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What Should Teachers Know?

Reasonable people agree that teachers should know the content of the subject matter they teach -- history, math, literature -- whatever it is. But should they have a good understanding of how children learn?
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Reasonable people agree that teachers should know the content of the subject matter they teach -- history, math, literature -- whatever it is.

But should they have a good understanding of how children learn? Most people -- including most teachers -- would say yes. And yet solid information about the process of learning is not yet part of the ordinary teacher's education.

Change may be coming; 24 deans of colleges of education, part of a new organization called "Deans for Impact," have agreed that their students should learn what science has discovered about how people learn.

As part of that work, Deans for Impact released a short, simple document, "The Science of Learning," to explain a few extremely well-established principles of learning that have implications for the classroom.

By "well-established" I mean that they are the consensus views of a vast majority of cognitive scientists. These aren't hobbyhorses based on an interesting little study somewhere or another, but rather, principles determined by dozens if not hundreds of studies. That doesn't mean that the principles might not be refined and given more nuance by more study, but the broad outlines are unlikely to change dramatically.

Here's one such principle:

"Each subject area has some set of facts that, if committed to long-term memory, aids problem-solving by freeing working memory resources and illuminating contexts in which existing knowledge and skills can be applied. The size and content of this set [of facts] varies by subject matter."

That is to say, that once foundational facts are learned, people can draw on them to solve larger problems. So, for example, if we want students to be able to write essays identifying the character traits of, say, George Washington or Martin Luther King Jr., it is essential for them to know a lot of information about colonial and revolutionary America on the one hand and segregation and the Civil Rights Movement on the other. Similarly, if we want students to be able to assess scientific claims about climate change, they should have a lot of background knowledge about global temperatures, forest cover, sea levels, and carbon dioxide.

The reason for this is, as another of the principles states, "Students have limited working memory capacities that can be overwhelmed by tasks that are cognitively too demanding."

What this means is that performing those kinds of analytic tasks -- and lots of others -- are simply too difficult if people have to start from scratch to learn the necessary information each time.

I would guess that most teachers understand that their students need to learn foundational facts -- but they have often been taught in their training institutions and in professional development that they should eschew the teaching of dry and dull facts in favor of teaching problem-solving and other skills.

They have been told this even though the cognitive science is clear: Problem-solving is difficult if not impossible without knowing the foundational facts of the problem to be solved. That of course is not to say that kids should be taught facts in isolation -- no one does well with that -- nor that they should be given lists of facts to memorize. But students need a thoughtfully considered curriculum that builds foundational knowledge in interesting ways and gives students the ability to think about that knowledge in new ways.

One of the nice things about the Deans for Impact document is that it gives a cognitive principle and then lays out a few practical implications for the classroom.

This reflects the expertise of two people who consulted on the document -- Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist who has done more than anyone to translate the science for educators; and Paul Bruno, a blogger and former middle school teacher.

For example, in talking about motivation, one key cognitive principle is: "Beliefs about intelligence are important predictors of student behavior in school." One associated practical implication for the classroom is that "teachers should know that students are more motivated if they believe that intelligence and ability can be improved through hard work."

The document would be helpful for any educator. The question for Deans for Impact is whether these cognitive principles will in fact be infused into teacher training in the 24 institutions represented by the member deans -- and eventually throughout the rest of teacher preparation.

Because, surprisingly, this kind of solid scientific information about how people learn has not yet formed a core part of teachers' education and training.

The reasons for that are many, among them the fact that cognitive scientists, who have been studying learning and memory for more than a century, did not do a good job of promoting their work until about the last 15 years. Add to that the fact that higher education tends to be institutionally conservative and has a hard time with change, and that goes a long way toward explaining why many teachers still leave school not knowing much about the process of learning.

At the event where the document was released, Greg Anderson, dean of the school of education at Temple University, said that his faculty members were initially a bit resistant. But, he added, "when you appeal to their research sense," that resistance faded. Anderson said that incoming teacher candidates at Temple were given a pre-test this year about what they knew about the science of learning, and the school will administer a post-test to see how much they learn during the course of their studies. "The proof will be in the pudding," he said.

Next week: I return to the quest that I began a couple of weeks ago.