directly from your website here, has transformed the learning abilities of thousands of children worldwide, including those who are struggling, average, gifted or learning disabled. For more than 20 years, your system has provided, you know I like this. I’m going to repeat this for more than 20 years, your system of instruction has produced one year’s worth of academic growth in only 40 hours of training, again one year’s of academic growth in only 40 hours of training. I bring that up because. If you think about that for a second, that’s very impactful and I was a teacher for a number of years. And quite honestly, when I started teaching at the university level, I thought to myself, “aren’t they going to teach me how to teach?”
Right, I love that you said that, yes.
I you know, you know that there are plenty of professors out there that know their field. They do the research, but being able to teach that is a different matter and vice versa. You know, you have great teachers who don’t really know the field and so talk to that for a second for us.
Yes, that is, I love that you brought that up. So you know, that’s one of the greatest misunderstandings is that a subject matter expert will naturally be able to teach that subject, and if a student can’t learn from a subject matter expert, then that means something’s wrong with the student because there couldn’t possibly be something wrong with the subject matter expert because they’re so brilliant at their subject matter. But the point you’ve just made is that there’s a profound difference between instruction and learning something to mastery, you know, those are two very different things. And so, you know, you may have a very brilliant physicist, but that physicist has no idea how to powerfully communicate concepts in physics or design the kinds of repeated reinforced practice opportunities required to master physics concepts to students. Like that, that that’s a, you know, a professor can stand in front of the classroom and lecture all day long, but that lecture may be profoundly ineffective, depending on what the component skill repertoire of those students are. If they don’t have the base knowledge they need to follow the lecture. If the lecture is confusing, if the lecture isn’t well organized, if the professor isn’t providing opportunities for the for the class to actively participate, and quickly and reliably answer questions. So, there’s so much that goes into effective instruction that, when guided by behavior, science makes instruction profoundly more effective. And that’s why a lot of traditional tutoring doesn’t work, because when you look at traditional tutoring, traditional tutoring typically involves subject matter tutor. So you might have a college student who’s a math major really great in math, but that doesn’t mean that college students can be able to effectively teach fractions to 5th grader, because those you know they that that college student may be really fluent at fractions but may have no understanding of how to break fractions down into component parts. How to effectively create strategies or rules that are easily teachable and to design practice opportunities which is, to be honest with you, the most important part of learning is repeated reinforced practice. To master your fluency, as we as we would talk about it in behavior science. So, it’s very different. Understanding something well and being able to teach that is, those are two very different things.
And you know, I think of doctors, lawyers, you.
You wouldn’t want a doctor to perform surgery on you unless they obviously knew what they were doing. But if they had an assistant, or they had somebody else they were teaching and mentoring.
If they can’t teach that to that other person, you know you have that roadblock there and so. Even the mentors with math, you gave that a good example of, you know, in math especially. And you’re one of the experts here. There’s so many different ways to teach a concept in math. Back in my day it was just this way. And nowadays there’s two or three or four different ways.
And so, as an effective teacher, and I’m going on my soapbox. Here, because I love teaching, you have to find out what your student is understanding and what they what drives them, and then find out which way of teaching is going to best be effective with that student as well. And so I’m going to share my screen here, and I’m going to share your website first and then I’ll go into the Fit website, Fit Learning website and while I do that I know that you started Fit Learning some time ago, over 20 years ago, and so tell us some of the biggest challenges associated with founding or starting Fit Learning and how did you overcome them?
Well, so you know I started Fit Learning as a graduate student actually in 1998, which is kind of crazy when I say that out loud because it’s now 2023.
So, when I actually began my doctoral training at the University of Nevada, I was recruited there to run the autism project because I had, you know, gotten a lot of experience in the area of developmental disabilities and autism. And so, I was offered a position in the doctoral program and inside of that position, I was offered a stipend in, as the director of the autism program. So that’s really where I, you know, started my career. But what I never could understand was why behavior science or behavior analysis was heavily was very prevalent when you’re, you know, dealing with children or human beings with profound disabilities, but it was nowhere to be found in mainstream education because, you know, behavior science is actually the science of learning. It’s the science of how the environment impacts how human beings learn and acquire skills, and so the fact that teachers aren’t trained this way and classrooms aren’t designed this way and schools aren’t designed this way always really surprised me. Like after I got very familiar with the field, so I, with two other graduate students, I had an interest in mainstream education. So, I actually just started volunteering my time. And we got a broom closet on campus, that’s what the university would give us, and we turned it into a session room when we started an after-school math tutoring program on campus where we were using behavior science to accelerate math skills. And because we do applied science with everything we do, because we measure everything we do and we do everything from a natural science framework, we really quickly figured stuff out and started producing pretty great outcomes. And so, we grew and grew and grew on campus and then eventually really outgrew the campus setting in 2003 and that’s when my husband and I kind of approached the university and said, look, this really should be a private company. There’s not enough support here, and they were on board, and we maintained a university affiliation, but we became a private entity off campus. And that was in 2003. So, I will say that the biggest challenges I’ve had is #1, you know, starting a business as a graduate student was difficult. You know, getting your doctoral degree is hard enough. But then becoming an entrepreneur at the same time was tricky, and I had a little baby. I was one of those dummies and I decided to have a kid.
Ha. So that was challenging. So, I wouldn’t sleep for a really long time. I’ll say that there was not a lot of sleeping, but beyond the just typical, you know, challenges of becoming an entrepreneur and having to take risks and having to invest in yourself and trust yourself and sell yourself and all those things that you have to do. I think one of the greatest challenges for me and our company in particular is the is the battle we’re fighting against the traditional educational system, the traditional ideology of education, which is very ingrained. It goes and that’s why I wrote my book. It goes back 100 years. And it’s it is why education is so profoundly ineffective in the United States. I mean, we’re now close to more than six. I mean, we’re close to 70% of kids now below proficiency in all academic subjects in America, and there’s a very clear reason why that is and the reason is because science isn’t used in instruction and teachers aren’t trained in science and education is actually an ideological institution, not a pragmatic or scientific one. And so, we have been in a constant kind of uphill battle or, you know, a marathon trying to shift the perspective about how learning actually works. Like, you know, learning doesn’t happen via osmosis. You know, just because you’re blabbing your mouth to a kid absolutely does not mean that they’re actually listening and learning from you. You know, mastery of skills requires lots of repeated reinforced practice of those skills. Kids can’t learn large, huge repertoires all at once. Those have to be broken down into pieces and gradually shaped up to the so there’s so many things that aren’t done correctly from a scientific perspective in education, and it’s hard to shift that. It’s it. It’s a very intractable institution. So, my biggest battle has been trying to communicate powerfully to the public about what, what learning actually is and how it actually occurs. And that, you know, just because kids fail academically doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with their brains. It doesn’t mean they have a learning disability. It doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with them. That means that there’s actually something wrong with the way they’re being instructed. There’s actually something wrong with the way schools are designed and teachers are trained, but that’s a difficult thing to get people to understand and not do it in a way that offends people and makes people defensive. So, I think my biggest battle has been trying to powerfully communicate with the public and then try to shift the way education goes, which is, that’s a big, that’s a big undertaking.
Well, you take a step back and I’m glad that you brought that up because my undergrad and grad is focused on communication and specifically interpersonal communication. If you look at the basics of communication, it is an interaction. Both people have a responsibility and so one of the things that I remember years and years ago when I was teaching is I came across some studies. And other studies since then that have reified and agreed with this is in the typical classroom situation, whether we’re virtual or in person, about half the people are actually listening to you. And of those of those half, another half are actually listening and understanding. So, at any given point in time during that interaction or that learning environment, only ¼ of the people are actually listening and understanding you. Now the savior there is maybe at the beginning you captured this quarter of the people and then the middle you capture another quarter and then at the end you capture another quarter, but that sticks in my mind that you have to have that responsibility on both and to your point, it’s not the learners sole responsibility, or they’re not at fault if they’re not learning, it’s partly and mostly the person who is actually teaching them.
And so, I’m glad that you brought that up.
You mentioned about mainstream education system. You talked about the challenge that you have and I you know, is there anything else that you can speak to in terms of the current state of the US education system, it’s almost I had a question ready for you saying, hey, are there any areas that have shown significant improvement over the last five or ten years? And I think you’re going to shake your head and say just the opposite, it’s been going down.
Yes, sadly it’s the opposite. So, if you look at so in, you know in my book these data are there, but they’re also on my website. So, if you go back to the early 1970s, when the National Assessment of Academic Progress was first, like being administered to the United States to United States students, so that’s back in like, I think the first assessment was 1971. If you look back at longitudinal data, there have been very insignificant improvements in reading and math over all those decades with like tiny, small gains that then typically get lost, which is what has just happened again after COVID so. You know, we had some reading. We had some, some slight reading and math gains, I would say in the mid-2000s, not statistically significant to be quite frank and it didn’t represent a large you know, didn’t represent ever a majority of kids at the proficient level it it’s never represented that. But there was some slight gains for certain groups. But that’s all been lost since COVID, and now we’re basically kind of back to where we always have been, you know, with the majority of kids below proficient levels across the board on every academic subject. And so, you know, unfortunately no there. That’s because and I write about this in my book that a majority of you know the amount of money and effort that have has been spent over the years on educational reform in this country, it’s devastating because there’s been lots of money and lots of effort and lots of initiatives and it’s not like people don’t, aren’t interested in trying to help and change things, but the problem is those initiatives always occur in what I call top down kind of strategies, meaning you’re starting kind of the top of the problem, so it’s always about funding or allocation of resources rather than starting at the bottom of the source of the problem, which is how teaching goes. So, you know when you’re not improving teaching practices, when you’re not training teachers to be more effective, when you’re not actually bringing science into the design of instruction, nothing is going to change. It’s because it’s the same. It’s the same methodology. It’s the same ineffective, you know, it’s the same non science guided practices. And even if you no matter how much money you throw at that stuff, it that’s not going to improve it because it’s not. It’s not how learning works. So, until you design an instruction according to how learning actually works as a scientific process, until you design schools according to how learning works as a scientific process, nothing is going to improve. And so that means you have to shift the ideology of the educational establishment and as we know, in terms of politics and other areas of our country that are ideologically based. It’s very hard to change people’s belief systems and so when you’re trying to change belief systems, people really cling very, very strongly to belief systems like that’s what you know, whenever you kind of see dogmatic behavior or resistance to even accepting something as evidence that’s typically coming from an ideological position rather than people who come from a scientific perspective are always adopting and shifting and evolving based on the evidence that’s come to light. And you know, there’s always new evidence, things, new things are always being discovered, which requires us to shift, which is what happens in science, which is why there have been such unbelievable advances in medicine, technology, agriculture, engineering, but not in education. And there’s a reason for that. It’s because it’s not a. It’s not guided as it’s not. It doesn’t exist as a scientific institution. It exists as an ideological one. Means it can’t evolve. You know evolution comes from science and. So, until that happens, we’re not going to see any kinds of sustained improvements in academic outcomes, which is, you know, not a good thing because we’re in a dire need for people who know how to solve some really important problems that we’re all facing as a human species on this planet.
Education is more important than ever right now.
Yeah, definitely. And I was sharing your screen on your website, you have the education crisis, National Statistics, and now I switch to the international and while I’m scrolling through this, it shows how ineffective we are. Look at the United States here.
Yes, you know it’s four or five.
Compared to some of these other people. Yeah, it. And it’s it. We kind of knew that. But you know it’s more than just saying, OK, well, then let’s work harder. No, you have to work smarter, and you have to know how to teach in order to make any difference here. And so, we’ll of course, yeah.
Well, and what’s it? Yeah, exactly.
And so, what I was going to say is we’ll of course share this information and the links when we go live with the podcast. But it’s. I like seeing these statistics. And I don’t think your goal is ohh United States sucks. I think it. Yeah, your goal is we need to make some changes here because we continue to go downhill. We used to be so high on all of these compared to, you know, not only nationally, but internationally as well. And we continue to go down based on everything that I’ve been seeing, and I like the fact that you’re taking a scientific approach and that might speak to why your business has grown so much and you have places I just saw a Canada location for Fit Learning as well as some other locations. So, speak to us a little bit about if somebody wanted to follow in your footsteps or you know, they heard this podcast or saw this video podcast and said, hey, that’s right up my alley. I’d love to open up a Fit Learning in this area, so tell us a little bit more about how you were able to expand so quickly and continue to expand.
Right. So, we apply science to every level of the organization, and we’ve been doing that for 25 years. So, you know the first level of our application of science is in the in is in the instructional methodology that we use with kids, with students. And actually, we have adult learners as well, and college students, so they’re not all kids, but to all of our learners or students, we apply science to every aspect of instruction that they receive. But the next level that we apply science is, and actually the training and certification of our team, so people who actually do this work for us and actually you know, work with students applying the model to our, to our learners, we also apply science to their training and their certification. So, you know what I will say is unfortunately a lot of training that happens out in the world is also not guided by the science of learning. More often than not, this was my whole dissertation. My whole dissertation was a teacher training, a big research study in teacher training and how to promote efficiency and in structural repertoires with teachers. So, I this is, you know, I’ve got a lot of background in this, but I will tell you that a majority of training programs involve you know what we would call structural requirements. So, you know you have to go through a certain number of modules, and you have to achieve a certain you have to get through a certain amount of content and sometimes it’s based on hours. Sometimes it’s based on some type of measurable level of competency, but it’s usually just an accuracy measure. Maybe a percent correct. But it’s never based on a functional level of competency. And so, what we, at Fit Learning, we have a functional level of mastery for learners. And we have a functional level of mastery for people who, for instructors, for people who actually apply the model. And what I mean functional, I mean that it’s a level of mastery of a skill that actually produces a meaningful outcome for that person. So, for a learner or student it would be a functional master criteria would be retention or long-term memory like they don’t forget, the skill doesn’t degrade overtime without practice, it’s in long term memory forever. That’s a that’s a level of that’s a measure of mastery, or the ability to apply a skill in a novel or complex way. So, something that they’ve learned a component skill like phonic sounds, for instance, that they’ve acquired to mastery of 100 phonic sounds a minute. They can then effortlessly apply to coding unknown words that would be a measure of functional mastery. Another measure would be endurance or what we would, you know, resistance to distraction. So being able to sustain high levels of performance under distracting conditions, so that’s a level of functional mastery. So that’s what I mean by functional, and we apply the same mastery concept to how we certify people in our work. So for instance, if you’re becoming a certified learning coach, at Fit Learning, then you achieve a functional level of mastery in the instructional methodology, meaning that your behavior as a learning coach impacts the behavior of your learner in a profoundly meaningful way, which is why we’re able to move kids a year to two years in 40 hours of training because our team is trained to actually do that. Because we actually know, and we have a measurable level of mastery that we know is synonymous with producing that kind of an impact on a kid. And so, you’re not certified until you actually achieve that level of proficiency and you’ve impacted a kid at that in that way. So, it’s a functional level of mastery, so that’s how we’ve been able to scale and maintain the quality of our service provision is that we have applied science to our training and certification, and we apply science to our service model. So, we apply science across all levels of the organization. So to become involved and actually let’s say you want to open a location in an area we don’t have one, then you reach, you know you can send me an e-mail on my, my e-mail is available on my website or on the OR you can visit the Fit Learning website www.fitlearning.com and there’s a contact us, you know dropdown. And you know, that process starts as a vetting, you know, we’ll convert it initially starts as a conversation, you know, for us to understand who you are and what your interests are and if this is really something we think that you would be up to doing. I mean, I’ll tell you it’s not for the faint of heart. I mean, it’s a very challenging job, you know, because you’re not only having to become a really amazing behavior scientist. You’re having to become an entrepreneur. Because our affiliates, it’s your own business, but you once you become certified, you license our methodology, you license our products, and you are able to use our name. You can call yourself a Fit Learning, but that’s achieved after certification. So, you go through a vetting process and then you go through an extensive training and certification process and that’s how that goes. So, most of our affiliate directors have are in our professional field. They have found us because we’re, you know we’re constantly presenting at professional conferences or I’m on podcasts of this sort and people find us that way. So that’s actually how we’ve built the whole network is people listening to things like this, to be honest.
Well, that’s, that’s part of the reason why we’re talking to you. And so, I’m sharing your website. Again, fit learners.com and on the far upper right join the team. Join us, start a learning lab. You can find out a little bit more if you are interested. Just open up that conversation and reach out to Dr. Berens as well. The other thing I should ask is, you know, technology is changing so fast and so how do you ensure that Fit Learning keeps pace with the advancements in technology and adapts the changing needs of the students in the digital age.
Well, I will say COVID was amazing for us because we had been piloting a virtual model of instruction really since 2013 at in New York. So, I I’m I’ve run the this whole region in in the New York area, Connecticut, New York, Long Island and New Jersey. And we’ve been piloting because in this area it is very difficult to get anywhere. There’s a lot of traffic, there’s a lot of bridges. There’s not a lot of room, so parents were spending, you know, 45 minutes to an hour in, you know, each way in the car trying to get their kids to a physical location in our area. So, we started piloting a virtual model of instruction on Skype back in 2013, which is hilarious. So, these are our Greenwich, CT families who we wanted to see if they we could do a Skype instructional model and have them avoid crossing a bridge to get to New York City. That was effective, but I will say it wasn’t until COVID that we really had to revolutionize our virtual model of instruction, which we did. And so now we have a fully digital data collection process. Our, all of our learning charts, everything all our everything that the learner interacts with is, is digital and is all done either via iPads or a computer screen. We still have kids who come in to live, for live sessions at physical locations, but a majority of our kids are virtual enrollment, so they are attending fit learning sessions from their home. I mean, even in my tri-state team, I have people all over the place and I have coaches in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York City, Long Island. You know, I have coaches in Florida and they’re running sessions in from New York and all of the data collection is synchronized. All of the curriculum is synchronized. Everything is. It doesn’t matter where the location is. So that really. That really changed a lot of things for us and our outcome data on our virtual model is as powerful as our live, which is also kind of unheard of like our virtual model is as effective as our live model. So that’s one thing we’ve done is, is, is scale our model so that kids can actually access it from anywhere. But there, you know, we’ve been working on it on other technological applications of this for years, you know, incorporating artificial intelligence to create a learning experience that doesn’t require training of a tutor. I would say that we’re several years and a lot of millions of dollars away from actually having that be a reality. But we’re definitely in the R&D phase of that. We you know, we’ve done some work on a National Science Foundation grant for that with a, with a math application. So, there you know, because everything we do is measurable and quantifiable. It’s translatable to code and algorithms unlike any other educational experience, because it’s not subjective. It’s measured. So, it makes it very amenable to artificial intelligence and AI, I mean and I’m sorry tech so that’s a very exciting thing we’re working on.
Well, it’s also exciting that you are incorporating the newest technology, AI, and trying to go down that road and incorporate it into how you can help your learners become more efficient and more effective. I’m sharing a screen on your book, Blind Spots: Why Students Fail and the Science That Can Save Them. And usually, I have guests on with a newer book on, but this has been out since 2020 and back in October, but it’s still very relevant today versus back 3-4 years ago. So, tell us a little bit more about the book and why you wrote it.
So, I would say, you know, I wrote my book because I had reached a breaking point. You know, it was like I almost felt like I couldn’t have one more conversation with a mom or a dad on the phone in tears. You know why wondering why their child is failing so miserably in school and a majority of those parents been through the ringer of neuropsychological assessments and thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars on ineffective tutoring programs and then luck by, you know, by luck they find us. And they are, you know, their kid’s being destroyed, their family unit’s being destroyed, and it’s so common. And so, I realized that sure I can. I and I continue to have personal conversations with as many parents as I can, and we’ve scaled the model so that more people can have more conversations with parents and share the effectiveness of behavior science as applied to instruction. But I thought I just got to write a damn book so that I can talk to more people at once. So, I you know, the book was really a means for me to communicate powerfully, powerfully with the public about the blind spots that exist around how learning actually works, what the most critical variables to learning are, how teachers aren’t trained to understand or know how to design instruction according to those things, and how schools aren’t designed to be effective at all. And that that’s why kids fail, not because they have dyslexia or dyscalculia or auditory processing disorder, or something wrong with their brain. It’s because they actually haven’t mastered essential skills, and they’ve been pushed ahead anyway because they’re expected to learn via exposure rather than via repeated reinforced practice of essential skills to mastery. And there’s so many reasons. So, I wrote the book about what we know in behavior science about how to design effective instruction and what happens when you use it. How unbelievably profound the outcomes are. I put thousand, you know, outcome data with thousands of learners that I’ve achieved over the years that I’m not just blowing smoke. I mean, we have 25 years of evidence of this, not just me, but also, I’ve I put in a lot of other research studies in there about this. And we’re constantly ignored and marginalized by the educational establishment. And so, until the public gets angry and demands things to change, I don’t think things will. So, I wrote the book to empower parents to take action about demanding effective instruction in their classroom for their kids and to actually arm themselves against a lot of the garbage they’re fed. That you know, if your kids struggling to learn to read, that means there’s something wrong with your kids, ability to read rather than it’s something wrong with the way they’re being taught to read, which is actually what it usually is, you know, 90% of the time. So that’s why I wrote my book trying to educate the public.
Well, you know, I look back at the teachers that I had that were the most effective and this is what usually and you can chime in any time. But those teachers who knew their subject material and actually knew how to teach it, their classes filled up right away.
Oh, for sure.
Because the word the word got out. You’ve got to take Brad Schumacher’s class. You’ve got to take Dr. Beren’s class. You’ve gotta take whatever because they got so much out of it.
And then you wonder why these other ones aren’t even filling up. And that’s a key indicator that, hey, this person knows what they’re doing. They know how to teach it and it would be nice if they created a position at every university or school to do just this, to teach the teachers how to teach. What are your thoughts on that?
Yes. Ah, 100 percent 100%. So, another offering we have it Fit Learning is the scientist-educator training series. And so, the scientist-educator training series is less about opening a Fit Learning location and actually using our IP and that specific model to accelerate academic and cognitive skills with learners, the Scientist Educator Training Series is designed to train any type of practitioner or educator and how to how to use science and design of instruction. And so, this is applicable. We do this training for autism agencies. We do this training for speech pathology agencies for school psych agencies. We do this training for. This training is widely available for university faculty and programs. So that literally university faculty who might be, you know, the top of the game in physics but have no idea how to teach physics actually require a training in how to break concepts into smaller parts, how to design really well to, I mean easy to understand rules that are easy to deliver about their subject matter. How to design effective practice opportunities, how to ensure mastery has been achieved on those concepts. So, science, the Scientist Educator Workshop Series is constant agnostic. So, it’s not about reading or math or you know, the things we teach at Fit, it’s about using science to design instruction for any content area. It’s also really a very relevant for staff training and corporations. It’s relevant for any anywhere where you’re trying to produce expertise in human performance, that’s what this is for.
OK. I like hearing that, and of course we’ll share all of the website links when we go live. Dr. Berens, what do you love most about your job? You you’ve been talking about. It’s been challenging. It’s been a fight. It’s been an uphill battle. But tell us what you love most about your job.
Oh well, I mean, the best thing about my job is changing the kid’s life. You know, you have a kid who’s coming in and has been told they’ll never learn to read. Has been told that they have something wrong with them. Has an unbelievable aversive history with respect to academics, such that they’re having massive psychological issues now which a lot of kids do, and that starts at school and school failure is a catalyst for anxiety, depression, a lot of other mental health issues come from that. And having an opportunity to actually produce an unbelievable level of mastery and competency with that learner very quickly in an area that they were told they’d never master. That is life changing, and it’s not just life changing for that kid. It’s life changing for the team who gets to have the power to do that for that kid and it’s life changing for the whole family. So, my, you know, the best part of my job is transforming kids’ lives. That’s it. Period.
I love it.
You know, you have kids at the bottom of their class. You know this. This actually just I just got an e-mail recently. You know, I worked, you know, with a kid who came in to work with us. He was four years behind in math, reading and critical thinking and problem solving. He was scoring at, like, the 10th percentile at a third-grade level. Pulled him out of school because he was having massive psychological issues because of it. He was a 6th grader, pulled him out of. He did his whole 7th grade year with us. Moved five grade levels and went back to his school in high honors the whole year and he just got into the top boarding school of his choice for 9th grade. You know, it’s like that’s like, that’s just like no one thinks it’s possible, but it absolutely is.
I like sharing that story. Thank you. At the end of a most of our podcasts, we usually talk about some fun questions. And so, I have a few for you. Tell us something unique about yourself.
OK, well I play the classical guitar and I actually apply my, the science I use in the instruction of academic and cognitive skills, I apply to my own guitar practice. So, I measure, I record every practice session, I practice every day. I record every session and I count and measure my own behavior and chart my own behavior on charts. And I make evidence-based decisions about my own guitar practice. So, I apply, I practice what I preach. I’m also an avid golfer, but I will tell you I haven’t applied my science to golf yet because it’s harder to figure out how to do that. And I’m more frustrated with my golf game than I am my guitar practice, which makes sense because my guitar, my golf practice is a little sloppy, whereas my guitar practice is very precise.
Well, that’s interesting. Now I should point out to you that if you’re not making much progress, who else are you going to be put the blame on, then?
Exactly, it’s my fault. I gotta figure out how to design some more effective practice strategies for myself in golf.
But I have I haven’t done it.
What is your, what is your favorite term, principle, or theory and why?
Oh, differential reinforcement.
So differential reinforcement is well, reinforcement is the principle obviously that you know a consequence that follows a behavior makes that behavior more likely to occur in the future. And differential reinforcement is when you intentionally use reinforcement to strengthen and select adaptive skills such that you can actually decrease the frequency or rate of maladaptive or aberrant behavior and then increase the frequency or rate of adaptive behavior, so differential reinforcements. Everything we call it Fit Learning, we call it, catch them being good. That’s like our that’s our lay term for that is basically reinforce every awesome thing a kid does and don’t pay much attention to the other stuff. And if you do that, you’re going to have kids who behave in awesome ways and you want to hang out with them and they’re, kind of, unpleasant behavior is going to just go away.
That’s actually good advice to all parents as well.
Yes, it is. Yes, it is. Catch him being good and notice the good stuff and try not to pay attention to the bad stuff.
Do you have any other advice for those interested in the field of psychology or behavioral sciences?
I just would say, do you know I think for anybody actually just do what you love, man. Like, you know, try to figure out what you love to do. And I would say try to find something that ignites a passion or fire in you because it’s all hard work. You know, it’s a slog getting through grad school and getting to the top of your career. I mean it’s taken me a lot of years to get to where I am, and it’s been a hard. If I wasn’t truly passionate about this, where it didn’t really feel like a job, I mean, you know, like what I do doesn’t feel like something I’ll ever retire from, you know, when your career is kind of like your life, I think that is, I mean, you obviously need to have work life balance, but when you’re when your work doesn’t necessarily feel like work. I think that that’s when you hit the sweet spot in your life.
Very good advice. One last question. If you had the time and money to complete one project or go on one trip, what would you do?
Oh, to go on one trip. I would. I would if I could go on. Oh, Lord. Now you’re asking me about trips. That’s all I think about. I have not done enough traveling in my life because I’ve been working like this for a long time. But that is something I definitely want you to change. I would say I do all Italy. I’d go to the Tuscany, the Italian countryside. I, you know, a mall fee? I just. I do. I would just spend a I would do like a whole summer in Italy.
Nice. That sounds wonderful.
I eat my way, I eat my way through Italy.
Yes, that’s a good goal to have. Hey, is there anything else that you’d like to discuss or bring up on this podcast?
Well, I mean, I would highly recommend my book for everyone who’s listening, because I will say, you know, my book is written for the lay audience, but it’s also a high level read for people who are at the graduate level or undergraduate level. It’s really appropriate for anyone. Especially if you haven’t had the opportunity to really learn about behavior science, not behavioral science, but really behavior science, behavior analysis, I think it’s a really good introduction to that and it, it introduces kind of the implications of that for a lot of areas of the of society but obviously education specifically so, I would say check out my book.
That’s a good way to. Yeah, that’s a good.
A shameless plug.
That’s that’ll be fine. That’ll be fine. Kimberly, thanks again for taking the time out of your busy schedule to be with us. And thank you for sharing your journey and advice.
My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.