Thinking About Classroom Practice: Five Ideas for Education Reformers

Recently in Fordham’s Flypaper, Robert Pondiscio reflected a new direction for education reform: a focus on instructional practice. He writes:

Shifting ed reform’s focus to improving practice is an acknowledgment that underperformance is not a failure of will, but a lack of capacity. It’s a talent-development and human capital-strategy, not an accountability play. Forcing changes in behavior, whether through lawmaking or lawsuit, may win compliance, but it doesn’t advance understanding and sophistication. Teachers need to understand the “why” behind evidence based practice to implement it well and effectively. To that end, let me suggest a few ideas that might shape how to think about classroom practice and education research, and a role for policymakers—not a leading role, but a supporting one. Taken together these might not bring about a “Golden Age of Educational Practice.” But they might keep it from blowing up on the launch pad.

1. Ask the right questions. Education research lacks the precision to dictate classroom practice. “What works?” is the wrong question. “The right question is ‘Under what conditions does this work?’”

2. Understand and accept trade-offs. A debate about trade-offs and opportunity costs is very different than arguing whether something “works.” Those discussions will and should vary greatly depending on local context.

3. Kill education myths. Indulging pseudoscience is not a good look for a field that wants to be taken seriously as a profession.

4. Learn the lessons of cognitive science.  Cognitive science tells us that cognitive “skills” are not directly teachable or transferable like, say, riding a bike. They are largely “domain specific.” To think critically about topics in science or history, for example, requires knowing a lot about those topics. You can’t train kids to be all-purpose critical thinkers and polymath problem solvers.

5. Stop demanding bad practice through policy. If there’s a policy play here, it’s not “identify best practices and make them mandatory.” It’s stop functionally demanding bad practice through poorly conceived testing and accountability measures.

The last point might be the most important, at least for policymakers and others in a position of authority over schools. Accountability isn’t going away, nor should it in a system that runs on public funds. But it won’t do for pundits and policymakers to natter on about evidence-based practice while ignoring the instructional signals our policies send to teachers. Let’s fix that first.

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