GUEST POST: Evidence-Based Practices in Teacher Training - A Two-Fold Issue

GUEST POST: Evidence-Based Practices in Teacher Training - A Two-Fold Issue

Guest post by: Bryan Penfound

Bryan Penfound is an instructor at the University of Winnipeg whose focus is teaching pre-service teachers mathematics content knowledge. He works jointly for the Department of Mathematics and the Faculty of Education.

Over the past two years I have had the amazing opportunity to connect with university educators, K-12 classroom teachers, school administrators & trustees, consultants, authors, politicians, and many other experts in their fields. No matter the conversation, I always seem to come back to one important over-arching question: How do we ensure that our teachers have a proper background in evidence-based practices? After much reflection, I am beginning to see this as a two-fold issue.

The Primary Fold: Pre-Service Teacher Education

First, it is probably important to briefly define how I think about evidence-based practices. A quote from The Institute of Educational Sciences (IES) succinctly sums up my thoughts on this:

“Practice [that is] supported by studies with solid results on a treatment group and with a control group … [such that] results can be attributed to the practice and are not affected by confounding factors.”

In my opinion, it is highly likely that many pre-service teachers within faculties of education do not get sufficient training in evidence-based practices. There are many potential reasons for this: having to take required courses for degree completion, ideology, timing issues, vested interests, and poor textbooks & resources. As an explicit example, let’s return to my old stomping grounds, Brock University, to take a look at the education courses required in the Concurrent Education Program at the Junior/Intermediate level from the 2015-2016 Undergraduate Calendar. Specifically, these individuals will receive certification to teach Grades 4-10.

Required education courses for pre-service teachers entering the Junior/Intermediate Grade levels at Brock University.

Required education courses for pre-service teachers entering the Junior/Intermediate Grade levels at Brock University.

On the outside, it seems like a pretty nice line-up of courses. We have a nice variety, including Diversity Issues (Y2), Cognition and the Exceptional Learner (Y5), Professionalism and Law (Y6), and even Cognition of Learning (Y3). However, if we look a bit closer, we begin to see some ideological and possible vested-interest courses: Twenty-First Century Literacies (Y4), as well as Teaching Digital Learners in the Digital Age (Y5). The effect of technology on our learners has small variable impact when compared to big-ticket items such as teachers reflecting on how much surface knowledge is needed before eliciting deeper thinking in students, or teachers understanding how to assess what students know and moving them towards specific success criteria. Why is it that courses regarding technology receive a hefty two semester presence over a course like Cognition of Learning that has great potential to better inform our pre-service teachers about evidence-based practices that will have a greater impact on their learners?

I am under the impression that Mathematics Methods courses tend to receive a similar treatment - that is evidence-based practices get back-seat to ideology or vested-interests (pages 95-100 of the NCTQ's 2008 report are an interesting read). This study by Laski et al., for example, questioned 204 mathematics methods course instructors in the United States and found some interesting results.

Only about 23% of the instructors questioned deemed an understanding of basic cognitive & learning processes (such as memory, encoding, attention, and automaticity) very important for the preparation of pre-service teachers in elementary mathematics. Common mathematical misconceptions and developmental sequences of mathematics (two topics important in the development of pedagogical content knowledge) were much higher with 57% and 48% of instructors ranking these as very important, respectively. Sources such as John Hattie and Daniel Willingham continue to remind us of the importance of pedagogical content knowledge in teachers' training - so I find it odd that more mathematics methods instructors are not rating these aspects as very important. An excellent methods course should be designed, in part, to help develop pedagogical content knowledge in our pre-service teachers.

Laski et al. also found the frequencies in which methods instructors accessed psychology journals very low. The journal that seemed to be accessed the most was Cognition and Instruction, with 36% of the instructors never having accessed this journal (only 8% of instructors frequently accessing it). The frequencies in which all other scientific journals (including Developmental Psychology and Journal of Educational Psychology) were accessed was lower, with 48 - 68% of instructors stating that they had never accessed these resources. Laski et al. do state that access to journals may be an issue preventing teacher trainers from reading current psychology journals; however, these individuals should have access through their respective institutions. This begs a few questions: Is access to evidence-based research truly an issue? Where are our mathematics methods instructors getting their current research? Is their current research evidence-based? Is this current research helping with the preparation of our pre-service teachers to become effective teachers?

If the elements that are important in developing pedagogical content knowledge (such as analysing common misconceptions or understanding the sequencing of topics) tend not to be covered in great extent, what is being covered in mathematics method courses? According to Laski et al. Eliciting and assessing student mathematical thinking is covered to a great extent in these courses. This seems to match up with the NCTQ's recent look at textbooks used across the faculty of education for pre-service teacher training. That is, 41% of textbooks cover the evidence-based instructional strategy of Posing probing questions. This was the highest coverage of the six evidence-based teaching strategies the NCTQ's study looked for, the others being Pairing graphics with words, Linking the abstract to a concrete representation, Distributing practice, Alternating solved/unsolved problems, and Assessing to boost retention. Could it be that there is a correlation between the poor textbooks and resources that are used, and the lack of evidence-based practices discussed in teacher training?

The Secondary Fold: In-Service Teacher Education

If we believe that teachers are being certified without a proper grounding in evidence-based practices, then we have a second issue on our hands. As a result of the lack of evidence-based practices, there are several in-service teachers lacking knowledge on these topics who are out in our nations' schools. How can we reach these individuals and offer assistance? To me, this issue is a bit easier to think about. We have many outlets, such as volunteering with local teachers, spreading the word through social media, or presenting at teacher-organized events such as researchEd. Opening productive discussion between post-secondary instructors and K-12 teachers regarding evidence-based practices is both important and necessary, as we all desire the same end-goal: successful strategies to help our students learn.

In a follow-up post I will examine the problem at the pre-service level in more depth, offering some suggestions on how pre-service teacher's timetables might be more efficiently designed to promote the acquisition of mathematical content knowledge, and pedagogical content knowledge.