5 Things Teachers Aren't Learning About How Children Learn

Effective teachers are the core of any successful classroom environment. Research shows children, particularly in their earliest years, are most likely to thrive in a setting with a highly effective instructor. However, highly qualified (and therefore more effective) early childhood educators are hard to come by. Given this status quo, the results of a recent report from the National Council on Teacher Quality are all the more alarming. The report gives pause to the notion that teachers emerging from education preparation programs are well prepared for a successful career in the classroom.

The report, “Learning About Learning: What Every Teacher Needs to Know,” highlights several issues in the way teacher candidates are being prepared by schools of education. Every year, 190,000 teacher candidates graduate from more than 1,400 colleges and universities offering teacher certification programs. And, according to Department of Education data from 2005, approximately six percent of them become early childhood educators. The study authors looked at a representative sample of textbooks and syllabi from educational psychology and methods courses from these schools, and conducted two independent analyses of their contents.

Here are a few takeaways:

1. Teachers need to learn about learning and they’re not.

There is a wealth of scientific research on how students learn, and a deep understanding of this knowledge should arguably be the core of any teacher training program. However, an analysis of course materials used in teacher preparation programs showed that teachers are not being taught a common set of research-based strategies. Textbook content, study authors Laura Pomerance, Julie Greenberg, and Kate Walsh say, does not align to widely-accepted research on how students learn and retain information. They write, “Compelling cognitive research that meets scientific standards about how to teach for understanding and retention barely gets a mention in many texts, while anecdotal information is dressed up as science. Theories du jour and debunked notions are being passed on to new teachers as knowledge and best practice.” For example, the authors note that 59 percent of textbooks devote pages to teaching to students’ “learning styles” (i.e., auditory, visual, kinesthetic), even as there is little evidence to support the theory that targeting instruction in these ways produces learning gains, particularly for young children.

2. There are six strategies that are widely accepted as fundamental to successful learning. Only one is being taught regularly to new teachers.

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, published a guide in 2007 outlining six fundamental instructional strategies that benefit instruction, regardless of the age, subject, or grade being taught. Based on a wealth of research deemed “moderate to strong” by the Department of Education, the following strategies are considered fundamental and timeless:  

  1. Pairing graphics with words
  2. Linking abstract concepts with concrete representations
  3. Posing probing questions
  4. Repeatedly alternating solved and unsolved problems
  5. Distributing practice
  6. Assessing to boost retention.

According to the study, only “posing probing questions” is cited frequently in textbooks, and even then in fewer than half those available (41 percent). Two strategies: repeatedly alternating solved and unsolved problems and assessing to boost retention were not covered in any text analyzed. For children in their early years, many of these strategies are crucial to the formation of lasting knowledge, particularly as children begin to acquire foundational language skills. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) particularly emphasizes the role of questioning in order to provoke students’ thinking as crucial for developing young minds.

3. Textbook publishers and authors have a huge amount of control over what tools teachers are prepared with, and their standards aren’t as high as they should be.

In addressing why textbook content is so misaligned with accepted research, study authors argue publishers use less demanding standards than the IES in choosing textbook content. For the IES to cite a strategy as research-proven, a study has to present the results of an experiment demonstrating the effect of a particular instructional strategy on student learning. Textbook publishers, the authors say, do not hold themselves to this same standard, often relying instead on secondary sources (citing another textbook, for example).

4. Practice is underemphasized in teacher prep courses.

An analysis of lectures, discussion topics, and candidate assignments based on course syllabi revealed a pattern of neglect in terms of time teachers were asked to practice core instructional strategies. Mirroring the amount of coverage in textbook content, the authors also found a majority of teacher preparation programs are only providing opportunities for teachers to practice one of the six strategies—the same one as is most frequently covered—posing probing questions. Less than 40 percent of courses reviewed asked teacher candidates to practice the strategy during both class assignments and during student teaching. Evidence suggests the practice of teaching strategies, rather than simply reading about them in course materials, is essential to teachers’ mastery of theoretical concepts.

5. Students are losing out when teachers are ill-prepared.

Not only should teachers be concerned that expensive education courses may be inadequately preparing them for their first years in the classroom, it is worth emphasizing that those who are truly losing out by the ill-preparedness of new teachers are the students they serve. Underprepared teachers end up learning on the job—guessing, essentially, when they should be equipped with a thorough understanding of how to convey lasting knowledge to students. This is particularly relevant for young learners, as a weak educational foundation in the early years can lead to gaps in educational achievement that can sustain over a child’s lifetime.

The results of this study indicate a clear need for teacher preparation programs to adjust course to ensure all new teachers—but particularly early childhood teachers—are adequately prepared for the challenging job ahead of them, ensuring proven instructional strategies are conveyed in course materials and textbooks. Publishers and textbook authors, as well, should consider the gravity of the learning strategies they present as the bedrock of instructional design, ensuring any technique presented is connected to high-quality standards and research. With a growing gap in student achievement between children from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, the need for teachers who understand how to make learning stick for all children has never been more urgent. "


Katharine Parham is a former intern for the Education Policy program at New America with the Early & Elementary Education team.