The simulated classroom
Teachers must know a lot to be able to give good lessons. But this alone is not enough. They must also be able to convey the material well. Already during their training, the simulated classroom uncovers areas for improvement.
Teachers are faced with the difficult task each day of conveying knowledge to their pupils in such a way that they learn successfully. Whether they succeed or not depends on many factors - including the knowledge level of the teachers themselves. Foto: Maas/Haacks, Uni Kiel
For the last 15 years, Professor Jens Möller from the Institut für Pädagogisch-Psychologische Lehr- und Lernforschung (IPL - Institute for Educational Psychological Research on Teaching and Learning) has investigated the professional competence of prospective teachers in empirical studies. In doing so, he uses the simulated classroom computer programme, which currently examines the professional knowledge of student teachers in biology. But what does the degree of professional knowledge say about the quality of teaching, and about the learning success of the pupils?
"A competent teacher must master all forms of knowledge: subject didactic, educational-psychological, declarative and procedural knowledge," explained Möller. By declarative knowledge, Möller means subject knowledge of facts or terms. Procedural knowledge draws on this. "Linking theoretical and practical knowledge is very important in the teaching profession," added Professor Ute Harms. "It provides information about the diagnostic skills of a teacher, i.e. their ability to evaluate the performance of pupils. To measure and promote this, we use the simulated classroom." As an expert in biology education at the Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education (IPN), she knows where the central problems lie in teaching biology.
Since March 2017, the IPL and IPN have jointly collected data for the ProSim-Bio study from Master’s students and student teachers for upper secondary school. They want to find out if and when future biology teachers can recognise that pupils have either correct or incorrect notions of evolutionary biological developments in the animal kingdom, the plant kingdom, in humans or in bacteria, and how they then react to this.
For these complex tests, the researchers make use of the simulated classroom. The schoolgirl Hanna - who we met at the beginning - is not real, but a computer-generated person in a virtual school class. By clicking through multiple situations of teacher questions and pupil answers, the test subjects experience example lessons using a graphical modular system. "Depending on the objective, we adjust certain parameters to make the learning group more realistic or simplified. In this way we can, for instance, change the age, gender distribution or class size, keep the learning group simple, or introduce minorities," said Möller. "We can also define certain characteristics, which are then reflected in the behaviour and the respective responses, such as high intelligence."
Various issues can be investigated with the simulated classroom. In the current project, the test person has the choice between selected questions from different areas of evolutionary biology. If he or she poses a question by clicking, some pupils respond by "raising their hand" (indicated by colour coding and an icon). How many do so is determined by the computer. The answers can be reviewed individually. They differ in terms of their quality (either right or wrong) and - with the wrong answers - also by reference to different categories of misconception. These include, for example, anthropomorphic conceptions, which means that the development of an organism arises from a need or its own free will.
A teacher with solid professional knowledge should be able to evaluate correctly, and also be able to help with wrong answers. At the end, all performances are given school grades. The data analysis then indicates whether the students identified knowledge gaps and misconceptions, and how they helped.
The "ProSim-Bio" study, funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), runs until February 2020. For Möller, a trend is already discernible in the research results: "We are surprised that so many aspiring biology teachers have difficulties with linking their theoretical and practical knowledge, for example because they do not realise that the pupil’s answer is based on anthropomorphic misconceptions." In ProSim, Harms sees a general opportunity for the transition from studying to everyday work: "The students can test themselves using the simulated classroom, and determine their level of knowledge under simplified conditions. In doing so, they learn about both their didactic strengths as well as weaknesses, without the typical distractions in real school life. The simulated classroom enables subject teaching under ideal conditions."
So far, the simulated classroom has been used primarily as an analytical tool for research purposes, but in principle it has further potential applications. Harms predicts: “In the future we want to develop the simulated classroom into a practical learning tool, which actively trains the diagnostic skills."
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