GUEST POST: An Interview With A Teacher-Researcher

GUEST POST: An Interview With A Teacher-Researcher

Greg, @greg_ashman, is a teacher and PhD candidate in Australia.

1) About your own teaching

a) What is your favorite aspect of teaching?

This is very basic: I like it when students come to understand a concept that they didn't understand before and particularly if that fires their interest so that they ask lots of follow-up questions.

b) In an ideal world, how would your students study and engage with the material you present in your class?

I give advice that is based upon a mix of craft knowledge and my understanding of the science. I think retrieval and distributed practice are key but only once a student has grasped a concept. I tell my senior students that they should never find themselves sitting with a question that they have no idea how to deal with for more than about five minutes. This is not a good use of time. They should note the question and then come and see me for an explanation. However, once they understand a particular type of question - projectile motion, for instance - I suggest that they try as many different examples as possible to build up their episodic knowledge. Ideally, I want them to see an exam question and think, "I remember doing something a bit like this before..." I also use a question-of-the-week strategy where I give students a question to complete on an area that we studied a few weeks previously. I explain this to students as an attempt to 'disrupt forgetting'. Quizzing and testing provides information but I try to make it low-stakes for the students - it's just a normal part of what we do rather than an extra-special event to get stressed about.

c) For you as a teacher, what are the most useful resources about how students learn?

It is hard for me to sit back from this and give an objective evaluation that is distinct from my own narrative. For many years, I knew relatively little about education and learning research and yet I was working as a vice principal of a high school in London. I think this tells us something significant and alarming about how the teaching profession has developed. It was only when I joined my current school, a school that truly values research, that I started to read in earnest. I began with John Hattie's 2009 synthesis of meta-analyses, "Visible Learning". This is an interesting book but it raises more questions than it answers. So I chased-down one of the references from Hattie and found what, for me, was a revelatory paper; Kirschner, Sweller and Clark's 2006 article for Educational Psychologist on "Why minimal guidance during instruction doesn't work." This sparked my interest in "Cognitive Load Theory", a topic that I am now studying for my PhD. At roughly the same time, I discovered cognitive scientist Dan Willingham's writing for the American Federation of Teachers magazine, "American Educator" such as this article, which I still reference a lot. This is a wonderful free resource full of great articles pitched somewhere between journalism and a technical paper. I then start to write a blog about what I was learning and soon found myself pointed towards some key concepts and papers. This is when I came across "How People Learn", a textbook for teachers that was produced by the National Academies Press and is popular in U.S. ed schools. I am critical of this text, particularly some of the exemplars of good practice, which I don't think accurately reflect the science as I understand it.

2) About science communication

a) What is the best way to translate research published in academic journals to a wider audience?

I don't think you can beat American Educator. It is a great magazine that is pitched just right for practitioners. As I understand it, they approach researchers and ask them to contribute. However, it only comes out a few times each year and there are only one or two such articles per issue. So I'd say "More please!". We need more sources using that model of well-referenced articles written in a clear and simple style. Journal publishers could replicate the model but, unfortunately, I'm not sure there's much money in it! Blogs are filling that space right now and are doing a pretty decent job although it can be difficult to filter the good from the bad.

b) How can we challenge common misconceptions in education?

This is hard. There are many flawed ideas in education but a large number of educators are personally invested in each one. If you criticize an idea that a teacher uses on a daily basis then that teacher feels accused of being bad at what they do; they take it personally. So you see a lot of high emotion. 

It is also not always clear where the science of learning stops and ethics take over. Clearly, science can tell us what is effective but it cannot tell us what is right and wrong. For instance, it might be possible to demonstrate that students will benefit academically if a disruptive peer is excluded from the classroom but that is not the end of the matter. Is this the right thing to do? What happens to the excluded student?

A key problem is that we suffer from amateurs coming in and making assertions about the field whilst being remarkably ignorant of the research and history. We seem unreasonably tolerant of folks with a background in business telling us that we need to totally change education in order to make it fit for the 21st century. We have been hearing such ideas since at least about 1914 and yet each new enthusiast approaches this topic as if they are the first person to have thought of the idea. The paradox is that this is essentially an attack on teachers and our professionalism and yet we don't seem to mind, whereas if a teacher criticizes the idea of project-based learning then the backlash is quite intense.

All we can do is keep making the case in writing. Blogs are good and newspaper articles are even better. Occasionally, people get back to me and let me know that I've shaped their thinking in some way. I am always surprised - you are much more likely to hear from people who disagree with you - but the point is that it really does have an impact, probably more than we realize.

c) What are some good ways to involve teachers in a dialogue about research?

I am involved in researchED, a network of not-for-profit conferences where teachers and researchers can meet and give presentations. It is a unique forum in this respect because it values both sets of contributions equally. Teachers should also connect with social media - this is how I have found most of the research that has shaped my thinking. Twitter can be a little confrontational at times but Facebook is less threatening. Schools could and should do more but they are often overburdened with initiatives from the district, state or government. I'm not sure what you do about that.

3) You recently wrote a book about education. What made you write this book, and what would you like readers to get out of it? 

The key idea behind the book is that of the Ouroboros: an emblem of a snake eating its own tail that symbolizes death and rebirth.

I wanted to make the point that many of the 'new' ideas in education actually have a very long history. Shockingly, a lot of these ideas have been tried and have failed in the past but this doesn't seem to stop education gurus from promoting them as the latest thing. I wanted to give some detail, some context. I was surprised, for instance, with a Twitter conversation in which the person I was talking to thought that 'progressive education' was a new term that had been invented to caricature certain types of teaching. It actually has a long history - there was a progressive education society in the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century.

Paradoxically, the Ouroboros can also represent a way out of the cycle. If we see educational processes as a set of feedback loops rather than linear paths then I think we can build a model that actually moves us forward. So I wanted to explain what I meant and give some examples of what that might look like in practice. How does motivation relate to academic achievement? How can we improve students' writing? How does procedural fluency relate to conceptual understanding?