Three Simple Things All Teachers Need to Know

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

It takes at least five years of training to become a teacher. In their university courses, prospective teachers learn a lot about the importance of diversity and the need for self-reflection.

However, they learn precious little about effective instruction or about how to manage a classroom full of rambunctious students. Sadly, when it comes to learning about the things that really matter, most prospective teachers are on their own.

We can and should do better. Obviously, it isn’t possible for education faculties to change overnight. However, it should be possible to ensure that all prospective teachers learn three simple things.

The first is that background knowledge is key to reading comprehension. If you know nothing about the topic of an article, you will struggle to understand it.

For example, imagine reading an article about last night’s hockey game. Sentences such as “They tried to score on a power play but the other team effectively killed the penalty” might be second nature to hockey fans, but this sentence would be incredibly confusing to someone who knows nothing about hockey.

Many research studies have shown that background knowledge is a better predictor of reading comprehension than students’ assessed reading levels or even their IQ. Being knowledgeable about the subject of an article is more important than the complexity of the article’s words.

This means that teachers should focus on helping students acquire as much knowledge as possible. Unless students are immersed in a knowledge-rich learning environment, they are unlikely to become proficient readers.

The second thing all teachers need to know is that whole-class instruction, when done well, is a highly effective learning environment. Teachers aren’t hired as private tutors; their job is to teach groups of students. The best way for teachers to meet the needs of their students is to engage the entire group with effective, whole-class lessons.

When teachers make regular use of whole-class instruction, they seek out methods and materials that are optimal for the entire group. When problems arise, teachers can spend more time with the relatively few students having trouble while the other students work independently on assignments related to the lesson.

Thus, teachers should make regular use of whole-class instruction and education professors should teach upcoming teachers how to instruct the whole class effectively.

Finally, all teachers need to know that because working memory has limited room, students must commit basic facts to memory and learn new concepts in manageable chunks. This important idea is known in psychology as cognitive load theory and it has a lot of supporting evidence behind it.

Simply put, cognitive load theory notes that basic information must be transferred to long-term memory in order to free up space in the mind for more complex problems. This is why students who do not know their times tables or have not memorized the basic order of operations typically struggle with solving algebraic equations.

Learning is hard work. Teachers can make the learning process a whole lot easier by helping students transfer basic facts to their long-term memories.

Background knowledge is key to reading comprehension, whole-class instruction is effective, and basic facts need to be committed to long-term memory. Knowing and acting upon these three simple things would do wonders to improve teaching and learning in schools today.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior research fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.