When I trained to be teacher I was told little or nothing about how children learn. Because a lot of what we intuitively suppose about the process of learning is often flatly contradicted by cognitive science this was a huge handicap. Since you can’t think about stuff you don’t know, I spent all my time pontificating on the process of teaching, but lacked the theoretical framework and knowledge base to consider how my students learned. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
Over the past few years I’ve discovered an awful lot through reading various books and academic papers which has given me the ability to start thinking about how students learn, and the more I’ve learned the more sophisticated my thinking has become.
Two useful starting points for anyone wanting to learn about learning are the APA’s Top 20 Principles from Psychology for Teaching and Learning and the very readable Deans for Impact paper, The Science of Learning.
Now there’s another source of wisdom. Learning About Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know from the US National Council on Teacher Quality is a manifesto for improved teacher training. In it, some of the most eminent researchers in educational psychology reveal the woeful lack of focus in American teacher training programmes on instructional practices supported by cognitive science but also the curious absence of evidence based information in US teacher training text books.
We could, of course, choose to focus on the differences between UK and US teacher training or perhaps on what some see as the quaintness of relying on textbooks, but instead I think we’d profit more from turning our attention to what the report’s authors refer to as the ‘Big Six’ strategies that have the most impact on how students learn.
- Pairing graphics with words. Young or old, all of us receive information through two primary pathways — auditory (for the spoken word) and visual (for the written word and graphic or pictorial representation). Student learning increases when teachers convey new material through both.
- Linking abstract concepts with concrete representations. Teachers should present tangible examples that illuminate overarching ideas and also explain how the examples and big ideas connect.
- Posing probing questions. Asking students “why,” “how,” “what if,” and “how do you know” requires them to clarify and link their knowledge of key ideas.
- Repeatedly alternating problems with their solutions provided and problems that students must solve. Explanations accompanying solved problems help students comprehend underlying principles, taking them beyond the mechanics of problem solving.
- Distributing practice. Students should practice material several times after learning it, with each practice or review separated by weeks and even months. This is sometimes called the ‘spacing effect’
- Assessing to boost retention. Beyond the value of formative assessment (to help a teacher decide what to teach) and summative assessment (to determine what students have learned), assessments that require students to recall material help information ‘stick’. This is usually referred to as the ‘testing effect‘.
The first two strategies are about encoding – how students best take in information. Three and four are useful for correcting misconceptions and the final two help boost retention. Some of these strategies may seem obvious but others are anything but. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that this isn’t just useful for new teachers. Every teacher, no matter their level of experience, could benefit from knowing about and applying these strategies in their teaching.