School of education receives $2.5 million to develop better learning tools for classroom teachers


Credit: UC Davis

Early career teachers of Sacramento, California, area youth will soon learn how to better lead discussions and understand how their students learn, using their own videos of student-learning experiences, role-playing with colleagues, and even interacting with avatars.

This will all be made possible through the University of California, Davis, which received a $2.5 million grant from the James S. McDonnell Foundation to help early career teachers use more innovative techniques in the classroom. The foundation provides grants focusing on human cognition and on teachers as learners.

The project, led by Steven Z. Athanases, professor and Dolly and David Fiddyment Chair in Teacher Education within the UC Davis School of Education, begins this summer. Athanases will lead a group of five fellow faculty members, in partnership with Stanford University.

He and his team, who have begun developing the program, will initially work with small groups of graduates of the School of Education teacher credential/master's degree program to learn with them about classroom practice, explore classroom communication and collect data. For the five-year project, they then will develop tools to apply effective strategies for classroom communication going forward. The team will focus on high school English and elementary science teaching, technology, cognitive studies for educational practice, and assessment.

Too often, new teachers don't know where to go when a student isn't participating in a discussion, or clearly doesn't understand the discussion of a piece of literature or scientific work, Athanases explained. "And that's not fair to the students. We can enrich that experience for everyone by exploring with teachers the tools they need now."

The project also will focus on challenges teachers have engaging linguistically diverse learners in discussion. Part of the goal for the teacher is to recognize language resources students have and mine those, and also promote English and science disciplinary language and learning. The teacher must improvise: "And the greatest challenge for the teacher is to do it in the moment because classroom talk is fleeting."

Teachers also need help building a conversation, working from what one student says to elicit comments from other students. And then, there's the silence.

"That's very scary for teachers. What do you do with silence? We will work on that."

The results, he emphasizes, won't be instant. There will be the insights the diverse K-12 students provide the teachers in the classroom; then those will be shared with early career teachers in the cohort as they examine problems, review videos and role play. Those novice teachers will then develop solutions, and become teaching ambassadors in their schools and districts. All of this combined will help UC Davis build a curriculum that will serve teachers for years to come and can be disseminated to larger educational communities throughout the United States.

Athanases wants to move away from the idea of "training" teachers. "They are not running machines. They need to be prepared to teach and think professionally."

Besides the grant Athanases is leading, School of Education Professor Cynthia Passmore is part of a team led by Northwestern University that will focus on teachers learning how to best teach the K-12 science education framework and science standards. The team will work with two cohorts of 20 teachers each. Passmore, professor of science education, has focused on developing students who can think about science in broad contexts through involvement in science, not just reading text, throughout her career. The Northwestern team on which Passmore will participate also received a $2.5 million grant from the McDonnell Foundation.


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