TCRecord just published a great example of the kind of weak science that strikes me that as a perfect example of why I don’t bother to read the academic literature on learning theory with any regularity.
The article starts off well enough:
Teachers exert the greatest influence in the classroom through the way in which they engage students in the curriculum, but the overwhelming complexities of learning and teaching have clouded the value of important findings regarding the teacher’s role in creating powerful learning experiences for children. For instance, the attention to teacher behaviors so common in the 1970s has fallen out of favor as the complexities of the classroom, diversity of students, understanding of how children learn, and post-modernist agendas have called into question the simplistic causal relationships sought at that time. However, the overzealous abandonment of causal relationships and the turn toward foggy notions of teaching (e.g., teacher as facilitator and guide) obscures the importance of intricate teacher behaviors and decision-making that teachers must consider in shaping classroom experiences to foster learning. This, in turn, interferes with teacher education efforts as teachers are presented with black boxes and vague generalizations that provide little guidance in efforts to improve practice.
For example, many teachers and teacher educators stumble when asked to specifically describe what the teacher is doing when he or she is “facilitating” or “guiding.”
Science is about proof. It’s all about “causal relationships.” So when I read this intro I think, “OK, these guys (actually, this guy and this gal) are going to try to inject some rigor here. Right on.”
Next, they stake out their territory as cognitivists. Having already put in a dig at constructivism (or, at least, vague formulations of constructivism) with the slam on teachers as “facilitator or guide,” they go after the behaviorists:
Unfortunately, attention to teacher behaviors is sometimes associated with training and behaviorism. This is reflected in Yeany and Padilla’s (1986) paper titled “Training Science Teachers to Utilize Better Teaching Strategies.” The word “training” is particularly disturbing as the complexities of teaching demand decision-making that reflects a deep understanding of ends, learning, research, and classroom context. “Training” is suited to some purposes, but not in preparing effective teachers for the ever-changing complexities they will encounter. Attention to teacher behaviors is not a prescription for practice, but rather a means to promote awareness and consideration of decisions often unrecognized by teachers, teacher educators, and researchers.
In other words, we don’t care about what teachers do in a particular instance; we care about what teachers think they’re doing. What is their mental model? Again, this is fine. Any academic paper involves a certain necessary amount of territorial marking. We now know that they care about empirical evidence and that they care about it because it reveals a teacher’s mental model. Classic cognitivism. Fine. It would have been nice if they chose to either put out a more thorough, principled argument against behaviorism or simply stated “we’re approaching this question from a cognitivist perspective” rather than sneering at the use of the word “training” (in an article not previously cited, as opposed to the article which the authors are purportedly writing about) and pretending that this is actually an argument against the behaviorist position, but whatever. The positioning at the front can be forgiven for being a little course if it turns out that the meat-and-potatoes arguments are decent.
So let’s get to the main course:
For example, following the initial question, “Bob, what is the common name for Quercus alba?” Croom suggests:
�If Bob doesn’t know the answer, probe a little bit to find out what he does know. “Bob, first of all, give me the names of all the oaks we have studied in class so far.” The key point is to get Bob to give you a correct answer to at least a portion of the question. The message this will send to the class is that they are expected to know the material and are responsible for their own participation in the class.
While students will certainly know they are expected to know the material, they have no reason to believe they will be supported in learning the content. For instance, whether Bob is called on immediately before or after the question, he has now been thrust to center stage in front of his peers. This is evident by other students in class looking at Bob as they and the teacher wait for him to answer. If Bob doesn’t answer, then either he or another student awaits the dreaded moment to once again be interrogated in front of their peers. Either way, as Rowe (1974a) stated, “the pattern of interchange between teachers and children still more closely resemble[s] an inquisition than a joint investigation or a reasonable conversation.
And the evidence for this position is…?
To begin with, we don’t know what “probe a bit” means. How is “probing” more specific than “facilitating” or “guiding”? And if it isn’t, how can we know if it does or doesn’t work? The authors seem to assume that they know what it means and argue that it is ineffective. What is their evidence? Citation of another academic who states that “the pattern [er…which pattern?] of interchange…more closely resembles an inquisition than a joint investigation or a reasonable conversation.” Talk about the “eye of the beholder”!
Put aside the theoretic posturing for a moment and just picture the scenario being described in your mind’s eye, i.e, a teacher “probing a bit” to find out what the student knows when he doesn’t know the full answer. On the one hand, I can imagine situations where this is perfectly fine and acceptable. I once witnessed a math teacher who, upon hearing a student say that he didn’t know how to solve a problem, asked the student (with perfect deadpan), “Well, then, how would you solve it if you did know?” The student the proceeded to solve the problem on the board, without hesitation. No kidding.
On the other hand, I have also witnessed (as have we all, I think), a teacher harassing a student, either intentionally or unintentionally but definitely gratuitously humiliating the kid who just doesn’t know the damned answer. It can go either way. The real question is how we know when and how to ask the follow-up questions to promote learning.
Now. Let’s be honest. Do you think that a teacher will come to an answer to this conundrum by reflecting on the theory of constructivism, cognitivism, or behaviorism? Please. The teacher will go with her gut, because more often than not, all she gets from the “research” is the gut reactions of the authors wrapped in the costume of scientific inquiry. And all she gets from the theory itself is usually some grand over-generalization that has little connection to the kid or the circumstances. Going with her gut over the theory is the right thing to do. I’ll trust a good teacher’s gut instinct any day of the week.
I’m not saying that there’s no role for theory and science in teaching. I’m saying let’s put away our grand unified field theories of learning and focus on what is knowable and testable, i.e., let’s find the places where science in its current state can make an authentic contribution to teaching practice.