Over the past decades, psychologists have uncovered a wealth of evidence on how children learn. But for three basic reasons, it has proven difficult to translate this evidence into classroom practice.
Cognitive scientists — those who study the learning process — have found that students retain information better through things like spaced practice (spread learning over a period of time rather than cramming), interlacing (move from one subject to another), and recovery practice (trying to recall information that has been partially forgotten). But few teachers integrate these practices in their lesson plans or suggest that students use them for study. More fundamentally, there is overwhelming evidence that, especially when the pupils do not know much about a subject, it is better to provide information explicitly. But the dominant theory in the world of education has long been that even novice learners are better off. “Discover” or “build” knowledge for themselves, often largely self-directed groups.
In line with this theory, teacher education programs encourage educators to prioritize imparting skills over information, including assumed teaching skills. written comprehension and critical thinking. The idea is that students are able to use the skills to acquire knowledge on their own, through their own reading. But scientists have long known that these kinds of skills cannot be taught directly, in the absence of content. The more information students have on a subject, the better they are able understand a text about it and think about it critically. And while it is true that students must participate in the construction or discovery of their own knowledge, it is unrealistic to expect them to discover information for themselves, in particular on subjects of history or science which they know little about.
The reasons for the disjunction between the worlds of education and science are complex. But the barriers to applying the findings of cognitive psychology to classroom practice fall into three basic categories. (I borrowed this general framework from an organization called Teaching laboratory, but the details here are mine.)
Intellectual: The most fundamental problem is that many educators just don’t know of these discoveries, in large part because they were never told about them during their training. Schools of education have developed on a different path from the rest of academia and, as a result, there is little communication between their faculty members and those in other disciplines. Rather than focusing on recent research, most schools of education teach evangelical theories of child development that academic psychologists consider outdated, like that of Jean Piaget. developmental stages theory. Once in place, teachers continue to undergo training, or “professional development”, which has little scientific basis. And their supervisors and teaching materials often assume the validity of non-evidence-based practices.
When introduced to cognitive science evidence, many teachers embrace it enthusiastically. But others resist, calling the work of scientists too ivory tower and preferring to rely on their own experience. While the experience of teachers is often valuable, it can also be misleading. For example, to a kindergarten or first grade teacher, it may appear that a child is learning to read without systematic instruction in phonetics. But the child can just guess from pictures or memorize words that appear in simple texts, especially because many teachers encourage these strategies. When the child reaches higher educational levels and is unable to pronounce unfamiliar words, he will be at a serious disadvantage.
Another problem is that educators are frequently directed adopt new initiatives, many of which claim – often wrongly – to be “evidence-based”. As a result, teachers can see anything with this tag as suspect, even when it is firmly rooted in science.
Emotional: Some teachers who understand the need for evidence-based techniques on an intellectual level are nonetheless held back by feelings. They may recognize, for example, that children need to be exposed to complex texts and concepts from an early age so that they can learn more about them later. But they can still be afraid – partly because of their training – that such things will be “inappropriate developmentOr too difficult for their students to manage. Many teachers think, for example, that historical subjects are too abstract and distant for young children to understand or be interested in. In fact, children can enjoy learning almost anything if it is presented in an engaging way.
Teachers also feel anxious about teaching subjects they don’t know much about themselves – and given deficiencies in teacher training there may be more than one. Sometimes these anxieties are projected onto the children. An instructional coach who is helping implement a new program that requires students to analyze artwork told me that a teacher in her district resisted a particular lesson because she thought the kids would ” frightened by art ”. The coach suspected that the real problem was that the teacher herself did not understand the painting, which was nothing more than a semi-abstract landscape. With the right curriculum and sensitive support, however, teachers can learn with their students.
And it can be hard for teachers to accept that an approach they’ve used for years, believing it to help students, hasn’t really worked. They can feel tremendous guilt or, according to a well-known psychological theory called confirmation bias, they may simply reject evidence that conflicts with their beliefs.
Behaviour: Even though teachers understand the need for methods rooted in cognitive science and sincerely wish to adopt them, it is often difficult to remember to use them. Teaching is an incredibly complex activity. With so much to juggle, it’s natural to come back to some deep-rooted habits. It is not impossible for teachers to change their behavior, but it can take time and the support of high quality instructional programs and coaches.
The good news is that there are signs that classroom practice and science are drawing closer. Groups of teachersschool district leaders, and even deans of schools of education push for change, and some cognitive scientists are aimed directly at educators. There is also new programs, at the crucial elementary level, which focus on building children’s knowledge rather than delusional comprehension skills.
A fundamental change in the way and what educators teach cannot be imposed from above or come only from below; it must come from both above and below. When education authorities announce a policy change without clearly communicating the reasons and its value, teachers can simply close their classroom doors and continue teaching in the way that suits them, as they have done for generations. It is therefore crucial that teachers understand and adopt a new approach. But teachers can’t do it alone either. Even though they are keen to teach in a way that aligns with science, they lack the power to adopt evidence-based curricula and materials or ensure that a new approach is consistent across a school or district. For this, teachers need the support of administrators and policy makers.
Given these obstacles, it is clear that large-scale change will not happen overnight. But a growing number of schools across the country are beginning to adopt science-based practices, benefiting countless numbers of students and making teachers’ jobs easier.
To learn more about this topic, you can listen to an interview with me on the podcast Melissa and Lori love literacy.