"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Monday, November 24, 2014

How Should Teachers Teach?

It is amazing to hear scores in standardized exams being easily dismissed as unreliable measures of learning outcomes while pointing to the results of the same exams as signs that there is something currently wrong with schools. The reality is that these international tests, PISA and TIMSS, do inform us about the state of basic education. Therefore, it is useful to look at school systems that do well in these exams. There may just be a lesson or two to learn.

England has been looking closely at Shanghai's schools to find out why Chinese students perform so well in these standardized exams. Zhenzhen Miao and David Reynolds of the University of Southhamptom have found that the higher test scores of Chinese students are associated with a particular type of teaching. Surprisingly, the method of teaching the British researchers have found in Shanghai is not one of those trending in education conferences. It is the old "chalk and talk" approach:

Above copied from the World Economic Forum
Here are excerpts from Miao and Reynolds:
...lessons with a lot of “whole class interaction” were associated with higher test scores, while “individual/group work” was associated with lower scores. Unsurprisingly, classes where large numbers of pupils were reported as “on task” throughout the lesson were associated with higher scores.

“Effective teachers spent longer time on interacting with the whole class rather than with individuals/groups or leaving pupils to independent seatwork,...
“Their teaching in the whole class was two-way communications rather than one-way lecturing. They were capable of keeping more pupils on task. They demonstrated strong skills in questioning pupils and responding to their answers.” 
These findings are in line with decades of research which had concluded that whole class interactive teaching, with the teacher exploring pupils’ knowledge through questioning and demonstration, was more effective than “seat work”, where children worked through exercises themselves.
Related to the above, a report recently published by the Sutton Trust, Durham University, and the Center for Evaluation and Monitoring finds that research in education over the past decades provides strong evidence only for the following aspects of teaching:
1. (Pedagogical) content knowledge
The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning. As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions.  
2. Quality of instruction
Includes elements such as effective questioning and use of assessment by teachers. Specific practices, like reviewing previous learning, providing model responses for students, giving adequate time for practice to embed skills securely and progressively introducing new learning (scaffolding) are also elements of high quality instruction.
Examining closely the above traits of effective teaching, it then becomes understandable why the "chalk and talk" approach can stand out as the most effective method. It is the method that hinges so much on a teacher's mastery of the subject and understanding of where his or her learners currently stand. 

The Sutton report, however, does not stop simply at identifying effective teaching practices. Although negative in tone, it is important to mention likewise ineffective teaching practices. Evidence from research is also clear on what does not work inside the classroom. In spite of the evidence, some of these ideas unfortunately linger. Here is their list:
  • Use praise lavishly:  Praise for students may be seen as affirming and positive, but a number of studies suggest that the wrong kinds of praise can be very harmful to learning. 
  • Allow learners to discover key ideas for themselves:  Enthusiasm for ‘discovery learning’ is not supported by research evidence, which broadly favours direct instruction. 
  • Group learners by ability:  Evidence on the effects of grouping by ability, either by allocating students to different classes, or to within-class groups, suggests that it makes very little difference to learning outcomes. 
  • Encourage re-reading and highlighting to memorise key ideas: Testing yourself, trying to generate answers, and deliberately creating intervals between study to allow forgetting, are all more effective approaches. 
  • Address issues of confidence and low aspirations before you try to teach content:  In fact the poor motivation of low attainers is a logical response to repeated failure. Start getting them to succeed and their motivation and confidence should increase.
  • Present information to learners in their preferred learning style:  Psychological evidence is clear that there are no benefits for learning from trying to present information to learners in their preferred learning style.  
  • Ensure learners are always active, rather than listening passively, if you want them to remember: These have no empirical basis and are pure fiction.
A lot of the myths enumerated here are quite popular. A lot of people actually believe that these are true. The fact is that research does not support any of these. What research supports is presented in bold and is colored. We could only hope that this helps....

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