Bridging practice

Teaching while ignoring education research is common practice in higher education. In many venues there’s an unspoken assumption that a Ph.D. bestows teaching powers upon the degree holder, who need only address a group of students in order for learning to happen. Students are held 100% responsible for their own learning. If they don’t learn, they must not have studied hard enough, must not have had the requisite skills and knowledge to begin with, must not have applied themselves to the task. The higher education instructor has little incentive to learn how to teach better, by learning about what works, by being responsive to student needs, or by adapting teaching methods based on education research.

This approach, when applied in a kindergarten classroom, leads the teacher to be eaten alive by cute roly-poly five-year-olds. When pre-college teachers ignore research, are unresponsive to their students, or don’t put students’ needs first, they typically don’t last a year. There’s pressure for schools to hire teachers who can deliver positive results. Property values in local communities can suffer from ineffective teaching, and taxpayers who fund schools and teacher salaries demand better. Bridging teaching practice and education research results in effective teaching that helps children and communities grow.

What a great delight to find so many familiar ideas when reading the introduction to How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose et al. A book that instructs university faculty to follow many of the same practices that I used as a K-12 teacher is a great validation of my first career. Pre-college teachers typically undergo a year of teacher training based on well-established education research, and implement evidence-based practices in their teaching. How Learning Works shows that techniques that work in elementary school can be employed in the college classroom to equal effect.

Chapter 1 addresses prior learning and its effect on new learning. As a K-12 teacher I often used Dr. Madeline Hunter’s lesson structure for designing and planning lessons. In Dr. Hunter’s structure, each lesson starts with an anticipatory set to activate prior learning. The anticipatory set could be a question, an analogy, a picture, or some activity to engage prior knowledge and generate interest in the lesson to follow. New information would follow the anticipatory set, then guided practice, and ultimately independent practice of new knowledge or skills. I found Dr. Hunter’s structure helpful, but sometimes a bit too restrictive. Nevertheless, the anticipatory set always felt like the right way to start off something new, even if what followed did not comply with the rest her model.

I’m accustomed to working with students’ insufficient prior knowledge when teaching computational biology to high school students. There’s a big leap between a high school student’s understanding of computing and biology, and that of an academic researcher. I do quite a bit of backfilling to prepare students to work with advanced concepts in genetics, statistics, and computing, though I can never give them enough in the 1.5 hours a week we spend together. I leave much of it to them to learn on their own, and provide them with the best resources I can find. They come through - they work hard, they’re driven and talented, and they genuinely enjoy the challenges we give them. It’s an imperfect approach, yet an opportunity to let young people experience real research firsthand.

The section on inaccurate knowledge is haunting, mainly because we’re nearing an election in which many people will not change their thinking in spite of the evidence placed before them. I haven’t found inaccurate knowledge to be a frequent problem when teaching, but it certainly is in political and social life. The correction methods presented in Chapter 1 don’t seem to work. Asking people to make predictions based on their beliefs or justify their reasoning seems to cement their thinking rather than encourage them to examine it. The most hopeful method for changing inaccurate knowledge is to wait; allow sufficient time for people to take in new knowledge and replace the old.

I look forward to moving on through the rest of How Learning Works. It’s a pleasure to read about learning theory in a book that is so accessible and practical.

Written on October 6, 2016