Teachers don’t learn about learning

Friday, May 22nd, 2020

Many things that go on at schools are at odds with the conclusions of rigorous education research:

Teaching kids abstract critical thinking skills is unlikely to help them think critically. The length of lectures often exceeds children’s attention spans. Most anti-bullying programs don’t work.


The results were “sobering,” according to a March 2020 report, “Learning by Scientific Design; Early insights from a network informing teacher preparation.” By my math, teacher candidates scored an average of 57 percent or 31 questions correct on a 54-question test — an F.


Deans for Impact instead reported the results in three separate categories: 49 percent on 14 basic cognitive science principles; 58 percent correct on 32 questions about applying these concepts in the classroom, and 67 percent on eight questions about beliefs about how kids learn.


One common misunderstanding, according to the report, is mistaking student engagement for learning. In one question, student teachers were asked to pick between two classroom activities to teach students the difference between types of newspaper articles. One activity asked students to read the same three articles and answer three questions in small discussion groups. One example: “Make a list of differences between the news article and the opinion pieces. Which of these can be attributed to the authors’ differing purposes?” The second activity had students go on a newspaper scavenger hunt and sort articles into three categories: persuade, inform and entertain.

The question specifically asked teachers to pick the activity that would help students learn the ways that an author’s purpose influences their writing. And for the education researchers who helped create the assessment, it wasn’t a close call. “None of these are gotcha questions,” said Heal, a consultant with Deans for Impact.

But only 22 percent of future teachers picked the first activity, which was the correct answer, because it requires students to make their thinking visible and identify key features of each text. That helps students build a mental model that they can apply again in the future. The second activity doesn’t require much analysis but teacher candidates gravitated toward it. Why? “The first activity is very boring, I didn’t even want to read the questions,” wrote one test taker. “The second activity is more inviting, seems more hands on and is more inquiry learning.”

The test also revealed that many teacher candidates embrace the myth of learning styles, believing that individual students are either visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners. The research consensus is that differentiating instruction this way doesn’t boost learning.


Twenty-two teaching instructors at the six schools volunteered to take the test themselves. They also failed the section on basic cognitive science principles but they passed the section on practical applications in the classroom with an average score of 77 percent correct. Maybe you don’t need to know the details of the science as long as you know how to apply them.


  1. Buckethead says:

    It’d be interesting to train a teacher using the methods current in say, 1870. Same curricula, same tests. Then let them teach the way that they did then. I wonder how well the kids would do.

  2. JPW says:

    Nobody understands incentive more poorly than the ed profession. Learn how to make people want to be there rather than feeling incarcerated. Maybe then, they will find teaching an easier profession.

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