How Much Does the Public Understand About Effective Teaching and Learning?

teaching and learningSince almost everyone has at some point in their life spent a good amount of time in a K-12 classroom, it’s safe to assume that many believe they have knowledge and insight into what works and what doesn’t. Is it also safe to assume that these perceptions are likely to be a little off the mark? Probably, but very few if any studies exist that answer this question one way or the other. Ulrich Boser, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of Learn Better, recently conducted a survey to find out what the general public really knows about effective teaching and learning.

Using Amazon Mechanical Turk, Boser, assisted by a team of researchers, polled 3000 people, a sample weighted by race, income and education level, about their opinions on a variety of classroom-related issues. Boser believes it is the first survey to gauge the public’s understanding of teaching and learning.

Overall, the responses are interesting, maybe a little discouraging, but not altogether surprising. To Boser, they collectively reveal a general misunderstanding about what makes effective classrooms and effective educators. The implications are important because misperceptions feed off each other, whether they begin with the public, politicians or the media. Furthermore, Boser says there is an abundance of research into the “science of learning” that should be gaining more traction in our schools, not to mention teacher preparation programs.

Here are some of the highlights from the survey. What do you think they say about the public’s understanding of effective teaching and learning?

Praise and Content Mastery

Nearly all respondents believe they are “relatively skilled” at identifying effective teaching strategies, and 75%  say they are “above average” in evaluating instructional practice. But when they were asked to evaluate specific strategies, Boser says, things go awry.

For example, 71% said praising students for “being smart” is an effective instructional strategy and 39% believe that mastering basic content is overrated, agreeing with the statement that “facts gets in the way of understanding.”

On the first point, Boser cites the work of Carol Dweck, the Stanford professor whose research has shown that praise – or the wrong type of praise – can actually be detrimental.  “Too often nowadays, praise is given to students who are putting forth effort, but not learning, in order to make them feel good in the moment,” Dweck recently wrote.

What did those respondents mean when they appeared to shrug-off the importance of facts? It’s possible some are commenting on rote memorization, which advocates of deeper learning believe should be scaled back. Nonetheless, facts are needed for effective understanding, and the idea that academic content is practically obsolete has its followers, but is not a view supported by the evidence, Boser says.

What Makes an Effective Teacher?

Forty percent of respondents believe good instructional skills are more important than subject mastery, agreeing with the statement, “a great teacher can teach any subject.”

“Teachers need deep subject area expertise in order to succeed in the classroom,” Boser writes. “it would be hard for a math teacher to become an effective history teacher without knowing a lot about history.”

Also, many underestimated the amount of formal training it takes to become an effective educator, with more than one-quarter believing six months of practice teaching is sufficient preparation. This belief, Boser writes, “stands in stark contrast to the significant body of research that shows that novice teachers are less effective than their more experienced peers, as well as the experts who believe that most people need at least a year of residency training.”

Boser believes the responses demonstrate how  teaching – a craft that involves a lot of science, Boser says – has become devalued.  “If people believe that it’s easy for someone to perform well in the classroom, then society shouldn’t reward teaching because the job doesn’t require rigorous training. In contrast, it’s widely accepted that doctors and lawyers need a great deal of training to succeed, and people in those fields get paid a lot more.”

Fixed Intelligence

One-quarter of the American population believes that “[i]ntelligence is fixed at birth,” despite the fact that there’s plenty of research that shows that intelligence can be developed. Boser points to interventions such as preschool and reading to young children that demonstrate clear benefits.

Do Learning Styles Exist?

According to the survey, 90 percent of respondents believe that students should receive information in the classroom in their own “learning style.” Boser says the research on this issue is clear: learning styles don’t really exist.

“It’s important to note that researchers have a very specific definition of learning styles, which revolves around student preference for learning new skills and knowledge in a certain manner,” Boser says. “This doesn’t mean that everyone learns in the exact same way. Some people have more prior knowledge. ​ Others have more inherent interest. ​This will shape how they learn – and how teachers teach.”

Read the full results of the survey

Top 5 Myths and Lies About Teachers and Their Profession. 

The debate over education is critical, but unfortunately the widespread dissemination of misinformation has debased the conversation. Consequently, the perception of public education is often based more on myth than reality. Here are some of the myths pertaining specifically to teachers and their profession.