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Published Research

Teacher training should be evidence-based

One of the most common questions we get from teachers who we work with is, ‘Why didn’t they teach us this at University?” It is astonishing to learn that at most teacher training institutions in Australia, the strongest teaching strategies and approaches (pedagogy) appear rarely, if at all. All teachers want to do a good job for their students, we just need to be connected with practices that are verified by the research – if there is no evidence, then it should not be a feature of teacher training. Despite popular opinion, teaching is hard. It isn’t fair on novice teachers to create this ambiguity around what constitutes effective teaching. We don’t do this in other professional domains like Medicine or Engineering, where there is a fundamental knowledge-base that clearly guides those professions.

Even the most validated teaching strategies that have been tested by the rigors of Educational and Cognitive Science research, across multiple studies and contexts, even these don’t feature on the curricula of these courses. The same courses that award qualifications and send teachers off into classrooms with all kinds of needy learners, and often ill equipped to teach in a way that is supported by the research. Forcing teachers to learn on the job and to find their own way is incredibly inefficient, stressful, and contradicts what we know about the need for expert guidance when trying to build new knowledge.

From 90 Mathematics Courses across 31 universities, there was barely any mention of items that are deemed high-impact or evidence-based instructional practices.

When we embarked on this research with our friend Glenn Fahey and the Centre for Independent Studies, we had no idea just how bleak the situation was for how Maths instruction is taught to pre-service teachers. Sadly this is not a new problem, as Dr Jennifer Buckingham had already found inconsistencies between what the evidence-base was saying and what was being taught in initial teacher training. Her investigation into how reading is taught to new teachers is an eye-opener, if you haven’t read that, please take a look here it might blow your mind.

Much like Jen and Linda, we scoured the Mathematics curricula from 31 universities, their 90 courses and hundreds of pieces of courseware. Check out the tables to see how many times those fundamental ideas were mentioned. For contrast we have also included some of the more popular ideas that do feature in these courses, which in many cases have little to no evidence to support their inclusion. What they do have however, are alluring titles that are incredibly persuasive. Most people (novices), if given a choice between real-world rich tasks or explicit teaching with worked examples, would pick the former. Yet the research is emphatic that when learning new skills, worked examples with expert guidance is far superior. Worked examples are a godsend to teachers like us, but we didn’t learn that in teacher training – we had to find that research for ourselves.

We love inquiry learning, practising learning through games, and open-ended tasks… teaching and learning wouldn’t be the same without them. However, as Barak Rosenshine says, ‘There’s no escaping background knowledge, student’s need to know many related facts before they can engage in higher level thinking on that topic.’ John Hattie says something similar about inquiry learning, that students require significant prerequisite knowledge before they can effectively inquire within a domain – and the best way to develop this knowledge is through teacher-led instruction (explicit teaching). The great mind behind Cognitive Load Theory John Sweller is adamant that expert teaching is critical for novel (new) content and that there is no substitute for guidance from an expert teacher.

There is a false dichotomy that persists in Education that maligns teacher perspectives about what constitutes effective teaching, but these ideas shouldn’t be in conflict with one another. They should instead be examined objectively through an evidence-based lens and used in ways that benefit learners. Teacher training should focus on pedagogical practices that support students to engage with the learning, but most importantly, the teaching should enable all students to find measurable success.

Failing to Teach the Reader Paper 1
Research paper key words 2Research paper key words 1
Fahey, O’Sullivan, Bussell Study
Key Ideas Featured in Teacher Training Curricula
Buckingham Study
Buckingham and Meeks Study
Buckingham Meeks Data Key Ideas
Buckingham & Meeks study 116 Literacy units across 66 universities, are key ideas featured in Initial Teacher Training