Vulnerability, messy learning & research — How can we be better?

Picture of a sunrise
Every new day is a new chance to learn.

A synopsis of chapter 8 “Teacher Learning” of How People Learn.

This chapter of How People Learn (HPL) focused on ways that teachers continue to learn once they are in their own classroom and how those compare to what we know about how people learn. The authors categorized the opportunities for learning for practicing teachers into three buckets:

  • Their own practice
  • Interactions with other teachers
  • From teacher educators in the schools (HPL, p. 191)

What I found most intriguing about this chapter is something which I have personally noticed about my teaching practice: the impact that being a parent has on my ability to teach. The authors noted that teachers “…learn about the intellectual and moral development in their roles of parents” (p. 192). This is not to say that a person without children cannot teach, however being a parent provides a unique longitudinal perspective of children’s development over years rather than semesters that can significantly impact an individual’s understanding of where a student might currently fall on that developmental spectrum.

The learning opportunities for teachers were also examined using the framework of learning environments that I discussed in my last blog post here. As a refresher those environments were:

  • Learner-centered
  • Knowledge-centered
  • Assessment-centered
  • Community-centered

I was most interested in the section on being knowledge-centered as it focused on the ways in which teacher prep programs impact this centering. For a little personal background, I attended an undergraduate college with a primary focus on education majors (k-12) that was founded as a teacher’s college. I was an English major with a focus in Secondary Education, however I was friends with several students in the Elementary Ed and Early Ed degree programs and I found it fascinating to see the differences in our curricula. The difference in comfort-level with specific subjects was very interesting. In my quick summary – it appeared that secondary ed majors were trained as specialists in content and generalists in pedagogy, whereas the El Ed and Early Ed majors were specialists in pedagogy and childhood development and generalists in content. It was satisfying to see this observation reflected in the HPL authors’ inventory of challenges facing teacher prep programs:

“4-year undergraduate degrees make it difficult for prospective elementary teachers to learn subject matter and for prospective secondary teachers to learn about the nature of learners and learning” (HPL, p. 202)

Consequently many student teachers feel vulnerable in various components of their student teacher placements. As the authors note:

“Learning involves making oneself vulnerable and taking risks, and this is not how teachers often see their role” (HPL, p. 195)

I immediately thought of all of my observations when I was student teaching and teaching in high school and how those lesson plans were always my least ‘risky’. I wanted to be in complete “control” of those lessons and project a classroom that “looked like good learning”. The problem is, in my experience and through much of what I’m reading in HPL, students often learn the most in very “messy” environments.

“When they [teachers] encourage students to actively explore issues and generate questions, it is almost inevitable that they will encounter questions that they cannot answer — and this can be threatening” (HPL, p. 195).

Raise your hand if you want to tell a student “I don’t know” while being observed by your direct supervisor. This is especially true if the culture of the school does not support the significance of this type of learning.

“Beginning teachers are especially influenced by the nature of the schools in which they begin their teaching” (HPL, p. 204).

Lastly, the authors attention to the way in which educational research is detached from classroom practice demonstrates one of the most wide-reaching negative impacts on the teaching profession as it is seeded at the beginning of most teachers’ careers.

“…a message is sent to prospective teachers that research in education, whether on teaching or learning, has little to do with schooling, and therefore, that they do not need to learn about the findings from research” (HPL, p. 202).

The example that always springs to mind is the many times I have heard teachers talk to other teachers and students about learning styles. In 2008 Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer and Robert Bjork authored an article titled “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence” in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. In their paper they outlined the research methodology that would be required to prove or disprove the science of learning styles and concluded that “…there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number” (“Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence”, p.105).

In 2017, in an article titled “Evidence-Based Higher Education – Is the Learning Styles ‘Myth’ Important?” in the journal Frontiers in Psychology by Philip M. Newton and Mahallad Miah, the authors point out that “…a substantial number of participants (32%) stated that they would continue to use Learning Styles despite being presented with the lack of an evidence base to support them…” (“Evidence-Based Higher Education – Is the Learning Styles ‘Myth’ Important?”) which reinforces the authors of HPL’s stance that teachers are taught that

“…educational theory and research have little to do with classroom practice” (HPL, p. 203).

So my question to you – how does this change? Why don’t we listen to the research?

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