Teacher Preparation

In Planning Lessons, Math Teachers Rely on What They Learned During Preservice

By Liana Loewus — June 22, 2017 3 min read
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Elementary math teachers remember what they learn in their teacher preparation programs, and use it when writing lesson plans years down the road, according to a study published in the American Educational Research Journal.

In fact, the more time teachers spent on a particular math concept in their preservice program, the more likely they are to use that concept in preparing lessons—even when they’re doing so six years later.

Given the scrutiny teacher-prep programs have undergone in recent years, the finding that graduates truly do rely on what they learn in these programs—and that they continue doing so over time—is worth highlighting.

Though small in scale, the study opens up a new avenue for researching the impact of teacher preparation.

Previous research by the National Council on Teacher Quality found that teacher education programs are not adequately preparing new teachers. But those reports relied on analyses of the programs’ syllabuses, student-teaching manuals, and course textbooks, rather than checking in with graduates. And NCTQ has come under fire for its methodology.

Other recent efforts to judge the effectiveness of teacher education programs have focused on linking student test scores to graduates.

Checking Lesson Plans

The recent study takes a new tack: looking at teacher lesson plans.

Anne K. Morris and James Hiebert, professors in the University of Delaware’s school of education, followed 27 graduates from the university’s elementary teacher education program for several years after they entered teaching.

Two and three years after those students graduated, the researchers had them complete four lesson planning tasks. Three of the tasks were on topics that the former students had learned about in their first couple years of the preservice program—multiplying two-digit whole numbers, subtracting fractions, and dividing fractions. The fourth task asked them to create a lesson plan on finding the mean of a small set of whole numbers, which was not covered at all in the preservice program and thus acted as a control.

“The big question for us was, if we spend all this time trying to help students learn some really tough ideas, like dividing fractions, willl they remember it and use it when they begin teaching?” said Hiebert.

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In short, the answer was yes. The study found that participants “attended more often and more completely to the key concepts” when lesson planning for a topic they’d learned about years earlier as preservice teachers than for those they didn’t tackle in their program.

The teachers in the study created the strongest lesson plans for dividing fractions, which is the topic that they studied most extensively during the preservice program.

The researchers eliminated a variety of alternative explanations for why teachers did better with some lesson plans than others, including by looking at the professional development they received after their preservice program had ended.

Math Concepts Matter

The takeaway for math teacher-prep programs is that the concepts they choose to teach matter, the researchers explained. “If you’re willing to spend enough time to help preservice teachers understand a mathematical idea deeply, it’s likely they will use that when they teach,” said Hiebert.

That means teacher-prep programs may want to avoid survey courses, in which preservice teachers learn a little bit about a lot of math topics, in favor of classes that do a deep dive into fewer math concepts, the researchers said. “The question is, what do you cover? And the corresponding question is, what don’t you cover?” said Hiebert. “These aren’t easy decisions to make if you take our findings seriously.”

As of now, few preservice programs for elementary educators emphasize deep learning of specific math content.

Another study I wrote about this fall, though, found that when teachers improved their own math content knowledge, the gains didn’t necessarily trickle down to students. Those researchers concluded that deep content knowledge alone isn’t sufficient—teachers also need strong instructional skills to impart that knowledge to students.

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.