Come a Long Way, Got a Long Way to Go

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

Simon Oxenham recently reported on a new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality that examined how well teacher training courses and textbooks convey evidence-based teaching practices. The sad answer is, hardly at all:

The report finds that out of 48 texts used in teacher-training programs none accurately described fundamental evidence-based teaching strategies comprehensively. Only 15 percent had more than a single page devoted to evidence-based practices; the remainder contained either zero or only a few sentences on methods that have been backed up by the decades of scientific findings that exist in the field of educational psychology.

In particular, textbooks didn’t include anything approaching adequate coverage of six core teaching strategies identified in this 2007 report as being the most effective techniques in all classrooms regardless of age or subject:

  1. Pairing graphics with words. 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 example 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 solved and unsolved problems. 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.
  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 raises an uncomfortable question, though: how well does Software Carpentry measure up against these six criteria? I’ll give us a pass on #5 — our two-day workshops simply don’t allow for practice weeks or months later (though we hope learners will do this on their own). But what about graphics? There aren’t many diagrams in our lessons, and the ones we have usually aren’t put up on the screen when we teach. Linking concepts to representations? Probing questions? I think we still have a lot of work to do.

But I also think that our lessons and teaching practices are better than they used to be. We’ll add these points to instructor training and follow up on them in mentoring sessions, and keep getting better, one small fix at a time.

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