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Keeping Up With Brain Science Is a Tall Order for Many Teachers

Teacher training often fails to reflect current research, experts say.

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When teacher Eric Kalenze introduced a new book or reading passage to his students, he used to allow them to explore it on their own, following an approach he learned in teacher training.

Now, armed with a better understanding of the science of learning, he believes leading with this type of student inquiry is ineffective. Instead, he front-loads crucial context and factual information he thinks students will need to understand the text.

“I could not believe the difference when I took the time to do that,” said Kalenze, an English language arts teacher and curriculum leader at FIT Academy Charter School in Apple Valley, Minnesota. Giving students context, historical knowledge, and a footing in the vocabulary of a new book allowed him to spend more class time discussing themes and “the beauty of the work,” he said.

Cognitive scientists know a lot more than they did 25 years ago about the brain and how humans learn. And yet, a lot of the new research isn’t making its way into classrooms. There are a lot of reasons for that, according to the panelists, including teacher education programs that haven’t kept up with the research, intransigent institutions that are difficult to change, and human nature.

Kalenze, who is also the U.S. ambassador for researchED, an international grassroots organization trying to bridge the divide between effective teaching research and the classroom, spoke about cognitive science and its implications for classroom instruction during a recent Education Writers Association seminar on adolescent learning and well-being.

What Teachers-in-Training Learn

“The mental models teachers are using when they are in the classroom — for better or worse, those models are more influenced by how they were taught and what they experienced during their schooling,” said Jim Heal, an education consultant at Deans for Impact, who also spoke on the EWA panel.

At Deans for Impact, Heal works to infuse learning science into teacher preparation.

Recently, Heal and his colleagues surveyed more than 1,000 teacher candidates around the U.S. about the science of learning and its application.

The survey included questions that asked respondents to pick between several ways to solve problems. One solution would demonstrate a more surface-level understanding of the concept, while another required more complex thinking.

Just one in five teacher candidates “could accurately pick the task that was grounded in the more rigorous and thoughtful application of the science of learning,” Heal said. In most cases, these teachers-in-training were falling for what Heal described as “the allure of engagement.”

But he doesn’t blame these young teachers. Heal uses these data to point out the disconnect happening throughout the education system.

Heal believes that if more educators better understood the science of learning, they would be able to design activities and assessments that get at more complex understandings of the topic. He contends that, once teachers and their administrators become practiced at thinking this way about instruction, they begin to shift their mental models of teaching. He wants every teacher to engage students in “effortful thinking,” focusing on depth over breadth.

Addressing Implicit Biases

But the science of learning doesn’t only apply to math and reading. It also has big implications for school culture and how students feel when they’re at school.

Cognitive scientists and psychologists have learned a tremendous amount about how much feeling like one belongs in a class or at school impacts one’s ability to learn, said Robyn Harper, the equity coordinator for the District of Columbia school system. And teachers are often more biased than they know. They may unintentionally hold different expectations for students depending on race or class and treat students differently because of that.

“We’ve done a lot of work to get away from this idea that some people just aren’t able,” Harper said. “We understand better than ever that it’s environments that drive the type of progress that we see.”

Teachers are often frustrated with students whom they see as intentionally defiant, angry and disrespectful. But Harper pointed out that many of those students have every reason to feel angry, to distrust the system, and to see teachers as tools of inequality. When viewed that way, their anger may be justified. Is it really a surprise, Harper wondered, that in an environment like that, students aren’t learning?

When asked about one science-based practice she’d implement immediately, Harper said, “I would love to see practices in every classroom that reduce stereotype threat in students.” For example, she’d like all educators to be aware of how their implicit biases affect children’s conception of their own abilities, the way they acquire knowledge, and how they approach assessments. She wished every child felt safe and affirmed in every classroom.

“We would do things like say, ‘This test is not a judgment of your ability,’” Harper said. “We’re trying to see how you’re growing. We’re trying to assess how we can work together to get you to higher levels of learning.”

Changing Systems Is Hard

One of the challenges of implementing research findings in classrooms is that many teachers say they are overburdened. Many teachers describe barely having enough time to keep up with day-to-day tasks, let alone find time to keep up with the research and find ways to implement it. And, Kalenze said, even when they have spent extra time educating themselves about the science of learning, district policies and practices often directly contradict the science.

“If I could have anything happen based on the science I know, I would like all teachers and principals to know just how important knowledge is to all subsequent knowledge and critical thought,” Kalenze said.

At FIT Academy, he’s building the science of learning into the school’s teacher evaluation program. While Kalenze said he’s optimistic that a grassroots movement of teachers empowered with the cognitive science of learning can bring change to the schools where they work, he doesn’t believe that change will last unless it is baked into the systems.

“If a school improvement practice is carried out well at the local level, I mean the school level, you have the best chance of doing what’s best for your kids,” Kalenze said.

He hopes administrators will stop requiring what he described as useless professional development with the minimal time and dollars they have. Kalenze believes that focusing on a few key practices, like how educators teach reading in elementary school and shifting to a knowledge-based curriculum, would do far more than the one-off sessions on educational theories he said most educators already know.