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Study: Time Changes How Teachers See Students—Literally


Have you ever noticed how some of the most experienced teachers seem to have eyes in the back of their heads? That perception is no surprise to Kevin F. Miller, a professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

With financial support from the federal Institute of Education Sciences, Miller is using


sophisticated mobile eye-tracking technology to look at classrooms through teachers' eyes. With the devices, which teachers wear like eyeglasses, Miller can record each time a teacher's gaze lingers on a single student and when it scans across the classroom.

Miller and his research partner Christopher A. Correa have used the devices so far with 20 pairs of teachers. Their analysis of that video footage suggests that novice and experienced teachers look at the world differently.

The newcomers, for instance, tend to engage more often in "cognitive tunneling." That is, they focus longer and more often on a single student. The veterans, in contrast, tend to take in the entire room most of the time. In one such pair of expert-novice teachers, the younger teacher spent 20 percent of her time focusing on one of the 27 children in the class. The more experienced teacher, in comparison, never focused on a single student more than 9 percent of the time.

That kind of behavior pattern is not unique to education, according to Miller. Studies have documented the same distinctions among expert and novice airplane pilots, chess players, and athletes.

The problem, Miller says, is that when people engage in "cognitive tunneling" they may miss out on important things happening around them. His ultimate goal is to find a way to train would-be teachers to take a broader view of their classrooms—a skill that in some professions is known as "situational awareness"—so that they're better able to teach the first day they set foot in their classrooms.


I'll admit my bias. I'm predisposed to agree with this post and doubt your post from yesterday. But in the 90s we we heard about digital diagnositic tests that were more accurate than the perceptions of doctors. We don't hear that much anymore, as we realize that the excessive testing by doctors has driven up costs, while undercutting a more constructive collaborative culture which emphasizes professional judgement.

I can't conceive of a battery of tests that could rival my exprienced eyes in evaluating the learning of students. That is one of the biggest failures of "reformers" who believe that young talent, armed with continuous assessment, can replace the hard-earned wisdom of veteran educators.

And here's the rest of the story about cognitive tunneling. Even if assessments could rival experience in getting real-time information, they don't tell a teacher what to do. A teacher has to go with the flow. Our job is about empathy, timing, and relationships. Veteran teachers are not just taking a bunch of snapshots. They are involved with the wonderful ebb and flow of learning.

Finally, veteran teachers need to keep their eyes and their intuition in gear all through school, gathering information about students suffering from depression, family crises, etc. Often, young teachers think I'm a worry wart, as I ask them about students who I see as showing signs of at-risk situations. I'm often saying that I might be wrong, that I've seen too many times when the signs were there and the student was dead soon after. I wish I could say that I'm normally wrong. I honestly wish I could say that those terrible experiences have led me to be overly vigilant. Unfortunately, my intuition is accurate. Its just giving timely information about the realities that too many teens face. Pay attention to the body language of everyone in class and the stories it tells, and all-to-often students will approach you after class with their painful secrets.

Nice follow-up comment, Mr. Thompson.

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  • Kwaping: Nice follow-up comment, Mr. Thompson. read more
  • john thompson: I'll admit my bias. I'm predisposed to agree with this read more