Tag Archives: learning theories

Questioning Learning: Lenses from the Learning Sciences


If we could equate teaching to learning, how would we account for the gaps in students’ achievements even though the students were taught by the same teacher and learnt in the same environment?  If students could learn deeply by listening quietly to a teacher, would the traditional way of schooling be viable for our digital generation? Few people will deny the need to reconceptualise the notion of learning when digital media is shaping how learning is taking place in the classroom and beyond the confines of its walls. Learning sciences research is offering us lenses to understand the science of learning, knowledge construction, digital media, and principles of effective learning environments and the role of instruction.

What is Learning Sciences?

By learning sciences, we are not referring to how science is learnt. Rather, we are referring to an interdisciplinary field that investigates teaching and learning in various settings using theories and  models from different fields such as cognitive science, educational psychology, instructional science, computer science and literacy studies. We are particularly interested in deep learning which is one of the scholarly inquiries in learning sciences. Like other learning scientists, we are interested in findings ways to understand and design innovative approaches to develop deep learning. By way of introducing learning sciences, we will present brief descriptions of some research areas in this field in the remaining parts of this blog.

What should Educators Know about Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design?

A key research focus in the learning sciences is the design of learning environments that align with human cognitive architecture. Two key components of this architecture are working memory and long-term memory. Working memory can only process 2-4 elements of new information at one time (Cowan, 2001). Long term memory consists of schemas and has no known limitations.

Research on human cognition has generated a range of practical take-home messages for educators:

  1. In general, teachers should employ direct-guided instruction when introducing students to new learning materials. Guided instruction includes the heavy use of worked examples, particularly with well-structured problems, whereas unguided instruction requires students to adopt general problem-solving approaches such as trial and error and means-ends analyses which are heavily taxing on working memory.
  2. When students have developed a sufficient level of knowledge in a learning domain, teachers should not provide guided instruction. High knowledge learners have schemas in long term-memory to guide them when solving problems. However, when presented with external guidance by the teacher, these high knowledge learners are forced to mentally integrate the information provided by the teacher and cross-reference this with their own knowledge. This results in cognitive overload of working memory.
  3. Teachers should avoid situations which result in the redundancy effect. A common example is when a teacher uses a Powerpoint presentation and reads the text, word-for-word, from the slide. Such an approach causes cognitive overload because learners must attend to two streams of data which are conveying the same information.
  4. The spatial presentation of multiple sources of mutually-referring information can also lead to cognitive overload. For example, graphics and associated explanatory text are often placed separately from each other. Learners have to attend to both sources of information, because in isolation, neither source conveys the full information needed for the learner to problem solve. The cognitive resources required by learners to mentally integrate the separate sources of information are highly taxing on working memory. The solution is to physically integrate the two sources, thus reducing the search and match processes required by learners to understand the information presented.

Are Positive Learning Environments All about Developing ‘Feel Good’ Schools?  

In our inquiry about the design of learning environments, we are also keen to examine the association between school environments and student’s wellbeing. Debates in this focus may conjure up outdated notions of teachers minimising scolding of students to preserve their self-esteem or schools saturated with posters reminding students that they are unique. There are educators who are incredulous of new curricula which invite both students and staff in schools to look at their emotional development. They most probably see it as far removed from the core business of schools and only contributing to ‘feel good schools’ which have little impact on important things in life.

Positive Learning Environments (PLE) are places of learning where the whole of person is engaged in an effort to contribute to the overall development of an individual and in turn his or her communities. The ‘positive’ is both an indication of the more traditional sense of pleasantness and safe, but also a mathematical concept of ‘addition’. It involves adding, contributing to an individual’s development. In PLE, knowledge of the factual traditional curricula of schools is intertwined with knowledge and development of the whole of self. This invariably includes an incorporation of affect in the everyday practice of schools. Affect, in this instance refers to not just the experience of feeling or emotion but also the physiological and cognitive (thinking) components of such experience. Although affect and knowledge acquisition have always been part of learning anything by anyone,  it is fair to say that systematically talking about, intervening in and considering affect regulation, quality and development as part of schooling is a relatively new phenomena for schools to take on.

The detrimental impact of aversive affective states (e.g., anxiety) and school environments with components related to high affective dysregulation for students and staff (such as racism, bullying and violence) on learning and wellbeing are now well documented. However, the need for research and development of positive learning environments is not just about the removal of unpleasantness in schools. It is also about the gains which are made when affect regulation and development are also seen as the core business of schools alongside academic development.  This research is exemplified by current efforts looking at social and emotional learning (SEL) in schools. SEL is defined as a process engaged in schools where all members of their communities apply themselves to the development and understanding of emotions with an understanding that “learning emerges in the context of supportive relationships that make learning challenging, engaging and meaningful” (CASEL, n.d.).

The economic and lifetime benefits of social emotional skills and schools’ unique position to develop them have also been acknowledged in a recent OECD report (see OECD, 2015). The report highlights and acknowledges the increases in access to education but recognises that social emotional skills are needed alongside academic/cognitive skills to foster lifetime success. It is through affect regulation (directly or as a mediator of other skills) that greater cooperation, task perseverance, and problem solving can be achieved by communities and individuals. Although current available evidence in relation to social emotional learning is growing and promising, there is still much to be discovered. What are the key skills our teachers need to engage in SEL? Are the effects of SEL universal? How do we best develop social emotional skills? For that matter, which skills do we develop? What are the best pedagogies that engage the whole of the child and how do we assist our school system to evolve from a system whose origins gave little credence to emotion to ones where knowledge and affect are treated as one.

Positive learning environments are more than just ‘feel good’ schools. They are active learning communities engaged in the education of the whole child for their and their communities benefit. They are complex communities with relationships, processes, and pedagogies directed at affect regulation and cognitive development practices. They are truly the 21st century schools.

Why Should We Study Teacher Beliefs?

In our inquiries into designing learning environments, we are not forgetting the importance of understanding teacher development and beliefs. Teachers develop a sophisticated amalgam of knowledge, beliefs, and skills to be effective in the classroom.  In particular, teachers’ beliefs about teaching and learning can provide useful insights into their practice.  Beliefs are “psychologically held understandings, premises, or propositions about the world that are felt to be true” (Richardson, 1996, p. 103).  Teachers’ beliefs can be classified into views of the teacher’s role in the classroom, the students’ role in the classroom, how the students learn their subject area best, and how to make the subject matter comprehensible to others (Friedrichsen, van Driel, & Abell, 2011).  These types of beliefs are often derived from prior K-12 school experiences. They are extremely robust and do not change easily (Jones & Carter, 2007).

Often, teachers are asked to implement new pedagogies in their classrooms that align with current reform efforts (e.g. inquiry-based approaches).  Yet, teachers often experience considerable difficulty when implementing new pedagogies as they develop practical knowledge and perceptions of their school contexts. Practical knowledge and perceptions of context are then filtered through core beliefs about teaching and learning which can impact classroom practice.  For example, consider a teacher who has just implemented an inquiry-based approach to instruction.  After implementation, constraints may develop in the form of practical knowledge suggesting that students have considerable difficulty with the task. The teacher may also develop perceptions of his or her school being unsupportive of reform-based strategies.  If the teacher also believes his or her role is to only transmit information to the students, this will likely cause him or her to abandon the strategies.  Conversely, in the face of practical and contextual constraints, if the teacher believes it is his or her role to facilitate guided inquiry experiences so that students have some opportunity to wrestle with the concepts, he or she is likely to make modifications to his or her teaching and attempt the pedagogical strategies again (Sickel & Friedrichsen, 2015).

With the example above, we see that helping teachers elucidate and often confront their existing beliefs about teaching and learning is an important part of the teacher development process.   A teacher with core beliefs that misalign with a teaching approach is a significant barrier to large-scale implementation.  Understanding teacher learning provides important implications for designing teacher education and professional development programs which in turn help teachers enhance their students’ learning outcomes.

How has Digital Media Revolutionised the Way Students Learn?

Increasingly, learning sciences calls for an inquiry into students’ perspectives and the ways in which their literacies are accessed, used and lived in everyday practices, both inside and outside of school (Kim, Tan, & Bielaczyc, 2015). Existing learning sciences research shows an increasing interest in the emerging culture of learning in the virtual spaces. We sum up how students are self-directing themselves online using 5Cs of what they do in this emerging culture of participating online:

  1. Connect
  • Students are staying connected to their peers and interest-based groups to pursue passion-based learning.
  • Often, these students are learning about a specific content or skill from mentors who may not necessarily be adults but have enough experience to share their knowledge with them.
  1. Communicate
  • Students are displaying more ownership of their creative works or digital artefacts Using social media, they communicate their thoughts and “pass on” their works to solicit feedback and appreciation.
  • They create networks to stay connected and communicate with people who share their interests and are keen on what they do.
  1. Collaborate
  • Learning becomes more distributive and social. Nonetheless, with the diverse backgrounds of people whom they interact with online, learning has evolved from simply group learning to collaborative learning where multiple perspectives of a focused issue are exchanged before a shared perspective is established.
  • Conversations no doubt can include playful talks but have become more dialogic to facilitate deeper thinking in online interactions.
  1. Create
  • Digital artefacts provide strong evidence of learning. When students interact with others online, learning has become more participatory. To learn from one another means there must be learning by doing.
  • There are more bodies of research that show students are developing dispositions of experts as they learn by doing and intentionally cultivating thinking skills which classroom teachers are trying to develop in key content areas in the formal learning spaces.
  1. Curate
  • With learning becoming more distributive, collaborative and participatory, students are developing ways of managing their works and feedback online. Curation becomes part and parcel of what they do such as creating tags to organize their online artefacts.
  • Students are looking for ways to exhibit and curate their current and past works using social media using Google Plus, Facebook or using apps to create their own websites.


In order to pursue our work in learning sciences, we have formed the LƩARN (Learning Sciences Affect Research Network) HDR cohort group. This is a group uniquely created for HDR students within the School of Education to embark on research related to the field of learning sciences. To build our student’s research capacity, we are conducting a series of workshops and forums in the second half of 2016. You are welcome to contact anyone of us for further information about this group and the research we do. We also welcome any comment and feedback from you regarding our research interests or activities in LEARN.

Researchers in LΣARN

 chwee beng Dr Lee Chwee Beng




 aron Dr Aaron Sickel



 lyndie Dr Lynde Tan



 jose Dr Jose Hanham


 roberto Dr Roberto Parada





CASEL. (n.d.).  Collaborative for academic, social and emotional learning. Retrieved from http://www.casel.org/social-and-emotional-learning/

Cowan, N. (2001). The magical number 4 in short-term memory: a reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24(1), 87–114.

Friedrichsen, P., van Driel, J. H., & Abell, S. K. (2011). Taking a closer look at science teaching orientations. Science Education, 95(2), 358-376.

Kim, B., Tan, L. & Bielaczyc, K. (2015), Learner-generated designs in participatory culture: what they are and how they are shaping learning. Interactive Learning Environments, 23(5), 545 – 555.

OECD.  (2015). Skills for Social Progress: The power of social and emotional skills. Retrieved from http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/download/9615011e.pdf?expires=1461906844&id=id&accname=guest&checksum=B24ED59A273470F52724E55D6AA51152

Richardson, V. (1996). The role of attitudes and beliefs in learning to teach. In J. Sikula (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Teacher Education (pp. 102-119). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Macmillan.

Sickel, A. J., & Friedrichsen, P. J. (2015). Beliefs, practical knowledge, and context: A longitudinal study of a beginning biology teacher’s 5E unit. School Science and Mathematics, 115(2), 75-87.


I don’t get it…..yet

by Karen McDaid

I love mathematics and not just a little! I really love mathematics, but when I recall my mathematical school experiences, I do so with a fairly dispassionate attitude. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that I disliked school mathematics. On the contrary, I quite enjoyed learning and grasped most mathematical concepts fairly quickly, which meant I met with a small but consistent degree of success in mathematics. I did alright in standardised tests, was about middle in the class, but I was not ‘smart’ in an academic sense, or at least I didn’t think so. In saying that, I was always more than happy to persevere with a challenging problem and wouldn’t let anything get the better of me.

On the other hand, Paula White, who became my friend in Year 4, was my antithesis. I thought Paula was very ‘smart’. She was awarded first in class many times throughout primary school. I admired her greatly and aspired to be as ‘smart’ as her. However, my observations of her as a learner through the years, even to my young self, were puzzling. Although she was top of the class in most of the mathematics tests we undertook, when facing a challenging mathematical problem where the solution was not immediately obvious, often the first words she said were, “I don’t get this” or “This is stupid”. By Year 8 Paula had slipped into a cycle of avoidance and her achievements in primary school were not reflected in high school. It seems to me now that she was so caught up in proving her capabilities and successes that she forgot, or couldn’t embrace, the opportunity to learn. I frequently wondered what made us so different.

Many years later as a teacher I noticed the same traits in several of my Stages 2, 3 and 4 (Years 4 to 8) students in the first few weeks of the year. Some were keen to tackle challenging problems or at least persevere with problems; others used Paula’s mantra to indicate their displeasure. What I found interesting was that there was absolutely no correlation between my primary and high school students’ defeatist attitude and their actual ability in mathematics. I knew they could achieve if only they would try. In more recent years, while teaching Mathematics to primary pre-service teachers at university I often heard Paula’s “I don’t get this” from the adult students with whom I was working. Many also subscribed to society’s misconception that a person is either born with a mathematical ability or they are not. Unfortunately, this misconception has created a culture where it is socially acceptable for someone to openly proclaim that they are ‘no good’ at mathematics and where the belief is that intelligence is fixed and unchangeable (Boaler, 2013).

So began my quest to understand what influences attitudes towards, and self-efficacy in mathematics. My aim was to see if it was possible to develop resilience, motivation and foster positive self-efficacy in my students and in the primary pre-service teachers with whom I work. I became particularly interested in the research of Carol Dweck at Stanford University into fixed and growth mindsets. Dweck (2006) describes a fixed mindset as a significant impediment to learning as it affects the ability of the learner to ‘believe’ in themselves and thus impacts their cognitive development. She also defines mindsets as a set of powerful beliefs that are in the mind and as such are changeable. Dweck argues that those who have a tendency towards a fixed mindset are rarely willing to persevere with challenges for fear they will expose their perceived deficiencies. She believes that this attitude turns people into ‘non-learners’ and an examination of the brain-waves of people with a fixed mindset demonstrated a loss of motivation when faced with challenging problems (Dweck, 2006). On the other hand, people who have a growth mindset are more open to challenges, give up less easily and believe that intelligence is malleable.

I found Dweck’s work fascinating and when reflecting on Paula’s behaviour, I realised that she had exhibited many fixed mindset behaviours as did some of my students. A study into motivation conducted by Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck (2007) followed hundreds of students transitioning to 7th grade. The study found that students who had been identified as having a growth mindset were more motivated and achieved at a higher level than those with a fixed mindset in mathematics and the gap between them continued to increase over the following two years. When a growth mindset intervention was implemented in further studies, Blackwell et al (2007) and Good et al (2003) found that the achievement gap reduced further and in particular that the gap between girls and boys was significantly reduced.

In recent times there has been a lot of talk about brain plasticity, and both Dweck and Boaler acknowledge that intelligence is malleable. My challenge has been to move the immovable from ‘I don’t get it’ to believe that they can ‘get it’. So, how did all this knowledge contribute to my teaching and learning objectives in the mathematics classroom? Well it didn’t, at least not in the beginning. While my teaching philosophy has evolved over a number of years, I have always strived to create a classroom culture where students were learners, not just in name, but really enthusiastic, motivated and driven learners. No doubt this is every teacher’s goal! As such, I set high expectations and wanted students to feel safe to be risk takers. My teaching philosophy mirrored a growth mindset classroom.

So I was working within a growth mindset, unfortunately, that was just it! ‘I’ was working using a growth mindset. While I had taken the time to set up a classroom culture with my school students, I didn’t communicate my philosophy to my university students. I didn’t expect the school children to know what was in my mind; I clearly communicated and worked with them to create a safe learning space. What made me think that my university students would know what was on my mind? They didn’t know about the classroom culture that I was striving to achieve, yet they were part of the classroom community too.

“Just the words “yet’ of “not yet,” we’re finding, give kids greater confidence, give them a path into the future that creates greater persistence”.

(Carol Dweck, 2014)

While teaching time is finite, instead of rushing headlong into content in the first tutorial, I have found that spending twenty minutes setting up our classroom culture has been valuable for student engagement and for students’ self-efficacy in mathematics. I communicate my teaching philosophy and acknowledge that ‘we’ create the culture of the learning space. We discuss how our attitudes can set us up for success and take five minutes in small groups to discuss a time when we learned something well through hard work. We explore the notion of fixed and growth mindset and malleable intelligence. We set high standards for our learning and revisit this notion throughout the semester. No question is ‘dumb’ and mistakes are actively encouraged. I have learned to change my thinking and my language and that praise should be connected to behaviour rather than achievement.

This is my story, which changes according to student dynamics and as I continue to learn and adapt my teaching. I don’t claim that it will work for everyone, but I have seen a marked improvement in the effort and determination with which all students engage with the mathematics activities in class. Students have eagerly embraced replacing the statement ‘I don’t get it’ with ‘I don’t get it yet’. But one of the greatest and most powerful transformations is when you see a student who might have given up in the past, collaborate to work really hard on a mathematical problem and then suddenly they see the value in their effort and shout ‘I get it now!’


Blackwell, L.S., Trzesniewski, K.H., & Dweck, C.S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development78. 246-263, Study 1.

Boaler, J. (2013). Ability and Mathematics: the mindset revolution that is reshaping education. FORUM, 55(1), Retrieved from http://www.youcubed.org/wp-content/uploads/14_Boaler_FORUM_55_1_web.pdf on 12th November 2015.

Dweck, C.S. (2006) Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Dweck, C. S. (2014). The power of believing that you can improve. [Video/TED talk] Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve/transcript?language=en

Good, C., Aronson, J., & Inzlicht, M. (2003). Improving adolescents’ standardized test performance: An intervention to reduce the effects of stereotype threat. Applied Developmental Psychology, 24, 645-662.

Growth mindset Videos





Growth mindset websites


Growth mindset lesson kit


Karen McDaid is a lecturer in mathematics education in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia.

Changing the Teacher Education Curriculum: A Shift From Knowledge to Practice

from Aaron Sickel

From 2008-2014, I was a teacher educator in the U.S. At the University of Missouri, I had the great fortune to be involved in a large-scale research project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The longitudinal study investigated how pre-service teachers developed specialised knowledge for teaching mathematics and science during their teacher preparation program and throughout the first two years as fully employed teachers.

As a researcher, I collected data that included classroom observations, interviews, and lesson materials. Specifically, I had the interesting experience of observing the same teachers over a three-year timeframe. Throughout the project, the research team collaboratively analysed the data and noted an emerging trend. When we observed beginning teachers in the classroom, many of them struggled to use the reform-based strategies they had learned in the teacher preparation program (e.g. the 5E instructional model – Brown, Friedrichsen, & Abell, 2013; Sickel & Friedrichsen, 2015). Despite having these strategies modelled for them in their coursework, these teachers often had difficulty implementing them in ways that made them feel successful or worked for their students.

In a related episode, I began working as an assistant professor of teacher education at Ohio University in 2012. The movement toward accountability was and remains a strong force for educational stakeholders in that state. K-12 students were subjected to increased testing, teachers were adhering to a new state-wide teacher evaluation system, and initial teacher education programs were expected to meet more rigorous standards developed by a new accreditation organisation.

Another significant reform was the utilisation of a new evaluation tool for pre-service teachers to be employed at the conclusion of their teacher education programs. The teacher performance assessment (commonly referred to as the edTPA), is a performance-based assessment developed by Stanford University faculty to assess pre-service teachers’ readiness for entering the profession. The assessment is being used widely in states across the U.S., and in some cases pre-service teachers must earn a passing score in order to become a licensed teacher.

The edTPA requires pre-service teachers to engage in three basic practices for a small-scale instructional unit taught in a school placement: 1) construct detailed lesson plans; 2) video-record their teaching practice from one of the lessons; and 3) develop assessments and collect examples of graded student work. Reflection on each of these components is embedded throughout. Pre-service teachers are then assessed on these three components with a series of rubrics.

As with any new evaluation tool, the edTPA has its strengths and weaknesses. Regarding its implementation as a requisite for teacher licensure, I have many concerns, but that is for another post. I do believe the basic design and scope of the assessment is appropriate, aligned to a large amount of research on effective teaching, and potentially useful for pre-service teachers’ professional development. Pre-service teachers have to really think through their decisions, considering both their local context and research-based practices.

During my time in Ohio, the edTPA was in a pilot stage, and faculty were given the opportunity to score pre-service teachers’ work from their own programs. My colleagues and I worked in groups and collaborated to assess our pre-service teachers’ edTPAs. While marking could rarely be described as a fun endeavour, I must admit that the experience was incredibly enlightening. Regarding Part 1 of the edTPA, we began reviewing our pre-service teachers’ lesson plans. For the most part, lesson plans were detailed and well-considered. Many pre-service teachers demonstrated the ability to align curricular goals, assessments, and learning activities in meaningful ways, give consideration to the learning demands of activities, and articulate strategies for meeting those demands.

Needless to say, my colleagues and I were quite pleased, both with our pre-service teachers’ performance and with our teacher education program. Next, we moved on to Part 2 – instructional practice. We began watching videos of our pre-service teachers in the classroom. As we reviewed the rubrics’ criteria for instructional practice, which focused on creating a challenging learning environment with higher-order thinking tasks, eliciting and working with students’ ideas, and facilitating opportunities for students to apply their knowledge and skills, something was immediately apparent. Many of the research-based practices that were referenced in the lesson plan did not seem to be used effectively or at all in the teaching videos. While our pre-service teachers were quite adept at ‘talking the talk,’ many of them struggled with ‘walking the walk.’

I would like to note that my aim with recounting these experiences is not to denigrate the beginning teachers I have observed or taught in teacher preparation programs. To the contrary, I am quite impressed with the ingenuity of beginning teachers I work with, the ideas and enthusiasm they bring to their instruction, and in many cases the success they experience in schools. But my experiences with observing beginning teachers has also made something quite clear. Reading about pedagogy, discussing pedagogy, and even experiencing pedagogy as learners in a university context does not automatically translate to success with implementing pedagogy in a school classroom. That last phase of implementation requires practical knowledge and skill. For example, it is one thing to talk about the importance of differentiated instruction in an essay assignment, and quite another to enact several modifications during lessons based on specific curricular goals and students’ individualised education plans.

A promising approach to teacher education is one in which the central focus shifts from espoused knowledge to teaching practices. There are several researchers attempting to identify ‘core practices’ of teaching, which represent the most important skills for beginning teachers (Grossman, Hammerness, & McDonald, 2009). Core practices embody the enactment of knowledge in the classroom. They should be research-based, have potential to improve student achievement, occur in high frequency, and acknowledge the complexity of teaching (Grossman et al., 2009, p. 277).

One key practice that has been widely supported includes the skill of orchestrating classroom discourse. Lampert et al. (2013) describe how they help beginning elementary teachers engage in the practice of eliciting and responding to students’ ideas due to its significance for improving mathematical understandings. Based upon their NSF-funded research project, Windshcitl and colleagues at the University of Washington identified “planning for engagement with important science ideas,” “eliciting students’ ideas,” “supporting on-going changed in student thinking,” and “pressing for evidence-based explanations ” as key practices for science instruction (Ambitious Science Teaching, 2015). In addition to classroom discussions, Grossman et al. (2009) describe the skill of teaching group work routines to improve cooperative learning environments as a core practice.

Much more work needs to be done to identify the practices that influence learning, and to do that, we must also be transparent on the types of learning we value. It is probably not realistic to strive for one set of practices that works for all grade levels, subject areas, and school contexts (McDonald et al., 2013). For example, one can envision variations of practices based on the subject area, as teaching instrumental music brings about a different set of challenges when compared to teaching geography. Rather, it is important for teacher education programs to identify practices that are necessary for teacher readiness, and consider how approximations of those practices can be scaffolded throughout program components.

Teacher education programs should consider not only practices that focus on instructional strategies (asking higher-order questions), but also practices that are essential for building foundational elements that support students’ success (e.g. developing a classroom community). Beyond the examples listed above, potential practices might include:

  • Responding to challenging student behaviours
  • Developing positive social interactions among students
  • Implementing conceptually-rich tasks aligned to unit and lesson outcomes
  • Flexibly altering tasks while responding to students’ needs
  • Enacting culturally relevant pedagogy during a lesson
  • Drawing upon assessment data to inform and enact future instruction
  • Using rubrics to assess student work in fair and equitable ways

A shift toward teaching practices necessitates a shift in the learning activities and program structure of teacher education programs. Key pedagogical activities include the use of authentic teaching cases, in which pre-service teachers examine examples of student work and use the information to make future instructional plans, analysing video-cases of exemplary teaching, teacher educators modelling core practices followed by targeted reflection, and providing ample time for pre-service teachers to engage in micro-teaching and rehearsal opportunities as part of assessments (McDonald, Kazemi, & Kavanagh, 2013).

These practices are not new to teacher education, but they could be emphasized to a greater extent and become the foundation for a program’s curriculum. In addition, there is a clear need to work toward a stronger alignment between curricular goals of teacher education classes and school internships, and provide opportunities for pre-service teachers to spend more time in K-12 contexts to develop these practices (Darling-Hammond, 2014). For far too long, teacher education programs have been criticised as fragmented and not able to reconcile the gap between theory (taught at the university) and practice (learned in a school setting) (McDonald et al., 2014).

A shift toward practices does not mean we have to completely exclude learning or assessment activities that focus on teacher knowledge (e.g. writing an essay explaining how educational research supports the design of a lesson). Rather, it means that core practices can serve as an anchor by which we can meaningfully connect knowledge to the work of classroom instruction. Teaching is a complex activity, which requires a sophisticated amalgam of knowledge, skill, reflection, resilience, and emotional intelligence. Under the best circumstances, teaching is hard. The most prepared beginning teacher in the most suitable internship setting will still encounter many challenges.

With a finite number of years and program components, teacher education courses are charged with the responsibility of preparing beginning teachers for full-time employment. It is a daunting task for everyone involved, but I believe more authentic approaches to teacher education, such as shifting our emphasis to practices, has great potential for improving teacher readiness.


Ambitious Science Teaching. (2015). Tools for ambitious science teaching. Retrieved from                 http://ambitiousscienceteaching.org.

Brown, P., Friedrichsen, P., & Abell, S. (2013). The development of prospective secondary biology           teachers’ PCK. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 24(1), 133-155.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2014). Strengthening clinical preparation: The holy grail of teacher education.        Peabody Journal of Education, 89(4), 547-561.

Grossman, P., Hammerness, K., & McDonald, M. (2009). Redefining teaching, re-imagining teacher         education. Teachers & Teaching, 15(2), 273-289.

Lampert, M., Franke, M., Kazemi, E., Ghousseini, H., Turrou, A., Beasley, H., & Crowe, K. (2013).               Keeping it complex: Using rehearsals to support novice teacher learning of ambitious teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 64, 226-243.

McDonald, M., Kazemi, E., Kavanagh, S. S. (2013). Core practices and pedagogies of teacher        education: A call for a common language and collective activity. Journal of Teacher Education, 64(5), 378-386.

McDonald, M., Kazemi, E., Kelley-Petersen, M., Mikolasy, K., Thompson, J., Valencia, S., & Windschitl,   M. (2014). Practice makes practice: Learning to teach in teacher education. Peabody Journal of Education, 89(4), 500-515.

Sickel, A. J., & Friedrichsen, P. J. (2015). Beliefs, practical knowledge, and context: A longitudinal               study of a beginning biology teacher’s 5E unit. School Science and Mathematics, 115(2) 75-87.

A.Sickel Professional Pic-smallDr Aaron Sickel is a lecturer in secondary science curriculum at Western Sydney University, and teaches classes focused on science teaching and educational research in the secondary master’s program. He studies science curriculum, the development of knowledge, beliefs, and practice for teaching science, and the interactions between education policy initiatives and teacher learning. He is interested in using results from this research to inform curriculum development, teacher preparation programs, and professional development initiatives.

Learning off by Heart

from Carol Birrell

One subject I teach through the School of Education at UWS is Learning and Creativity, a Social Ecology unit undertaken by many pre-service teachers (about 250 each semester). It introduces students to engaged learning through creative pedagogies and instills how to be a creative teacher in all aspects of the curriculum. I happened to be taking an absent, sick tutor’s class just a week or so before a major creative piece of work was due. A young man with shining eyes stayed behind to ask me whether or not he was on track with his assignment.

His plan, as he explained to me, was to demonstrate to the class the impact of an intense learning experience he had gone through just a year or so earlier. It was learning the Koran off by heart. He told me it took him 3 years to memorise all the words of this ancient text, which also demanded knowing the meaning of every word written. Scholars had come to Sydney to conduct this teaching and it was every day for three years that he studied so intently. He showed me the Koran itself, in its exquisite detailed calligraphy, and demonstrated the process of his learning right from the beginning. He had learnt a page a day, line by line, then progressing to paragraph by paragraph. Within a very short time, he was able to put together and repeat a grouping of 3 paragraphs and so on, up to a whole page, then several pages. Each day began a series of new pages, but first with a testing of the previous day’s learning.

I was astounded by this singular feat of learning off by heart, since I can hardly recall the names of my current students in class, let alone the poems and songs of my childhood!

It made me think about the ‘noble art’ of rote learning and its fall from favour as a teaching strategy. When I was in primary school, the times tables in Maths were an absolute fixture of everyday lessons and the whole class would chant it out together like a mantra being exhorted by a pulsing fervent crowd. Alas, no real fervour here in class, just the terror of being caught out in not knowing the answer to 6×8! I must say, it had some sort of appeal to me then, even in its hollow recitation. There was definitely a rhythm to the sing-songy learning which most of us seemed to enjoy once we had it mastered. Of course, there were some who never managed to master it, despite the threats…!

Then I think back to my crazy High School French teacher, who fired herself into every class with a barrage of language. We would sit mute as the French words flowed from her into a fertile field of unknowing. She loved us to repeat out loud, after her, all our vocab for the day. Yes, vocab for the day, at least 10 words that she would duly test us on the very next lesson. This may not seem so unusual, to call upon rote learning in the acquisition of a new language, but somehow I think it had more to do with learning off by heart as her particular ‘je ne sais crois’! Did we learn via this method? We surely did, but was it again, more through fear, or the power of rote?

Perhaps I imbued some of these now archaic techniques in my own pedagogical practices unknowingly. A particularly difficult 9F Geography class (no, ‘F’ was not the teacher’s surname but the lowest level of streamed classes), convinced of their ineptitude for anything scholarly, and backed up by most teaching staff, had me confounded when I tried to get them to study the geography of Japan. Of course, first up, you have to know the names of the islands of Japan. Impossible! No matter what I tried, no recall. Blank wall! I finally, in sheer desperation, resorted to something familiar. Get a chant and a rhythm going:

‘Hon-shu Shik-ok-ku Ky-u-shu Hok-kai-do! ‘

And off we went stomping around the class, around and around with these words becoming familiars amidst much hilarity and stupidity. But they got it! And it stayed with them. Fixed in embodied learning that rarely disappears. Maybe hidden, but there to be plucked at some future time.

So I think it is time to take a long hard look at some of these Western educational outdated methods and reconsider if we have thrown the baby out with the bath water. Is there no place for honing our memory through ongoing recitation? And what about poetry known and recited out loud? Children’s nursery rhymes that form a strong basis of literacy?

The lost art of learning off by heart… Now why was it called that? What has the heart to do with this process of memorizing?

The young man with shining eyes told me why he wanted to do this feat of memorising. The desire had been with him as a young kid, when first shown the Koran. He just knew he wanted to do it, for his love of God. As strong then as it was twenty or more years later when he finally achieved his dream. Now, he was learning through his heart. And with his heart.

I do know that in an embryo, when the organs are early developing, the heart and the ear lie close together, before the ear finally migrates to the top of the body, which becomes the head. So for some time, the intimacy between head and heart creates a template of relationship that may be remembered each time the word is spoken aloud to the heart.

The shining man cannot rest on his laurels once the deed has been accomplished, the total memorization of the Koran. He must one day a month go through that huge chunk of the Koran in total, to test his memory, to say it out loud, going over and over it for the rest of his life.

This, surely, is learning off by heart! Not all learning systems threw rote learning out, for good reason.

I am off to brush up on some poems, long ago learnt and forgotten. How hard can that be? And then after that, I’ll tackle the names of all my students…!!


Dr Carol Birrell is a Lecturer and social ecologist in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She has written several other contributions on this blog site.

The power of technologies for conceptual change

from Dr Chwee Beng Lee

Conceptual change remains one of the most essential outcomes of learning. It is an intentional and constructive effort to bring about deep understanding. Conceptual change theories describe how people revise their conceptual frameworks and their belief systems as a result of cognitive perturbations.

In the past, conceptual change research tended to focus on the change of individuals’ conceptual frameworks, and relied on creating cognitive conflicts to achieve conceptual change. However, in recent years, researchers have raised issues of the motivational, affective, and contextual factors implicated in conceptual change (Gregoire, 2003; Murphy, 2007) and the importance of a sociocultural perspective in understanding conceptual change. There are also considerable efforts in discussing and exploring effective strategies to foster conceptual change.

Although conceptual change can be induced through strategies such as using structural alignment as analogical learning (Mason, 2004), collaborative reasoning, (Anderson et al., 2001; Clark et al., 2003), knowledge building (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006) and many other approaches, technology is increasingly playing a powerful and critical role in the process of not only fostering individual (Lee & Jonassen, 2012) but also social conceptual change.

Jonassen (in press) argues that conceptual change is more than a realignment or restructuring of ideas but rather, it results from interactions of minds with other minds in the world. With the exponential growth in online communities such as Facebook, learners’ ideas and conceptions are constantly exposed to the challenges posed by the community members or even others outside the community. The power of social media is fast altering the belief systems of individual and social groups. Mainstream media no longer plays a dominant role in disseminating information. On the other hand, social media is highly efficient in delivering the most updated information as well as influencing our belief systems as it has the affordances of multimodalities which mainstream media does not.

What is most intriguing about social media is that it has the power to achieve large scale and immediate conceptual change. Such change includes changes in conceptions of democracy, human rights and freedom of speech as they are defined among these social groups. In some Asian countries where governments were once considered unchallenged, ultimate authoritative bodies are now being constantly questioned for their roles, functions and actions in these virtual realities. The formation of online communities not only forms “group beliefs” or “social beliefs” but also influences one’s identity and belief systems. With this in mind, educators must acknowledge the power and influences of social media in changing the conceptions of individuals and social groups.

Instead of relying on instructions and technologies that may foster the individual’s conceptual framework, there is a more urgent need to explore ways to integrate social media into classrooms for positive individual and social change in conceptions, as well as belief systems. However, this may be a daunting task, as conceptual change is a highly complex process and we have yet to fully understand the affordances of technologies for deep learning, let alone the complexities involved in propelling change among social groups. Possible research questions that deserve our attention may include: what are the roles of social media in fostering individual as well as social conceptual change? How do we capture and assess such changes? What kind of instructions can drive positive change? 

References:   Anderson, R. C., Nguyen-Jahiel, K., McNurlen, B., Archodidou, A., Kim, S. Y., Reznitskaya, A., Tillmanns, M., & Gilbert, L. [2001]. The snowball phenomenon: Spread of ways of talking and ways of thinking across groups of children. Cognition and Instruction, 19[1], 1-46.    Clark, A. M., Anderson, R. C., Kuo, L. J., Kim, I. H., Archodidou, A., & Nguyen-Jahiel, K. [2003]. Collaborative reasoning: Expanding ways for children to talk and think in school. Educational Psychology Review, 15[2], 181-198.   Gregoire, M. [2003]. Is it a challenge or a threat? A dual-process model of teachers’ cognition and appraisal processes during conceptual change. Educational Psychology Review, 15, 147-179.   Jonassen, D. H. (In press). The impact of technology on conceptual change: Past and future. In C.B. Lee., & D.H. Jonassen (Eds.). Fostering Conceptual Change with Technologies. Cengage Learning.    Lee, C. B., & Jonassen, D. H. (2012). An introduction: technologies for conceptual change.  In C.B. Lee., & D.H. Jonassen (Eds.). Fostering Conceptual Change with Technologies. Cengage Learning.   Mason, L. [2004]. Fostering understanding by structural alignment as a route to analogical learning. Instructional Science, 32, 293-318.   Murphy, P. K. [2007]. The eye of the beholder: The interplay of social and cognitive components in change. Educational Psychologist, 42[1], 41-53.    Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. [2006]. Knowledge building: Theory, pedagogy, and technology. In R. K. Sawyer [Ed.], The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences [pp. 97-118]. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Chwee Beng Lee is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia, where she lectures in learning design and pedagogy in the Master of Teaching (Secondary) program. She joined UWS  from the National Institute of Education, Singapore, at the beginning of 2012.