How science can improve teaching

By Ravi Chandra Sharma 2017-11-07 15:02:22     201

As a teacher, you would certainly like your students to remember what they read. Yet one of the most common sights on high school and college campuses across the land is that of students poring over textbooks, yellow marker in hand, highlighting important passages—which often end up including most of the page. Later in the semester, to prepare for their exams, students hit the textbooks again, rereading the yellow blocks of text.

Studies reveal that highlighting and rereading text is among the least effective ways for students to remember the content of what they have read. A far better technique is for students to quiz themselves. In one study, students who read a text once and then tried to recall it on three occasions scored 50 percent higher on exams than students who read the text and then reread it three times. And yet many teachers are seen advocating these learning techniques that science has rejected.


This is just one symptom of a general failure to integrate scientific knowledge of the mind into schooling. Many of the pervasive ideas about education defy scientific principles of thinking and learning. For example, a common misconception is that teaching content is less important than teaching problem-solving strategies or critical thinking skills.

Teachers ought to keep up with science but teaching is already a labor-intensive profession. And it is difficult for the nonspecialist to separate scientific research from the usual flood of pseudoscience and quackery. Peddlers of expensive and supposedly research-based nostrums lobby school districts. Other products that may have scientific validity have not yet been thoroughly tested. For example, theories of mathematical learning suggest that linear (but not circular) board games may boost math preparedness in preschoolers, but the idea needs large-scale testing.

The U.S. Department of Education has, in the past, toiled to bring some scientific rigor to teaching. The What Works Clearinghouse, created in 2002 by the DOE's Institute of Education Sciences, examines classroom curricula, programs and materials, but its standards of evidence are overly stringent, and teachers do not play any role in the vetting process. Teachers also play no role in the evaluation, and their participation is crucial. Researchers can evaluate research, but teachers understand education. The purpose of this institution would be to produce information that can be used to shape teaching and learning.


It is also important that insights provided by a clearinghouse come from basic science. For example, many teachers give place to this flawed concept in their mind that children have different learning styles and that boys brains are hardwired to be better at spatial tasks than girls.

This job of bringing accurate scientific information about thinking and learning to teachers might arguably fall to schools of education, districts, states and teachers' professional organizations, but these institutions have shown little interest in the job. A neutral national review board would be the simplest and quickest answer to a problem that is a big obstacle to broad improvement across many schools.