School & District Management

Study: Time Changes How Teachers See Students—Literally

By Debra Viadero — June 11, 2009 1 min read
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Have you ever noticed how some of the most experienced teachers seem to have eyes in the back of their heads? That perception is no surprise to Kevin F. Miller, a professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

With financial support from the federal Institute of Education Sciences, Miller is using

sophisticated mobile eye-tracking technology to look at classrooms through teachers’ eyes. With the devices, which teachers wear like eyeglasses, Miller can record each time a teacher’s gaze lingers on a single student and when it scans across the classroom.

Miller and his research partner Christopher A. Correa have used the devices so far with 20 pairs of teachers. Their analysis of that video footage suggests that novice and experienced teachers look at the world differently.

The newcomers, for instance, tend to engage more often in “cognitive tunneling.” That is, they focus longer and more often on a single student. The veterans, in contrast, tend to take in the entire room most of the time. In one such pair of expert-novice teachers, the younger teacher spent 20 percent of her time focusing on one of the 27 children in the class. The more experienced teacher, in comparison, never focused on a single student more than 9 percent of the time.

That kind of behavior pattern is not unique to education, according to Miller. Studies have documented the same distinctions among expert and novice airplane pilots, chess players, and athletes.

The problem, Miller says, is that when people engage in “cognitive tunneling” they may miss out on important things happening around them. His ultimate goal is to find a way to train would-be teachers to take a broader view of their classrooms—a skill that in some professions is known as “situational awareness"—so that they’re better able to teach the first day they set foot in their classrooms.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.