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Connecting Teaching to Research

A major conference at TC lays out a vision for equipping new teachers to use the growing body of scientific knowledge about how people learn.
A major conference at TC lays out a vision for equipping new teachers to use the growing body of scientific knowledge about how people learn.

By Siddhartha Mitter and Joe Levine

The slide on the screen in TC’s Cowin Conference Center showed a medical student administering defibrillator pads to a mannequin. An attending physician stood next to her, guiding her hands as she pressed the pads to the dummy’s chest. A small knot of fellow students looked on. 

The picture has “implications for the ‘what’ of curriculum – for what there is for people to learn as they learn to teach, what people need to know,” said the speaker, Deborah Loewenberg Ball, Dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan. “But also, along with the ‘what’ is the ‘how does one teach practice?’ question.” The attending in the slide is showing the student how hard to hold the probes, Ball said, but they’re also discussing the relationship between pressure and the patient’s size. “The conversation bridges knowledge and practice.”

So, too, did “Connecting Advances in Learning Research to Teacher Practice,” a conference presented jointly on July 20 at TC by the College and TeachingWorks, a national organization based at the University of Michigan. The full-day event, attended by more than 400 teachers, education school faculty, researchers and policymakers, showcased the work on the future of teacher preparation by the leading minds of two premiere education schools.

The occasion, TC President Susan Fuhrman reminded listeners in her welcome address, could not have been more urgent. School districts across the nation are dissatisfied with the readiness of new teachers, while a growing number of novices are entering the field. (The modal, or predominant, number of years of experience among teachers is now one, down from 15 in 1985.)  Meanwhile, there has been a groundswell of negativity about the value of theory in educator preparation. Even a supporter of education schools, the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) published a report that calls for teacher prep programs to “shift away from a norm which emphasizes academic preparation.” Recently there has been a proliferation of new alternative certification programs and other teacher prep models that not only lack a scholarship component, but also view that omission as a selling point. 

Yet “ironically, this emphasis is coming now at a time when there is in fact an explosion of new knowledge incredibly relevant to teaching,” Fuhrman said. “New findings about how both adults and children take in information most effectively are streaming in from fields like cognitive psychology and neuroscience. We’ve learned more about learning environments, particularly about how they shape and inform the learning experience. We’ve learned about the trajectories students are likely to take through various subject matter concepts. New adaptive education technologies help assess student learning and inform the teacher about where students are in their developing understanding, and help them with the answer of ‘What next?’ if the student is not on a path toward understanding the concept.

“How will we incorporate this new knowledge into teacher preparation and practice?” Fuhrman asked. “Asking that question means facing up to the knowledge-theory-practice dilemma. How can knowledge and theory be made more relevant for practice? How can we be sure that new learning about learning doesn’t simply get incorporated in a unit in the Ed Psych Foundations course, but also informs how we prepare new teachers for practice?  What does practice-focused teacher education look like, and what will it look like in the future as new knowledge is incorporated?  That’s what we’re here to discuss today.”

Mining Theory

For Ball, a former elementary school math teacher who still works with young students during the summer, the answers to these questions begin with the recognition that “simply knowing the subject doesn’t enable you to teach it well” and doesn’t resolve the question of “how academic knowledge of a subject relates to useable knowledge of the academic subject in teaching.” To illustrate that point, Ball showed the audience a multiplication problem – 25 times 49 equals 1,225 -- and three wrong answers that would result from a carrying error commonly made by elementary school students.

“If the only thing you know is that the answer is supposed to be that, you could be quite baffled when students do something else and about what they are thinking,” she said. But “if you had developed the capacity to think about mathematics from someone else’s perspective, you would be more habitually oriented to being able to pose a good question to a student or think of what would be a next problem to pose to see what the student was doing, or even to ask the student what he or she did.” 

Indeed, “finding out what kids know is the first step of teaching,” said Herbert Ginsburg, TC’s Jacob H. Schiff Foundation Professor of Psychology and Education, in a session titled “Advances in Research on Learning and its Application.” Ginsburg, who has devoted his career to identifying and enhancing the “everyday math” skills of very young children, spoke about the value of clinical interviews—one-on-one discussions with learners that can provide teachers with usable insights for the classroom—and, more broadly, of simply asking children as often as possible, in any setting, two simple questions:  “How did you do that? Why?”

“Teachers need to have an orientation toward teaching that stresses understanding children and how they think,” he said. “The most practical thing we can give teachers is instruction in how to interview children and how to assess what they know. That should be an integral part of teaching, and in fact, I would argue that it is teaching. And then finding out whether what you did had an effect on kids is the next part of teaching.”

Ginsburg’s questions are, in essence, are at the heart of a two-part course called “Children as Sense Makers,” offered to undergraduate teaching interns at the University of Michigan during their junior year. The course’s guiding premise is that “children are constantly engaged in making sense of the world,” said Annemarie Palinscar, Jean and Charles Walgreen Professor of Reading and Literacy at the university. The work of teachers is to “influence this sense making” by asking well-constructed questions, suggesting things that students should notice, and providing students with tools – both physical and cognitive – that support learning, Palinscar said.

The students in “Children as Sense Makers” conduct an initial interview with children in grades 1 through 3 to learn how the youngsters make sense of the day/night cycle.  They assess the accuracy, consistency, coherence and completeness of the children’s explanations. Then, they read to the children from a book called What Makes Day and Night, and observe as the children physically model the day/night cycle using simple materials (a tooth pick, a flashlight, a ball of play-dough on a stick). In a follow-up interview, they assess how the children’s understanding may have changed. Throughout the process, the teaching students also evaluate their own understanding of the day-night cycle, read material to improve it, and rehearse and critique their interviewing skills.

Conducting such deep assessments of children’s understanding is assuming even greater importance in light of the “Next Generation Science Standards” that were released in draft form this past May by the National Research Council.

Intended to inform a scientifically literate and fluent population, the new standards represent a sweeping attempt to update and reform K-12 science education, TC’s Ann Rivet, Associate Professor of Science Education, told listeners. They focus on big concepts, such as patterns, cause and effect, and systems and system models, that cut across disciplines and explain a wide range of phenomena. Students will be called upon to actively apply them in solving problems.

Taken together, these big concepts support “learning progressions,” the empirically sequenced presentation of content across grades to facilitate coherence in learning and get kids to think in successively more sophisticated ways about a topic. Equally important, they promote behaviors that scientists engage in as they investigate and build models and theories about the natural world, such as asking questions and defining problems; developing and using models; planning and carrying out investigations and engaging in argument from evidence.  

Under the learning progressions approach, “concepts are not simply repeated or retaught from grade to grade, but revisited with increasing complexity and rigor,” Rivet said. For example, while a fourth grader might initially describe “force” as “push or pull that might cause motion,” a high school student would come to understand “net force” as being “proportional to acceleration.”

In another departure from current practice, teaching based on a learning progression recognizes that certain misconceptions by students can be productive stepping stones to deeper understanding.

Refining Practice

But ultimately the skills required to probe kids’ understanding and, even more importantly, modify one’s teaching on the basis of that information, cannot be learned by passively absorbing lectures in a classroom.

“Teaching is inherently interactive and contingent – the teacher needs to be able to respond in the moment to all the inputs that students are giving,” said Elizabeth Davis, Associate Professor of Elementary Teacher Education at the University of Michigan, in a session on “Practice-focused Professional Education for Teachers.”

Which makes it imperative to provide teachers with “repeated opportunities to practice specific teaching skills, with close prescriptive coaching, in settings that support professional learning,” said Francesca Forzani, Associate Director of TeachingWorks.

At the University of Michigan, students move along what Davis calls “a continuum of approximations” – a progression of structured engagements that simulate, with increasing realism, the experience of full-on, real-life teaching. At Michigan, Davis said, approximations can range from critiquing videotapes of actual classroom teaching to role-playing with one another, to teaching lesson segments with small groups of students.

“The authenticity increases, the complexity increases, and the scaffolding decreases,” she said.

The ultimate goal: for new teachers to emerge proficient in what Davis called “high-leverage practices” that span the many subjects elementary school teachers must teach. These include skills such as choosing and representing content, engaging students in an organizational routine, choosing and modifying lesson plans for a specific learning goal, and conducting a meeting with a parent or guardian – as well as the more challenging work of figuring out what students understand and don’t understand.

“We argue that without success in these small practices, our teaching students won’t be successful on a larger level,” Davis said.

At TC, students in a medical residency-style master’s degree program called TR@TC jump directly into teaching. The program, launched in 2010, pairs teaching residents with mentor teachers in middle and high schools right from the program’s opening bell. TR@TC requires the residents to volunteer with community-based organizations “because learning and education don’t just happen in schools,” said A. Lin Goodwin, TC’s Vice Dean and the program’s creator.

And the program takes Ball’s invocation of medical teaching models literally, requiring teaching students to participate in “teaching rounds.” Groups of TR@TC residents, led by an experienced practitioner, observe their peers as they teach, critique one another and debrief, citing evidence from their notes about patterns and trends in the observed teacher’s approach. The goal of the rounds is “to build habits of mind and practice rather merely focusing on a particular technical skill,” said Emilie Reagan, Partnership School Coordinator and Lead Research Associate at TC.

Yet, prospective teachers also need “a space to wrangle with practice,” and more specifically to understand it in a broader context, Goodwin said. For TR@TC students, that space is a weekly “integrating seminar” that kicks in during the second semester of the program. There, the residents share and distill their field experiences in discussion led by faculty who are knowledgeable about relevant research.

“We believe teacher preparation should be a constantly iterative story,” Goodwin said in a discussion of TR@TC past winter in TC’s Annual Report. “A teaching resident comes back to the seminar and says, ‘This is my experience. We say, ‘OK, that interesting, because the research says…’ And they take that back to their classrooms and adapt it to their practice – and their practice to it.”

The Promise of Technology

Technology is influencing teaching on at least two major fronts: It provides teachers with tools for assessment and instruction; and through research, it offers teachers a window onto the brain.

Powerful new tools called adaptive education technologies (AETs) are supplying teachers with curricula that use problem-centered activities and games that trade on sports, money, art, the environment and other topics of interest to motivate students to think about math, science and social studies.  Many of these tools enable teachers to monitor their students’ progress, gather data on the performance of the entire class, and adjust their instruction accordingly.

But the potentially bigger news is that AETs also record a gold mine of data that could redirect teaching strategies on a broader scale and improve the management of schools and school systems. As panelist Gary Natriello, TC’s Ruth L. Gottesman Professor of Education Research, wrote in an opinion piece earlier this year in TC Today magazine, “the new technologies are networked – that is, continuously connected both to end users and to creators and providers – and thus embedded in increasingly robust lines of communication…and they are self-improving, generating information that drives a continuous cycle of design, development, application, assessment and change.”

AETs are only beginning to make their mark in schools. But other tools, such as dedicated software programs, iPads, Nintendo’s Wii, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3, are already serving, in and out of school, as an important medium for “grounded cognition” – learning that is enhanced by the learner’s ability to create both a mental and perceptual simulation of a concept or process. 

“Many tasks that cognitive researchers thought involved abstract, symbolic styles of thinking actually also involve the perceptual areas of the brain,” said John Black, TC’s Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Telecommunications and Education, speaking as part of the “Advances in Research” panel. Processing language has a visual aspect, for example: “It’s the spatial layout of the thing – you’re not just processing the language and extracting ideas. There is a progression: visualizing mentally, then symbolizing, back and forth.” Tools like tablets, with their gesture-based interfaces, are a “godsend” for applying this knowledge, Black said. “You get visuals and sound -- they are much richer in terms of perceptual experience. And once people have had those experiences, their learning becomes part of them and the way they interact with the world. One of the embarrassments for education is that a lot of what people learn in educational settings is just on the surface. You learn something in a classroom, but then you go out in a different setting ad it never occurs to you to use that knowledge.”

On the research front, technology that reveals brain function is only beginning to shed light on how learners process information. In part, that’s because “we’re at the stage where we have to look not at each individual as different” but instead “for the commonalties, for the way that all brains handle these kinds of tasks,” said Karen Froud, Associate Professor of Speech and Language Pathology at TC. “Because if we don’t do that work first, then we can’t develop the theoretical frameworks that will allow us to formulate hypotheses that will tell us in turn how individuals kids might differ from the more typical situation.”

Froud, whose lab uses electroencephalography (EEG) technology to capture the brain’s responses to external stimuli in real time, said that such work is having immediate applications for groups such as adults re-learning functions after a stroke, or children with a particular developmental disorder. Ultimately, as this kind of research establishes a baseline for the broader population, it will be possible, Froud said, to learn “how individuals’ brains function and then use that information to understand how those individuals acquire cognitive and other kinds of skills.” 

  *        *       *

By the conference’s closing session, Developing a Practice-orientation to Knowledge and Theory and Teacher Preparation, it was clear that teachers in the audience were excited about drawing on the information they’d heard.

Rafiq Kalam Id-Din, a teacher and managing partner at the Professional Preparatory Charter School in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section Brooklyn, said after the conference that he was excited about the potential of research that could reveal how the brain acquires knowledge and information. “It’s potentially a game-changer for us in working with our students, because we’ll really understand not just when they get it right, but how they’re getting things wrong, so that we can go back and unpack that and help them adjust,” he said. More immediately, Kalam Id-Din, whose works with a high-poverty student population that is more than 10 percent special needs, said he found the idea of asking students about the way they think “very powerful.

“I can see myself asking my students that question over and over again, and I can see it paying off.”

Meanwhile, researchers at the conference seemed equally inspired to connect with those on the teaching side.

“I think as scholars we need to attend more to our role as public intellectuals,” said TC’s William Gaudelli, Associate Professor of Social Studies and Education. “Scholars who are more responsive to an audience of practitioners are read by more people. So we need to do more to reach out.”

Published Monday, Aug. 6, 2012


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