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Inside the expert's head

In a lot of research on education, general didactic principles are applied to a particular area of study. ‘But every field of study also has its own ways of thinking’, argues professor Fred Janssen. ‘If you can identify those ways of thinking, then you have a lot of indicators for how you can best organise your teaching.’

This is what Janssen called ‘making ways of thinking explicit’. There are currently 15 PhD students and five post-docs connected with this research programme. In this research, ways of thinking are made explicit and translated into instructional materials and tools for teachers. Pupils and students make clear progress with these instructional materials, and many teachers are using the teaching tools.

Thinking in the plural

Another example is biologists, who often think in terms of function and structure. Janssen has developed this way of thinking in the ‘learning through designing’ approach to teaching, where pupils and students redesign a biological system, such as kidneys or the immune system step by step, based on the function of the system as a whole. In Koen Ottenhof’s dissertation research, instruction is based on an analysis of ecological thinking. Marie-Jetta den Otter’s dissertation research explores how demonstration labs can be used in the teaching of chemistry can be used to promote thinking in terms of particles, explaining the properties of materials in terms of characteristics and interactions between underlying particles. Peter Kop’s dissertation research is centred on giving meaning to formulas by drawing corresponding graphs. Research on experts has shown that they have a command of a repertoire of basic functions that they can recognise immediately, but they also have a set of smart procedures (heuristics) that allow them to use reasoning to construct the graph if they don’t immediately recognise these functions graphicallyKop developed a series of lessons that teach basic functions and heuristics, and pupils have made spectacular progress.

Fred Janssen: ‘If you can identify those ways of thinking, then you have a lot of indicators for how you can best organise your teaching.’

Introducing innovations into existing teaching programmes

So, teaching new ways of thinking is important for pupils and students, but that isn’t always easy for teachers to accomplish. ‘Many teachers have difficulty with that, because all sorts of practical reasons (programme requirements, time available, the make-up of the group) make it hard to implement new techniques within the existing teaching programme.’

Janssen developed a method for making educational innovations practical for teachers without losing the core of the innovation. The guiding principle is that you can often achieve innovative teaching by reorganising and modifying existing building blocks. ‘Here’s another example: many teachers consider it important for pupils to conduct so-called “open research”, where they think independently about some research question with respect to how you arrive at a hypothesis or model, how you devise a technique, etc.’

However, existing practice is often a so-called “cookbook lab”, where a teacher starts by explaining something and then gives them a recipe for conducting research, and then they have to go collect information on their own. Janssen continues: ‘The result isn’t really open research, but it’s only logical that teachers go about it in this way, because in practice, a cookbook lab is easier to organise than open research.

From cookbook lab to open lab

Using Janssens technique of innovation by recombining existing building blocks, teachers can transform a cookbook lab into an open lab in a practical, step-by-step manner. ‘For example, start by presenting the research question not after the explanation but beforehand.’ The second step is to get pupils to think about the question a bit before you present the theory. The third step: let pupils think on their own about the technique for 5–10 minutes first. If that doesn’t work, then resort to providing the recipe from the cookery book. Those aren’t complicated changes, but in this way you are gradually moving towards ‘open research’.

Van Janssen’s class lectures also translate these insights to areas of study beyond the hard sciences. In the book What’s really worth teaching? A perspective-oriented approach, ways of thinking and working are worked out for a large number of domains of study. ‘In this book we show how teaching can be organised in such a way that allows pupils and students to learn not only history, Dutch, biology, and maths, but also how to think in a historical, linguistic, biological, and mathematical way. The book has a companion volume entitled Challenging, differentiated, area-specific teacher: Practical tools to keep expanding your teaching repertoire, which is also available as a free download. Together, these two books provide a practical resource on subject-specific teaching techniques.

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