By Brian Druckenmiller
Originally published in Atheneum Vol 3(10)

For the past two years, Austin Hitt and Denise Forrest, professors in the William L. Spadoni College of Education, have led the charge in improving teaching practices for three high-needs school districts of Marion and Florence counties. They are actively applying a new method of teaching math and science that promotes a cohesive understanding and proper application of the material by the student.

Hitt and Forrest’s research shows that students are having difficulty grasping and retaining knowledge as a result of traditional teaching methods. This conjures up a question that educators, as well as parents, are often afraid to ask: Are students actually learning?

Funded by the Improving Teacher Quality grant (ITQ) and with the help of Tessa Weinstein, assistant professor in mathematics, and Louis Keiner, associate professor of physics, Hitt and Forrest meet with close to 20 teachers across three school districts (Marion 1, Marion 7 and Florence 1) in an effort to eliminate the need to ask the preceding question. With teacher-development workshops at the Pee Dee Math and Science Center as well as direct classroom involvement, these professors are doing their part to enhance the educational experience for both teachers and, most importantly, students.

“The main goal for this project is to improve the teachers’ content knowledge,” said Forrest. “We ‘teach’ them the concepts…using effective practices. Many of them then take our methods into their class.”

Hitt and Forrest’s efforts focus on the practices within fifth- through eighth-grade classrooms. “This age,” Hitt said, “is the critical transition” for students as they develop an understanding of the fundamental concepts that will prepare them for high school coursework and beyond.

What exactly is this new methodology?

The argument is that traditional methods in teaching these subjects are not encouraging effective cognitive function. Teachers list the facts, figures and solutions without the purpose behind them—why are they the facts, and why are they important? Without the context, Hitt calls the method “edu-tainment”—a wonderful show without a concrete objective.

Hitt’s research, which he started during his doctoral studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, contributed to the development of a “Concept-Focused Inquiry (CFI) Theory of Instruction.” This methodology urges teachers to move away from an activity based strictly on information and shift the focus to the concept behind the information. Teachers should ask themselves: What is the purpose of the information? Where do the facts come from? What should the student get out of it? This self-reflection will encourage teachers to view teaching from a different perspective: the students.’

Forrest explains that children need to be exposed to “a working model.” In math, Forrest stresses the need to show students a real-world application of the material, and in science, teachers must allow the students to discover the nature of science—why things are the way they are.

Hitt goes further, suggesting that students should construct the working model as it promotes the active application of the concept. He provides the example of teaching cell structure; when a teacher lists the parts of a cell and asks the students to locate them under a microscope, many students will check off everything on their list—even ones they did not actually see.

“Alternatively,” Hitt said, “if students are asked to examine slides…under a microscope and look for common patterns, they have to observe and think about the things they observed. They can draw a picture [that] represents a typical cell, and then the teacher can provide them with the terms used to describe the structures. This is a process of conceptualizing what a cell is. This is conceptual understanding.”

While the methodology is providing positive feedback from the teachers and students involved, the only way to truly measure the effectiveness of concept-based practices is by observing the longitudinal data. The data is based on the students’ progress and development; these specific workshops will prove successful if students are retaining the knowledge for years to come.