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Working Toward a Science of Teaching

Olympic athletes, elite chess players, virtuoso musicians and other masters of their craft achieve success, according to the science of expertise, through a process called "deliberate practice." Can teachers use the same conscious effort to develop specific teaching strategies?

A new report, "Practice with Purpose: The Emerging Science of Teacher Expertise," answers that question in the affirmative. The report comes from Deans for Impact, a group that aims to retool teacher training, and was written in collaboration with Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and an expert on expertise.

Quality Over Quantity
Teacher prep programs nationwide have extended the usual semester-long student teaching requirement into year-long "clinical" opportunities so that candidates can gain more on-the-job experience before leading their own classrooms. But, according to the report, longer time practicing does not necessarily lead to expertise. Most important is the quality of the experience and the type of practice.

The report examines five principles of deliberate practice (see below) that those in highly trained fields, such as violinists and grandmaster chess trainees, use as they hone their expertise. These principles, write the authors, can shape clinical experiences, student teaching, and professional development in a way that drives effective teaching practice.

PracticePrinciples.jpgHere's a look at these five principles as they relate to teacher training.

Push Beyond Comfort
Teacher candidates, write the report's authors, need to be "pushed beyond their current abilities." Novice teachers will face challenges and programs need to design practice experience with specific goals that help them tackle those challenges.

The report provides an example of a new teacher who is experiencing difficulty guiding student discussion. He knows how to get students thinking, but he fails to connect their thinking to the larger discussion. His professor gives him a strategy to overcome the challenge: Restate a student's response and ask others in the class if they agree, disagree or can expand the idea.

Define Specific Goals
The practice activities that programs design for candidates should aim to improve a specific aspect of teaching and they should be measurable, according to the report. The aim here is for mentor teachers and professors in a prep program to be on the same page. They have to work together to set goals for the teacher candidate and provide feedback the candidate can use right away.

The example in the report describes a mentor who notes a teacher candidate's struggle to identify student misconceptions. The teacher candidate is videotaped and works with fellow candidates to note student misconceptions, why they occur, and how to respond to them. The teacher candidate takes what she learns back to the classroom, where her mentor teacher continues to track her progress.

Intensify the Focus
This principle, according to the report, requires candidates to make a conscious effort to improve their practice. The report describes teacher candidates who all have to perform a read-aloud for 2nd graders of the same text, Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles. The candidates' professor sets the goal: Introduce the text with an age-appropriate connection to a turning point in the Civil Rights movement.

The teacher candidates practice their text introductions and read aloud in small groups. In a practice session with the professor, one teacher candidate introduces the text by saying that Freedom Summer took place in 1964. The professor points out that the date won't mean much to 2nd graders. The professor along with the teacher candidates come up with ways to provide historical context for the book so that young students will understand.

Respond to Feedback
Teacher prep programs, according to the report, should come up with goals for teacher candidates like leading whole-group instruction and managing group work and share these goals with candidates' mentors who will provide regular feedback in the classroom.

In the example provided in the report, the mentor meets with a teacher candidate to set a schedule for regular feedback meetings and to plan out how the candidate will put the feedback to use. The mentor videotapes the candidate as he works toward the program's defined goals. The mentor and candidate watch the video together and talk about specific ways for the candidate to improve his practice. Back at the university, the professors use the mentor's feedback to inform what they teach in their courses.

Develop a Mental Model
Teacher candidates, says the report, must develop a clear idea of how they will know students are learning. They should then be able to compare evidence of student learning with the mental model of student learning that they developed.

The scenario in the report describes a professor who wants to make sure his teacher candidates have a clear understanding of how students learn science. He asks the candidates to make a list of misconceptions that students have about the motion of the sun, earth, and moon. They then plan a lesson designed to draw out student thinking and give candidates a chance to compare their students' knowledge with their image of how students learned celestial motion. 

The authors say they hope the report will drive teacher prep programs to think more critically about how they provide candidates with the practice they need to hone their skills and possibly even lead to a science of teacher expertise.

 Photo: Courtesy Deans for Impact

 

 

 

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