Wednesday, January 13, 2016

What Will Help Students Learn?

Here is a  press release I received today from the National Council on Teacher Quality:
January 13, 2016                         
Dan Glaser        
202-393-0020 x 117            
Textbooks Fail to Deliver On What Every Teacher Needs to Know
Strategies proven to help students learn barely mentioned
Washington DC — Every year teacher candidates in the United States spend an estimated $40 million to purchase textbooks purporting to teach how children learn—yet almost none of them cover the core strategies they will need as teachers to increase student learning and retention.  
That finding is among the most important in a new study released today by nonpartisan, nonprofit National Council on Teacher Quality ( The report, Learning About Learning, looked at a representative sample of textbooks used in programs which are training elementary and secondary teachers. Not one of the textbooks selected by programs for assignment in educational psychology or methods coursework—where teacher candidates typically learn about learning—provided even minimal coverage of the small set of research-based instructional strategies most likely to be effective in any kind of classroom, no matter the age or subject. These strategies were identified by the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, in a guide released in 2007.  
At best, the textbooks reference a fraction of what would benefit teachers, speaking to one or two of the core strategies.
“Teacher candidates are being sold a bill of goods, being asked to spend millions of dollars on textbooks which fail to deliver,” said Kate Walsh, president of NCTQ. “Depriving teachers of this essential professional knowledge is a tremendous disservice. The notion that novice teachers will eventually just ‘catch on’, learning as they teach, may have been a necessity in 1950; it’s not the case now, courtesy of a half century of great research.”
In addition to analyzing the textbooks, NCTQ looked for evidence from a sample of teacher preparation programs that core instructional strategies are taught regardless.  As indicated by lecture topics and student assignments, no evidence could be found that the programs are somehow working around the deficiencies of textbooks.
The IES identified six core instructional strategies supported by conclusive research, including: 1) distributing student practice or review of new material over weeks and even months; 2) pairing graphics or other types of visual information with oral instruction; 3) testing students on new material to facilitate recall; 4) accompanying abstract ideas with concrete examples; 5) alternating problems that the teacher solves with problems that students must independently solve;  and lastly, 6) posing probing questions to students to deepen conceptual understanding of new material.
Only this last strategy, the need for teachers to ask probing questions, was present to any significant degree either in textbook coverage or in coursework. Even this was covered by fewer than half of the textbooks studied.
Publishers of the 48 textbooks in the sample were each invited to respond to the findings in the study or to ask authors to do so. Only one author and one publisher chose to respond.
Many of the topics that are covered in the textbooks may be  of value to future teachers, just not to the exclusion of the instructional strategies. Common topics include the benefits of cooperative learning, the pros and cons of homework; when to best use direct instruction; the importance of keeping students engaged and mechanisms teachers can use to elicit what students may already know about a subject.   
The full report can be accessed here.
About the National Council on Teacher Quality
The National Council on Teacher Quality is a nonpartisan research and policy group committed to modernizing the teaching profession based on the belief that all children deserve effective teachers. We recognize that it is not teachers who bear responsibility for their profession's many challenges, but the institutions with the greatest authority and influence over teachers. To that end we work to achieve fundamental changes in the policy and practices of teacher preparation programs, school districts, state governments, and teachers unions. Our Board of Directors and Advisory Board come from a broad range of backgrounds and perspectives, and they all believe that policy changes are overdue in the recruitment and retention of teachers. More information about NCTQ can be found on our website,

Copyright © 2016 National Council on Teacher Quality, All rights reserved. 
When I first became a teacher in 1997, my former high school principal and counselor, both of them former math teachers, took me to breakfast one morning.  There they shared some of their wisdom with me, and told me some things I needed to do in order to be a good teacher--which means that they shared with me things I needed to do in order to help students learn more, which is a good definition of being a good teacher. 

I was reminded of that breakfast discussion as I read IES's 6 "core instructional strategies supported by conclusive research", as there's a lot of overlap between the strategies in that list and the strategies my principal and counselor shared with me.  For example, one strategy that I implemented immediately, and carry on with to this day, is "you have to give a quiz every week."  The reasoning was that students don't often have enough metacognition to know what they know and don't know, so they need to be quizzed weekly so they know where they stand.  Also, they learn better with the periodic reviews provided by quizzes. 

So here I am, in my 19th year teaching, and I still give a quiz or a test every week.  As for the list above, I do #1-4 regularly, I could do a better job on #5, and I often get disappointed when no one (or perhaps only one person) can answer a question I might proffer when using strategy #6.  I have 12 1/2 years to go before retirement, perhaps I'll have this teaching thing mastered by then :-)


Anonymous said...

Failure to teach these strategies is educational malpractice. And, it's a big reason why teachers' students learn far less than they could. Do you think ed schools simply assume that teachers-in-preparation already know these principles from their 13+ years of schooling? or from instinct? or from observing practicing teachers? or do they really think these practices are insignificant?

socalmike said...

One of the things I like best about teaching Project Lead the Way curriculum (for 16 years) is that we don't use textbooks. All of the curriculum is presented in PowerPoints (yeah, I know), but it really keeps the cost down to schools, as they don't have to purchase books.

Anonymous said...

You were fortunate at the beginning to have two colleagues take you under their wings and serve as mentors. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Another issue is that excellent research and studies such as this must be taken seriously and applied effectively. Unfortunately, these tend to be unknown at best or ignored at worst by practicing teachers themselves and ed schools. In my opinion this is the main reason why educators are not taken seriously as professionals and they get grief from politicians, parents, etc. Imagine if we could just calmly say to these sometimes well-meaning individuals, "No thank you. Research shows what you are doing is harmful to improving student outcomes!"

Ellen K said...

Our previous textbooks were five years out of adoption. Finally my district decided to buy new ones. They picked ebooks because they thought it would be a cheaper solution. So for a district with FIVE AAAAAA schools they got 265 licenses. I don't use the textbook daily, but for students with reading or comprehension issues due to dyslexia or language, having a book resource such as an ebook, gives them information in a way that might be more easily understood than verbal instructions. We can only access the teacher's book, which rather defeats the purpose if a student is sent to alternative school as we have no text to send for them or even a code. I guess we're supposed to write out the text by hand????