Expert in child cognition recommends teacher preparation reforms

Expert in child cognition recommends teacher preparation reforms
“Prepare teachers to be teachers, not scientists”

March 22, 2018—A 2017 study of 598 American educators found that a majority of them held misconceptions about how children learn. The finding may not be surprising, though, after a 2012 survey by the American Federation of Teachers reported that new teachers found their training too theoretical for application in the classroom. In a new article for Education Next, Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia argues that teacher preparation programs are failing to set would-be teachers up for success. He identifies two major problems with current teacher education programs and makes recommendations for reforms to maximize teacher effectiveness, and ultimately, student outcomes.

Problem #1: Teachers learn too much theory and not enough strategy. Though scientific theories about how children learn can be helpful summaries that guide future research, they can often be partially wrong and cause teachers to underestimate children’s abilities. Furthermore, teachers may have trouble applying multiple theories in the classroom, especially when they seem contradictory. Better suited for teachers, says Willingham, is learning the consistencies in children’s thinking and strategies for appealing to those consistencies in the classroom.

Problem #2: Teachers don’t get enough practice. More beneficial to teacher education than coursework, says Willingham, is fieldwork. Perfecting the application of knowledge takes practice, but teachers-in-training typically get only one semester of educational psychology which does not include an student-teaching component. Teachers need time to take the examples they learn during their courses and observe them in real-world scenarios.

Since little data exists on how effective aligning teaching with scientists’ understanding of child cognition would be, Willingham suggests creating a pilot program of the reforms within college of education.

To receive an embargoed copy of “Unlocking the Science of How Kids Think: A new proposal for reforming teacher education” or to speak with the author, please contact Jackie Kerstetter at The article will be available Tuesday, March 27 on and will appear in the Summer 2018 issue of Education Next, available in print on May 24, 2018.

About the Author: Daniel T. Willingham is professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit

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