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If you want teachers to improve, get them to rehearse!

Practice-Based Teacher Education Pedagogies Improve Responsiveness: Evidence from a Lab Experiment - Paper summary

It’s been a while since I’ve been really excited about an academic paper.

But today, I’m excited.

Harvard researchers Zid Mancenido, Heather Hill, and colleagues have just released a new paper: Practice-Based Teacher Education Pedagogies Improve Responsiveness: Evidence from a Lab Experiment, and it’s an absolute cracker!

Why is this exciting? It’s exciting because it gets to the key question at the heart of teacher education, ‘How do we support people to actually teach better?’

Even better, it contrasts the most common approach to PD - reading, thinking, and talking about practice - with an approach that’s gathering steam in effective teacher training circles, rehearsal!

Let’s dive in…

Conceptual vs. Practice-based teacher training

Two broad approaches to teacher education are conceptual (reading, thinking, discussing) vs. practice-based (including rehearsal). Here’s a little about each, with excerpts taken from this new paper

Conceptual based teacher training:

‘advocates for conceptually-focused pedagogies argue that pre-service teacher preparation is most effective and efficient when it provides PSTs with the appropriate mental models, knowledge, beliefs, and/or dispositions to make high-quality decisions regardless of situation or context’

‘some researchers argue that when teacher educators do not focus on conceptual tools but instead focus on specific instructional skills…teachers can become technicians implementing “decontextualized moves” rather than professionals using their informed judgment to engage in complex decision-making and practice’

‘Conceptually-focused teacher education pedagogies have long been the modal approach in teacher preparation program coursework’


‘advocates of this approach argue that …learning specific teaching practices and how to apply those practices appropriately can enhance novice teachers’ pedagogical reasoning, judgement, and practice…Scholars who study and use practice-based pedagogies also argue that they more effectively prepare PSTs because they make the complexity of teaching more tractable for novices, reducing cognitive load when learning to teach, and supporting skill-building, automaticity, and the development of professional vision.’

Two important components of practice-based instruction are decomposition and approximation…

Decomposition: ‘Different than simple modeling of practice in the teacher education classroom…teacher educators support novices’ observations of actual classroom teachers’ practice by drawing attention to and breaking down specific events and decisions…Decompositions thus help PSTs attend to and learn about the essential elements of a practice as enacted by expert teachers, potentially building their skills in enacting it themselves in the future.’

Approximation: ‘Approximations are opportunities for novices to engage in “deliberate practice” (Ericsson, 2002) through experiences, such as simulations and rehearsals, that are proximal to classroom teaching… teacher educators actively shape the experience to “provide opportunities for students to experiment with new skills, roles, and ways of thinking with more support and feedback than actual practice in the field allows”

Outcome measures

Mancenido and colleagues wanted to find out whether concept based or practice based teacher training had differential effects on two things: Participants’ knowledge of how to respond to teaching scenarios, and their ability to actually respond effectively in different teaching scenarios.

They measured teacher knowledge through six vignettes, three at pre- and three at post-test. Each was in a comic strip-like format. Participants then indicated what they would say to the class next. One example is pictured below.

They measured participants ability to react throughlive enactments that required participants to teach mathematics for up to 10 minutes to two trained actors.‘ Participants were given 10 minutes to prepare for this.

These enactments were scripted. The first ‘student’ (who was an actor) responded to the teaching in a way that the participants had prepared for (i.e., this type of student response was explicitly included in the training), the second ‘student’ responded in a way that participants hadn’t prepared for (i.e., they gave an answer that the participants hadn’t been explicitly prepared for).

Conceptual training

Conceptual training consisted of two components, each of 30 minutes in length. First was reading and discussion, then was reflection and discussion.

Reading and discussion

Trainers started by explaining how reading and discussing research helps novices learn. Participants then spent 12 mins reading a short paper on the research on effective feedback to prompt mathematical thinking. It was taken from this book and included examples, non-examples, and key principles.

They then engaged in an 18 minute discussion that was facilitated and pushed participants to reflect and justify their thoughts, concluding with participants identifying key takeaways for next time they taught.

Reflection and discussion

Following this, participants had 20 minutes to respond to these two prompts: ‘(1) How do the key concepts raised in the previous reading and discussion about eliciting and responding to student thinking align with your own experiences as a student and/or teacher?; and (2) What are two principles about effective teaching that you are taking away and/or re-committing to based on the previous reading and discussion?’

In the final 10 minutes, facilitators had each participant share a principle about effective feedback that they were recommitting to, with facilitators modelling active listening and probing questions to connect ideas.

Practice-based training

Again, two key components, each 30 minutes. Video decomposition, then approximation.

Video decomposition

Participants watched a short video of ‘a master teacher helping students solve a single-digit addition problem by eliciting and responding to their thinking.’ Participants recorded what the master teacher said and did on an observation scaffold, then a discussion was facilitated where participants remarked upon what they saw in the video.

Participants then watched a portion of the clip a second time to break down the decisions the teacher made, trying to work out why the teacher chose to respond in particular ways. A discussion was facilitated around this, with facilitators highlighting key points made and clarifying participants’ thinking to highlight key concepts and insights for more effective teaching.

At the end, participants identified two strategies they would remember for the next time they taught.

Approximation (Rehearsal)

Participants then began rehearsal. They prepared to teach the problem just modelled in the decomposition video to another participant and the facilitator.

Participants had five minutes to prepare, with optional planning questions like, ‘How would you respond if…?’ and ‘What clarifying or probing questions can you ask students to make their thinking clearer to other students?’ They then took turns playing teacher or student.

During this rehersal, the facilitator would interject to support the implementation in one of four ways: ‘providing positive feedback in the moment, suggesting what the participant could do to elevate instruction, suggesting a rewind to give the participant another chance, and pausing briefly to hold a quick discussion about what the participant should do next and why’. This went for 25 mins.

In the final 5 mins, participants reflected and identified two strategies to use moving forward.

Mixed condition

There was also a third experimental treatment in this study, which was called the ‘mixed condition’. Participants in this group spent the first 30 minutes doing the reading and discussion (from the conceptual training) then the following 30 minutes doing the video decomposition (from the practice-based training).

Here’s an image summarising the four treatments across the three conditions.


So, what were the results?

Well, on the vignettes (measuring teacher knowledge about how to react), both the practice-based training and the mixed training significantly outperformed conceptual training. This suggests that there’s something powerful about video decomposition for supporting teachers to build robust knowledge of how to react in different teaching scenarios.

And in the enactments, practice-based training significantly outperformed mixed training, which in turn significantly outperformed the conceptual training. This was true for the actor responses that participants had prepared for, and the differences were even greater for the actor responses that the participants hand’t prepared for! This suggests that there’s something about approximation (rehearsal) that provides significant benefit for preparing teachers to actually teach differently, over and above the power of video decomposition alone.

Here are some of the comments from the paper’s authors on these topics:

‘Taken together, these results suggest practice-based pedagogies can be more effective at preparing participants to elicit and respond to student thinking during math instruction than conceptually-focused pedagogies alone. They also suggest the combination of analyzing expert teaching and then practicing teaching with peers and a teacher educator can improve eliciting and responding to student thinking on a teaching task that is slightly more distal and difficult than what pre-service teachers have been trained on.’ (pg. 23)

‘These results provide initial empirical evidence that validates some theory underlying practice-based approaches, particularly approximations… showing that teachers can be more effectively prepared for complex teaching practices by learning in and from appropriately scaffolded opportunities to practice.’ (pg. 24)

‘This study offers evidence that adopting practice-based pedagogies – and in particular those that include approximations of practice - may be the most efficient and effective use of time, at least in the case of developing the complex teaching practice of eliciting and responding to student thinking.’ (pg. 24-25)

One of the main things I’ve learnt through working with Josh Goodrich on coaching is about the power of rehearsal, and when Peps McCrea said on the Mr. Barton Maths podcast, ‘Coaching without rehearsal is like teaching your students then not getting them to do any independent practise!’ it was like a huge lightbulb went off for me!

Ever since then, rehearsal is something that I’ve been emphasising in all my trainings for coaches around Aus, and it’s been met with great enthusiasm and impact! (see what rehearsal looked like in Perth, here, note all the teachers standing up and rehearsing their techniques with gusto!)

It’s so fantastic to see robust and well designed research like this coming from Zid and the team at Harvard, and I’m keen to see where they take this research next so we can get an even clearer picture of what it takes to make teacher (and coach) training even better!

Announcements and Opportunities

If you’re keen to see what world class training looks like in action, and you’re keen to learn how to run it for others, you might be interested in the Certificate in Coaching Leadership that I’ll be running next year. Module 3 is all about this exact topic, how to run training that incorporates rehearsal for maximum impact. Find out more and sign up here.