“Dumb teacher training” — not dumb teachers — is the problem with U.S. education, writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham in a New York Times op-ed. “Teachers are smart enough,” but they’re not trained to know their subject well and “know how to help children learn it,” he writes.
In 2000, a national panel of experts concluded that reading teachers need explicit knowledge of language features that most people know only implicitly: syntax, morphology (how the roots of words can combine with one another or with prefixes or suffixes) and phonological awareness (the ability to hear parts of spoken language like syllables and individual speech sounds). Yet many undergraduates preparing to teach, fresh from their coursework in reading instruction, don’t know these concepts. In one study, 42 percent could not correctly define “phonological awareness.”
Another study found many professors of reading instruction had trouble identifying phonemes and morphemes.
An international study of new middle school teachers showed that Americans scored worse on a math test than teachers in countries where kids excelled, like Singapore and Poland. William Schmidt of Michigan State University identified the common-sense explanation: American teachers take fewer math classes. Instead, they take more courses in general pedagogy — coursework, that is, on theories of instruction, theories of child development and the like.
Willingham calls for assessing teacher training by testing whether graduates have learned what they need — rather than by evaluating their students’ test scores.
Research shows what teachers need to know, he writes. “Students learn to read better from teachers who understand the structure of language and learn math better from teachers who know specific techniques for drawing analogies to explain mathematical ideas.”
Willingham inspired a number of comments from people who want teachers to inspire, morphemes be damned. Inspiring and ignorant doesn’t inspire me.