If you are a passionate teacher, you want to make a difference to the kids you teach. 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:
- Being willing to let go
- Embrace hard research
- Adopting evidence-based approaches
- Know your impact
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. People such as Galileo challenged the teachings of the Church with radical ideas. For example, the idea 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. We sometimes scoff at the naivety of people back then. Yet, we (as teachers) often act the same way today.
At university, we are indoctrinated in the latest theories about teaching. But 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 form personal philosophies of teaching by combining:
- These so-called ‘authoritative ideas’
- Our limited, individual experiences
And, these philosophies guide every professional decision that we make.
The first step in approaching teaching as a science is being willing to challenge and sometimes change your deeply entrenched beliefs about teaching.
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.
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 all of your beliefs as tentative and let the evidence fall where it may.
This stands in contrast to how most of us form beliefs. Rather, than letting the evidence fall where it may, we use our existing beliefs act as a filter. As a result, we only pay attention to 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 confirm 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 in a scientific way. You need to let the best scientific evidence guide your work.
Enlightened teachers adopt strategies that have been proven to work. Put another way, they choose strategies supported by hard evidence. And, they do so regardless of whether they support or conflict with their pre-existing beliefs – i.e. there is hard evidence that they boost students’ results, regardless of whether they support or conflict with your pre-existing beliefs.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t think critically about research – but more on that in the next unit.
Treating Teaching A Science Step 3: Adopt Those Strategies Which Work Best
So far, you have hopefully:
- Accepted that some of your personal beliefs about teaching may be wrong
- Made a commitment to let scientific evidence drive how you approach your work in the future
Now, it is time to explore:
- A hard home truth
- How to choose your approaches to teaching
The Hard Home Truth
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 accordingly.
Choosing Your Approaches
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 what works and to what degree. You should also look at the resources. For example, money, training and time involved.
- Start with high-impact, low-resource strategies to get more bang for your buck. For example, teaching students strategies to connect new learning to prior knowledge.
- Consider high-impact, high-cost strategies. For example, Response to Intervention.
- Ignore moderate-low impact strategies that conflict with high-impact alternative. For example, using discovery-learning, rather than explicit teaching.
- Include moderate-low impact strategies that complement high impact strategies. For example, teacher expectations.
- Be mindful and sceptical of strategies that are low-impact, and high-cost strategies. For example, open classrooms and one-on-one laptops for students.
Context is also important. For example:
- Worked examples have a large impact when teaching steps in a process, but not when teaching concepts.
- Phonics helps students learn to read, but students must also move beyond that stage.
- Cognitive Task Analysis can give trainee surgeons valuable insight into how expert surgeons think when approaching tasks. Yet, it is of little use in school situations.
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. This is especially true 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. 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.
But, teachers must monitor the degree of improvement or learning for each of their children. This is no different to what doctors do with their patients. You need to keep an eye on the impact your chosen approaches are having.
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, 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.
If you want some practical tips and tools on how to this, see my article Know Thy Impact.