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Teacher textbooks are failing trainees. They peddle debunked ideas rather than evidence-based learning strategies.
Common sense suggests, scientific research tells you, and Pisa proves it; what makes the biggest difference to student outcomes is the teacher in front of the class. That means if you really want to improve the school system, you need to focus on teacher training and professional development.
Teachers need the core knowledge to plan, develop and deliver good lessons, which requires a strong grasp of evidence-based learning strategies. This led the Laura Pomerance, Julie Greenberg and Kate Walsh from the National Council on Teacher Quality in America to explore what textbooks are teaching our teachers of tomorrow, and how well this is preparing them for a life in the classroom.
Their report, Learning About Learning, was published in January 2016. They analysed 48 textbooks – approximately 14,000 pages that are representative of 219 American teacher preparation programmes – across elementary (or primary) and secondary education. The results were damning: "This report contends that textbooks used in this coursework neglect to teach what we know about how students learn despite its central importance in training."
They continue: "Compelling cognitive research that meets scientific standards about how to teach for understanding and retention barely gets a mention in many texts, while anecdotal information is dressed up as science. Theories du jour and debunked notions are being passed on to new teachers as knowledge and best practice."
The research mapped out how many evidence-based interventions were discussed in the textbooks. The authors used the report Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning: A Practice Guide as a benchmark for the learning strategies. This was published by the Institute of Education Sciences, a research brand of the Department of Education in America. It profiles six teaching strategies that should be the basics every teacher uses. These are scientifically proven to help all students learn, whatever age or subject, and can be especially helpful for "struggling students".
"There is little debate among scholars about the effectiveness of these six strategies," the report notes.
1.Pairing graphics with words
2.Linking abstract concepts with concrete examples
3.Posing probing questions (or epistemic questions) on the how, why, what if, and how do you know?
4.Repeatedly alternating problems with their solutions and providing explanations so students can see the how it worked
5.Distributing practice, meaning that learners should practice material several different times – usually in smaller chunks and spread out over time – after initial learning instead of practising for hours and hours on end
6.Formative and summative assessment of what has been learned versus what should have been learned.
There is a seventh recommendation that explains how to shape instruction as students gain expertise in a particular subject or area. This suggests teachers should selectively ask students "deep explanatory questions" that focus on underlying causal and explanatory principles.
Despite the universal acceptance of these strategies, however, the researchers found that none of the textbooks in the sample properly explained all six learning strategies. At best, just a third of these strategies were were included in any one text. What's more, even where the strategies were mentioned, this could be as little as a couple of sentences. In short, the report says: "The textbooks teach instructional topics, but the lack of emphasis on cognitive strategies that are most likely to be effective in the classroom is hard to overstate."
Over the last decade or so, significant progress has been made in the science around education, especially in cognitive and behavioural psychology. But this is of no use unless those on the frontline of classrooms can access, understand and implement it. Supporting experienced teachers to follow the latest evidence-based practice is more difficult – making time, ensuring training is available and standardising what is shared is tough.
But teaching trainees the right things from the beginning – when you have more control over what they are taught – is far easier. And without getting this basic right, we're failing the profession and future generations of students.
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