We Need to Rewrite the Textbook on How to Teach Teachers

A report from the National Council on Teacher Quality has found teacher-training textbooks aren't based in evidence.

We need to completely rewrite the textbooks on how to teach teachers. That’s according to a new report just published by the National Council on Teacher Quality. The report describes a vast and severe failure of teacher-training courses and the textbooks that accompany them to convey evidence-based practices; while delivering unsupported anecdotal evidence and well-debunked myths in spades. The report is accompanied by a letter of support signed by an assortment of professors of psychology and learning sciences from universities around the world. 


The report finds that out of 48 texts used in teacher-training programs none accurately described fundamental evidence-based teaching strategies comprehensively. Only 15 percent had more than a single page devoted to evidence-based practices; the remainder contained either zero or only a few sentences on methods that have been backed up by the decades of scientific findings that exist in the field of educational psychology. 

Missing from these textbooks were detailed explanations of six core strategies that have been found to be backed by evidence, which every teacher should know and use. The strategies aren't new; they were identified by the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, as being the most effective techniques in all classrooms regardless of age or subject in guidance released in 2007.

The report didn’t just closely examine textbooks, but also delved into evaluations of entire courses, finding that “aspiring teachers are not being taught — in textbooks or in their coursework and training — the foundational knowledge about cognitive strategies that can help ensure children will learn." 

When the six core evidence-based methods were addressed in the 219 courses the researchers assessed, the explanations were severely inadequate, failing to communicate important facts such as the evidence on how spacing learning across time has an incredibly powerful impact on information retention.

None of the textbooks explained that rather than showing how to complete a problem and then letting students get on with it, teaching is far more effective when a teacher repeatedly alternates between allowing the class to solve a problem themselves and then working together through a solution. 

The researchers did not mince their words in their summation of the failure of publishers and educators in the discipline of teacher training:

“A textbook purporting to cover instructional design to maximize learning and retention that fails to cover these six strategies is no less remiss than a botany textbook that fails to address photosynthesis or an American government text devoid of a discussion of the three branches of government.”

The report also slammed textbooks and courses for discussing at great length unsupported theories such as “learning styles,” the debunked idea that each child is a visual, kinetic or auditory learner; and that teaching a child in their preferred learning style is more effective. In reality, all children require varied styles of teaching chosen based on the information being taught at the time rather than the child’s personal preference.

The six winning strategies that are neglected among the textbooks:

The researchers found that in more than half of the texts, none of the fundamental teaching strategies were even explained:

In the rare cases where the strategies were covered, they were often incompletely and incorrectly explained. In one example, a textbook that mentions a core principle — distributed practice — fails to bother to discuss appropriate lengths of gaps between exposures, despite a wealth of evidence in this area. Differing lengths of intervals between teaching result in enormously varied degrees of effectiveness; “appropriate intervals are generally much longer than anyone would guess — weeks or months, rather than days” the researchers explain.

“Looking for the six strategies in these textbooks is akin to looking for six needles in a haystack.”

Ultimately the study found that amongst pages of references “of relatively little merit” listed at the back of textbooks, each textbook barely referenced a single seminal study. If each of the 48 textbooks were to mention the six strategies once there would be a combined total of 288 references, but the total across all of the textbooks was only 118. I find this result deeply worrying because it indicates teachers are being taught by teacher-training textbooks to accept and promote claims without even providing the means to check that information against an original source. The act of effectively searching widely for evidence and then citing the source of that evidence is a crucial part of both teaching and learning, but it appears teacher-training textbooks are failing to do this on a grand scale.

If the conclusions of this damning report are to be believed, then more may be learned from what we have learned from decades of scientific research into education in this short report than in hundreds of pages of teacher training textbooks. Trainee or not, it’s certainly a report every single teacher — and learner for that matter — should read.

 Follow Simon Oxenham @Neurobonkers on TwitterFacebookRSS or join the mailing list, for weekly analysis of science and psychology news. 

Image Credit: Shutterstock

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

10 books to check out from Jordan Peterson's 'Great Books' list

The Canadian professor has an extensive collection posted on his site.

Jordan Peterson with Carl Jung and the cover art of Jaak Panksepp's 'Affective Neuroscience' (Image: Chris Williamson/Getty Images/Big Think)
Personal Growth
  • Peterson's Great Books list features classics by Orwell, Jung, Huxley, and Dostoevsky.
  • Categories include literature, neuroscience, religion, and systems analysis.
  • Having recently left Patreon for "freedom of speech" reasons, Peterson is taking direct donations through Paypal (and Bitcoin).
Keep reading Show less

Scientists claim the Bible is written in code that predicts future events

The controversy around the Torah codes gets a new life.

Michael Drosnin
Surprising Science
  • Mathematicians claim to see a predictive pattern in the ancient Torah texts.
  • The code is revealed by a method found with special computer software.
  • Some events described by reading the code took place after the code was written.
Keep reading Show less

Kosovo land swap could end conflict - or restart war

Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).

Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovo's independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

Borders are the Holy Grail of modern nationhood. Countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging. Nevertheless, land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the River Meuse (3). But those bits of land were tiny and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders pack a lot more baggage in the Balkans.

Keep reading Show less