Should Teacher Trainees Learn "Cognitive Science?"

EdWeek article by Stephen Sawchuk: "Panel Says Ed Schools Overlook Developmental Science."

(M)any preparation programs have yet to catch up to the research, according to James P. Comer, the founder of the Yale Child Study Center School Development Program...(they) “focus on curriculum, instruction, assessment with the assumption that the rest of it has been taken care of somewhere else in the family, in the community, wherever, that all kids come to school ready to learn,” said Dr. Comer, the panel’s other co-chair. “You often hear educators say, ‘That stuff’s not our job.’”

...In a 2008 NCATE survey of accredited institutions, 90 percent reported requiring candidates to take at least one course in child and adolescent development. But the survey found that such classes were too broad and did not emphasize practical application.

The whole 42-page study is here.

Let's look at 3 issues. Two substance, one process.

1. On substance I largely agree.

The lead author, Bob Pianta*, is a giant in the field. His report recommends:

Assessments of related proficiencies should include measures of candidate performance in the classroom, and require demonstration of candidates’ skills in interacting with students and families, in cultural competence, in classroom management, in developing a positive and supportive learning environment, and in other key skills informed by knowledge of child/adolescent development.

Indeed, in that respect, I think our own teacher prep program would get an A+.

2. How should candidates actually GAIN those skills?

That's the other substantive question.

Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who has written extensively about the application of cognitive science to education, noted...“The researchers really need to be collaborating with the people who are specialists, who know the classrooms,” Mr. Willingham said. “They can’t just figure out what the most important principles are and hand them off to teachers to implement.”

We're big Willingham fans here on Commonwealth Ave. All our trainees read his book Why Students Don't Like School.

I'd assume the way to achieve the skills mentioned in #1 is some mix of learning (theory) and practice (very frequent, tons of repetition, high-quality focused feedback).

But what's the right mix?

We emphasize practice, probably more than any other Ed School. Usually accreditation folks, however, look at seat time spent learning theory, not practice time; and they look for the mere existence of feedback, not the actual quality of feedback. So there's already an institutional bias away from our approach.

3. Process Question

What's the best way to get any sort of school -- whether an elementary school or a graduate school of education -- to improve?

One theory is top down. Experts say Do This. Or: That. (Sometimes both).

The other way is measure the schools, and let innovation/execution bubble up from below. That's become the way of public schools: they are measured (imperfectly) by how much kids learn.

But very few Ed Schools are measured at all in terms of outputs/results of the teachers they've trained.

That is changing. But slowly.

Pianta is sensitive to the "top down" issue -- because when he's not busy conducting research on cognitive science, he's busy being the dean of UVa's Ed School. Therefore he probably wants to be on the receiving end of as few mandates as possible, even as he proposes some that he personally believes would very much help rookie teachers. He says:

The teacher-education curriculum is a focus of many competing interests and demands, and it could easily be overwhelmed by any number of more demands.

If indeed Ed Schools will be held more accountable for the actual results of teachers they train, as many Race To The Top winners say they will do in their states, then I suspect Ed School faculty would appreciate being freed of accreditation constraints.

The basic bargain, whether for K-12 schools or graduate schools, should always combine accountability (for results) with autonomy/freedom (in the journey there).

Where would that leave accreditation bodies? Potentially in the same business as state education departments: measuring outcomes instead of regulating inputs, pruning low performers, and showcasing high achievers so their ideas spread.

*Met Pianta recently. Came back to the office blabbering like I'd just met Michael Jordan. Pianta is an unusual talent in that he both grasps all the intricacies of education research (every quant nuance you could imagine) and he "gets" the reality of a teacher's day to day experience -- and has a vision on how to use the former to improve the latter.