There is a plethora of research from the past several decades that link effective teaching practices to improved student learning. While it is encouraging that so much research exists, the challenge for educational leaders is how to ensure that teachers are applying these practices in the classroom. Although it may seem intuitive to identify these practices and provide training on how to implement them, ensuring classroom application of effective practices relates to how teachers think. Research has focused on teacher mindframes which are comprised of individual’s beliefs, thoughts, actions, and results. In their recent book Mindframes, Hattie and Zierer (2017) identified ten mindframes that lay the groundwork for educator’s actions and decisions. These mindframes are founded on the principle that teachers are evaluators, change agents, learning experts, and seekers of feedback who are constantly engaged with dialogue and challenge. Thus, integrating the science of learning into teaching practice requires an understanding of teacher beliefs about learning and teaching.
But, what if teacher beliefs about learning and teaching are inaccurate? A recent survey of over 200 educators on how students learn found that myths about student learning are prevalent among educators, and that many educators do not have a robust understanding of the principles of learning (Boser, 2019). The survey explored teacher beliefs around several myths about learning including teaching to learning styles, tailoring instruction to right or left brained learners, and the belief that intelligence is genetically determined. In addition, the survey focused on six instructional strategies that have well-established support in the research literature:
- Elaboration – making connections between new information to other information (e.g., experiences, memories, prior knowledge) in a meaningful way.
- Retrieval Practice – actively trying to recall information that we want to remember rather than rereading books or notes.
- Metacognition – reflection one’s own understanding and strategies for solving problems.
- Spaced Practice – practicing and reviewing skills in smaller chunks of time to promote long-term retention.
- Interleaving – practicing several skills at a time versus one skill at a time by mixing up problem types to facilitate the ability to apply the right procedure to the right problem.
- Dual Coding – combining verbal materials with visual materials (visuals, texts, diagrams, graphic organizers) in a way that facilitates conceptual understanding.
Results of the survey identified myths about student learning and a disconnect between specific research-based teaching strategies and their use in the classroom. For example, 77% of survey respondents agreed with the notion that students are are either left-brained or right-brained and that this difference influences how students learn – despite that fact that there is no scientific support for it in the research literature. In addition, 97% of educators endorsed the concept of categorizing students into one of several learning styles (e.g., visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc.) and then teaching to this style to maximize student outcomes. While students may report that they have different preferences for learning from visual or auditory material, research has proven that these preferences do not impact learning outcomes (Willingham, Hughes, & Doboyli, 2015). In our current educational landscape, many district educators are having conversations about individual and personalized learning as ways to increase student outcomes. It is imperative that these conversations must emphasize the difference between ideas that do not impact student outcomes (like learning styles) and ideas like student prior knowledge that can have a significant impact on student outcomes.
Just as the survey identified myths about student learning, results also pointed to a disconnect between specific research-based teaching strategies and their use in the classroom. For example, retrieval practice which involves students actively trying to recall information that they want to remember is a more effective strategy for long-term learning than simply rereading material. However, only 31% of survey respondents endorsed retrieval practice over rereading when asked which strategy would be the most effective for learning (Boser, 2019). Many researchers have hypothesized various reasons for the disconnect between research and practice.
One hypothesis for why teachers may have difficulty identifying effective learning and teaching strategies, is that some teacher training textbooks contain little or no discussion of the large body of learning research. In fact, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTC) released a report in 2016 that presented findings of textbooks used in teacher training and whether these textbooks covered fundamental instructional strategies identified by the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) practice guide as having strong to moderate research evidence. These strategies included: (1) pairing graphics with words, (2) linking abstract concepts with concrete representations, (3) posing probing questions, (4) repeatedly alternating solved and unsolved problems, (5) distributed practice, and (6) assessing to boost retention. The NCTQ review examined a sample of 48 textbooks used in 48 elementary and secondary teacher preparation programs to determine the extent to which these six strategies were covered. They found that none of the textbooks used in the sample accurately described all six fundamental instructional strategies. In fact, at most, only two of the six strategies were covered in any particular text. Moreover, when strategies were mentioned in textbooks, the discussion may have been as little as 1-2 sentences in a text that was typically several hundred pages in length (NCTQ, 2016).
While textbooks are important for pre-service teacher training, practicing educators tend to learn about new research in education through professional development and teacher conferences/workshops. Providing accurate information through these channels could be useful ways to dispel some of the widely believed myths and misunderstandings about teaching and learning. As district leaders, we need to continue focusing on providing teachers with the knowledge and skills to improve instruction based on the science of learning. We also need to work to create time and space for professional learning communities to integrate and test their knowledge in the classroom using student outcome data.
At CAREI, we understand that it is sometimes hard to identify research that is empirically-validated and replicated over time. Check out these resources to help in your quest to identify evidence-based practices:
- Boser, U. (2019, July 1). What Do Teachers Know About The Science of Learning?
- Evidence for ESSA
- Hattie, J., & Zierer, K. (2017). 10 Mindframes for Visible Learning: Teaching for Success. Routledge.
- Pashler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007). Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning. IES Practice Guide. NCER 2007-2004. National Center for Education Research.
- Pomerance, L., Greenberg, J., & Walsh, K. (2016). Learning about Learning. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED570861.pdf.
- Willingham, D. T., Hughes, E. M., & Dobolyi, D. G. (2015). The scientific status of learning styles theories. Teaching of Psychology, 42(3), 266-271.
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