Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen
A report which the US National Council on Teacher Quality published in January 2016 is incredibly important for the teaching profession. It’s entitled Learning About Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know. It’s accompanied by a prominent ‘Letter of support’ in its preface from seven of the field’s most notable educational/cognitive psychologists, such as Rich Mayer (Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning), John Dunlosky (Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques), and Hal Pashler (Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning).
Three researchers, Laura Pomerance, Julie Greenberg, and Kate Walsh analysed 48 textbooks – approximately 14,000 pages – that are used in a representative group of 219 American teaching preparation programs. The researchers looked for information and explanations on evidence-based (or rather, evidence-informed if you ask us) strategies that every new teacher should know and be able to apply. The reason for carrying out the study was that “Every year about 190,000 teacher candidates graduate from traditional teacher preparation programs believing they are ready to begin the relentlessly demanding career of teaching. Each of these aspiring teachers will have taken at least one education psychology course or instructional methods course (usually both) designed to teach them how children learn and how to create lessons whose content their students will remember” (p V).
Spoiler alert! The authors of the report conclude: There is a staggeringly small number of references to evidence-based strategies. In other words, “the compelling cognitive research that meets scientific standards about how to teach for understanding and retention barely gets a mention in many texts” (p V), while in contrast there was an enormous amount of anecdotal evidence on teaching strategies and classroom management, all dressed up as solid science. Not good.
The first question is: What are these evidence-based strategies? Using the report Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning: A Practice Guide from the Institute of Education Sciences – which is the research institute from the American department of education – the researchers identified a series of proven general approaches to improve student learning, regardless of age/year or lesson content. Even better, these strategies work exceptionally well for ‘struggling students’ as well. Six learning strategies stood way out above the pack because they’re underpinned by a gigantic amount of high quality research.
Two out of six are focused on taking in information; that is (1) pairing graphics with words and (2) linking abstract concepts with concrete representations. Two other strategies guarantee that learners connect information to deepen their understanding (or pre-existing knowledge); that is (3) posing probing questions (or epistemic questions) on the how, why, what if, and how do you know? as well as (4) repeatedly alternating problems with their solutions provided and problems that students must solve. Finally, there were two strategies on helping students remember what they learned through (5) distributing practice, meaning that learners should practice material several different times – usually in smaller chunks and spread in time – after initial learning instead of practicing hours and hours on end and (6) formative and summative assessment of what has been learned versus what should have been learned.
The second question is: Were these strategies included in the textbooks and if so, to what extent? Sorry to spoil the surprise as we already revealed that this was rarely the case. None of the textbooks specifically discussed all six of the strategies. At best, they discussed two out of six. And when the proven effective strategies were discussed, 10% of the evaluated books only spent 1-2 sentences on them (see image). Not unimportant is to realise that none of the books had less than 100 pages.
The researchers also looked at 48 elementary and secondary teacher preparation programs that use the reviewed textbooks. However, also within these programs, the six strategies are virtually non-existent during lessons. And if they were discussed, they were hardly practiced, except for posing probing questions.
The conclusion of the report: Publishers and authors of textbooks fail terribly because they ignore the fundamental knowledge that is necessary to plan, develop, and deliver good education and this is by no means inconsequential. After all, the next generation of teachers are being disadvantaged and even worse, their students will be suffering because of it. And it’s not just the textbook authors who are responsible; the teacher prep programs aren’t any better.
The third question is: Is it better or worse in other countries? Volunteers in countries who would like to research the state of the art, please stand up and volunteer! At the moment, Paul is supervising two master’s theses that will do this for the Netherlands and Flanders (Belgium).
And last but not least, just to throw in another angle: What can corporate L&D learn from this? L&D professionals have a wide variety of both educational and work experience backgrounds but seldom are they learning scientists or do they apply evidence-informed learning strategies, such as the ones discussed in this blog. Sometimes that’s because they lack the knowledge; they simply don’t know about the existence of learning science nor about evidence-informed learning strategies and therefore don’t use them at all. Sometimes they’re well aware of the science of learning but then claim that it’s not applicable in the workplace because the research is about students and not about employees. As if they’re a different biological species. For example, some L&D professionals claim that professionals learn in a self-directed autonomous way and don’t need formal or structured learning solutions or any guidance at all. However, the learning strategies as outlined in the report are generally proven. For people. All people! It’s not like they no longer count because the learner is an adult professional. The challenge is to find ways to implement these strategies in all aspects of corporate learning approaches, regardless if they’re formal, informal, integrated in the workflow or separate.
What’s crystal clear by now is that what’s good for teaching/learning is not even handled in the sermon! We wonder why somehow the people responsible for teacher prep programmes, the authors of education-focused textbooks, and L&D professionals, just to name a few, simply ignore or overlook learning strategies that we know work well. Why? Why not embrace and use what we know to be effective? Don’t leave us hanging here; we’d really like to know!