Teachers need more scientific breakthroughs

By:

Oct 30, 2015

Two summers ago, Peter Sipe, a middle school teacher in Boston, wrote a provocative op-ed for the Boston Herald in which he contrasted his experience in a teacher preparation program with professional preparation programs in other fields. In the piece, he wrote:

In education school, I received constant encouragement to be a “reflective practitioner.” The thing is—and it’s the thing that still bugs me—I don’t recall learning how to do anything. Pilots aren’t trained by forming small groups to discuss the atmosphere. Cadets don’t become cops by writing weekly responses to Crime and Punishment.

Sipe suggests here that “reflective practice” is not a very useful form of professional preparation and that teacher education programs should instead focus on the concrete skills needed to be an effective teacher. Although Sipe’s critique is certainly not generalizable to every course and program at every school of education, it does prove true often enough to not be overlooked.

So why is it that so many education schools focus more often on “reflective practice” than on equipping their graduates with practical skills? Some argue that it is an issue of institutional priorities—that most schools don’t care about the actual effectiveness of their graduates and don’t have any incentive to operate differently. Others argue that it’s a problem of outdated curriculum—that schools just haven’t stayed up to date on research-based best practices  These arguments are certainly part of the problem, but I think the bigger issue is that the “science of learning” has not advanced in the education field as much as science has advanced in many other professional fields.

How science advances a profession
There is a clear pattern in the long and arduous process by which a professional field transforms the body of knowledge upon which it is built from an art into a science. In the earliest stages of a profession, the extent of understanding is little more than an assortment of observations collected over many generations. Over time, however, patterns emerge from these intuitive experiments, and researchers and practitioners come to understand the patterns that correlate actions with desired outcomes. There is still no cookbook that can guarantee success every time, but professionals can often state the probability of an outcome, given the actions that have been taken.

Ultimately, these patterns of correlation are supplanted with an understanding of causality, which makes the result of given actions highly predictable. Work that was once intuitive and complex becomes routine, and the field develops specific rules to handle the steps in the process. When the expertise in a field advances from professional intuition to scientifically-validated, rules-based practices, it is much easier for the schools of that field to reach a consensus on a set of practical skills to be taught. This consensus exists because science provides a clear understanding of what actions under what circumstances lead to desired outcomes.

In aviation, science has provided a very clear understanding of the principles of lift, propulsion, aerodynamics, and navigation. With this understanding, aviation schools can teach pilots the precise actions they should take and maneuvers they should perform in order to pilot airplanes in the various flying conditions they encounter. Unlike teachers, commercial pilots don’t have their own flying styles and personal philosophies on how to fly. They pilot their planes according to well-documented procedures. The more expertise you gain as a pilot, the more you master the correct procedures for unusual circumstances. When the science is clear, correct procedures can be very prescriptive and good practice does not need to be guided by personal philosophy.

Medicine, in comparison, is a field where science is more advanced in some areas than in others. For conditions such as fibromyalgia and type 1 diabetes, medical science has yet to provide a clear understanding of cause and effect, and therefore reliable procedures for successful diagnosis and treatment do not yet exist. As a result, physicians who treat these conditions experiment with different treatments and rely on reflective practice to arrive at the best possible outcomes for their patients. But scientific advances, such as germ theory and antibiotics, have produced extremely reliable procedures and standard practices for diagnosing and treating many common ailments such as strep throat, ear infections, and appendicitis. In fact, the major medical education reforms that took place roughly a century ago came about as a result of advances in medical science during the previous century. Clear science brought consensus among medical professionals on what practices should be covered in medical training.

Education needs better science
In contrast, education school faculty have a much more difficult time saying for certain what actions under what circumstances will consistently produce desired student outcomes. Educational philosophies abound, and the personal philosophies of educators tend to dominate their practices. The fact that the science of learning seems to lag behind the science of other fields is understandable—students are more diverse and complicated than air conditioners and weather patterns or than physiological systems and microbial behavior. Memory, critical thinking, non-cognitive skills, motivation, and social/emotional skills are all complicated phenomenon that interact in hard-to-predict ways that affect students’ learning. On the surface, working with people may not seem as complicated as medicine or aeronautics because we all do it every day. But understanding how people think and behave and how that thinking and behavior affect learning is an extremely complicated endeavor.

Unfortunately, without a clear understanding of what actions under what circumstances will predictably produce desired outcomes, it’s hard to reach a strong consensus in the field on what education schools should teach. So, instead of teaching teachers what works, education schools often resort to giving teachers a process—reflective practice—that is intended to help them figure out “what works for you.” The science of education is a tough nut to crack. But we need to crack it in order for schools of education to develop teacher education programs that give teachers a robust set of practical skills.

Fortunately, some leaders in the field are already hard at work developing a body of trainable teaching practices that are based on learning science. For example, in their book, Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age, Rick Hess and Bror Saxberg show the alignment between learning science and some of the teaching practices that Doug Lemov carefully documented in his book, Teach Like A Champion. Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, has worked for years to translate the findings of learning science into practical strategies for classroom teachers, many of which are found in his book, Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. With increased use of digital learning, researchers and practitioners have more opportunities to gather continuous data on when and how students learn, which then provides unprecedented opportunities for advancing the science of learning.

Unfortunately, part of the problem is also that the science of learning that is already available doesn’t always make its way into schools of education and the actual practices of teachers in the field. To address this disconnect, Willingham is working with Deans for Impact, a national nonprofit organization representing leaders in educator preparation, to ensure that education schools’ teacher preparation programs are more grounded in the science of learning.

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Reflective practice is a good practice in circumstances where we don’t know for certain the actions to take to get the outcomes we want. It is one form of research that can greatly help to advance the science of a field. But for those who are responsible for educating our children, Sipe’s critique of education schools’ disproportionate focus on reflective practice is quite relevant. It is really hard be effective at your profession if you have to learn most everything reflectively and don’t have sound practices to follow. Our education system needs advances in learning science to continue to move the work of teaching from the realm of expert intuition to a realm of clearly defined skills and practices with highly predictable outcomes. The more this happens, the more we will know how to guarantee student success, and the more we will have consensus around what practices to teach in our education schools.

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.