What Should Teachers Know?
Is my experience representative? Are most teachers unaware of the latest findings from basic science—in particular, psychology—about how children think and learn? Research is limited, but a 2006 study by Arthur Levine indicated that teachers were, for the most part, confident about their knowledge: 81 percent said they understood “moderately well” or “very well” how students learn. But just 54 percent of school principals rated the understanding of their teachers that high. And a more recent study of 598 American educators by Kelly Macdonald and colleagues showed that both assessments may be too optimistic. A majority of the respondents held misconceptions about learning—erroneously believing, for example, that children have learning styles dominated by one of the senses, that short bouts of motor-coordination exercises can improve the integration of the brain’s left and right hemispheres, and that children are less attentive after consuming sugary drinks or snacks.
But perhaps when teachers say they “know how children learn,” they are not talking about learning from a scientific perspective but about craft knowledge. They take the question to mean, “Do you know how to ensure that children in your classroom learn?” which is not the same as understanding the theoretical principles of psychology. In fact, in a 2012 study of 500 new teachers by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), respondents said that their training was too theoretical and didn’t prepare them for teaching “in the real world.” Maybe they have a point. Perhaps teachers don’t need generalized theories and abstractions, but rather ready-to-go strategies—not information about how children learn, but the best way to teach fractions; not how children process negative emotion, but what to say to a 3rd grader who is dejected about his reading.
Related: National Council on Teacher Quality.