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What should teachers know?

Last summer I was reading an article by Daniel T. Willingham entitled Unlocking the Science of How Kids Think.  The author argued that many teachers are unaware of the latest findings about how children think and learn, in particular he cited studies showing that many teachers erroneously believe that children have learning styles dominated by the senses (eg visual learners) and that motor-coordination exercises can improve the interaction of the brain’s left and right hemispheres.  When asked about learning, teachers frequently refer to their craft, which is not the same as referring to the up-to-date principles of psychology – despite the fact that many teacher training programmes require some courses to be taken in educational psychology, where trainee teachers learn such things as how knowledge is constucted as well as the work of theorists such as Piaget, Vyotsky and Bruner.  In fact, many educators complain that their training is overly theoretical and not of much practical use.

I was interested to read the argument by Willingham against the current mode of teacher training:  he claims that teachers without this prepraration are indistinguishable from those who get it.  I’ve thought about this argument this week, as my mother has been in hospital.  I’ve observed nurses come around and check her constantly – scanning ID codes on her wrists and ankles before taking various measurements such as temperature, blood pressure and so on.  Time was also taken up in entering all this data onto a computer that was pushed on a cart from bed to bed. Incredibly, in the days my mother was in hospital she got worse and worse, picking up an infection from another person in the ward, and losing the use of her legs and eventually needing to be spoon-fed because she wouldn’t pick up her cutlery.  What my mother needed was human care – she went in for a CT scan because she had had 3 falls in 6 days and doctors were worried she had banged her head (there was actually nothing medically wrong with her).  What she did not need was to be admitted to the hospital and put into a bed and left there being monitored day after day.  Eventually the hospital gave me a carers badge – allowing me to visit the whole day, outside of the 3 hours of visiting times – which meant I could encourage her to get out of bed, sit in a chair, walk to the toilet and feed herself – things the nurses didn’t have time to do.  My sister-in-law who had trained as a nurse put this down to the way nursing training has changed – nowadays you need a degree to be a nurse, whereas previously you needed more hands-on experience.  I started to think about the parallels that could be drawn with teaching as well, where teacher training emphasises theory more than practical knowledge.  This argument points out that teaching is a skill – one that requires doing to gain proficieny.  From my own experience, I know that my “teaching practice” school placements were more valuable to my growth as a teacher than the lectures in the unversity – however research does not show that these apprenticeships lead to better student outcomes.

Willingham suggests that the best way to improve student outcomes is to focus on how students learn – accurate beliefs about learning will influence the decisions teachers make.  Such accurate beliefs, drawn from observation, can have direct classroom application.  Here’s one for example:  memory is more enduring if practice is distributed in time, not massed.  What this means in practical terms is that the same amount of time devoted to a lesson will be more efficient if it is distributed across many days.  This is something that can be observed.  In addition some theories later turn out to be wrong – only by conducting observations of students in the classroom can a teacher fully appreciate how students learn.  A good example is given of wildly different theoretical approaches to student motivation:  the behaiourist one of rewards -v- punishment and the humanist theory focused on agency and autonomy.  Teacher training may introduce both of these theories, even though they are incompatible.  Classroom observations, however, will show students respond to both rewards and choice.

A further argument in this article is that teachers do not get enough practice with the principles they learn in order to make them useful.  Teachers need to see these principles in context and they need to be able to discuss their ideas with mentors and coaches.  Willingham is not advocating getting rid of the child psychology courses that pre-service teachers have to take, but he does suggest more data is needed: are these psychological principles retained by teachers, do teachers know how to use them, and are they using them?  Only then will be be able to gauge the educational impact of these principles by comparing student outcomes of those teachers who use them and those who do not.

Photo Credit: All4Ed Flickr via Compfight cc

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