Optimizing Teaching in a Time of Educational Discovery

In many of my posts over the last year, I’ve attempted to distill neurological discoveries in order to suggest practical techniques that help teachers become more effective in the classroom and optimize student learning. With the many demands on classroom teachers, it can be difficult to stay current with the latest insights in brain science that impact pedagogy, and my previous posts share practical steps for teachers to effectively reach greater numbers of students. That is why I appreciated the article in Education Next by Daniel Willingham from the University of Virginia titled, “Unlocking the Science of How Kids Think: A New Proposal for Reforming Teacher Education.” As Willingham observed, teachers need to understand children first and foremost. And to do that, Willingham believes teachers should pay attention to empirical observations made by psychologists about how children think and act and then examine their specific implications for the classroom. 

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For example, frequently retrieving information from one’s memory improves the retention of knowledge. And how might a teacher improve one’s practice with this theory? By establishing a routine of offering students low-stakes quizzes to boost recall of the information covered in class.

Similarly, if teachers are familiar with the appropriate amounts of repetition that is crucial for long-term retention, they should devote ample time for students to practice skills and retain knowledge, particularly over a period of several days.

Another example from Willingham: only the specific material that students focus upon will be learned, so it is essential for teachers to consider what students will actually pay attention to and not distract them with information that is outside of key learning objectives.  

And finally, students who believe that they become more intelligent through hard work and what Carol Dweck would refer to as a “growth mindset” choose more challenging tasks and persist longer when they have difficulty. Therefore, teachers should attempt to foster this kind of mindset when they discuss student progress and frame learning opportunities, particularly when students struggle.

Willingham describes other discoveries in psychology that have implications in the classroom and fortunately for educators, scientists are learning more about the human brain all of the time. For these and many other reasons, it is an exciting time to be in the field of education and to consider possibilities for how teaching and learning may evolve in the years ahead. For even with all of the daily demands teachers have on their time, we owe it to our students to do all we can to stay informed and provide the best pedagogy based upon what we now know about how we learn.

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