I recently visited a school where three teachers have been engaging with the science of learning literature. They have established an informal learning circle and book club, where they read texts such as Daniel Willingham’s Why don’t students like school?, Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven myths about education, David Didau’s work, and then discuss the key ideas and trial new approaches in their classrooms. All three have made substantial changes to their practice, including a renewed focus on content knowledge, an emphasis on student behavior, and the use of techniques such as retrieval practice, spaced practice and knowledge organisers.
Visiting the teachers’ classrooms, it was possible to see the techniques in action. While I am an advocate of the science of learning research and believe that more teachers should be aware of the findings emerging from cognitive neuroscience, my visit did make me question what other research and ideas teachers should be engaging with alongside the science of learning. Is there a risk, that focusing too intently on only one area of research could unintentionally limit the richness of one’s teaching practice?
Spending time observing lessons and engaging in conversation with the teachers resurfaced tensions I had felt during my time as a secondary school treacher. I remember when teaching Year 13 Classics, I struggled to balance the need for students to engage with and learn the content of the course (ostensibly in order to pass NCEA at the end of the year) with my desire to also ensure that students were moving beyond basic memorisation and recall, to actually understand the knowledge and build the capacity to apply it in rich tasks that demonstrated deeper learning.
That teachers need to be supporting their students to build their content knowledge is clearly demonstrated by the research evidence. Both what and how much we know influences our ability to perform higher-order skills such as problem solving and critical thinking, as well as our ability to learn more, and more effectively. However, the process of applying our knowledge (rather than just recalling or regurgitating it), for example to solve a complex problem or to craft an argument in a debate or essay, also helps us to consolidate our knowledge-base. As a result, it is essential that all students are engaged in knowledge-rich, complex tasks, and that these tasks are seen as opportunities to be continually strengthening and building knowledge. It is critical that teachers hold high expectations for all their students, believing that they are capable, with the necessary supports, of engaging in powerful, deep learning. As Professor Christine Rubie-Davies’ research has shown, different levels of teacher expectations lead to different instructional practices. Teachers with low expectations for their students’ achievement often presenting less cognitively demanding experiences.
To develop deeper learning opportunities requires teachers not only to be effective pedagogues and to hold high expectations but also to be strong curriculum thinkers and designers. In the New Zealand context, with our largely content free curriculum, curriculum design takes on even greater importance. Research consistently shows that the most effective teachers are those who have significant and substantive knowledge of their disciplines or fields. Research further suggests that one way to avoid the potential for a fragmented and potentially overcrowded curriculum, and to provide greater coherence and meaning, is to focus on the big ideas or key concepts that structure or inform a particular learning area. These big ideas provide the conceptual framework upon which students can engage with a subject or discipline and gradually build more complex understandings.
What does the above mean for teachers and teaching? Firstly, it reconfirms the notion that teaching is a hugely complex enterprise, requiring deep knowledge and expertise across multiple domains. Secondly, it suggests that effective teaching requires a focus on the how (the pedagogy), the what (the curriculum), and the personal beliefs, experiences and identity of the teacher. And thirdly, it is essential to ask why. That is, what is the purpose(s) of education? This is often an unspoken or taken for granted element of our education system. And yet, it perhaps is the most important. Every educational decision hangs off the questions, what is education for? and what does it mean to be educated?