Teacher Learning: It's Just Learning

Oct. 1, 2017
Harry Fletcher-Wood.jpg

Harry Fletcher-Wood

Associate Dean

What's the difference between the way teachers and pupils learn? Not as much as we might think, says Harry Fletcher-Wood.

Teacher Educator 2

Scene 1

My colleague, Camilla, had taught trainees the four criteria for clear ‘What to do’ instructions and had asked them to practise during her session.   I wanted to build on this the next day, so I began by asking trainees  to recall the four criteria without looking back at their notes.  Thirty trainees were able to recall only two of the four criteria between them.  I could pin this on Camilla, but I watched her lesson and it seemed to work.  Yet twenty-four hours later, they’d forgotten everything…

Scene 2

I’m checking feedback after a session with a group of Newly-Qualified Teachers.  One complains that ‘At no point was a hinge question explained’.  My first reaction is to discount this: the whole session was about hinge questions and I paused repeatedly to ask if anything was unclear.  Why wouldn’t an adult, a colleague, ask?

Teacher learning…

Reflecting on what I’d learned this summer, I realised I had made two discoveries, with powerful implications for teacher learning:

  • People forget things
  • Some people won’t tell you if they’re confused

It’s hard to spend a week teaching students without discovering this.  So why do we forget this when we work with adults?  I’ve often been told that adult learning is different from student learning, but when I’ve asked why, the only substantive answer I’ve heard is that adults enter the room with a range of prior knowledge and experience.  This sounds awfully like students, who “can learn quite different things from the same classroom activities because they begin the activity with distinctly different background knowledge and experience the activity differently (Nutthall, 2007, p.55).”  Knowles (1984) adds four more ‘assumptions’ about adult learning: motivation, orientation to learn, increasing self-direction and a desire practical learning.  These criteria fit many students I’ve taught; they also fit many, but not all, adults.

I’ve been wondering for a long time why teacher training doesn’t stick, and have come up with some tentative answers.  Here’s another one: perhaps we need to treat adult learners more like student learners.  I’m primarily thinking about learning design, but I think the same principle applies in facilitating learning too: treat adults like you treat students.  This does not mean patronising adults, it means treating students with the same respect adults deserve.

Designing teacher learning

These two flashes of ‘insight’ led me to adapt the training I offered this summer for Teach for Sweden’s new teachers, by:

1. Spacing practice – Instead of doing one ninety-minute session on classroom management, another on assessment, another on planning, I mixed things up.  I split sessions to spend forty-five minutes on assessment and then forty-five minutes on classroom management one day, the same mix the next.  Doing so meant that key ideas were repeated across sessions.  And given that people tend to dislike varied practice, even if it’s more effective (Brown, Roediger and McDaniel, 2014, p.54), I kept explaining why and how I thought they’d hate it (to my surprise, I didn’t get a single complaint in the feedback).  By the end of the sessions every key idea had come up in more than one session, sometimes in several.

2. Retrieval practice  – Having realised quite how much trainees were forgetting, I introduced retrieval practice at the start of each session.  This gave everyone the chance to recall what we’d covered previously.  Here’s an example:

Test so far:

Finish each sentence:

  1. Students learn more if we...
  2. To teach well teachers need to know...
  3. 'What to do' directions must be...
  4. I can 'be seen looking' by...

There are several ways to finish each sentence.

3. Check for understanding – I’m convinced that teachers must use tools such as hinge questions to gauge how the thinking of the whole class rapidly.  If teacher learning is just learning, the same principle applies.  Leading a workshop of teacher-educators, I tried a hinge question for adults for the first time:

The fundamental argument being made is...

          A. Tailor your practice to your teachers' needs
         B. Teachers need to experience a range of kinds of practice
         C. Teachers need unrealistic practice to improve

The responses clearly showed I had failed to convey the argument I was making: a failure for my training, but a vindication of the use of hinge questions.

4. Metacognition – If metacognition benefits students, it should also benefit teachers.  Increasingly, I go out of my way to explain what we’re doing and why (more about how I’m doing this here).  Partly, this helps to carry the group with me: it creates and maintains motivation.  The second benefit of explaining the reasons for my session design choices is that, it’s another way to share principles of learning with teachers.  In my final session with Teach for Sweden this year, I discussed the ‘six strategies’ derived from cognitive science (Pashler et al., 2007).  I asked trainees how we had used each one in our training and they were able to name examples of each, the best response being, ‘Repetition, you have definitely said that twenty times.”

One current focus in my approach to teacher learning is following the same principles that seem to work for student learning.  This includes:

The thing that frustrates me: is that this was so obvious (although I shouldn’t be surprised: knowledge transfers from one problem to another with the utmost reluctance, if at all).

The thing that excites me: is that, as experienced teachers, teacher educators already have effective approaches to learning they can transfer to teacher learning.

Teacher learning is just learning: plan accordingly.

This article originally appeared on the website of the Institute for Teaching. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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