Teachers Should Read Research

Teachers should read research, on top of their teaching.
I know that teachers are always busy and the addition of reading academic research on top of the teaching/planning/grading load is unappealing. But hear me out. You will find that reading research saves your time, improves your teaching, and helps your students learn more. What’s not to like?

Through reading research on feedback, I found evidence that merely grading an assignment is not effective feedback. Now, I still must grade assignments, I am a teacher after all but I have been working on actually grading only summative type assignments. For formative assessments I have switched to completion based grading system with whole class feedback. When I apply this strategy, grading an entire class set of assignments takes 5-15 minutes depending on the type of assignment. And, better yet, my students are able to apply that feedback. I have more free-time and my students are learning more. It is great.

Through researching about cognitive science, I stumbled upon the Learning Scientists. From them I found out about spaced repetition and retrieval practice, among other strategies. I combined these findings with what I have learned about knowledge organizers, flashcards, and no-stakes quizzes.

Creating the knowledge organizers and flashcards was more work initially (Here is a how to blog I wrote on knowledge organizers and flashcards). But the payout for the effort has been tremendous. My students are using academic vocabulary to describe concepts instead of continuing to describe scientific concepts in everyday language.

For example:

Before After
When the convection current goes up it is because it weighs less when it is hot. It sinks when it is cold and heavier. A convection current rises because the heat lowers the mantle’s density. It sinks when the temperature is reduced and it becomes denser than the surrounding mantle.

Knowledge organizers, flashcards, and no-stakes quizzes are all great ways incorporate both spaced repetition and retrieval practice into your classroom. They are also a fantastically powerful tool to for vocabulary acquisition. Students with a better vocabulary will likely grasp the concepts you are teaching better and be able to more effectively think critically. This has opened new doors for my students as they can understand the concepts at a high level and now they have the vocabulary to not only answer questions properly (improving grades) but to ask much much better questions!

The Matthew effect is powerful. I try to teach my students as much as possible to leverage these effects for their benefit. It just so happens that I benefit too. 🙂


Two Critical: Knowing is Critical for Critical Thinking

It amazes me how so many in education push creativity/critical thinking/skills so hard while often forgetting or ignoring the importance of content knowledge.

“Creativity is as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status”

Sir Ken Robinson, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Warwick (Source)

“Facts and figures once held as paramount in classrooms, and knowing facts and figures, is no longer relevant in today’s society”

Kris Willis, School Improvement Director of Canberra, Australia (Source)

Ken Robinson is a professor who became Ted Talk famous. Kris Willis is in charge of leading Australia’s education system. Both of these sources should know better.

It is confusing that people denigrate knowledge and memorization. We can see how important both are if we start with a basic skill, like going to the bathroom. Children who are being potty-trained struggle with this because it is new and they do not know how. They must first memorize many steps before they can apply the skill.

  1. Recognize that they need to go to the bathroom.
  2. Know where the bathroom is.
  3. Be able to open the door.
  4. Pull down their pants.
  5. Sit on the toilet.
  6. Let it out.
  7. Wipe
  8. Flush
  9. Wash hands with soap

And this list is a simplification itself. But I think that there is value in a small thought exercise like this. As adults, we often take this knowledge as self-explanatory, but every child needs to be explicitly taught how to use the bathroom. They do not discover how to do it. This interestingly titled article from Pull-Ups, Help Your Turtle Recognize The Urge To Go To The Bathroom helps show how much knowledge children need to have before they become potty trained.

We can step up the age and see that memorization holds its importance. If you are reading and understanding this, it is simply because you have memorized the alphabet, memorized basic grammar rules, and memorized the rules of phonics. You do not learn to read organically.

You learn to read from…

  1. Knowing how to speak
  2. Being read to
  3. Recognizing both upper and lowercase letters
  4. Memorizing the sounds of individual letters
  5. Know basic phonics
  6. Understand that letters make words
  7. Understand that each word has a specific meaning
  8. Know that books are written left to right and top to bottom

This list is also a simplification, yet it shows how necessary memorization is. If you do not memorize, you cannot read. For a more in-depth look at what it takes to read, check out this Reading Rockets article, How Most Children Learn to Read.

Now, the previous two examples are very simple. I think it is also important to check and see if it holds for advanced subjects. Consider the ability to think critically about complicated issues such as the relationships of countries.

This is an issue of paramount importance. Yet, in order to do it well, you need to know many things such as…

  1. The individual histories and cultures of each country.
  2. The history of interactions between each country.
  3. The current political climate of each country.
  4. External pressures on each country.
  5. Relevant international laws and agreements

There are at least two full university degrees of information included in the above list. Any attempt to apply critical thinking on this without deep subject knowledge will at best apply simplistic rules that lack the depth and nuance of reality. This is because when people think critically without deep background knowledge, they are looking at the subjects surface structure. Daniel Willingham succinctly describes this need for background knowledge in his AFT article Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? In this example, scientific thinking is analogous to critical thinking.

“The idea that scientific thinking must be taught hand in hand with scientific content is further supported by research on scientific problem solving; that is when students calculate an answer to a textbook-like problem, rather than design their own experiment. A meta-analysis 20 of 40 experiments investigating methods for teaching scientific problem-solving showed that effective approaches were those that focused on building complex, integrated knowledge bases as part of problem-solving, for example by including exercises like concept mapping. Ineffective approaches focused exclusively on the strategies to be used in problem-solving while ignoring the knowledge necessary for the solution. What do all these studies boil down to? First, critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context. Second, there are metacognitive strategies that, once learned, make critical thinking more likely. Third, the ability to think critically (to actually do what the metacognitive strategies call for) depends on domain knowledge and practice. For teachers, the situation is not hopeless, but no one should underestimate the difficulty of teaching students to think critically.”

(Emphasis is my own)

Dylan William mentions critical thinking in his paper, “How do we prepare students for a world we cannot imagine?

“The idea of “critical thinking” seems important in every single school subject. Indeed it is common to hear teachers discussing with apparent consensus what this means in different subjects. However, this apparent consensus is the result of a failure to explore in depth what critical thinking really means…. Knowing that dividing by zero invalidates an equation, and being aware of ways in which this can be done accidentally, is learned in mathematics classrooms, not in generic lessons on critical thinking. In the same way, knowing enough about the history of the period under study to read an account critically requires subject specific knowledge. Most importantly, developing a capability for critical thinking in history does not make one better at critical thinking in mathematics. For all the apparent similarities, critical thinking in history and critical thinking in mathematics are different, and are developed in different ways.”

Critical thinking is critically important. Educational leaders (and everyone) should promote and celebrate memorization (knowing things) as a way to increase critical thinking. Go on, think about it.

Schema Aquisition

According to Wikipedia, a schema is

a pattern of thought or behavior that organizes categories of information and the relationships among them. It can also be described as a mental structure of preconceived ideas, a framework representing some aspect of the world, or a system of organizing and perceiving new information. Schemata influence attention and the absorption of new knowledge: people are more likely to notice things that fit into their schema, while re-interpreting contradictions to the schema as exceptions or distorting them to fit. Schemata have a tendency to remain unchanged, even in the face of contradictory information. Schemata can help in understanding the world and the rapidly changing environment. People can organize new perceptions into schemata quickly as most situations do not require complex thought when using schema, since automatic thought is all that is required”

Schema acquisition is necessary in order for students to effectively solve problems and think critically. In an attempt to achieve this, many teaching strategies focus on giving students a large amount of practice with a particular problem type. On the surface, this approach makes a lot of sense. If students are learning multiplication and division, then they need to practice the skill in order to become proficient. But evidence has shown that this conventional approach is not always the most effective.

The studies on this involved giving students problems to solve. The problems could be solved using either a means-ends analysis or by using a rule based on the problem structure (schema). Studies found that while the participants using a means-ends analysis were able to effectively complete the problems, they would not learn the essential aspects of the problem’s structure. Meaning that they would achieve success without much actual learning.

A means-ends analysis approach to problem-solving has two main weaknesses, selective attention and cognitive processing capacity. The means-ends approach involves a student keeping the current problem state and the goal state, along with the relationship between the problem state and goal state in mind at once. They do not necessarily think back on previously solved, similar problems. As a result, the cognitive load is much higher for someone using a means-ends approach (often involving working backward) as opposed to someone using a schema (working forwards). The cognitive load of a means-ends approach can interfere with the development of a schema because the cognitive load is so high.

Solving a problem using a schema allows for students to work forward because the schema holds the related problem states and the procedures associated with them. As teachers, we should strive to help our students develop their own, effective schemas for solving problems and applying concepts. One way to do this is to direct students to use a nonspecific goal strategy. We can do this by changing conventional (specific) goal questions to nonspecific goal questions.

  • Conventional Goal Question: What direction does gravity pull the bird down?
  • Nonspecific Goal Question: How does gravity act on the bird?

That being said, it is important for students to have a basic mental model in place before moving to nonspecific problems. If they don’t have a basic mental model, then nonspecific questions are often unhelpful. This fits with other cognitive science research such as concreteness fading. Basically, start concrete and get vaguer over time. An example of this is telling a student 2+2=4 by showing them two groups of two apples, then put the apples together and voila! Four apples. After the student has mastered two apples plus two apples, you can give them a problem that is two oranges plus two oranges. Eventually moving to strictly using numbers, 2+2=4.

Nonspecific goals are effective because this type of problem cannot be solved by a means-ends analysis (requiring a high cognitive load). Functionally this means that students will be using a problem-solving method that has a lower cognitive load, allowing them to devote more of their working memory towards building a schema. So, as teachers, we should strive to teach students how to solve problems, and we should develop that by giving nonspecific questions in order to help them develop the schemas necessary.






Experts-Novices: Critical Thinking and Background Knowledge

A schema is a mental structure that allows problem solvers to recognize the particular category a problem lies within, and then use an effective strategy to solve that problem. Experts have multiple schemas, allowing them to quickly move towards a solution. Whereas novices do not, so they must use a means-ends analysis approach.

A means-ends analysis requires a large cognitive load because it works to eliminate possible answers (In the beginning, there is a near infinite field of possible answers). This is done by working backward from the goal, setting subgoals up along the way. In contrast, experts start moving towards a solution right away.

Experts and novices not only approach problems differently, they look at them in different ways as well. Studies have found that experts will categorize problems based on what strategies are used to solve them, while novices will categorize problems based on their surface structures. One finding from this type of study is that domain-specific knowledge is integral for critical thinking to be effective. You have to have the relevant background knowledge in order to correctly apply the appropriate skill to solve a problem.

You can’t think critically about what you do not know. This is a particularly controversial statement within the field of education. But it should not be. It is very commonsensical when you work to isolate the variables. For example, if a chemist was going to write an essay talking about how life works because of chemistry and you were going to write one as well, theirs would likely be much better. The reason being that they have a wealth of background knowledge to draw from. Whereas you, have Google. You can find the same information, but you will not understand it as deeply or be able to apply it as thoroughly because the knowledge has not been sitting in your head.

Another example of this can be seen when we look at foreign languages. How did the phrase “你吃了嗎?” originate and why is it used as a greeting? If you cannot read that sentence, you cannot think critically about it. It really is rather simple, background knowledge is necessary (critical even) for critical thinking. Think about it.