Molding Effective Teachers
Psychologists' research is shedding light on the
ingredients of quality teaching.
by Rebecca A. Clay,
Psychological Association (APA), Volume 34, No. 8, September
For more articles like this
When APA President Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, was in elementary
school, his teachers took one look at his low IQ score and
lowered their expectations. The result was a self-fulfilling
prophecy--a cycle of low achievement that didn't stop until a
fourth-grade teacher named Mrs. Alexa decided he could do
"She thought I had the ability to do well and conveyed that to
me," says Sternberg, now the IBM professor of psychology and
education at Yale and director of the university's Center for
the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies and Expertise. "I
wanted to meet her expectations and did."
Sternberg's later research confirmed what his experience
suggested--that students do better when teachers like Mrs. Alexa
help them recognize and capitalize on their strengths. It also
inspired his APA presidential initiative called "Education That
Works for All Children," which aims to reform the educational
system to better serve the needs of all children, whether
they're strong in such traditional skills as memory and
In line with Sternberg's campaign, more psychologists are
bringing their expertise to bear on such questions as what
defines a high-quality teacher and what practices represent
With poor student outcomes spurring renewed interest in
accountability among state and national policy-makers,
psychologists are influencing education policy (see sidebar).
They're transforming teacher training programs, creating models
that put a greater emphasis on evidence, the liberal arts and
mentoring. They're making existing research more accessible to
teachers. And they're conducting new studies on everything from
using computers in the classroom to promoting the teaching of
such skills as resilience and responsibility.
In the process, they're bringing rigorous science to a field
long characterized by anecdotal evidence.
Although hard-nosed empirical studies dominated the education
literature in the 1960s, say educational psychologists,
qualitative studies that were far less focused on student
performance outcomes became the norm in the 1970s and 1980s.
Now the pendulum is swinging back to rigorous science, says
Herbert J. Walberg, PhD, research professor of education and
psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In the last
three to five years, legislators and the public have become
interested in results again.
Psychologist Daniel Fallon, PhD, chair of the education division
at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, welcomes that renewed
emphasis on scientific methods. When he reviewed the education
literature for the American Council on Education in the 1990s,
he found that fewer than 25 of the 500-plus refereed journal
articles about teaching he examined were scientifically rigorous
enough to trust.
"There's a lot of touchy-feely stuff," says Fallon, noting that
the education literature is dominated by case studies. "As a
result, a kind of folklore develops that is not very scientific
and doesn't allow you to generate broad principles."
After preparing the council's influential 1999 report, "To Touch
the Future: Transforming the Way Teachers Are Taught," Fallon
started putting what he learned into practice.
Among the many educational reform programs Carnegie funds is
Teachers for a New Era, which aims to create innovative teacher
training programs to serve as models for the field. Over the
life of the initiative, Carnegie and its collaborators expect to
spend more than $65 million to transform teacher education.
Grant recipients include New York City's Bank Street College of
Education, California State University at Northridge, Michigan
State University, the University of Virginia, Boston College,
Florida A&M University, the University of Connecticut, Stanford
University, the University of Texas at El Paso, the University
of Washington and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Although the five-year grant program gives these participating
institutions a certain flexibility, they must agree to adhere to
three basic principles to radically transform teacher training:
* Programs must be guided by a respect for evidence.
Institutions must assess their training programs' effectiveness
by tracking how much children learn from teachers who have
graduated from the programs.
"It challenges institutions to ask what Sally knew in September,
what she knew in May and what the value added by the teacher was
if you subtract September from May," explains Fallon.
Institutions will then identify the teaching practices that
facilitated children's learning and use that feedback to further
improve their teacher training programs.
* All arts and sciences faculty--not just education department
faculty--must be engaged in training teachers. It's not enough
for students to major in the subject they plan to teach, says
Fallon, since majors don't necessarily gain the comprehensive
knowledge they need to teach. If teachers want to be seen as
well-educated professionals instead of mere employees, they also
need a thorough grounding in the liberal arts.
* Participating institutions must transform teaching into what
Fallon calls an "academically taught clinical practice
profession." In most teacher training programs, he explains,
student teaching is trivialized. Student teachers often receive
inadequate supervision, teach in lab schools rather than real
ones and feel too vulnerable to ask advice from colleagues or
supervisors once they start teaching for real. In Carnegie's
program, institutions are responsible for mentoring graduates
for two years.
The program's dissemination plans are simple: If results show
that these principles really do improve student outcomes,
Carnegie hopes that states will start embedding them in public
"Everything is built on the principle of evidence," says Fallon.
In the meantime, other psychologists are busy getting such
evidence into teachers' hands and developing new evidence:
* Lauren B. Resnick, EdD, Janet Schofield, PhD, and other
psychologists on an interdisciplinary team at the University of
Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC)
concentrate on producing scholarly research and making it
accessible to educators. Psychology professor and LRDC senior
scientist Schofield's five-year study of a large school
district, for example, revealed the importance of using
computers and other technologies only when they provide a
comparative advantage over other teaching methods.
Helping such findings reach teachers is the goal of LRDC's
outreach arm, the Institute of Learning.
"You have to consider what the research as a whole says and
present it in a form teachers can actually make sense of,"
explains Resnick, director of both LRDC and the institute. The
institute's Principles of Learning CD-ROM series draws on more
than 25 years of research and includes video and audio clips,
full-text articles and other resources to help educators learn
to teach more effectively. Currently in use in several school
districts, the products will soon be released more broadly.
* Herb Walberg, PhD, also synthesizes research for an
international audience. The Educational Practices Series he
edits for the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural
Organization's International Bureau of Education use simple
language to distill research on a given topic into a dozen or so
principles. Published in collaboration with the International
Academy of Education, the booklets cover such topics as how
children learn, effective educational practices and motivation
* Jacquelynne S. Eccles, PhD, McKeachie Collegiate Professor of
Psychology, Women's Studies and Education at the University of
Michigan, explores the mystery of why kids lose motivation as
they transition from sixth to seventh grade.
"People often attribute these declines to hormones, increasing
peer interest and detachment from adults," says Eccles. "Such
explanations blame the kids and are based on stereotypes about
In an ongoing longitudinal study of students in math classrooms,
Eccles has discovered that ineffective teaching plays a large
role in undermining motivation. Half the 3,000 students in the
study had seventh-grade teachers who used developmentally
inappropriate teaching techniques: Compared with sixth-grade
teachers, these teachers focused on less-challenging cognitive
tasks, felt less confident about their teaching abilities, used
more controlling disciplinary techniques and had lower-quality
emotional relationships with their students. The result was kids
who experienced lower motivation performed poorer than predicted
all the way through high school.
* Robert Sternberg, PhD, is intent on helping teachers reach
students not reached by conventional teaching's focus on
memorization. Dubbed Teaching for Successful Intelligence, the
alternative he developed builds on conventional teaching but
asks teachers to add analytical, creative and practical learning
to their teaching and assessment methods. In several small
studies, Sternberg found that students taught this way
outperformed other students. Now he and collaborator Elena L.
Grigorenko, PhD, are finishing up a National Science
Foundation-funded project that extends the experiment to
approximately 15,000 fourth-graders. Although the final data
aren't in yet, Sternberg says the preliminary results look good.
* Rena F. Subotnik, PhD, director of the APA Education
Directorate's Center for Psychology in the Schools and
Education, will be principal investigator of a project that's an
off-shoot of Sternberg's education initiative. The multisite
collaboration of researchers and practitioners will develop and
test a research-based model for infusing what Sternberg calls
"the other three Rs"--reasoning, resilience and
responsibility--into elementary education. As many as six pilot
sites will test and evaluate an intervention that will train
teachers to develop these attributes in their students. In June,
APA received a $497,000 grant from the James S. McDonnell
Foundation to fund the project.
For more educational research findings, visit the education
section of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies Web site
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