Something I’ve been trying to do for more than a year is transition this blog from one about “Zach and Stephanie’s latest thoughts on teaching” to one about evidence-informed teaching and learning design. Compare this older blog post, for example, to a more recent one to see the difference.

I haven’t been modeling this blog after anyone else’s, but if I had to choose one out there that is closest to what I’ve been going for it might be Blake Harvard’s The Effortful Educator blog. I’ve been especially enjoying the “Ask A Researcher” series, where Harvard interviews some of my favorite researchers and psychologists in education. In what may end up being the capstone to his series, Harvard turned the tables by having the researchers ask us teachers their burning questions. As a classroom teacher and, more currently, Director of Educational Technology during emergency remote learning, I thought I’d dedicate some time on this blog to answering their questions from my point of view.

From Dr. Robert Bjork Ask A Researcher #1:

Q: My question for teachers has to do with how to help ALL students learn.  It’s one thing, for example, to argue—as Elizabeth (Dr. Elizabeth Bjork) and I have—that teachers should introduce desirable difficulties for their students (in order to better exercise the processes that enhance long-term retention and transfer of to-be-learned knowledge), but, as we have also argued, the level of difficulty that is optimal varies as a function of the level of prior knowledge a given student already possesses.  With 20-30 students in a class, what can a teacher do to provide a level of challenge that is individualized, so to speak—that is, provides the right level of challenge for students in a given class who are at differing levels of prior learning?

I was also extremely grateful that Dr. Elizabeth Bjork, herself, wrote to convey her thoughts:

Whenever we speak with teachers—many of whom are very eager to introduce desirable difficulties into their instruction—perhaps the most frequent types of questions they pose to us amount to ones of how can they determine and/or provide the appropriate level of challenge for each of their students when they have up to 30 or more of them in each class. 

Zach: Differentiation has been at the center of the conversation at all of the schools I’ve worked at, although it’s rarely been explained to me as a process of assessing prior knowledge and then deploying individualized instruction, but rather in much vaguer terms such as “build relationships, meet them where they are, and listen to their interests and learning styles.” In the absence of guidance, I’ve relied heavily on short-cycle formative assessment; Without effective and efficient formative assessment routines (e.g. Wiliam, 2011), I can’t be certain whether a student has progressed from a novice dealing with novel information to an expert dealing with familiar information. Of course, spaced and interleaved testing or retrieval practice can form the bulk of these assessment activities.

The challenge is what to do with the assessment information once I have it. Splitting the class into 5 rotating small groups on the basis of prior knowledge seems less efficient than whole group instruction because the maximum amount of time they can spend with a teacher is reduced from 50 minutes to less than ten minutes when you account for transitions. As you can imagine, students also find it hard to manage their behavior under these conditions, and it’s time-consuming (and not very straightforward) to develop quality, expertise-matching independent work for the other four groups, much less create 25-30 individualized learning plans, even when evenings and weekends are expended trying to make it work. Sadly, these real, practical concerns I’ve just mentioned are rarely addressed at conferences and workshops on differentiation. Until they are, I’ve found it useful to depend on the delivery of high quality, whole group instruction to reach 80 percent of students, and use the formative assessment data to enable small group instruction that takes place while the rest are off practicing already-learned material. The discovery of the desirable difficulty effects of interleaving has greatly impacted my teaching because, while some of the 80% may not have mastered today’s material, they can still practice independently on past material while I’m focusing on a manageable small group of students. I also use a combination of office hours, differentiated homework, adaptive CAI technologies, and the help of learning support professionals, to prevent those with gaps in knowledge from falling further behind.

From Dr. Joe Kim Ask A Researcher #3:

Q: What teaching practice do you use in the absence of research evidence, that nonetheless, you are convinced is effective? 

Would you be interested in partnering with a researcher to explore this teaching process?

Zach: As the Director of Educational Technology at a 1:1 device school, I have to make decisions all the time concerning the purchase of technologies, for which there is rarely evidence that they’ve been proven to be effective using a strong research design in a classroom setting. I do, however, rely on the learning sciences to describe how my school’s adopted technologies can be used in the service of effective instruction; interactive modeling, feedback and questioning, spaced and interleaved retrieval practice, multimedia principles such as dual coding, redundancy, and seductive details, etc. Without coaching and professional development on the application of cognitive science in technology-enabled instruction, I think we’ll continue to see disappointing returns from technology investment in schools.

I would love to partner with you in exploring research opportunities! Contact Zach, or DM @mrzachg 🙂

From Dr. Paul Kirschner Ask A Researcher #5:

Q: What did you miss during your education and training as a teacher that you need/needed when you became a teacher?

What was the balance between what to do (a technique; e.g. give feedback) and why/how you should do it (the theory behind; e.g., different types of feedback, how they work, what’s the function of requiring kids to act on it,…)?

&

From Dr. Nick Soderstrom Ask A Researcher #8:

Q: I’d be interested in whether their teacher training program included information on cognitive psychology–more specifically, the science of human learning and memory. 

Zach: I’ve written here before about how my cognitive science education during teaching training was insufficient. The extent of this education was a stand-alone Master’s level course called “Learning About Learning” where we briefly glossed over Piaget’s stage theory, Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, Pavlov and his dog, and Skinner and his operant conditioning. The implications for practice of these past works were not fully discussed. Learning theory was explained, clumsily, as a dichotomy between behaviorism and constructivism, with constructivism being proposed as the only viable alternative to clickers and treats. It wasn’t until I read Dan Willingham’s “Why Don’t Students Like School” by way of recommendation from Adam Boxer, and soon after, Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark’s 2006 article, that I became aware of the possibility of an instructional design informed by evidence from cognitive science. Since it only took me getting ahold of a couple of reading materials for my eyes to be opened, I’m optimistic that through quality teacher training and instructional leadership it’s possible to effect change here in the United States.

For Dr. Kirschner’s second question, it wasn’t until I began my self-training in educational research and psychology that I began to rely less on explanations derived from trial and error in the classroom, and/or social proof, and more on evidence from the literature. To continue with your feedback example, I might have started with an assumption such as “the more feedback, the better”, and I would try to increase the total number of teacher or peer feedback interactions during any lesson. When the feedback didn’t seem to lead to the desired results, I would try something else out, or maybe ask around, but I would rarely understand why it didn’t work. When I asked other teachers or administrators to weigh in, I was met with folk theories about learning that, in hindsight, were best avoided; “Let the students figure it out, they’re much smarter than us!” or “Maybe she’s not developmentally ready for that yet” or “Did you try having him choose how he demonstrates his learning?” It was only until I became aware of different ways of categorizing feedback by quality or level of effectiveness, such as Guasch et al.’s model (2013), that I was able to choose feedback loops that were more likely to be effective, and pair them with self-regulation strategies or cues that would enable students to take full advantage of this feedback. In short, with an absence of a coherent theory, I used an inefficient strategy for learning and problem-solving, and left myself open to the influence of learning myths and folk wisdom, and armed with a theory I’m better able to plan in advance, and retrieve solutions automatically while in the throes of teaching.

From Dr. Regan Gurung Ask A Researcher  #6:

Q: What are the biggest barriers to your learning about the science of what works? Journal access? Easily digestible summaries? Money for CE?

There are great blogs out there to learn about learning science, but time is limited. What would you WISH you had from researchers of learning?

Zach: Access to quality CE is a major problem. I’ve worked at schools where each teacher had an enormous personal PD budget, and others where PD had to be paid out of pocket. Regardless if the conference was in Tokyo or Tacoma, at the Marriott or the Motel 6, or on my dime or the school’s, very few of the actual workshops were on learning science topics, or informed by research at all. In my experience, workshop leaders are quick to declare that their presentations are research-based, but take offense when asked to provide the “research” they’ve cited so we can read it for ourselves. Worse, still, are the workshop leaders who perpetuate learning myths or who co-opt entire sections of famous TedTalks. Just a couple of years ago, I was in a session where the consultant separated us into different corners of the room, first according to our learning styles, next according to our multiple intelligences, and where she described the instructional implications of the learning pyramid for left-brained and right-brained learners. That same calendar year, I was in a session that was blatantly copied from the late Ken Robinson, who the workshop leader claimed to have met. The highlight of the plagiarism was when the speaker mistook knowledge obsolescence for information growth (Kirschner & van Merriënboer, 2013) as he questioned, with total incredulity, why we as a profession were so fixated on memorizing facts in the age of Google.

Now that I’ve made the transition to school leadership, I would like researchers to help schools by developing training and implementation resources so that leaders can present the original research to our faculty. With training materials on hand, researchers’ work can be disseminated more widely, with less risk that the state of the science will be misinterpreted by well-meaning trainers like me.

From Dr. Brandy Tiernan Ask A Researcher #7:

Q: How do you manage your classroom — are you any more successful than college professors at getting students to do the reading?

Zach: This is funny. As a former elementary teacher, I think college professors can stand to learn a lot from the elementary playbook. Two wonderings I have: Why is class time in college never used for doing the reading, and why do college professors never read aloud to their students?

I remember clearly the one lesson I participated in during my undergraduate when the professor “punished” the class by having us read what we were supposed to have read, in silence, for the first 40 minutes of the lesson. The discussion that followed was the richest of the quarter! I can imagine, too, that there are benefits to reading text aloud to a class of reluctant readers (Ciesla, 2016), pausing to insert expert commentary or ask a poignant question, maybe having the students turn and talk to their neighbors, or generate questions of their own about the text. Elementary teachers captivate learners everyday with these read aloud or small group reading techniques, yet these seem absent from the average college professor’s toolkit.

From Dr. Ayanna Thomas Ask A Researcher #11:

Q: From your perspective, what are the greatest impediments to student learning?

Zach: Instructional designs that lead to cognitive overload and, in general, school programming that leads to student overwhelm and ego depletion. Everyone wants to be and do all of the things and it is often at the expense of doing any one thing well. We can all be more intentional in how we sequence, organize, simplify, and optimize the day’s learning for our students.

Q: Do you adopt new practices based on new information that you acquire? If so, how do you gather that information? 

Where do you learn about new practices?

Zach: I’ve made enormous changes in how I teach and they’re all, for better or worse, documented on this blog. The one-sentence summary of this change is that I’ve gone from trying to be a motivational speaker, pal, and cheerleader on the side, to an active ( erm.. centrally-located?) teacher who, in respecting the limitations of working memory, orchestrates focused, challenging, and meaningful instructional sequences that lead to durable, long-lasting understandings. This change was caused by reading new things from others. Recent books I’ve read include “How Learning Happens” by Kirschner and Hendrick, “Dual Coding” by Caviglioli, “How We Learn” by Dehaene, “The Knowledge Gap” by Wexler, “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Kahneman, “When Can You Trust the Experts” by Willingham, “What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology” by Didau and Rose, and “Flow” by Csikszentmihalyi.

While popular teaching books are great, I think it really pays to dig into the research yourself, if only to verify the substance of the claims the authors make in their books. All of the books I just listed have a rich bibliography after each chapter. What I do is type the title of each of the articles that are of interest to me into a research database. I access it, I download the PDF, and I save it to my reference management system (Mendeley) where I organize it by topic, and then I read it. I find this to be such an efficient and enjoyable way to gather information because the article has just been summarized by the author of the book – they’ve done 95 percent of the work already – and now the original research is always at my fingertips. For readers of this blog who do not have access to a research database because they’re no longer in college, I would check Google Scholar, and if it’s not available there for free, to see if you can access research databases through your local library, or even your school’s library if you’re a teacher.

Q: Do you think that working with learning and cognitive scientists directly would be beneficial to your practice? Why or why not?

Yes! Teachers are thirsting for the opportunity to learn new things and improve their practice. But the people that train them are typically not very knowledgeable about the human cognitive architecture and its implications for instruction. The question of “what works?” is on everyone’s mind, but many teachers are led by former teachers who also don’t know the state of the science. If you’re looking to partner with someone to put something together, look no further – Contact Zach, or @mrzachg via Twitter 🙂


Wow! I really enjoyed answering these researchers’ questions. I hope you enjoyed reading this sort of thing and I encourage you to check out the series that this originated from on Blake Harvard’s blog.

– Zach Groshell @mrzachg

References

Ciesla, K. (2016). Reaching reluctant readers through read-aloud. Reading Teacher, 69(5), 523. https://doi.org/10.1002/trtr.1448

Guasch, T., Espasa, A., Alvarez, I. M., & Kirschner, P. A. (2013). Effects of feedback on collaborative writing in an online learning environment. Distance Education, 34(3), 324–338. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2013.835772

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75–86. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1

Kirschner, P. A., & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2013). Do learners really know best? urban legends in education. Educational Psychologist, 48(3), 169–183. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2013.804395

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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