It takes a long time to become a teacher, about five or six years on average. Most prospective teachers finish a bachelor’s degree first and then complete two years of education courses along with a teaching practicum.
Some of these required courses include educational psychology, cross-cultural education, philosophy of education, and indigenous perspectives. Education students learn a lot about the importance of diversity and the need for self-reflection.
However, they learn precious little about how to teach or how to effectively manage a classroom full of rambunctious students. If they’re lucky enough to get a good mentor during their practicum, teacher candidates might receive some helpful tips for surviving the day-to-day reality in schools. But that would be a matter of luck and not design.
That isn’t good enough. Given that average per-pupil spending is higher in Canada than in most other countries, prospective teachers should receive the best training possible. Sadly, when it comes to learning about the things that make students into good teachers, most prospective teachers are on their own.
We can and should do better. Obviously, it isn’t possible for education faculties to change overnight. However, it should be possible to ensure that all prospective teachers learn three simple things.
The first is that background knowledge is key to reading comprehension. If you know nothing about the topic of an article, you will struggle to understand it.
For example, imagine reading an article about last night’s hockey game. Sentences such as “They tried to score on a power play but the other team effectively killed the penalty” might be second nature to hockey fans, but this sentence would be incredibly confusing to someone who knows nothing about hockey. Being able to read the words does not mean much if you can’t understand what they mean in context.
Many research studies have shown that background knowledge is a better predictor of reading comprehension than students’ assessed reading levels or even their IQ. Being knowledgeable about the subject of an article is more important than the complexity of the article’s words.
This means that teachers should focus on helping students acquire as much knowledge as possible. Unless students are immersed in a knowledge-rich learning environment, they are unlikely to become proficient readers.
The second thing all teachers need to know is that whole-class instruction, when done well, is a highly effective learning environment. Teachers aren’t hired as private tutors; their job is to teach groups of students. The best way for teachers to meet the needs of their students is to engage the entire group with effective, whole-class lessons.
When teachers make regular use of whole-class instruction, they seek out methods and materials that are optimal for the entire group. When problems arise, teachers can spend more time with the relatively few students having trouble while the other students work independently on assignments related to the lesson.
Unfortunately, far too many education professors pressure student teachers to adapt their instruction to the so-called learning styles of each student. Not only is the notion of individual learning styles a discredited myth, but individualized instruction is a highly inefficient way to teach because each student only receives a fraction of a teacher’s time.
Thus, teachers should make regular use of whole-class instruction and education professors should teach up-and-coming teachers how to instruct the whole class effectively.
Finally, all teachers need to know that because working memory has limited room, students must commit basic facts to memory and learn new concepts in manageable chunks. This important idea is known in psychology as cognitive load theory and it has a lot of supporting evidence behind it.
Simply put, cognitive load theory notes that basic information must be transferred to long-term memory in order to free up space in the mind for more complex problems. Contrary to what prospective teachers hear in their education courses, memorizing times tables and other basic facts is far from obsolete. In fact, committing these facts to memory frees up room in students’ minds for more advanced concepts.
This is why students who do not know their times tables or have not memorized the basic order of operations typically struggle with solving algebraic equations. When students need to look up the most basic of number facts, such as 6 x 6 = 36, they do not have the necessary room in their working memory to attempt higher order thinking, like solving a problem in which 6 x 6 is the first step.
Learning is hard work. Teachers can make this job a whole lot easier by helping students transfer basic facts to their long-term memory.
Three simple principles should be front and centre in teacher education programs across Canada. Background knowledge is key to reading comprehension, whole-class instruction is effective, and basic facts need to be committed to long-term memory. Knowing and acting upon these three principles would do wonders to improve teaching and learning in schools today.
It’s too bad most education professors have a different agenda. Newly graduated teachers and students deserve better—much better—than they are getting now.