Learning about learning: What every teacher needs to know

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When I trained to be teacher I was told little or nothing about how children learn. Because a lot of what we intuitively suppose about the process of learning is often flatly contradicted by cognitive science this was a huge handicap. Since you can’t think about stuff you don’t know, I spent all my time pontificating on the process of teaching, but lacked the theoretical framework and knowledge base to consider how my students learned. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Over the past few years I’ve discovered an awful lot through reading various books and academic papers which has given me the ability to start thinking about how students learn, and the more I’ve learned the more sophisticated my thinking has become.

Two useful starting points for anyone wanting to learn about learning are the APA’s Top 20 Principles from Psychology for Teaching and Learning and the very readable Deans for Impact paper, The Science of Learning.

Now there’s another source of wisdom. Learning About Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know from the US National Council on Teacher Quality is a manifesto for improved teacher training. In it, some of the most eminent researchers in educational psychology reveal the woeful lack of focus in American teacher training programmes on instructional practices supported by cognitive science but also the curious absence of evidence based information in US teacher training text books.

We could, of course, choose to focus on the differences between UK and US teacher training or perhaps on what some see as the quaintness of relying on textbooks, but instead I think we’d profit more from turning our attention to what the report’s authors refer to as the ‘Big Six’ strategies that have the most impact on how students learn.

These are:

  1. Pairing graphics with words. Young or old, all of us receive information through two primary pathways — auditory (for the spoken word) and visual (for the written word and graphic or pictorial representation). Student learning increases when teachers convey new material through both.
  2. Linking abstract concepts with concrete representations. Teachers should present tangible examples that illuminate overarching ideas and also explain how the examples and big ideas connect.
  3. Posing probing questions. Asking students “why,” “how,” “what if,” and “how do you know” requires them to clarify and link their knowledge of key ideas.
  4. Repeatedly alternating problems with their solutions provided and problems that students must solve. Explanations accompanying solved problems help students comprehend underlying principles, taking them beyond the mechanics of problem solving.
  5. Distributing practice. Students should practice material several times after learning it, with each practice or review separated by weeks and even months. This is sometimes called the ‘spacing effect’
  6. Assessing to boost retention. Beyond the value of formative assessment (to help a teacher decide what to teach) and summative assessment (to determine what students have learned), assessments that require students to recall material help information ‘stick’. This is usually referred to as the ‘testing effect‘.

The first two strategies are about encoding – how students best take in information. Three and four are useful for correcting misconceptions and the final two help boost retention. Some of these strategies may seem obvious but others are anything but. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that this isn’t just useful for new teachers. Every teacher, no matter their level of experience, could benefit from knowing about and applying these strategies in their teaching.

18 Responses to Learning about learning: What every teacher needs to know

  1. […] Learning about learning: What every teacher needs to know […]

  2. debrakidd says:

    Really helpful David, thank you. I’d also add the work on embodied cognition from Susan Goldin-Meadow and John Ratey – movement helps with conceptual understanding and retention, crossing two of your domains there. And of course there’s emotion – a lot of that comes from Antonio Damasio, but this article is useful too http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct94/vol52/num02/How-Emotions-Affect-Learning.aspx

  3. S Bandy says:

    Love your blog. Please continue posting information about how students learn.

  4. Thanks for this really neat summary.

    Point one is, possibly, summarised too far in that the research shows significant differences between semantic information delivered through auditory pathways vs semantic information delivered as written information. I.e. you get a much better effect if you talk learners through a visual than if you expect them to read at the same time as reviewing the visual. This probably seems like nitpicking but, too often, summaries of this sort of research have become justifications for VAK.

  5. […] When I trained to be teacher I was told little or nothing about how children learn. Because a lot of what we intuitively suppose about the process of learning is often flatly contradicted by cognitive science this was a huge handicap. Since you can’t think about stuff you don’t know, I spent all my time pontificating on the process  […]

  6. Louis Fatta says:

    What teaching college did you go to where you learned little or nothing about cognitive behavior? Piaget, Skinner, Bloom, you might want to check your notes. I would venture to say most accredited teaching colleges in the US cover cognitive behavior and child psychology.

    I find grabby headlines like, “What Every Teacher Should Know”, goading and disingenuous. I feel the same way about condescending book titles like “everything you know about education might be wrong’. Really? that’s what I want to read?

    • David Didau says:

      Well, Louis, I did my PGCE at Oxford University. I was indeed told about Piaget’s stage theory of development (which has been acknowledged as wrong in several important points for some decades now) as well as being shown Benjamin Bloom’s risible taxonomy. All I was told about Skinner and the other behaviourists was that they were wrong which turns out to be pretty disingenuous.

      I can’t really be held account for your preferences but I stand by this particular title. Every teacher really should know about these six strategies. If they don’t then they be a less effective teacher.

      The fact that you find the tit;e of my book condescending says more about you than me I’m afraid. Being wrong is a normal part of the human condition – we’re all wrong all the time about all sorts of things. Further, we all suffer with very predictable cognitive and perceptual biases which prevent us from seeing where we’re making mistakes. If you’ve decided you are somehow different from the rest of us and immune from error then the book is most definitely for you. Contempt prior to investigation is never an attractive quality, but is especially lamentable in a teacher.

  7. […] Learning about learning: What every teacher needs to know. When I trained to be teacher I was told little or nothing about how children learn. Because a lot of what we intuitively suppose about the process of learning is often flatly contradicted by cognitive science this was a huge handicap. Since you can’t think about stuff you don’t know, I spent all my time pontificating on the process of teaching, but lacked the theoretical framework and knowledge base to consider how my students learned. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Over the past few years I’ve discovered an awful lot through reading various books and academic papers which has given me the ability to start thinking about how students learn, and the more I’ve learned the more sophisticated my thinking has become. Two useful starting points for anyone wanting to learn about learning are the APA’s Top 20 Principles from Psychology for Teaching and Learning and the very readable Deans for Impact paper, The Science of Learning. […]

  8. […] Society). Are these ‘neuro-hits’ or ‘neuro-myths’? These articles were compiled by Dr. Learning about learning: What every teacher needs to know. When I trained to be teacher I was told little or nothing about how children learn. Because a lot […]

  9. […] Learning about learning: What every teacher needs to know | David Didau: The Learning Spy […]

  10. […] (There’s also good reason to use images alongside text to boost memorability) […]

  11. […] Learning about learning: What every teacher needs to know A report from the US National Council on Teacher Quality reveals the ‘big six’ strategies we should all know. […]

  12. […] “ When I trained to be teacher I was told little or nothing about how children learn. Because a lot of what we intuitively suppose about the process of learning is often flatly contradicted by cognitive science this was a huge handicap. Since you can’t think about stuff you don’t know, I spent all my time pontificating on the process”  […]

  13. Terry says:

    Hello David. Not sure if in the time between putting up this post you have seen the review of the ‘Learning About Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know’ publication on the link below. It makes the point that the report is ‘of little value for improving teacher preparation, selecting textbooks, or guiding educational policy.’

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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