Opinion

‘Learning Science’ Is Critical to Understanding How Students Think, but a New Report Shows That Most Future Teachers Don’t Know It. Here Are 3 Top Takeaways

By Benjamin Riley | March 6, 2020

Deans for Impact, the organization I helped found, believes that all teachers should understand basic principles of learning science. But what does that mean?

We see learning science as the study of how humans think and learn — what others call cognitive science. The past several decades have deepened our scientific understanding of how our minds process and store new information and how we apply that knowledge to novel situations. 

For the past year, Deans for Impact has been working with six teacher-preparation programs to integrate learning science into the coursework and clinical experiences they provide to future teachers — or teacher-candidates, as we call them. As part of that work, we developed a new assessment to help identify what teacher-candidates know and don’t know about learning science.

To date, more than 1,000 teacher-candidates have taken this new test. Here are three initial insights:

1 In general, future teachers are unfamiliar with basic principles of learning science.

Teacher-candidates scored 50 percent correct on questions about basic principles of learning science, and how they apply to teaching. Here’s one sample item they struggled with:

Information you want to remember is more likely to make it into your long-term memory.

Only 18 percent correctly answered this as false. Did you? This is one of the harder questions on our assessment, and one that seems counterintuitive to most. But experiments show that simply wanting to learn something does not increase the likelihood it will be remembered. What matters is whether and how the information is processed. It’s possible to think and remember information you have no real desire to learn, just as it’s possible to forget that which you are highly motivated to understand.

2 Encouragingly, future teachers recognize the critical role that background knowledge plays in learning.

A bedrock principle of cognitive science is that our ability to understand new ideas depends upon what we already know. There’s a great deal of complexity in that seemingly straightforward notion, and we think it’s vital for future teachers — and practicing ones, for that matter — to grapple with its implications. Among other things, this principle underscores the need to teach students a broad array of content across subjects; to carefully sequence how such information is presented to students; and to understand that knowledge is cumulative, such that it becomes easier (or harder) for students to learn new information based on their existing knowledge.

The good news is that many teacher-candidates appear to understand the basic contours of this principle. For example, one item from our assessment asked teacher-candidates to read a short passage from Frederick Douglass’s speech “What Does the 4th of July Mean to a Slave?” and then answer a series of true-false questions, including this one:

Prior knowledge allows students to substitute in information not explicitly stated in the text (e.g., “Fourth of July” = holiday often described as a celebration of freedom) making it more likely they will store the meaning of the text in long-term memory.

Approximately 86 percent of teacher-candidates correctly answered this as true. Since we usually want students to think about the meaning of content, this data suggests future teachers understand the important role that background knowledge (i.e., knowledge that you already possess) plays in building new knowledge. That’s encouraging!

3 Future teachers struggle to identify effective forms of practice.

At Deans for Impact, we’ve long said that practice is essential to learning something new — but not all practice is created equal. Consider the following options a teacher might choose to help students remember the three branches of the US government and what they do:

a) Have students read the facts for 10 days at the beginning of class.

b) Have students copy the facts into a notebook where they can reference them as needed.

c) Have students take a once-a-week quiz for 10 weeks where they recall the facts from memory.

d) Have students participate in a review game where they have to recall the facts from memory several times in one class period.

The correct answer is (c) — but only 13 percent of teacher-candidates picked this option. In contrast, 60 percent picked (d), the in-class review game. Yet we should want new teachers to prefer using no-stakes quizzing to ensure students regularly have to retrieve information from their memories, which makes learning more durable. An in-class game might be used as one such method of retrieval, but it’s an inferior strategy.

All of this data highlights what we believe is an eminently solvable problem. After all, we should not expect future teachers to start their training with a firm grasp of the principles of learning science already in mind. This specialized knowledge needs to be learned! That learning should begin at educator-preparation programs, so that, by the time they complete their preservice preparation, future teachers both understand the basics of learning science and are able to apply that knowledge in their teaching.

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