Asking the Teachers

Approximately 11 weeks ago, I started my Ask A Researcher series. This is my attempt to connect two worlds of education: the education researcher world and the classroom teacher world. Both are incredibly important to education and learning, but they rarely ever work with one another for the greater good…especially on a large scale. Individual researchers or labs may conduct research in one classroom, one school, or maybe even one district, but there seems to be a lack of communication between the two on a national level. I wanted to provide some sort of platform to let teachers know a little more about researchers and the work they’re doing. I think, for the most part, the Ask A Researcher series has been a success. I’ve received loads of positive feedback and the researchers featured have been wonderful. I sincerely hope this has educated teachers on the work that researchers do and how they can participate to further our understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

But that is only one half of the equation. Through 11 different interviews, I’ve asked researchers to tell me about their work; to let me peek behind the curtain a bit to find out what they’re interested in and what their focus is. 

But, now the researchers have some questions for teachers. Dr. Nick Soderstrom (Ask A Researcher #8) actually came to me with this idea…and I think it’s great. It’s one thing for me to ask them about what they do, but it’s also incredibly important for teachers to field questions from the researchers to assist with their work. 

So, I’ve compiled some questions that the researchers would now like to pose to teachers around the globe. It would be great if teachers could respond in the comments sections on this article for all to see or, if you don’t feel comfortable with that, email the researchers individually. It is this sort of two-way communication that will assist teachers with better understanding research and help researchers understand exactly what teachers are looking for to improve learning in the classroom. When we all work together on this, everyone wins: the researcher, the teacher, and the student.

So, here are the questions:

From Dr. Robert Bjork (Ask A Researcher #1):

My question for teachers has to do with how to help ALL students learn.  It’s one thing, for example, to argue—as Elizabeth (Dr. Elizabeth Bjork) and I have—that teachers should introduce desirable difficulties for their students (in order to better exercise the processes that enhance long-term retention and transfer of to-be-learned knowledge), but, as we have also argued, the level of difficulty that is optimal varies as a function of the level of prior knowledge a given student already possesses.  With 20-30 students in a class, what can a teacher do to provide a level of challenge that is individualized, so to speak—that is, provides the right level of challenge for students in a given class who are at differing levels of prior learning?

I was also extremely grateful that Dr. Elizabeth Bjork, herself, wrote to convey her thoughts:

Whenever we speak with teachers—many of whom are very eager to introduce desirable difficulties into their instruction—perhaps the most frequent types of questions they pose to us amount to ones of how can they determine and/or provide the appropriate level of challenge for each of their students when they have up to 30 or more of them in each class. 

From Dr. Joe Kim (Ask A Researcher #3):

What teaching practice do you use in the absence of research evidence, that nonetheless, you are convinced is effective? 

Would you be interested in partnering with a researcher to explore this teaching process?

From Dr. Paul Kirschner (Ask A Researcher #5):

What did you miss during your education and training as a teacher that you need/needed when you became a teacher?

What was the balance between what to do (a technique; e.g. give feedback) and why/how you should do it (the theory behind; e.g., different types of feedback, how they work, what’s the function of requiring kids to act on it,…)?

From Dr. Regan Gurung (Ask A Researcher  #6):

What are the biggest barriers to your learning about the science of what works? Journal access? Easily digestible summaries? Money for CE?

There are great blogs out there to learn about learning science, but time is limited. What would you WISH you had from researchers of learning?

When you read about a research finding, how do you go about implementing it? What problems do you face when doing it?

How do you measure the effects of changes you make in instruction?

What do you think researchers have missed? Something you see in your class that research does not seem to address? 

From Dr. Brandy Tiernan (Ask A Researcher #7):

How do you manage your classroom — are you any more successful than college professors at getting students to do the reading?

We know that learning is the work of the individual mind, but what do you do to provide sources of motivation for students to keep trying/keep achieving?

How often do you ask students to self reflect and think about the processes they used to complete a task or assignment for class?

From Dr. Nick Soderstrom (Ask A Researcher #8):

(After commenting that he thought all of the other questions posed so far were great.)

I’d be interested in whether their teacher training program included information on cognitive psychology–more specifically, the science of human learning and memory. 

From Dr. Ayanna Thomas (Ask A Researcher #11):

From your perspective, what are the greatest impediments to student learning?

When considering your approach to lesson planning and teaching in general, what factors influence your general structure and thinking? 

Do you adopt new practices based on new information that you acquire? If so, how do you gather that information? 

Where do you learn about new practices?

Do you think that working with learning and cognitive scientists directly would be beneficial to your practice? Why or why not?

I don’t know about you, but I believe these questions are fantastic. It is so interesting to see what’s on their mind…what they wonder about with respect to teachers in the classroom. They want to know. They want to help out and they certainly want their work to have as positive an impact as possible.

So what’s next? If you’re a teacher and one of these questions struck a chord with you, feel free to comment below or contact the researcher individually…you can find many on Twitter and all are available via email.

Keep the conversation going. Get involved. If you are a teacher, the impact of your work is vast and incredible. Here’s one more way you can positively impact students near and far.

12 thoughts on “Asking the Teachers

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  1. Just contributed section on desirable difficulties to a PGCE programme – trainee teachers.
    Memory and retrieval practice now included in teachers’ standards in the U.K.

  2. These are all amazing questions that I will also discuss with my social science team. I teach A level Sociology with 20-30 students in a class in four hours a week. None of them have studied sociology before, so in some ways it is an equal playing field; but there is a wide range of literacy skills and social and cultural awareness. In response to Robert Bjork – it is really hard – but here are a few things I do which may answer your question:
    My expectation is that all students will succeed and will support each other in this success.
    I plan my seating arrangements carefully – sometimes in order that students with different prior learning can support each other and sometimes so that students with similar prior learning can support each other.
    I use retrieval practice extensively so that all students can quickly feel confident and start to build their knowledge base.
    I structure essay work very carefully – as even students who are good at essay writing benefit from going back to basics (as I do!).
    There is a lot of discussion in class which enables students with more prior learning to share their knowledge.
    I look at their work at least once a week to enables me to identify individual gaps and give feedback – I often do this as a whole class as again I think even students with more prior knowledge usually benefit, but also circulate in the class and give live feedback. Although this is individual I sometimes ensure everyone can hear so they can pick up on good practice.
    I model good work frequently and we examine why it is good and how it can be better
    I engage all parents and frequently communicate with them and ask them to test their children at home and discuss and comment on their work.
    There is probably more!

  3. Response to Dr. Paul Kirschner (Ask A Researcher #5): “What did you miss during your education and training as a teacher that you need/needed when you became a teacher?” – I appreciated much of the training I received in teachers college (a LONG time ago – late 1980s/early 90s). But I didn’t get to learn nearly enough about the science of learning. The information processing model has been around a long time, and research on cognitive load theory was around when I was in college. I wish I would have learned about these foundational theories regarding how humans encode/retrieve/learn. And I fear these ideas aren’t emphasized as much as they should be in teacher’s college classes now either (but I hope I’m wrong!)

  4. To Dr. Gurung, Re: what researchers have missed: the painful lack of quality schema in the curricula, textbooks, and state standards that that teachers are given to work with. Students need good schema/frameworks/etc so they have something meaningful to peg their new knowledge onto. All the schema I share with my students are things that I came up with myself. Textbooks provide lots of knowledge detail but often lack quality schema; standards often have broad, vague skills-based schema but no schema that help with knowledge-building. I find that most courses lack quality schema unless the teacher has worked to design schema themselves.

  5. Response to Dr. Regan Gurung (Ask A Researcher #6): “What are the biggest barriers to your learning about the science of what works?” (Hi Regan!) D. Willingham recently called for education organizations (NETA, NSTA, NCSS, etc.) to produce systematic reviews, etc. about important empirical questions in their content areas. It would be great if our professional organizations (including the NEA/AFT?) to commit resources to have qualified scholars to look across the research in an area and form a conclusion. Willingham points out that other professional organizations do this (APA, medical professions, etc). Why can’t we do this in education? And I’ll make this person: I wish the National Council of Social Studies would be brave and bold and look across research about teaching history and take a stand on several important issues (but I also wish they would acknowledge that Psychology exists as a social studies course, and that’s not going to happen any time soon 🙂

  6. What did you miss during your education and training as a teacher that you need/needed when you became a teacher?

    One of the things that wasn’t taught in college was how to make assessment rubrics. I teach high school, and a lot of our program was geared more toward elementary school teachers. They focused a lot on activities and things like “entry/exit ticket” and “think-pair-share,” but not on actual high-stakes testing, or how to develop a system of grading for those assessments that actually measure the goals they’re meant to. This was really frustrating when I got into actual teaching and almost all of my assessments were writing-based. I didn’t want to create rubrics that were based on things like grammar and formatting when what I really wanted to measure was their ability to think historically, but my teaching program *never once* discussed how to create tools of assessment.

    It wasn’t until I was a graduate assistant that my wonderful mentor sat down with me to show me how he (over many years of trial end error himself) developed a system of making rubrics and measures of student learning.

    Not every assessment has to be high-stakes. And not every assessment needs a specific rubric. But the ability to *know* that, and know when to know the difference, is something I felt like my teaching program should have prepared me for – and didn’t. Instead, I sat through about 500 classes of “how to write a flawless lesson plan” – which I almost never have to do.

  7. Answer to Dr. Paul Kirschner, Dr. Regan Gurung, and Dr. Ayanna Thomas:

    As a student, I got in contact with three Dutch teaching academies, but none of them taught me about the science of learning (cognitive psychology). Definitions of learning, short and long time memory, cognitive load, chunks, etc., all of them I had to discover myself (first blogs, then journals and books).

    Nowadays I read a lot about these things. But now, as I want to implement effective learning strategies in my lessons at a university of applied sciences, I miss a network of researchers with the same vision. I would like to implement different strategies, to properly measure their effects, and to discuss the implications, actually to research my own teaching. I do not want to mess up the good stuff (lethal mutation). Unfortunately, I was still not able to get in contact with a researcher.

  8. With respect to teacher training. At the time I felt like we needed more practical application and less theory. I definitely felt that there was cognitive overload during student teaching and I could not internalize the theory. However, I never had any courses that taught me about the science of learning (I was in my certification program 17 years ago). Cognitive science has changed how I teach but I only discovered it own my own 4 years ago. For those of us who are mid/late career we need our districts to provide PD on the science of learning. I believe teacher preparation programs today are putting this into their curriculum ??? Maybe.

    Getting kids to read: tough one, kids have access to so many ways of learning, podcasts, videos, and reading. I encourage my AP students to read but I do not require reading. I do require retrieval practice both recall and higher level questions. When students are not performing well on these retrieval practice I sit down to talk to them about their preparation (ideally this happens before summative assessment). Some kids need to read, some kids need to learn how to read, some kids need to find other methods to encode. Bottom line should be whether they are learning with whatever method they are using. I also don’t want them spending hours of time slogging through reading when there may be better ways of using their time. I feel like if I can give them a variety of strategies and we trouble shoot together I am realistically preparing them for a university experience.

    Greatest impediments to student learning (for the generalized student)

    No one has actually taught them how to learn – teachers make it a mystery or don’t actually know. Kids assume that the ability to learn is reserved for the “smart” kids

    Too many students on teacher’s workload and rapid meaningful feedback is not being delivered. Teacher training on giving meaningful feedback.

    Kids are given a grade and never internalize feedback so they don’t actually learn from the experience.

    Distractions – kids struggle to encode because they are constantly distracted by notifications etc from their devices, lack of ability to focus on a task long term. I believe this will get worse over the next 10 years based on what I see with my children’s classmates who have had electronics in their hands since they were babies. My husband and I have intentionally limited screen use to near 0. Both of my sons are incredible readers and very creative (don’t know if it is nature or nurture).

    Thank you for this opportunity, what an awesome idea!

  9. I am a private math tutor, so my experiences are quite different from that of most teachers. I know a lot less about managing groups of students, but possibly more about the details of student cognition in the most hated and feared subject of all: math. I write with that perspective. Forgive me if the post is too long.

    @ Everyone

    @ Dr. Brandy Tiernan
    “… are you any more successful than college professors at getting students to do the reading?” Think about how you would motivate an employee to do something: Model it, require it, train them to do it, track whether they did it, and praise/reprimand/compensate/promote/hire/fire accordingly. In a classroom, model how you want them to read new articles. Literally think aloud as you read a new article with them. To track and incentivize this, make an online quiz bank with, say, 30 questions about an article. Have the quiz bank assign a random selection of 10 of those questions to every student and state that the quiz must be finished by 8pm the evening before your class, and that each quiz will count for, say, 0.5% of their final mark. Some of the quizzes can be cumulative. Perhaps the last quiz question can be to generate 3 questions or personal comments for the professor. Then, begin each class by going over a sample of the quiz or doing Eric Mazur-style consensus building exercises. Every now and then you can ask them what impact these quizzes have had on them. This aligns your signals of importance, inclusion, and incentives. Without these measures, you are very much like a manager surprised their employees don’t do X while while you pay them to do Y and Z. [Less motivated employees may not see how X helps with Y and Z in the long-run.]

    @ Dr. Joe Kim [There’s another paragraph for you below as well!]
    Empathetic listening to build trust and encourage students to “keep thinking”. Genuine curiosity as to their thinking, absolutely no judgment, exuding enthusiasm for the student’s effort, but otherwise keeping a stone-cold poker face/demeanor with respect to content. The normal response to this is more elaboration, metacognition, generating questions and hypotheses, all while reducing fear of mistakes and building a trusting relationship. This also makes students more comfortable in talking about non-academic factors that affect learning. I’d love to participate in research on this.

    @ Dr. Ayanna Thomas
    @ Dr. Joe Kim
    **A Hypothesis Regarding Conflicting Hierarchies of Needs as a Major Impediment to Learning**
    Due to a confluence of factors, if a student feels time pressure and is non-confident about getting their desired minimal grade or credential, then there is at least a 50% chance of a tenacious lollapalooza of irrationality which lasts at least until that desired grade comes in. They will insist on horrible study methods, ignore prior learning problems, lobby teachers for better grades and more hackable tests, procrastinate, complain to administrators, ignore long-term consequences, and just generally drive educators crazy. Imagine a normally well-behaved teenage student screaming at me in an otherwise quiet public library, tears streaming, “I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE CONCEPTS AND LOGIC OF MULTIPLYING OR DIVIDING BY ZERO! I JUST HAVE TO FIND INTERCEPTS AND ASYMPTOTES SO JUST SHOW ME HOW – JUST HOW – NOT WHY! WE’RE NOT COMPARING EXAMPLES, THAT’S NOT ON THE TEST!” Sadly, teachers, parents and administrators go along with this, almost unanimously. Why? There’s a hierarchy of needs in the students’ minds and feeling good about grades and opportunities on the far side of “credential gates” is at the bottom. Learning content is in the middle. Developing character is on top. Note that virtually every decent educator cares about character and opportunity first, content and grades last. Throw in scholarship applications, report card anxiety, the threat of summer school or repeating a year, university entrance requirements, graduation deadlines, etc. and we have severe conflict, a dominant barrier to learning. Contact me for more details or go talk to some students and teachers of a high-stakes, end-of-high-school math course for more info. And, no, telling them they need to learn content first to get the credentials does NOT work – not if they’re used to hacking bad tests []

    @ Dr Regan Gurung
    Overall, I find a huge share of research ignores the following because they are very painful, counterintuitive, and expensive to deal with.
    (1) Politics, markets, credentials and incentives. It’s almost tautological to say that a good assessment in a cumulative subject like math should seek early indicators of trouble. Try to mark students this way in a grade 12 math course, though, and you find out that the majority of students struggle with how to think about a 15% sales tax and a $300 budget, meaning they need to be sent back to grade 7 math, right before applying to university. The administrative nightmare of dealing with that truth – and grading honestly – is so painful for so many people that virtually no teacher does it. Much easier to create hackable tests, then pass students along to university level math, where many fail. The “establishment” is overwhelmingly incentivized to avoid bad news.
    (2) The world has learned at least 3 big lessons about software development in the past 15 years. First, software developers radically underestimate how hard their products are to use. Second, their intuitions correct themselves during user-testing, i.e. literally sitting beside a user engaging in talk-aloud protocols while using their software. I have heard of nothing else that corrects their intuitions. Third, combining user-testing and rapid prototyping makes products vastly easier to use, often leading to exponential growth in usage. Might that approach be useful here? Could cognitive scientists and teachers work together to create fully finished products of “open and go” lesson plans and materials? Perhaps the lessons of usability can cause more people to adopt effective learning methods? Look up “Mystery Science” for examples or “Paul Graham, How to Start a Startup” for more info. Or contact me. 🙂

  10. @ Dr Regan Gurung
    @ Ayanna Thomas

    On second thought, maybe you don’t need to leave campus to get first-hand experience with impediments to student learning or things researchers have missed. Why not go to a class on your campus that is notorious for having lots of underprepared and poorly motivated students? First-year calculus or math for elementary school teachers come to mind. Partner with the instructors, see if you can improve those classes. An example of the challenges you’ll face:

    P.S. My mother was an elementary school teacher and they are my heroes. Mathematically, they are victims of a broken system that, with the help of cog sci, maybe we can fix!

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