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The “so what” question

Valerie Sakimura

Valerie Sakimura

Category: Cognitive Science

Temple University’s College of Education, led by member dean Greg Anderson, knows what it wants: for teacher-candidates to ground their instructional decision-making in the science of how students learn. Figuring out how to achieve that is what the College has been tackling as part of Dean for Impact’s Design for Practice Network.

The Temple team hypothesized that for teacher-candidates to base their instructional decision-making on the science of how students learn, the College would need to infuse cognitive science across the entirety of program. Candidates in Temple’s Early Childhood/Elementary Education program were getting a dose of cognitive science in their sophomore Cognitive Development class, but the content was rarely revisited. Temple now wanted to infuse that content throughout the program so candidates could continue to build up their mastery of cognitive science over time.

In a pilot that launched in the ECE math and science methods courses last fall, about 70 candidates in their junior year received five mini-lectures, interspersed throughout the semester, that reviewed cognitive science principles and drew connections between those principles and instructional strategies candidates were learning. Although not a true infusion, Temple thought this “co-location” of cognitive science content and methods was an important step toward integration of cognitive science throughout the program.

Initial data analysis found that candidates rarely used cognitive-science principles to justify instructional choices in lesson plans. Despite this data, faculty were initially skeptical of the push to infuse cognitive science into the program, greeting the effort with a “So what?”

Anderson, Associate Dean Julie Booth, and Krissy Najera, the assistant dean of teacher education, found themselves having to convince faculty that the low performance of candidates on this measure mattered, and mattered enough to justify changing their courses.  Why privilege cognitive science over other important things candidates should know? If the College was going to spend energy piloting new ways of doing things, why focus on cognitive science? And even if faculty could be convinced that cognitive science was important, was it so important that it required them to tweak their courses?

Making the case for the importance of cognitive science was, and continues to be, an uphill battle, but Anderson and his team have found a few ways to begin to address the “so what” question.

Using data to judge the pilot. Anderson has always been clear that continuing or expanding this work will depend on what the data show. As he said, “It’s not enough to tell me you care, you have to show me the efficacy of what you’re doing.” Booth and Najera are administering pre- and post-assessments and surveys, analyzing lesson plan reflections, and gathering clinical experience observation data tied to cognitive science understanding. This helps allay concerns of skeptics nervous about programmatic change: if the data doesn’t show it matters, they won’t keep doing it. But if the evidence shows that the cognitive-science intervention is positively influencing how candidates make instructional decisions, then that begins to answer the “so what” question.

Building faculty capacity. The siloed nature of educator-preparation means that many faculty who don’t specialize in cognitive science may not have the depth of understanding to fully embrace it or infuse it into their courses. Indeed, many of the adjunct faculty teaching in the pilot had not seen the most recent cognitive science research or hadn’t reviewed it since their own preparation experiences decades ago. Temple made purposeful attempts to address this: through exposure to the content and time with Booth – whose research expertise is in cognitive science – the faculty began to see the value of infusing this content in the methods courses.

Connecting the work to professional opportunities. The work on this pilot has opened up a range of opportunities for the College and its faculty – opportunities to speak about the work, develop new programs, apply for new research funding, and work with new collaborators. Faculty not currently involved in the pilot are taking notice of this energy and attention, and as they see more chances to connect the cognitive-science work to professional opportunities, they may be more open to it.

The initial data from Temple’s fall cohort show the treatment group was less likely to use “learning styles” to justify instructional decisions and more likely to use comparisons in their lesson plans to help students transfer prior learning to new situations.  Temple is continuing to analyze the data gathered from candidate lesson plan reflections.

Temple is continuing their journey to see if they can change how hundreds of teachers are prepared in order to ground their decision-making in a scientific understanding of how students learn. And an important part of that journey is continuing to argue for the “so what.” Anderson sees the burden of answering this question as a positive shift for his program.

“I see this pilot as a vehicle to ask difficult questions about how we’re doing our work. Regardless of what content we’re talking about, I’m equally interested in it as a strategy to get our faculty to reflect on their practice,” Anderson said.