Keeping Learning Science Front and Center

It stands to reason that assistant professor Hilary Dack was asked to be part of the core team responsible for incorporating the Learning by Scientific Design (LbSD) work into coursework at UNC Charlotte’s Cato College of Education. One of Dack’s specialization areas is high-quality instructional design, and the LbSD Network is focused on understanding how students learn in order to justify the instructional decisions a teacher makes in the classroom.

Yet during a recent day-long LbSD training session, Dack shared her surprise at how much she also learned while participating in the Network this year. “When we learned about the cognitive science principles and teaching actions, I reflected on what I’m teaching in my courses.  I already teach my candidates how to implement most of the teaching actions, but I wasn’t always presenting the actions alongside the principles that should guide their implementation.”

Dack’s recognition that science of learning principles were not always front-and-center in her teacher education courses is not uncommon. Whether implicit or explicit, we all have a mental model of how students learn that we draw upon to make decisions about the tasks we assign, materials we use, questions we pose, and conclusions we draw about student capabilities. Teacher candidates also operate under a mental model that’s not always informed by cognitive science. The goal is to make sure that all these models are evidence-based so we can use them to make good instructional decisions.

Rebekah Berlin and Valerie Sakimura work to bring together people from different programs to learn with and from each other. They help them think about the best way to structure the learning experience and incorporate that into their work in their respective programs. The dynamic duo took Cato’s core team through the principles of learning science, which aligns with much of the work the College is already doing.

Dack explained, “Before I began this work, I was a bit wary of adding new content to my courses, which I’d just redesigned – and which seemed totally full.  But I realized that these principles complemented what I was already teaching candidates and what they were already experiencing in their clinical placements.  It’s more about shifting the focus so that there’s a balance between effective teaching actions and the underlying principles, rather than adding lots of new content into our programs.”

The LbSD principles are not groundbreaking ideas and they don’t constitute the sum of what candidates need to know, but they are foundational ideas of learning. Still, the assessment administered to new teacher candidates about their understanding of learning principles and related teacher action shows they don’t start off with a firm grasp on these basic principles.

The commitment made by the programs in the LbSD Network goes beyond talk. They have committed to incorporating these ideas and learning into their coursework and clinical experiences over the next two years. When the program launched this fall, the Deans for Impact team worked to support participants in developing their own understanding of these principles. In January, the spotlight will be on the candidates’ knowledge gaps and how to address them. In late spring and summer, participants will develop plans to actually implement these principles. The next academic year will be about ways to incorporate those changes in the coursework or clinical experience and gathering evidence of candidate progress.

“It’s been rewarding to use what I’ve learned from the LbSD Network to reframe what I share with candidates.  Now, I never focus on the how of teaching without first grounding it in the why of learning,” said Dack.

Deans for Impact

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