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The Knowledge. How to bridge teacher learning and practice

Many coaches will recognise the situation. They have observed a teacher’s lesson and spotted some room for improvement, perhaps around behaviour management. The coach and teacher jointly identify the part of the lesson where things began to go wrong and discuss what the teacher could have done differently. They discuss the theory behind the new approach and the two of them practise together in a role play. Everything seems to be progressing nicely.

But then, back in the classroom, things look a little different. The pupils inevitably don’t behave quite like they did in the role play. And the lesson format is, naturally, somewhat different. The teacher misses opportunities to apply what they learned and draws on some of the focal techniques at the wrong time. The progress gets lost in translation.

Understanding how to support teachers to adapt and transfer what they have learned is a big challenge for teacher educators. All professional development delivered outside of the classroom ultimately needs to bridge the gap back to the classroom. But how?

Ambition Institute has just released a new study in conjunction with Ark Teacher Training testing an approach that might help. In particular, we evaluated whether breaking down behaviour management practices and then getting teachers to recombine them in a different order, in a different role play, would help.

In theory, this recombination helps provide additional context and varied practice. We hypothesised that this would help them apply what they had learned at the right time and for the right reasons.

We recruited 144 trainee teachers to take part in an online training exercise, where they used a classroom simulator to practise short sequences of teaching. Using a simulator in this way helps us control the conditions in the experiment, Results from other classroom simulator studies have been shown to be highly reproducible.

In the training exercise, teachers led the class through a transition from one activity to another, carefully managing pupil behaviour as they went. A coach observed them and then gave them feedback on their behaviour management. The coach modelled best practice, and trainees practiced with her.

Recombination helps provide varied practice

Half of the trainees were randomly assigned to receive this feedback on the whole sequence of teaching that the coach had observed. For this group, the coach modelled how she would manage behaviour in the whole sequence, and trainees practised in the same way.

For the other half of trainees, the coach gave feedback on and modelled three individual behaviour management practices separately (‘decomposition’). In theory, this allows a coach to make feedback more manageable for teachers.

These trainees then received the same professional development for a new sequence of teaching. The coach explained and modelled the techniques in a different order, and used them in response to new examples of pupil behaviour (‘recomposition’). Trainees then practised this new sequence with her.

After receiving two rounds of professional development, all participants again practised their behaviour management in the classroom simulator – this time with a completely new teaching scenario.

We found that the teachers who received decomposed-and-recomposed coaching did a better job at transferring what they had learned to this novel classroom scenario than the group that had no decomposition-and-recomposition.

They were able to draw on different aspects of what they had learned and apply it to new pupil behaviour in a different order. In line with the theory, breaking down practice and building it back up again helped teachers apply what they had learned flexibly to suit their needs in the classroom.

These findings suggest that professional development designers should incorporate opportunities for decomposition and recomposition. For example, a coach might design two different role play scenarios to support a teacher’s understanding of when and why to draw on a particular technique. It’s additional work, but our research suggests that it is worth the extra time investment.

This finding is also highly relevant to the new Intensive Training and Practice (ITAP) component of initial teacher training.

The ITAP guidance requires teacher educators to carefully break down practice and provides plenty of advice around how to do this. Our research suggests that teacher educators should place equal weight on subsequently recombining these practices in varied sequences to help bridge the gap back to the classroom.

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