Journal of Linguistics and Language Teaching
Volume 8 (2017) Issue 1 (PDF)
Inez De Florio: Effective Teaching and Successful Learning. Bridging the Gap between Research and Practice. New York et al: Cambridge University Press, 2016 (XII + 234pp.) (ISBN 978-1-107-53290-8).
Effective Teaching and Successful Learning. Bridging the Gap between Research and Practice is a highly recommendable publication for researchers as well as prospective and in-service teachers all over the world, particularly in English speaking countries, such as the U.S., the UK, and Australia. The overall aim of this book is to enable teachers as well as other educational professionals to improve their daily practice, leading to more successful learning for all students. In a succinct introduction, the main features and types of educational research, especially newer findings of evidence-based education, are explained in a reader-friendly way. On this basis, the author provides a research- and value-based approach to teaching and learning that takes the personality of teachers and students as well as the particular learning contexts into account. Learners’ needs and interests are the primary focus of the research-based Model of Effective Teaching (MET), which is described and exemplified in detail.
While the number of teaching guides and connected lesson plans is growing rapidly, their quality is as diverse as their formats. Whether they are helpful for the teaching profession in general may also depend on the respective cultural as well as institutional contexts of different countries. But most of these publications share the style and scope of cookery books in one way or another (Lemov 2010). On the other hand, instructors are facing increasing demands in terms of work load, heterogeneous classes and educational concerns so that a majority of them will find it difficult to stay abreast of scientific research to make their teaching more effective and their students learn more successfully. Even the globally spread findings of Hattie’s (2009) meta- and mega-analyses, despite all their merits in making teaching effects more measurable and thus more accountable, cannot resolve the growing dilemma for instructors to cope with their day-to-day teaching and to incorporate even the more recent results of educational and neurobiological studies – never mind living up to Hattie’s proposals to view learning through their students’ eyes.
It is the present publication by the German researcher Inez De Florio which precisely bridges “the Gap between Research and Practice”, as the subtitle of her book promises the adept reader and, as will be shown here, fully lives up to this challenge. In recent years, De Florio has engaged in qualitative and quantitative empirical research about questions of educational psychology, widening her research interest from studies into (foreign) language teaching and learning to substantial questions of all subject matters.
Not only does her research, which can be read as a practical teacher manual without recipes, cover an overview of qualitative and quantitative research in educational strategies and interventions, particularly experimental studies in Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) and the impact of global meta- and mega-analyses, as made popular by John Hattie. Furthermore, and what is probably more important for instructors in-between theory and practice, “Effective Teaching” links lesson plan design first authored by Madeline Cheek Hunter (1976) to the concept of direct instruction, thus juxtaposing conventional teaching methods with the forms of interactive whole-class teaching. Concretising thirty steps of her Model of Effective Teaching (MET), De Florio is able to flesh out older models (Marzano 1998) in a way that is very helpful and digestible at the same time for any lesson planning and implementation. The real need for a teacher-friendly book bridging research and practice is attended to by the author’s ability to integrate evidence-based research and its practical implications in a succinct and comprehensible manner.
De Florio draws on relevant examples of scientific research in education and, at the same time, shows the practical consequences for effective teaching and successful learning. In this way, teachers are enabled to make informed decisions on the basis of research and methodology and to compare them with their own experience. Teachers are actively invited to reflect on traditional teaching and their own instruction routines.
In the first part of her book (Chapters 1-5),, the author lays the ground for science-oriented teaching and learning. Referring to eminent scholars and educationalists (Chapter 1) like Piaget (pp. 12), Vygotsky (pp. 16) and Bruner (pp. 19), practitioners are enticed to have a closer look at three foremost pioneers of educational research and discuss their findings as to whether they are still relevant today. In an introductory and fictional “conference talk” (9-10), questions of teaching habits are connected with these scholars and enriched by concepts of evidence-based research, pointing out newer strategies like reciprocal teaching or concept mapping. In this way, existing vague ideas about quantitative and qualitative research can be addressed and a systematic approach to science and research established. Piaget’s contribution to developmental psychology is presented in some detail (12), although his genetic stages of cognitive development are refuted (15). The long forgotten Russian psychologist and educationalist Vygotsky is, among his other achievements, remembered by his Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) (18-19), and Bruner’s research into cognition and his ideas of a spiral curriculum lead to reflections of his considerations about classroom teaching and learning, such as empowering students to get a sense of the structure of deeper learning and the consequences for curriculum design (19). In this context, scaffolding is considered as a means to accelerate learning, being interchangeable with Vygotsky’s ZPD (21).
In another – fictional – dialogue, John Dewey’s main ideas are presented (Chapter 2, (41), returning to his learning by doing as the recurrent hall mark of project work and referred to again later in the teacher guide as his message, when problem- / project-based approaches are combined with forms of collaborative leaning. In this second chapter, other ways of gaining scientific knowledge are discussed to show the full range of different types of scientific research on education (pp. 29 ff), including the character of theories, hypotheses and models (pp. 28), a closer look at research design and methodology (pp. 22 ff), the findings of psychometrics (pp. 35 ff), and the role of experiments (RCTs) (pp. 37), quasi-experiments (40) and correlation studies (41).
The benefits – sometimes also shortcomings – of evidence-based research on education are presented in three subsequent chapters 3-5 (45-93), providing a succinct overview of relevant approaches and enabling practitioners to judge for themselves whether they are able to apply those results and findings to their school curriculum, teaching routines and professional experiences such as the importance of class sizes or the measurement of interventions and their impact on learning processes. This is done by drawing on an impressive variety from medical evidence through to the potentials and pitfalls of the aforementioned RCTs (37-41), and further including practical surveys like the Tennessee Class Size Project (52 ff), eventually leading to the globally received meta- and mega-studies by researchers like John Hattie (pp. 80). Whether the parallels drawn between evidence-based medicine and evidence-based education are completely convincing remains for the individual reader to decide – but they provide interesting food for thought – as does the entire book indeed.
It remains a refreshing exercise to then be able to study in some details what De Florio phrases as “shortcomings of [Hattie’s] visible learning” (84-87) in that this discussion seems to be an ongoing event both in staff rooms and teaching institutions overall with supporters and opponents of Hattie’s mantras, such as teaching to DIE for (diagnose-intervention-evaluation) (pp. 202 ff) or know thy impact (pp. 83) distributed almost equally. Whether Hattie can claim to have found the 'holy grail' of teaching and visible learning or whether this was just a marketing ploy of his publishers – as he has been heard to argue himself –, this teacher guide puts some of his findings into perspective, notwithstanding the fact that newer research into feedback has supported Hattie’s basic story that feedback, in its reciprocal and formative variety, is able to close the gap between where students are and where educators want them to be. Feedback occurs too little and too infrequently at our schools and needs to be much more differentiated, as De Florio points out, such as given by teachers to students, by students to students (peer feedback), and also given by students to teachers.
As a conclusion, it can be said that teachers need to know what empirical research is all about and what the relevant premises entail to be able to evaluate research findings. Already in the structure of the individual chapters, the dialectics between theory and practice are expertly demonstrated and thus supersede most publications on similar topics, where either educational research is available for academic interests mainly or teaching models with little or no back-up from empirical research induce teachers to implement strategies that cannot be verified on scientific grounds.
In the second part, De Florio describes classroom practice on the basis of her research-oriented teaching model. As mentioned above, it is the MET that links evidence-based theories of teaching and learning to classroom practice in thirty steps (Chapters 6-11; 94-214). To really honour the outstanding merits of the MET, it is important to note that it comes less as a “teacher’s guide” rather than as a piece of advice to (re)consider teaching steps and classroom interventions in the light of thirty steps spanning the planning, preparation, implementation and evaluation of learning processes in a particular teaching context, which needs to be considered by instructors before the respective steps can be applied, extended, some omitted and enriched by their own and individual practice. As it is impossible to even try and apply all of the steps, the MET invites teachers to open their minds to what else might be advisable and possible in their particular classrooms without prescribing, appraising or validating individual steps. This selection has to be made by each instructor and in the process will already augment his or her teaching outcome in the aforementioned sense.
Once, however, practitioners have familiarized themselves with the 30 steps of the MET and selected those strategies and interventions appropriate for their own teaching contexts, they might want to go back to the foundations of educational research leading to the assumptions and directives of the MET. They can also go forward in this teacher guide, going beyond the concise MET presentation (Chapter 6; 110-113), where research evidence and teacher expertise are brought together.
The following chapters unfold the MET by focusing on planning, and starting a lesson (Chapter 7; 118-136), explaining, presenting and modelling new content (Chapter 8; 137-156), and conceptionalizing guided and independent practice, gradually – as in the overall strategy of scaffolding, where this is called ‘fading’ – withdrawing teachers’ guidance and supervision, aiming at reinforcement and transfer of knowledge or skills and bringing the lesson to an appropriate conclusion (Chapter 9; 157-174). Cooperative and problem-based forms of learning are at the centre of Chapter 10 (173-197), following Dewey’s concept of learning by doing (introduced earlier as one of the great educational thinkers and practical project planners in Chapter 2 (27-44), and underlining the importance of group cohesion as opposed to competition or individualistic learning.
Although critical towards most of John Hattie’s findings and statistical process, De Florio follows his belief in the overall importance of reciprocal and informative feedback outlined in Chapter 11 (198-214) and consequently draws on Hattie’s and Timperley’s Feedback Model (202-204) as in the “Flow of the Lesson” (202). The Concluding Remarks (215-219) quite intentionally contain more questions than answers but postulate that “standards need more evidence” (215) and urge researchers and practitioners to further debate in how far standards are in accordance with results of evidence-based education, at all.
As each chapter ends in a “review-reflect-practice” section, the teacher guide creates an additional direct access for many practitioners, beyond the practical aspects of the MET that stand as a value in themselves, as shown above. These sections can serve not only as a guide for further research and experiences but enable readers to gain a straightforward entry into the chapter topics, as the following examples will show:
- Messages of Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner are connected with today’s classroom issues (25-26);
- Research design and methods can be discussed in the light of Dewey’s impact and the basic cultural categories of language systems (pp. 176 ff);
- A summary of listed RCTs is supposed to be discussed for their value (40);
- The question of whether meta-analyses can improve teaching or learning practice or not is correlated to Marzano’s list of instructional strategies (40);
- Shortcomings of Hattie’s studies are turned around productively by the invitation to transform his “Personal Health Check” (90) into students’ questionnaires (92);
- Lesson plan design and direct instruction are discussed in the light of learning theories and the SOLO (Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome) taxonomy;
- Introductions of new learning contents are tried out as “hooks” – a phrase coined by Hattie’s model of direct instruction – in the classroom;
- Steps of the MET are put to the test with textbooks or teaching units with a focus on assertive questioning;
- Readers are invited to analyze textbooks with the aim to detect differences between exercises, tasks and learning activities, guided and independent practice;
- Information on cooperative learning is extended, and
- Feedback is focused upon as being reciprocal, formative and / or peer conducted.
Whereas, in particular, the “practice chapters” (6 and 7-11) make this book “unputdownable” for educators in all subjects, especially for teachers in junior and senior high school, in my own professional experience, I have rarely seen a more readable resource book for teaching processes and the underlying theoretical foundations. It is with great pleasure that I followed the “review-reflect-practice” sections, which empower one’s own learning curve and almost guarantee very attentive and, indeed, effective reading results. Another very practice-oriented feature are the ongoing summaries and definitions of science and research findings, e.g. the Zone of Proximal Development, scaffolding, educational science, descriptive and explanatory research, theories, hypotheses and scientific models, research design and methodology, experiments, and randomized controlled trials (RCTS) – to name but a few.
In a nutshell, the MET passages (102-185) are of crucial importance and play a pivotal role in the teacher guide. They are “intended as a scaffold for practitioners” (5), based on experimental research (Hattie 2009 / 2012, Marzano 1998, and Wellenreuther 2004) and comparable to models of direct instruction. The MET, however, is different from other planning models turned into lesson plans in that it is meant to “help teachers to question teaching traditions and personal habits so that they can make informed decisions to the benefit of their students” (5). In order to prepare teachers for these “informed decisions”, the MET is embedded in the foundations of scientific methods following the principle to use research to improve practise.
Accordingly, the reading audience for this teacher guide would be stretched across a wide field, from students, student teachers to practitioners and teacher trainers. It appears to be especially useful in the area of undergraduate- and graduate-student courses as well as teacher seminars and in-service teachers. An informed public with a special interest in educational research and current discussions about teaching standards and evaluation will find the features of scientific research of great value, whereas the chapters on the Model of Effective Teaching (MET, Chapters 6-11) will be useful for direct implementation in the classroom.
Effective Teaching and Successful Learning should most certainly be available to the teaching community at large, whose learning from the book will be effective and whose teaching will be all the more successful. All in all, De Florio’s book more than lives up to Thomas Huxley’s verdict that “science is simply common sense at its very best” – as quoted at the book’s beginning – and is an apt teacher guide without showing the fallacies of teaching recipes detached from essential aims and objectives, initiation of competencies and educational values. It is highly recommended to adorn every teacher’s bookshelf.
Lemov, Doug (2010). Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put your students on the path to college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Hattie, John (2009). Visible learning. A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London etc.: Routledge.
Hattie, John (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximising impact on learning. London etc.: Routledge.
Hunter, Madeline Cheek (1976): Improve Instruction. El Segundo, CA: TIP Publications.
Engelmann, Siegfried & Carnine, Douglas (1982): Theory of instruction: Principles and applications. New York: Irvington Publishers.
Marzano, Robert J. (1998). A theory-based meta-analysis of research on instruction. Aurora, CO: Mid-Continent Regional Educational Lab.
Dr. Bernd Klewitz (Jena / Göttingen, Germany)
University of Jena