EEF Blog: Do teachers need theories that would bore researchers?

In this blog, Robbie Coleman – a secondary school English teacher and a Senior Associate at the EEF looks at Prof. Daniel Willingham's recent article, ‘A Mental Model of the Learner', and asks: should teacher training include a set of well-defined, robust generalisations about what learners have in common?

Teachers spend a lot of time thinking about difference. We break down data into sub-groups, plan lessons to support and extend, and consider what extra we might do for students falling behind.

But should we spend more time thinking about what students have in common? Might a rush to differentiate mean we spend less time than we should thinking about the fundamentals? Setting differences aside, what general assumptions about learners inform how we teach and plan? And, crucially, are these assumptions correct?

The last question is the focus of a new article by Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. In A Mental Model of the Learner, he asks which ideas about thinking, emotions and motivation are most useful for teachers, and argues that a tight set of these ideas should form a central part of teacher training.

In addition to setting out a vision of what teachers should be taught, Willingham is clear about what should be left behind. Willingham is concerned that grand theories of learning can generate incorrect predictions about learning. For example, he argues that Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, which is widely taught in teacher training and based around the idea that children progress through distinct stages of development, can underestimate the capacity of a child at a given age.

Likewise, Willingham suggests that broad claims – for example, learning is a social process – are too general to be useful. If a teacher follows this, they might focus on the impact of group norms on student motivation, emphasise expectations about classroom behaviour, or prioritise collaborative enquiry as a core pedagogical approach on the understanding that students will learn more from their peers. The problem is that almost nothing is ruled out.

Instead of focusing on theories or assumptions, Willingham argues that teachers should be taught a small number of well-defined generalisations that are supported by robust evidence and work in a variety of different settings. These “empirical generalisations” could include: that practice is essential to gaining expertise; that probing memory improves retention; and that sleep improves memory.

Willingham believes that each generalision should be academically uncontroversial and practically useful. While academics constantly aim to discover new ideas, Willingham suggests that for teachers novelty is unhelpful. Thus teachers should have a mental model of the learner “that would bore researchers”.

It is possible that an apparent strength of Willingham’s approach may ultimately be a constraining factor. In seeking only to speak about what is uncontested, Willingham’s “modal model” of learners will necessarily omit areas about which teachers must make decisions. For example, teachers seeking to make decisions on group work or curriculum design may receive little or no guidance.

In addition, it may be the case that some of Willingham’s distinctions, notably between theories and empirical generalisations, are muddier in practice than on paper. For example, the idea that “practice is essential to gaining expertise” could be too broad to be helpful without more fine-grained guidance on the types of practice that work best.

Overall, however, the proposal to make a tight set of principles about what learners have in common a core component of teacher training is convincingly argued. Willingham’s closing call for organisations to evaluate the impact on student progress of teacher training which does so may be of interest to new institutions such as the Institute for Teaching (whose course leader has recently blogged about mental modals of learners) as well as to existing training providers seeking to improve their current courses.

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* A version of this blog was first published by the Chartered College of Teaching here.