Theory is important. Here’s why.

I just finished a meeting with one of my PhD students and we had a long discussion about Karen Barad and her theory of agential realism. I’m not even going to try and get into the details here because, quite frankly, I’m not sure that I understand the point of her work. While I am drawn to some of the ideas expressed in the theory I haven’t yet drunk the Kool-Aid. But the thing is, even though I’m not completely convinced that agential realism offers us anything new, I still want to grapple with its ideas.

Because theory is important. It’s important because it opens up new possibilities for thinking about and in the world. Theory – for me anyway – helps me to think about other ideas using different perspectives than what I might call my default mode. And the more I work with theory the more perspectives it allows me to have. I’m interested not because I think it defines anything about the people who buy into the ideas. From a purely pragmatic point of view, theories – when I understand them – open up my mind to different ways of thinking.

And this is why I’m paying attention to Karen Barad and agential realism. It’s not that I have any emotional attachment to it. I don’t really care if the ideas are “true” or “false” (whatever those words mean when it comes to theory). All that matters is that by forcing myself to engage with the theory, I’m creating a new set of ideas in my cognitive toolkit, and the long term effect is that it adds to my ability to come at ideas from new perspectives.

Theory is important, not because it creates another topic for us to argue about, but because it creates new spaces for us to think in.

Stop complaining about the “knowledge-practice gap”

The “knowledge-practice gap” is a well known problem in health professions education and an enormous amount of time is spent complaining about how difficult it is to narrow the gap. The truth is, the knowledge-practice gap is a problem of our own making, and the name we’ve given this problem hints at the answer.

We’ve set it up so that there is a tension between what happens in the classroom (acquire knowledge) and what is supposed to happen in practice (use knowledge). Or, to be more specific, there is a tension between how students think and behave in the classroom and how we want them to think and behave in the clinical context. This is the “gap” that we’re always talking about bridging; the difference between the knowledge that students acquire in the classroom, and the practical application of that knowledge in clinical practice.

However, instead of treating the problem as something natural to be overcome (“this is just the way it is”), we can just accept that the reason the gap exists is simply because what most of what we expect students to do in the classroom is not a practice at all. We set up a situation where we create different contexts for knowledge acquired and knowledge applied and then complain when students struggle to move between the different contexts.

The truth is that we already have good evidence to suggest alternative ways of thinking about the “different contexts” problem, and we know what to do about it. Situated cognition is a learning theory that proposes that:

“…knowledge is situated, being in part a product of the activity, context, and culture in which it is developed and used.”

In other words, knowledge must be acquired in similar contexts to the ones in which it must be used. If you think about the classroom context, what ways of thinking and being are students required to practice? Are they required to practice at all? In order to satisfy most physiotherapy educators, our students simply need to show up, sit down and listen. Even if we assume that they are able to construct knowledge in some meaningful way from this traditional approach to learning (generally speaking, they are not), how does this practice enable them to apply what they learn in classroom to the clinical context? Simply put, it doesn’t. The reality is that the knowledge-practice gap exists because of the way we teach.

In order to address the problem of the knowledge-practice gap we need to accept that students’ ways of thinking and being in the classroom must be similar to the ways of thinking and being we expect in the clinical context. We must therefore give students learning tasks in the classroom that require them to think and behave in the same way as we expect them to think and behave while on clinical rotation. The classroom practice and the clinical practice must therefore be similar. Seen from this perspective, there would be no knowledge-practice gap because there would be no difference in the contexts in which knowledge is acquired and how it is used.

So, how do we create a classroom context where students are expected to think and behave in ways that are similar to how we expect them to think and behave in the clinical context? I think that Authentic learning is a good place to start. It’s a teaching framework that operationalises situated cognition. In other words, it’s a way of thinking about learning task design that includes attributes that would cause students to think and behave in one context that would help develop those processes for other contexts. I’ve written some notes on Authentic learning before, so won’t go into detail here, other than to share the characteristics of authentic learning, which are that tasks:

  • Should have real-world relevance i.e. they match real-world tasks
  • Are ill-defined (students must define tasks and sub-tasks in order to complete the activity) i.e. there are multiple interpretations of both the problem and the solution
  • Are complex and must be explored over a sustained period of time i.e. days, weeks and months, rather than minutes or hours
  • Provide opportunities to examine the task from different perspectives, using a variety of resources i.e. there isn’t a single answer that is the “best” one. Multiple resources requires that students differentiate between relevant / irrelevant information
  • Provide opportunities to collaborate should be inherent i.e. are integral to the task
  • Provide opportunities to reflect i.e. students must be able to make choices and reflect on those choices
  • Must be integrated and applied across different subject areas and lead beyond domain-specific outcomes i.e. they encourage interdisciplinary perspectives and enable diverse roles and expertise
  • Seamlessly integrated with assessment i.e. the assessment tasks reflect real-world assessment, rather than separate assessment removed from the task
  • Result in a finished product, rather than as preparation for something else
  • Allow for competing solutions and diversity of outcome i.e. the outcomes can have multiple solutions that are original, rather than a single “correct” response

Looking at the above list it should be easy to see how tasks designed with these characteristics in mind would be similar to the ways we would think about successful clinical practice. In other words, you could see how students who could successfully solve problems designed with this framework might also be able to solve clinical problems. The tasks we give them in the classroom would require them to think and behave in ways that we expect them to think and behave in clinical practice. No more knowledge-practice gap?

References

Psychology’s top 20 principles for enhancing teaching and learning

Every once in a while an article is published that you know is Important and that you should take Note of, and in this post I’m going to summarise a paper that I think fits into that category. It’s a recent publication in Mind, Brain and Education that attempts to summarise and explain the Top 20 principles of teaching and learning, as determined by the last few decades of psychological research. The article is called Science Supports Education: The behavioural research base for Psychology’s top 20 principles for enhancing Teaching and Learning, and it’s by Lucariello, Nastasi, Anderman, Dwyer, Ormiston, and Skiba. See the bottom of this post for the abstract and citation information.

After a brief introduction and description of the Methods the article gets stuck into the principles, which I’ll list and describe below. For some reason, Principle 8 – on the development of student creativity – is not included in the paper and no explanation is given for the omission.


Principles 1-8: How do students learn?

1. Students’ beliefs or perceptions about intelligence and ability affect their cognitive functioning and learning: If students believe that intelligence has a fixed value, they are less likely to learn than if they believe that intelligence can be changed. Teachers should communicate to students that “…failure at a task is not due to lack of ability and that performance can be enhanced, particularly with added effort or through the use of different strategies.”

2. What students already know affects their learning: Students prior knowledge influences how they incorporate new ideas because what they already know interacts with the new material being learned. This is an especially important concept when considering students’ misconceptions and how those misconceptions impede new learning. Teachers could create tasks that give students an active role in confronting and then reducing their cognitive dissonance.

3. Students’ cognitive development and learning is not limited by general stages of development: Cognitive growth is uneven and not linked to stages. Therefore, teachers’ ideas around how, and what new material should be presented, are more effective when they can take into consideration the domain-relevant and contextual knowledge of their students.

4. Learning is based on context, so generalizing learning to new contexts is not spontaneous, but rather needs to be facilitated: In order for learning to be effective, it should generalise to new or different contexts and situations. However, student transfer of knowledge and skills is not spontaneous or automatic. Teachers could therefore teach concepts in multiple contexts so that students can recognise contextual similarities, and focus on the application of their knowledge to the real world.

5. Acquiring long-term knowledge and skill is largely dependent on practice: What people know is laid down in long-term memory and information must be processed before it can move from short-term to long-term memory. This processing is accomplished through different strategies, and practice is key. Teachers should consider a variety of frequent assessment tasks given at spaced intervals (distributive practice). In addition, interleaved practice (a schedule of repeated opportunities) to rehearse and transfer skills or content by practicing with tasks that are similar to the target task, or using several methods for the same task, is also recommended.

6. Clear, explanatory, and timely feedback to students is important for learning: Students should receive regular, specific, explanatory, and timely feedback on their work. Feedback is more effective when it includes specific information that is linked to current knowledge and performance to clear learning goals. Teachers should consider providing feedback on assessment tasks – particularly after incorrect responses – in order to improve classroom performance in the future.

7. Students’ self-regulation assists learning and self-regulatory skills can be taught: Self-regulatory skills include setting goals for learning; such as planning, and monitoring progress; and self-reflection, which consists of making judgements about performance and self-efficacy in reaching goals. Self-regulatory skills include the regulation of motivation, which consists of students’ knowledge, monitoring, and active management of their motivation or motivational processing. Teachers can teach these skills directly to learners, by modelling strategies or coaching on their effectiveness. Teachers can also provide opportunities for learners to set goals and manage their attainment and for self-appraisal. A reflective community also can be established by teachers.

8. Missing from this paper

Principles 9-12: What motivates students?

9. Students tend to enjoy learning and perform better when they are more intrinsically than extrinsically motivated: Learners who are intrinsically motivated engage in academic tasks for the pure enjoyment of such engagement, and are more likely to achieve at higher levels and to continue engaging with activities in the future. Intrinsic motivation is linked to effective learning because students persist longer at tasks, experience lower levels of anxiety and develop positive competence beliefs. Learners who are extrinsically motivated engage in tasks in order to receive a reward or avoid a punishment, and are at risk for a number of problematic long term outcomes. Teachers can facilitate intrinsic motivation by de-emphasising high-stakes assessment, by allowing students to engage in projects they are interested in, encouraging students to take academic risks and by ensuring that students have enough time to engage with tasks.

10: Students persist in the face of challenging tasks and process information more deeply when they adopt mastery goals rather than performance goals: When teachers emphasise test scores, ability differences, and competition, students are more likely to adopt performance goals. Moreover, when test scores and grades are presented publicly, students are encouraged to focus on performance goals. In contrast, when teachers emphasise effort, self-improvement, and taking on challenges, students are more likely to adopt mastery goals. At the same time, they are likely to use effective and more complex cognitive strategies, to persist at challenging tasks, to report being intrinsically motivated, and to report feeling efficacious. Mastery goals are therefore more likely to be adopted when grades and test scores are shared privately and not compared across individuals.

11. Teachers’ expectations about their students affect students’ opportunities to learn, their motivation, and their learning outcomes: In classroom settings, teachers’ expectations for students’ successes and failures influence student achievement and motivation. When educators hold high expectations for their students, they often rise to the occasion and achieve at high levels (provided that the necessary support structures are in place). In contrast, when teachers hold low expectations for student success, students may come to believe that they lack skills and abilities, and thus confirm the teachers’ expectations. It is important to understand that teachers may interact differently with students, and provide differential instruction, based on their expectations for each student’s success or failure, regardless of how accurate those expectations are.

12. Setting goals that are short term (proximal), specific, and moderately challenging enhances motivation more than establishing goals that are long term (distal), general, and overly challenging: Goal setting is the process by which an individual sets a standard of performance and is important for motivation because students with a goal and adequate self-efficacy are likely to engage in the activities that lead to achievement of that goal. Three properties of goal setting are important for motivation. First, short-term goals are more motivating than long-term goals because it is easier to assess progress toward short-term goals. Students tend to be less adept at thinking concretely with respect to the distant future. Second, specific goals are preferable to more general goals because it is easier to quantify and monitor specific goals. Third, moderately difficult goals are the most likely to motivate students because they will be perceived as challenging but also attainable.

Principles 13–15: Why are social context, interpersonal relationships, and emotional well-being important to student learning?

13. Learning is situated within multiple social contexts.

14. Interpersonal relationships and interpersonal communication are critical to both the teaching–learning process and the social–emotional development of students.

15. Emotional well-being influences educational performance, learning, and development.

These principles are interrelated and are represented in theory and research relevant to schools as systems that support psychological (social and emotional) well-being as well as cognitive development and academic learning. According to developmental–ecological theory, the child or learner is best viewed as embedded within multiple social contexts or ecosystems (e.g., school, family, neighbourhood, peer group), that influence learning:

  • Microsystem: student-teacher and student-student interactions influence learning
  • Ecosystem: microsystem interactions occur within a school where policies and norms (teaching and learning practices and organisational structure) influence learning
  • Macrosystem: ecosystems interact (e.g. school and families) within a society which reflects culture, values and norms

These interactions within and between systems influence students’ learning significantly, and are documented more extensively in the article (pg. 61-62).

Principles 16–17. How can the classroom best be managed?

16. Expectations for classroom conduct and social interaction are learned and can be taught using proven principles of behaviour and effective classroom instruction.

17. Effective classroom management is based on (1) setting and communicating high expectations, (2) consistently nurturing positive relationships, and (3) providing a high level of student support.

Classroom management is a fundamental, bedrock set of
procedures and skills that establish a climate for instruction and learning. Class and school rules must be positively stated, concrete, observable, posted, explicitly taught, frequently reviewed, and positively reinforced. This allows students to learn the social curriculum in each classroom and enables teachers to develop classroom climates that maximise student engagement and minimises conflict and disruption.

Classrooms that are structured to offer multiple opportunities for students to respond facilitate the development of quality teacher–student relationships, which in turn lead to fewer behavioural problems and increased academic performance. Students who are at risk for classroom disruption may need more attention to relationship-building in order to develop and maintain connections in the classroom.

Culturally responsive classroom management is an approach that aims to actively engage students by offering a curriculum that is relevant to their lives. Teachers demonstrate a willingness to learn about important aspects of their students’ lives and create a physical environment that is reflective of students’ cultural heritage. Culturally responsive teachers understand the ways in which schools reflect and perpetuate discriminatory practices of the larger society and are characterised as “warm demanders”; “strong yet compassionate, authoritative yet loving, firm yet respectful”.

Finally, a high ratio of positive statements / rewards to negative consequences, and nurturing an atmosphere of respect for all students and their heritage, builds trust in the classroom that can prevent behavioural conflict.

Principles 18–20: how to assess student progress?

18. Formative and summative assessments are both useful, but they require different approaches: Formative assessments are carried out during instruction and are aimed at improving learning in the classroom setting. Summative assessments measure learning at a given point in time, usually at the end of some period of instruction where they are used to provide a judgement about student learning. The goal of both formative and summative assessments is to produce valid, fair, useful, and reliable information for decision making. Teachers can also use their understanding of assessment information to decide whether they covered the material that they intended to cover, or to judge how effectively they met the objectives for student learning.

19. Students’ skill and knowledge should be assessed with processes that are grounded in psychological science and that have provided well-defined standards for quality and fairness: Valid and reliable assessments enable teachers to make inferences about what students are learning. To understand the validity of an assessment, there are four question that need to be considered:

  1. How much of what you intended to measure is actually being measured?
  2. How much of what you did not intend to measure actually ended up being measured?
  3. What consequences, either intended or unintended, occurred with the assessment?
  4. Do you have solid evidence to support your answers to the first three questions?

Validity is a judgement, over time and across a variety of situations, about what inferences can be drawn from the test data, and the consequences of using the test. Valid assessment entails specifying what an assessment is supposed to measure. Teachers can improve assessment quality by aligning teaching and testing. However, they should also:

  • Be mindful that valid tests in one context may not be valid for another
  • Ensure that high-stakes decisions be based on multiple measures, not on a single test
  • Examine outcomes for any discrepancies in performance among different cultural groups

20. Good use of assessment data depends on clear, appropriate, and fair interpretation: Effective teaching depends heavily on teachers being informed consumers of educational research, effective interpreters of data for classroom use, and good communicators to students and their families about assessment data and decisions that affect them. The interpretation of assessments involves addressing the following questions:

  1. What was the assessment intended to measure?
  2. On what are comparisons of the assessment data based? Are students being compared to one another? Or, are responses being directly compared to samples of acceptable and unacceptable responses?
  3. Are scores being classified using a standard or cut point, such as letter grades, or another indicator of satisfactory/unsatisfactory performance?How were these standards set?

Awareness of the strengths and limitations of any assessment is critical. Such awareness enables teachers to make others aware of important caveats, such as the imperfect reliability of scores and the importance of using multiple sources of evidence for high-stakes decisions.


And there you have it. Twenty principles (19 without the one on fostering student creativity) on how best to go about enhancing teaching and learning practices in the classroom. While I don’t think it’s feasible to try and incorporate all of these principles in every classroom session, it’s definitely worthwhile having these at the back of your mind when planning assessment tasks, assignments, lectures and activities in class. I also recommend reading the whole paper which provides additional insight and links to further reading that would be useful to dig into.

Abstract

Psychological science has much to contribute to preK-12 education because substantial psychological research exists on the processes of learning, teaching, motivation, classroom management, social interaction, communication, and assessment. This article details the psychological science that led to the identification, by the American Psychological Association’s Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education, of the “Top 20 Principles from Psychology for PreK-12 Teaching and Learning.” Also noted are the major implications for educational practice that follow from the principles.

Citation: Lucariello, J. M., Nastasi, B. K., Anderman, E. M., Dwyer, C., Ormiston, H., & Skiba, R. (2016). Science Supports Education: The behavioural research base for Psychology’s top 20 principles for enhancing Teaching and Learning. Mind, Brain and Education, 10(1), 55–67.