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'Learning Science' Tops Education Deans' To-Do List

A group of education school deans hoping to spur improvements in teacher preparation today announced their first major initiative: To improve aspiring teachers' knowledge of the nitty-gritty of how and why students learn.

A paper released by the Deans For Impact summarizes the research on learning science, and identifies six key questions the group says teachers should grapple with. They are:

  • How do students understand new ideas?
  • How do students learn and retain new information?
  • How do students solve problems?
  • How does learning transfer to new situations in or outside of the classroom?
  • What motivates children to learn?
  • What are common misconceptions about how students think and learn?

"All educators, including new teachers, should be able to connect these principles to their practical implications for the classroom ... so that our methods of instruction are in harmony with our best understanding of the science of how we learn," according to the paper.

In practice, these principals have a lot of implications for pedagogy. For example, on transferring learning, a teacher ought to know that alternating concrete examples like word problems with abstract representations, like mathematical formulas, can help students understand the underlying structure of problems. In regard to misconceptions, they should know that students don't respond to different "learning styles" and aren't inherently "right-brained" or "left brained."

Deans for Impact has 24 current members. The paper was developed by them in collaboration with Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia, and Paul Bruno, a former middle school science teacher and ed. policy student at the University of Southern California.

The first three member programs that will aim to translate these principles into teacher-preparation curricula are the Relay Graduate School of Education, the Boston Teacher Residency, and Temple University's College of Education.

Although the inititiative is new, the general notion that cognitive science hasn't penetrated teacher education isn't. In 2010, a report commissioned by then-accreditor National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education argued that not enough teacher-preparation programs included developmental science in their curricula.

Outside individuals supporting the Deans For Impact initiative include scholars such as Angela Duckworth, known for her research on how noncongnitive factors like self-control and "grit" affect student achievement, and Carol Dweck, who popularized the theory of the "growth mindset," or self-recognition that hard work and application can pay off in improvements.

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