Treating teaching as a science will help you to make the largest difference that you can. It is also the cornerstone of evidence based teaching.
But what does approaching teaching as a science involve?
It can be summed up in just 4 steps.
Treating Teaching As A Science Step 1: Being Willing to Let Go
Before the 16th century, people in medieval Europe pretty much believed everything the Church told them. Then came the Scientific Revolution, where people such as Galileo challenged the teachings of the Church with radical ideas that the Sun, rather than the Earth, was the centre of our solar system.
You may be wondering what this has to do with you and your teaching. The short answer is – a lot. While you may scoff at the naivety of people back then, we (as teachers) often act the same way today.
At university, we are indoctrinated in the latest theories about teaching, even though many of them are not supported by hard evidence. We accept (and sometimes embrace) successive waves of fads and reforms. We might complain about the workload, but rarely do we question the educational merits of progressive reforms.
Rather, we combine these ‘authoritative ideas’ with our limited, individual experience to form personal philosophies of teaching. These philosophies guide every professional decision that we make.
The first step in approaching teaching as a science is being willing to challenge and change deeply entrenched beliefs about teaching. You need to be critical of your own beliefs.
Many people I have worked with find this process hard and personally confronting. Yet, it is perhaps the most crucial piece of advice that I could give you.
Comedian Tim Minchin makes this point during his Occasional Address at the University of Western Australia where he received his honorary doctorate. The whole clip is worth watching (it’s funny), but if you’re pressed for time, start at 6 min 15 sec, and finish at 8 min 30 sec.
Treating Teaching As A Science Step 2: Trust In Scientific Evidence
Medieval Europe didn’t become enlightened until they embraced the scientific method.
This method involves rigorous research and drawing well-reasoned conclusions from the available data.
Science is the father of knowledge.
When you treat teaching as a science, beliefs about teaching emerge logically from the data. You treat of your beliefs as tentative and let the evidence fall where it may.
This stands in contrast to the more typical approach where teachers’ existing beliefs act as a filter so that they only see and hear things that confirm what they already believe to be true.
Piaget refers to this process as assimilation. According to Piaget, we all have a tendency to pay more attention to events that validate our existing beliefs about reality. At the same time, we subconsciously ignore or distort any information that may challenge our existing beliefs about what is so.
By denying scientific principles, one may maintain any paradox.
If you want to adopt an evidence based approach to teaching, you need to start making decisions about how to go about your work based on the best available scientific evidence.
Enlightened teachers adopt strategies that have been proven to work – i.e. there is hard evidence that they boost students’ results, regardless of whether they support or conflict with your pre-existing beliefs.
Treating Teaching A Science Step 3: Adopt Those Strategies Which Work Best
Now that you have acknowledged that some of your personal beliefs about teaching may be wrong, and you have made a commitment to let scientific evidence drive how you approach your work in the future, it is time explore some hard home truths.
We like to think that teachers make a difference to how well their kids do at school – after all that’s why most of us became teachers in the first place. Yet, some teachers make little if any difference at all.
On average, a mediocre teacher helps their students to progress 14 percentile points in a single year. Given that students typically progress 6 percentile points by just growing one year older, mediocre teachers only add about 8 points of value.
This stands in stark contrast to the impact a great teacher has on their class. On average, a great teacher helps their students to progress 52 percentile points per year. That’s 32 percentile points higher or 4 times more impact than their mediocre colleagues.
This isn’t because some people are born with special gifts that allow them to excel as a teacher. Rather, it is because some people use more effective approaches to teaching than other people do. They treat teaching as a science and adopt approaches to teaching that have the largest impact.
When you look at the research on teaching, don’t just look for evidence about what works. Even mediocre teachers have some impact, so technically their approach to teaching works.
Instead, look for evidence about what works best. Then, adopt these strategies.
While no strategy is guaranteed to work for every child, in every situation – some approaches to teaching are far more likely to help:
- A larger number of students to succeed
- Individual students to progress further than they otherwise would have
Since the publication of books such as John Hattie’s Visible Teaching, this task has become a whole lot easier. I strongly recommend that you read John’s book, but for those short on time, you will cover the essence of this work plus more in this Crash Course On Evidence Based Teaching.
Treating Teaching As A Science Step 4: Be A Student of Your Own Effect On Kid’s Performance
Scientists acknowledge that there are few absolutes, especially when dealing with something as complex as human beings. Nor are there any absolutes when treating teaching as a science.
Even within fields such as medicine, the science driving doctors’ decisions is based on probability – i.e. They select treatments that are most likely to work for most people. Those who embrace teaching as a science should also start by adopting those strategies that are most likely to work best for most kids.
Research will never be able to identify instructional strategies that work with every student in every class. The best research can do is tell us which strategies have a good chance of working well with students.
However, like their medical colleagues do after instigating a treatment, teachers should carefully monitor the degree of improvement or learning for each of their children. This feedback, from student to teacher, gives you insight into the effectiveness of your current approaches with a specific class, child or group of children.
Those teachers who are students of their own effects are the teachers who are the most influential in raising students’ achievement.
When your existing approaches to teaching are not succeeding with one or more of your students, you need to explore, try, and monitor additional options. This why teachers like Rafe Esquith (and many others) lie awake at night agonizing over a student that they cannot reach.
Unfortunately, this is part of teaching – at least it is for those of us who care, and who refuse to give up on a child. When you treat teaching as a science, you must acknowledge that it also involves action science – the art of learning along the way.
TREATING TEACHING AS A SCIENCE
If you want to adopt evidence based teaching,you must be willing to embrace teaching as a science.
- Be prepared to challenge and change your existing beliefs.
- Look at what the research says.
- Adopt strategies that have the greatest chance of succeeding.
- Monitor the effect these strategies are having, and adjust as needed.
Treating teaching as a science is the cornerstone of evidence based teaching, but it not the only element.
Go back to the Crash Course In Evidence Based Teaching homepage to learn more.