“What do future teachers know about learning science and its translation into rigorous instructional practice?” asks a new report from Deans for Impact called “Scientific By Design.”
The report offers an answer based on responses from more than 1,000 teachers and teacher-educators.
“Learning science” can be broadly defined as the use of cognitive science to improve learning. All teachers implicitly or explicitly employ theories of learning. However decades of cognitive research now offer us more information than ever before about how students learn.
More difficult to assess is how, and whether, teachers and educator prep programs draw upon the available wealth of cognitive research and evidence based practices. This is what the report examines, and I spoke to Ben Riley, founder and executive director of Deans for Impact, to learn more.
What’s new about this report, in terms of learning, the cognitive function of memory, and what teachers need to know?
To our knowledge, this is the first time that there’s been a large scale effort to figure out what future teachers know about learning science, using an assessment developed with leading cognitive scientists, teacher-educators, and practicing teachers. What’s more, the teacher-preparation programs that administered this are using the data to inform improvement efforts they are undertaking, such as making changes to courses and clinical experiences. Learning science is meeting improvement science in a very tangible way.
First, we see clear opportunity for improvement in teacher-candidates understanding basic principles of learning science
Why did you write the report?
We took the somewhat unusual step of releasing this report at the beginning of this network because we want people to see that leaders in teacher preparation are driving transformation to how teachers are prepared — and using learning science as a foundation for that work. We think the data from this assessment provides interesting insights into what future teachers believe about how students learn — and how they think about applying their knowledge to instructional practice. Just as the Learning Agency Lab is helping spread the word about learning science in education, we wanted to share insights from our effort to deepen understanding of learning science in preservice preparation.
What’s surprising about this report and its results?
Well, the fact that it even exists may surprise some people! Schools of education face relentless criticism that they will “never change,” yet here they are, working to make significant change — we think that’s important and worth celebrating.
As to the data itself, the report highlights a number of key takeaways. Here are three:
First, we see clear opportunity for improvement in teacher-candidates understanding basic principles of learning science — and we see evidence they still hold ideas at odds with science (the “learning styles” bugaboo has yet to be extinguished, unfortunately). That said, teacher-candidates are strong in some areas, such as understanding the role that background knowledge plays in acquiring new knowledge.
Second, a big opportunity is around what the learning principles we call “deepening meaning and learning.” Teachers should want students to think about the meaning of information that we want them to learn and remember. Making that happen, however, is challenging. On recent visits to observe teacher-candidates with their mentors, I repeatedly saw candidates instructing students using tasks that were engaging and fun, but at a very surface level. Our report includes an example of this in the introduction — many people gravitate to the learning activity that will “engage” students without pondering whether that engagement will help meet a substantive learning objective.
Third, we found very little variation in how future teachers scored on this assessment across key categories. For example, it didn’t matter whether a teacher-candidate had taken a course on learning science or not, their average scores were the same. Ditto length of time in the program — teacher-candidates who just started their training did as well as those about to be certified to teach.
The upshot for us? If programs can more fully integrate certain “focus principles” learning science into the experiences they provide to teacher-candidates, we believe we will improve the effectiveness of these novice teachers as they start their careers. It’s hard work, but we’re excited to support it.
Big opportunity is around what the learning principles we call “deepening meaning and learning.”
What’s next for the network?
We outline this in some detail in the conclusion to the report — programs are setting improvement goals, developing change-management plans, and preparing to change their programs in time for the next academic year. That’s when the rubber will meet the road — will we be able to demonstrably improve teacher-candidates’ knowledge of learning science, and ability to apply that knowledge practice? We certainly hope so, and we have measurable ways of evaluating our impact here.
Found very little variation in how future teachers scored on this assessment across key categories.
More broadly, we hope leaders in educator preparation help us build this movement. It’s likely we’ll be growing this network in the near future, and we are always looking for leaders in this space who share our passion for learning-science informed teaching and learning. So if you’re out there, get in touch with us!