Teacher Education Ignores Science

Insights Newsletter
15 September, 2023

Imagine the outrage if it were revealed that our medical schools ignored scientific research in the training of doctors. Yet, when it comes to training teachers, ignoring science seems acceptable.

In Who Teaches the Teachers, a New Zealand Initiative report released this week, Michael Johnston and I demonstrate that the science of learning is almost completely absent from teacher education programmes in New Zealand.

The science of learning applies research on human memory, attention and motivation to classroom practice. It provides valuable insights into the teaching practices that would best serve our young learners. Our young people should be reaping the benefits of these insights.

Yet, they are not.

For the report, we analysed the themes of the 221 courses that contribute to teacher education programmes in New Zealand universities. Most courses had at least two themes, some as many as five.

The most common themes were core aspects of teaching: curriculum and pedagogy. That is as it should be. 

Two other themes, though, presented a striking contrast. 

The next most common theme was social justice, which was associated with 130 of the 221 courses. There is little evidence that teaching based on social justice ideology is effective. In fact, educational data suggest the opposite. In recent decades, as social justice pedagogy has become increasingly prevalent, the educational attainment of New Zealand’s young people has declined.

The least common theme was the science of learning, associated with just two courses.

Social justice pedagogy emphasises cultural differences in how students learn. On the other hand, the science of learning focuses on the ultimate biological similarity of human learning. Just as we all have hearts, livers and lungs, we also have similar perceptual, memory and attentional systems that govern our learning.

People are more alike than different in how they learn. Whatever social justice theorists may contend, there is a universal cognitive architecture underpinning human learning. Ironically, the most effective method of serving educational equality would be to use pedagogy based on scientific understanding of that architecture. 

One might wonder why universities seem reluctant to provide their teachers-in-training with the best understanding of decades of research on the science of learning. Achieving a greater focus on research-led teaching was why teacher training shifted to universities in the first place.

For the sake of our young people, we need a radical shift towards science-informed teacher education.

You can read our report here:

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