'Teaching isn't rocket science, it's way more complex'

Teachers deserve greater recognition for the work they do – and need more help to overcome the negative impact of standardized tests
31st August 2016, 10:07pm
Douglas Green


'Teaching isn't rocket science, it's way more complex'


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At its core, rocket science is simple. You push hot gas out the back and due to the conservation of momentum, the rocket goes forward. The details may be more difficult, but they are well understood and as a result, humankind has done some pretty amazing things, not least exploring space.

By contrast to the relatively simple discipline of rocket science, education is highly complex. The experimentation and application that made space travel possible is not applied to teaching and as a result our collected efforts to transfer knowledge and skills to students of all ages can seem hit or miss.

While we are making some progress in understanding how people learn, we have a long way to go.

Perhaps the fact that teaching programs at most if not all colleges are less competitive than science and engineering makes people think that teaching is easy in comparison. As teachers know, it isn't.

What makes matters worse is that promising ideas in education spread slowly, if at all, because of a resistance to change and a federally imposed standardized testing system, which stifles innovation.

The field of brain research is busy and producing results that we can use in the classroom.

Some findings suggest that every student should learn at her or his own rate, have some choice in what they learn, only take assessments that they are ready, spend more time designing and making things, collaborate more often, and be judged by what they know and can do.

We know that revisiting something daily in multiple contexts aids memory as does retrieving something from memory.

Problem solving is a hot topic in education, but teachers need to realize that it requires an incubation period. Ironically, distractions can aid in problem solving as they can offer helpful thoughts. Sleep also plays a vital role in problem solving.

If you have some idea about what you are going to learn, it will be easier. Try taking the final at the beginning to focus your study. These are all things we have learned from research.

Unfortunately, the political class too often looks to business people for guidance when it comes to reforms. Business has the advantage of metrics that can easily tell how well it is doing. It is also under the illusion that such metrics exist in education as well. Simply put, they don't

State test results are closely linked to socioeconomic status and inherited aptitudes. As such, they tend to measure what students bring to school. High-stakes tests have also narrowed and dumbed down curricula and eliminated time spent on untested subjects.

It is time everyone realized how complicated teaching is, and that one-size-fits-all testing makes things worse, not better. What we have now are governments trying hard to identify bad teachers so that they can be weeded out just as a business would weed out low performing sales staff. They do this on the assumption that there is a line of good teachers around the block ready to take their place. 

As brain research moves forward, I look forward to finding out how it applies to life in the classroom. But I fear that the political and corporate class will get in the way. As long as standardized tests rule what teachers do, the chance for research to be rolled out in schools diminishes. As does the chance for our students to reach the same heights as the rocket scientists.

Further reading:

Amrein-Beardsley, Audrey. Rethinking Value-Added Models in Education: Critical Perspective on Tests and Assessment-Based Accountability, 2014, Routledge: New York, NY.

Carey, Benedict. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, 2014, Random House: New York, NY.

Harris, Phillip, Smith, Bruce M., and Harris Joan. The Myths of Standardized Tests: Why They Don't Tell You What You Think They Do, 2011, Rowman and Littlefeild: Lanham, MD

Douglas Green is a former school principal, administrator and university lecturer, who runs the www.drdrouggreen.com website and can be found tweeting at @drdouggreen

TES has recently launched the free TES Teach app to help teachers create interactive lessons using digital content. For more information please visit www.tes.com/lessons


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