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Few professions are “revolutionized” with such frequency as teaching -- and with such minimal impact on actual practices. As veteran teachers, we’ve seen many teaching practices and technological advances that promise to transform (or disrupt) education, including programmed instruction, clicker questions, discovery learning and on and on. They follow a similar pattern: initial excitement with reports of strikingly positive results, followed by the growth of doubts and negative results, leading to a mixed picture of success and failure, and then descending into inconsequentiality or practice by only a limited number of adherents.

Are we being cynical? If we were to synthesize current trends in pedagogy, we would conclude that the best teaching practice is: high impact, student centered, engaging, hands-on, just-in-time, technology enhanced, flipped, blended, hybrid, transformational, cooperative, collaborative, reflective, authentic, situated, guided, integrative, supplemental, reciprocal, gamified, experiential, adaptive, disruptive and active. It is also brain based, peer based, inquiry based, group based, team based, project based, case based, community based, discovery based, competency based, evidence based, mastery based, research based, service based, problem based and data driven, not to mention massive, open and online.

In other words, teaching and learning are lost in a buzzword wasteland. “Cutting-edge” pedagogy changes often but results in little actual progress in terms of promoting student learning. There has been an explosion of pedagogical research in the last 20 years, but it has yet to translate into widespread, substantive innovations in teaching practices. As a result, many teachers simply ignore teaching trends.

How did teaching get this way? More important, what can be done to move teaching forward?

The problem stems from viewing innovations as magic bullets that will work for everyone. Indeed, the focus on innovations diverts attention from the everyday reality of education: teaching and learning are complex and hard. They are complex and hard because we don’t know the exact conditions in which student learning will occur. How people learn depends on multiple interacting factors that defy any one-size-fits-all solution. Yet we keep trying to find a simple solution to this complicated problem.

We pursue simplistic solutions to teaching for a number of reasons. In his book Visible Learning, John Hattie provided a major empirical one. After synthesizing more than 800 meta-analyses of different factors affecting learning, he concluded that virtually all learning innovations work, noting that one only needs a pulse and a belief that an intervention will work, and it likely will. Teachers become excited when they try something different and students notice and respond to it. The problem is that the effects are transient; they fade as the shiny new pedagogy becomes routine.

The fundamental theoretical reason for our pursuit of simplistic answers is the lack of a comprehensive, empirically validated model of how students learn. Such a theory will be complex, stipulating all the elements that contribute to learning and specifying principles of how these elements interact with each other. Such principles could guide the design, implementation and assessment of effective pedagogy across different situations.

Without such a theory, teachers must make their own assumptions about how students learn. Unfortunately, many teachers base their pedagogy on simplistic ideas, untested intuitions and faulty assumptions. The lack of a validated model leads to a profusion of different teaching methods based on various assumptions. Fads emerge (or re-emerge in an altered form). Teachers with different assumptions often talk past one another, and people outside teaching believe they are qualified to “fix” teaching.

How do we break out of this unproductive cycle and move teaching forward? The solution is to develop a comprehensive theory of how people learn. A good theory would guide both research and practice by organizing existing pedagogical knowledge, allowing it to accumulate and advance. Teachers could use such a theory to guide the development and assessment of effective pedagogies. Researchers could use the theory to guide progressively more advanced and germane research.

To be effective, any pedagogy must mesh with what we know about how the mind learns and thinks. Cognitive research shows the mind is good at some aspects of learning and limited in others. We know conditions and strategies that can enhance learning and ones that hinder it. If a teaching strategy doesn’t leverage the strengths and compensate for the weaknesses of the human cognitive system, it will fail. For example, digital textbooks with embedded links for students to explore can help learning by providing a richer encoding, but they can also cause distractions in attention that hurt learning.

Historically, we have used global theories of development and learning, such as Jean Piaget and John Dewey, but those theories are too broad to be of use in specific teaching situations. What’s more, our understanding of learning has advanced considerably. At the other end of the spectrum, cognitive psychologists have discovered individual, specific factors that aid learning, such as retrieval practice and interleaving, but those single elements often do not easily translate into the complex context of the classroom.

What would such a theory of student learning look like? Looking only at cognitive factors, research has identified multiple factors that interact to influence student learning. They include:

  • Mental mind-set: how students view their ability to learn through their own efforts influences their willingness to take on challenges and their perseverance.
  • Prior knowledge: the more students know about a subject, the easier it is for them to learn more about that subject.
  • Misconceptions: misconceptions are common in any field and remarkably resistant to correction.
  • Ineffective learning strategies: students often prefer the least effective study strategies for long-term learning.
  • Transfer of learning: students often fail to generalize learning beyond the immediate classroom context.
  • Selective attention: students overestimate their ability to learn while multitasking or in the face of distractions
  • Constraints of mental effort and working memory: students can concentrate and consider only a limited amount of information.
  • Metacognition and self-regulation: students are often overconfident in their level of understanding, and this misconception influences their study habits.
  • Fear and mistrust: students who believe that their teachers want them to succeed and design assignments that will help them succeed will work harder and persevere longer than students who see their teachers as indifferent or trying to “weed them out.”

This extensive list of factors makes clear why effective teaching is so difficult to achieve. Any valid theory of student learning has to address all these issues.

For example, a teacher may try to help students by correcting their poor learning strategies, but if the problem is with misconceptions and prior knowledge, the approach will be unsuccessful. Moreover, all these factors interact and influence each other. Greater prior knowledge, for example, reduces the mental effort required to learn new information.

The most important consequence of this interaction is that it means there is no single best way to teach across all situations. A valid theory of learning would have to capture this complex interaction.

Having a theory of how people learn would allow teachers to plan pedagogy more effectively and to examine all factors relevant to learning. Note that these are only the cognitive factors and do not even address social or other important aspects. Developing such a theory will require the collaboration of researchers who understand the mind, educators who understand the classroom context and teachers who must put the pedagogy into practice. Many fields contribute to teaching, and it will take a concerted, multidisciplinary effort to develop a valid theory.

Ideally, the people leading this effort will have mastery in their field, in pedagogical research and in teaching that addresses all the cognitive challenges to achieve student learning. Most disciplines have an organization dedicated to conducting pedagogical research on teaching that field effectively. The members of these organizations are likely to have the closest combination of expertise needed to move teaching forward. These organizations could also bring researchers and practitioners together to focus on research that examines cognitive challenges in authentic educational settings.

It may seem counterintuitive to argue that in order to achieve practical improvements in teaching, we need to develop a theory, but that is exactly what is needed to transform teaching into a coherent set of effective practices. Currently, faculty development consists of presenting teaching techniques with no theoretical framework, as if procedure equals pedagogy. As a result, techniques are interpreted and enacted in a wide variety of ways. Grounding practice in an accepted theory would bring much needed clarity to the definition of terms.

Educational buzzwords often encompass ill-defined categories of practices and mean different things to different people. Take “active learning,” a term that has been in circulation at least 25 years. It seems to include all instructional practices except lecturing and is used interchangeably with other equally ambiguous terms such as “hands-on learning.”

If our analysis is correct, we are approaching the development and assessment of pedagogy all wrong. Instead of judging pedagogies to be good or bad, we should be asking, “In what situation is this pedagogy appropriate to use?” and “What kind of learning is likely to result?” We are not arguing that all pedagogies are equal. Some pedagogies are more widely applicable and more likely to succeed than others. But all pedagogies have their limitations.

We should not be looking for the single best teaching method. What works for one section of a class may not work in another. We need theory-driven pedagogy to achieve desired goals. To develop such a theory would be huge undertaking, but it would certainly beat wandering aimlessly in a buzzword wasteland.

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