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Case Study: Fighting folk pedagogies with science at UNC Charlotte

Deans for Impact

Category: Learning by Scientific Design

Imagine you’re observing a third-grade classroom. The teacher has just finished a multiplication lesson, and is walking down the rows of desks, passing out a little handful of Cheerios to each student.

“Okay,” the teacher says as she walks to the front of the room. “We are going to use Cheerios to show multiplication. I want you to glue the cereal onto the paper, creating four rows with five Cheerios each.” She wants the students to understand that multiplication can be used to find the total number of items in a collection of equally sized groups or rows.

Papers rustle and the sound of crunching fills the air as students munch on their cereal. You think back to the classroom you just visited, on the other side of town, where students completed a lesson focused on the same objective. In that classroom, students were provided a series of multiplication expressions, and then asked to generate other mathematical representations, including diagrams and story problems, for each.

In one classroom, students were thinking deeply about the concept of multiplication, and making an effort to process through the new information. In another classroom, students were chomping and gluing.

So what makes a teacher pick the critical-thinking problems over the Cheerios? We believe educator preparation plays a vital role. And we are seeing that firsthand at UNC Charlotte’s Cato College of Education.

At UNC Charlotte, 100% of teacher-candidates who experienced two semesters of coursework that explained the science of learning identified the correct answer: the math problems where students were asked to generate multiple representations. Only 42% of teachers in a control group did. In their explanations of why, candidates in the control group cited mythology such as the idea that people learn best by doing:

“Hands-on activities are more likely to be remembered.”

In contrast, the first group’s responses revealed a deep understanding of the scientific basis for learning new information:

“I choose the activity that will allow students to focus on to-be-remembered information. Since students will focus on this to-be-remembered information, it will encode into their long-term memory.”

“Results from data we have collected show big improvements in candidates’ ability to differentiate between ‘hands-on’ activities—that at face value look really appealing, fun, and engaging versus ‘minds-on’ activities—activities that align with standards and help students learn,” said Dr. Sandy Rogelberg, Research Assistant Professor at UNC Charlotte. And candidates are not just making the right decisions—they’re articulating complex reasoning for why.

“We found that the candidates who have engaged in the learning science coursework—compared to our control group—were much more articulate in their rationale for why they were making the instructional decisions they made. They were using the language and approach of the information processing model in their thinking,” Associate Dean Dr. Paul Fitchett said.

Modeling to help candidates learn—and unlearn

These differences in thinking are the direct result of participating in the LbSD Network. For the last two years, UNC Charlotte faculty members Dr. Rogelberg and Dr. Hilary Dack have redesigned three courses: a foundational educational psychology class in the elementary education program, and two courses that comprise the foundational methods block of the middle grades education program.

“I find that candidates are very surprised when they learn about learning science, not only because they haven’t learned about it before and are surprised they haven’t, but because so much of the teaching practices that we talk about in our course that align with learning science are not necessarily prevalent in the K-12 classrooms that they experienced as learners,” Dack said. “They are often surprised by the degree to which choices made by teachers are not actually aligned with what we now know is the way that people learn.”

That was the case for teacher-candidate Emilee Strohl, who entered the program believing in the common neuromyth of learning styles, having had the mythology passed down to her by a teacher years prior.

“I used to believe in learning styles. I learned that from a teacher who made us do a test to determine if we were kinesthetic, auditory, or visual learners,” Strohl said. “My approach to instruction has changed a lot since I entered the program.”

Situations like this present an opportunity and a challenge. “If candidates are not coming into my class with a bank of images of what this looks like in practice, then my job is to help them build as clear an image as possible of what this can look like in a middle school classroom,” Dack said. For example, she utilizes “teaching time-outs,” where she stops class to explain what she did and why, or what she could have done differently to better align with learning science.

“I’m constantly looking at my own practice to see if it aligns to learning science. Every aspect within my control aligns to what I am teaching candidates,” Dack said.

In Rogelberg’s classes, candidates have opportunities to rehearse using learning science, which helps them get the hang of a new approach that may not be intuitive. During classes about using effortful-thinking questions, teacher-candidates first practiced writing the questions into lesson plans, then they collaborated with peers to enact asking the questions during instruction in a mock classroom setting.

“Participating in the LbSD Network provided a bridge from theory to practice,” Rogelberg said. “Now, I’m better able to directly link theory to the nitty-gritty of the practice of teaching. In class, candidates develop teaching skills as the skills relate to theory, which is a powerful combination that will help them remember why they are doing what they do.”

These moments train the future teachers to think metacognitively about their own practice, and the data is clear that the redesign is working. By the end of one semester, nearly 30 percent more teacher-candidates in Rogelberg’s course could correctly identify student/teacher dialogue that prompted effortful thinking. On an LbSD Assessment question that probed students’ understanding of using examples and non-examples, 89% of candidates who received high intervention identified the teacher action correctly, compared to just 64% in the comparison group.

“Rather than just falling back on anecdotes from their own experience or this pervasive folkish way of thinking about teaching, our teacher-candidates are moving to something more complex and scientific,” Fitchett said. “They’re privileging the scientific nature of teaching—that it’s complex, not just passing down an idea from one teacher to the next.”

Providing equitable access to high-quality instruction to all students

These changes have real implications for students, as the professors often remind their teacher-candidates.

“The major destination for candidate learning is always the outcomes we’re trying to achieve for K-12 learners—that’s the driving force behind everything,” Dr. Dack explained. “We frame all of our teaching with candidates around that. We ask them to imagine that they’re a middle school student or pull in an example of a learner they’ve worked with. We want them to think about how their instructional decisions will make an impact on real kids that they’re responsible for teaching.”

Think back to the classrooms working with math problems versus Cheerios. While it may seem like a small moment, these instructional decisions—and opportunities to think deeply or shallowly—accumulate over the course of a child’s educational career, laying groundwork that makes it easier or more difficult for them to learn later on.

“What is implicit to the LbSD content is the importance of developing critical thinking skills in all students—so that all students are college ready,” Rogelberg said. “There is an equity piece that underlies it. When our candidates make better instructional decisions AND address equity, those changes have the potential to have a reverberating impact.”