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Nordic teachers struggle to provide support for independent learning
While Nordic teachers are good at creating a supportive classroom climate, they struggle with providing instructional strategies that support students’ independent skills and learning.
Teachers know that learning is not about memorising facts, it is about providing students with the support and skills they need to independently problem-solve and comprehend different subject matter.
Findings from the Nordic Centre of Excellence QUINT – Quality in Nordic Teaching, have illuminated two areas where teachers are struggling in their instruction of students: the quality of feedback on students’ work, and providing strategies for learning.
Researchers argue that there should be a focus on improving these two aspects of teaching in teacher-training programs.
Missed opportunities for reading comprehension in Language Arts
A recent QUINT Centre study found that Language Arts teachers often miss opportunities to advance students’ comprehension of texts – even in lessons devoted to reading texts and solving complex tasks. The study looked at 237 lessons from 62 lower-secondary classrooms in Norway and Sweden, using video observation.
Researchers Michael Tengberg (Karlstad University), Marte Blikstad-Balas (University of Oslo) and Astrid Roe (University of Oslo) wanted to know what happened in classrooms where teachers were prompting students to work with textual comprehension. They found evidence that explicit strategy instruction and cognitively challenging tasks were rare, even in lessons that focused on deep comprehension of texts.
Reading comprehension is vital for educational advancement and provides a cornerstone for life-long learning, and helping students advance in reading comprehension requires strategies that students can use to make sense of a text, such as making predictions, identifying central ideas and questioning the text.
But as Professor Michael Tengberg explains, “what we saw in many classrooms were patterns of in-the-moment decision making by teachers, where activities that held opportunities for interpreting and drawing meaning from a text were missed. For example, we saw how the procedural aspects of completing an assignment often took precedence over more intellectually challenging tasks. Teachers would focus on things like comprehension of difficult words, plot summaries or personal associations with the text, rather than helping students construct their own interpretation of the text.”
This focus on assignment procedures and the surface-level aspects of comprehension limits the opportunities for what researchers call ‘higher-order thinking’ by students.
As research professor Astrid Roe explains, “these types of reading comprehension assignments should equip students with questions and strategies that help them derive meaning and significance from a text. But we saw that a lot of opportunities to do this were missed because teachers became preoccupied with helping students get to the end of the assignment, sometimes even by providing the answers to students.”
Not an isolated problem
The problems observed were not associated with misbehaviour in the classroom nor with assignments that were not designed to prompt comprehension. Rather, teachers seemed to lack the appropriate strategies to support students who asked for help without degrading the intellectual challenge of an assignment. For example, students who had a hard time forming an interpretation of a text were often asked to write a summary of the plot instead.
Similarly, when students struggled to make sense of a specific aspect of a story they had read, teachers often provided a potential interpretation for them.
The study also found that teachers very seldom questioned the students’ original interpretation or asked them to justify their interpretation with evidence from the text.
“It’s pretty clear that providing this kind of instruction is challenging for teachers, it’s not an isolated problem. We think teacher training and professional development programs need to be addressing this issue. Teachers need support and time to develop a repertoire for teaching relevant strategies, and they need good role models for how this kind of instruction can be done,” says Tengberg.
The researchers underscore that the study is not trying to critique how teachers teach, or focus on what they should be doing differently.
“We know how difficult it can be to teach many students at once, and how tempting it sometimes is to just solve the task for a student so you can move on to other students and help them. What we wanted to do in this study was to systematically map what happens in lessons that start out with a focus on comprehension of texts, but then end up with low cognitive challenge and no strategy instruction. We found some important patterns that are described in detail in the article. We think this knowledge is really valuable, because it exemplifies how the in-the-moment decision making – which all teachers have to do – impacts the quality of instruction," Professor Marte Blikstad-Balas explains.
Patterns across Nordic classrooms
The study is one of many recent and forthcoming studies from the QUINT Centre, which is conducting classroom research in all five Nordic countries using video observation as a primary data source. Ordinary lessons in Social Science, Mathematics and Language Arts have been video-recorded, each over four consecutive days.
The data covers more than 150 different lower-secondary classrooms and 600 lessons across all five Nordic countries, and is being used in a number of different studies focusing on different aspects of teaching quality.
“We’re seeing some patters emerge in our analyses of these classrooms, and one of them is that good feedback and so-called ‘scaffolding techniques’ for students are generally lacking. There are differences between countries and subjects but it’s definitely a common theme,” says QUINT Centre Director, Kirsti Klette.
Earlier this year Klette, along with Roar Bakken Stovner, published a study on feedback in Norwegian mathematics classrooms.
“There was on average more concrete feedback given to students in the Mathematics classrooms than in the Language Arts classrooms in our sample. We suspect this has to do with the nature of the two subjects; in Mathematics you have one answer to a problem, and usually a very specific way of reaching that answer, where this is not the case when interpreting a literary text,” says Klette.
However, the type of feedback in Mathematics classes tended to be more procedural than conceptual.
“There was less focus on the conceptual underpinnings of problems than on the procedure for solving them. There are a number of possible reasons for this, one is that this is how mathematics teachers themselves have learned how to solve such problems. But there seems to be room for training mathematics teachers on how to communicate mathematical concepts when they give feedback to students,” Klette says.
Using video to assist in teacher training
One area that QUINT researchers are exploring is the use of video footage from classrooms as a tool for teachers’ professional development:
“In both Sweden and Norway we work systematically with teachers over time. We’re seeing a lot of good results from studies where teachers are shown footage from classrooms and are able to analyse it together with an instructor. It’s much easier to understand what ‘good instruction’ consists of when you can see real examples of it,” says Roe.
The QUINT Centre has several projects underway that look at the use of classroom video recordings as a tool for assisting in teachers pre- and in service training. These teachers and teaching students are also being given the opportunity to analyse their own practices.
“Teachers often find it a little daunting at first,” Blikstad-Balas says, “seeing yourself on camera and going over things you could have done differently in the classroom can be uncomfortable. But the feedback we’re getting is that teachers find it incredibly valuable in the end, because they get the opportunity to reflect on what they’re doing, which they don’t have time for there in the moment.”
Results from several studies on the use of video in teacher training will be published between now and the end of 2024.
The QUINT Centre
The QUINT Centre is financed by NordForsk and has nine research projects that utilise video observation in studying teaching, and in teacher training.
M. Tengberg, M. Blikstad-Balas, and A. Roe. Missed opportunities of text-based instruction: What characterizes learning of interpretation if strategies are not taught and students not challenged?, Teaching and Teacher Education, vol. 115, 2022. DOI: 10/1016/j.tate.2022.103698
R.B. Stovner and K. Klette. Teacher feedback on procedural skills, conceptual understanding, and mathematical practices: A video study in lower secondary mathematics classrooms, Teaching and Teacher Education, vol. 110, 2022. DOI: 10.1016/j.tate.2021.103593
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