I think architecture serves as a better comparison field than medicine does. Architects, like teachers, usually have multiple goals they try to satisfy simultaneously. Safety is nonnegotiable, but architects may also be thinking to a greater or lesser extent about energy efficiency, aesthetics, functionality, and so on. In the same way, some goals for teachers are nonnegotiable — teaching kids to read, for example — but after that, the goals are likely to vary with the context. In addition, architects make use of scientific knowledge, notably principles of physics, and materials science. But this knowledge is certainly not prescriptive. It doesn’t tell the architect what a building must look like. Rather, it sets boundary conditions for construction to ensure that the building will not fall down, that the floors can support sufficient weight, and so on.
In the same way, basic scientific knowledge about how kids learn, about how they interact, about how they respond to discipline — this knowledge ought to be seen as a boundary condition for teachers and parents, meaning that this knowledge sets boundaries that, if crossed, increase the probability of bad outcomes. Within these broad boundaries, parents and teachers pursue their goals.
-Daniel Willingham, When Can You Trust the Experts? (p. 221)
I really like this comparison, especially as someone who has compared teaching with medicine in the past. It’s making me think about what my “boundary conditions” are for learning. What is the scientific knowledge that I use to inform my teaching? Here are six principles that I think about with some frequency, and have found useful in my classroom:
- Practice is essential to building flexible, durable knowledge. This practice should be spaced over time and interleave topics whenever possible.
- The teacher’s job is not to make learning easy. While learning should not be so difficult that students are likely to give up, activities that are hard can lead to more powerful learning because the brain is more active in retrieving information and making connections.
- A growth mindset is a major factor in learning. Shifting students’ mindsets is difficult, but influencing these beliefs has a great deal of influence on future learning.
- Problem solving and critical thinking cannot be taught independently of content. While these are critical goals, a strong base of knowledge across a range of content areas is an essential prerequisite for problem solving and critical thinking.
- Treating students like experts is an inefficient way to lead them to expertise. Experts and novices think in qualitatively different ways, and expertise requires a great deal of carefully structured deliberate practice that is often distinct from the activities that experts excel in.
- Incentives and feedback play a complicated role in students learning. Grading and other normative comparisons can reduce intrinsic motivation, inhibit future learning, and reduce the effectiveness of feedback.
None of these are prescriptive, but I find all of them useful. While they don’t offer specific guidance on how to teach, they can be particularly useful when I find out that students haven’t learned something. If I teach a topic, assess students, and learn that they don’t know what I thought they would know, I can use these principles to try to diagnose where something went wrong.
I’m curious if I’m off base with anything here, or if other principles belong on this list. For instance ,there’s a great deal of literature on feedback, explicit instruction vs constructivism, formative assessment, and more, but much of that research is conflicting or difficult to distill into concrete boundary conditions. I’m also curious about the complementary knowledge necessary for teaching that is not based on scientific principles, and how that all of that knowledge can fit together.