Adult literacy across the globe: challenges and opportunities

At this week’s CEN seminar, PhD student Cathy Rogers presented findings from a recent report into adult literacy she co-authored with Dr Victoria Knowland and Prof Michael Thomas. The full report will be published here as soon as it is available.

How teaching informs research informs teaching informs research…

alice-bowmer-violin-photo-croppedWe’re always especially pleased to hear from people with one foot in teaching and another in academic research, so today we are delighted to introduce Alice Bowmer who absolutely fits that bill. Alice is a freelance researcher and music teacher. She teaches violin to children aged 6 to 18 and is an honorary research associate at UCL Institute of Education.  Her current research looks at the impact of music and arts training on early cognitive and motor development. You can find her most recent publication here

Welcome Alice! Give us your take on how research and education inform one another.

“I started a violin teaching practice 10 years ago in north London and my research evolved from a desire to understand more about how my students were learning both musically and in other key aspects of their development. After a few years of study, I realised that understanding more about how the brain functions and how children develop was giving me a unique insight into many aspects of the practical work I do with my young students.

As an example, in musical learning it’s quite common for students to memorise a tune with an incorrect note, which becomes really difficult to change. From my research into cognitive development, I saw that to correct a note in this way is actually a really complex skill. First the student has to know that the incorrect note and corresponding muscle movement exists, then, they have to focus their attention at exactly the right moment as well as produce a new movement and learn to hear a new sound. And this correction might have to happen hundreds of times to over-ride the incorrect sound and muscle memory already in their long-term memory. I realised that to make a change is not as simple as just telling the student about the mistake. One simple thing I often do to support this problem is to sing the new, correct note (whilst the student is playing) a split second before they reach the incorrect note, which I’ve found helps them to intercept and correct it themselves in the future. Today, I am really grateful that I can utilise a combination of research and teaching practice to come up with effective strategies to support my students.

Recently, my research partner and I have been designing projects that support teachers and researchers working together. One of our aims is to examine how different types of instruction affect a variety of outcomes for children, in part, by working with teachers to learn about what they do in the real world. In a current project we are designing and analysing preschool music and art curricular, with a secondary focus to support children’s executive function skills. We have found that developing research projects together in this way gives teachers the opportunity to consider how their activities might support particular cognitive processes in more detail and researchers the ability to look at outcome measures through the eyes of different teaching practices.

Unfortunately, we’ve also found it quite challenging to find funding that supports this sort of research design. So far, our way of tackling this problem has been to work within a very limited budget (which is not really sustainable) or to work with an organisation that find funding to deliver the intervention strand, whilst we find funding to support the research. But again, this relies on those two streams coming together in a close time frame, which is not easy to organize.

In sum, I think the teacher/researcher collaboration provides many possibilities, particularly in the realm of educational neuroscience because a collaborative process can help to draw out the practical applications of brain research in a really tangible way. However, for this to happen successfully we need more funding bodies to support research that tries to get at multiple aspects of what happens when children are learning new skills.”

 

Identifying different types of cognitive ability in scientific thinking…

PhD student Selma Coecke shares with us a summary of her recent CEN seminar titled: An undefined form of fluid intelligence: how its trajectory differs from conceptual development in the context of science 

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Intelligence tests measure two forms of cognitive process: verbal – representing declarative knowledge – and nonverbal -aiming to eliminate the influence of socio-cultural knowledge.
However, my research demonstrates that there are multiple cognitive processes in the context of scientific thinking.  Spatial-temporal cognition for example, is one of these and it consistently explains unique variance in science beyond verbal-nonverbal distinction.
 
Furthermore, although it is often considered part of the verbal domain, scientific vocabulary is another unique measure.  It lies at the interface between the verbal and nonverbal as it draws heavily on imagery. During this talk I explained how my data demonstrates that neither verbal nor nonverbal abilities are unitary. Spatial-temporal cognition in particular, may be a good candidate independent component of fluid intelligence.  This form of thinking appears to satisfy three major requirements: it has a (1) unique predictive/ecological validity, (2) capacity to support abstract thinking, (3) unique qualitative and quantitative characteristics. 

Using research in the classroom: Teaching in a multi-linguistic classroom

roberto-filippiWelcome to our series in which we ask researchers to tell us how their research is of use and relevance for the classroom. Today, we are delighted to welcome Roberto Filippi, Associate Professor at UCL Institute of Education.

What is the focus of your research?

My area of research is second language acquisition with specific focus on the effects of bilingualism (or multilingualism) on cognitive development across the lifespan. This has become a very hot topic in recent years, mostly due to the increased multiculturalism in our societies. According to some reliable estimates, more than half of the world’s population is fluent in two or more languages – more than three billion people!  We can safely say that bilingualism is not an exception and studying multilingual speakers offers a unique opportunity to understand how language develops and what its interactions are with the rest of the cognitive system.

What led you to this area of research? 

Being the father of two bilingual children, I can’t deny that I have a strong personal interest. I began studying bilingual children more than 10 years ago in a London primary school in which the large majority of children were bilinguals. I directly experienced the challenges that teachers face everyday, but also the advantages that a multicultural / multilinguistic community can offer. Building a bridge between science and education was a very rewarding experience, an experience that I wish to continue even more here at the UCL Institute of Education.

Could you summarise your findings?

A decade of research in this area has shown many positive effects of second language development. I should say that studying bilingual / multilingual speakers is not an easy task. Second language learning occurs everyday and defining someone as “bilingual” does not explain the complexities of this phenomenon. Nonetheless, our studies try to take into account the many variables that might affect our findings like, for example, our participants’ linguistic experience, age of second language acquisition/exposure, levels of proficiency in both languages and socio-economic status.

Our studies have shown that bilingual children who learnt two languages from birth and bilingual adults who started to learn a second language much later in life, enjoy the remarkable ability to filter out sound interference when attending to a task – in our case the comprehension of speech. A possible interpretation of these finding is that bilinguals have to deal with two languages in a single mind. They need to filter out interference from the non-target language (i.e., the language that is not in use) and activate that target one (i.e., the language that one wants to speak or listen to). As a result of this intense and daily “brain training”, bilinguals may develop a stronger resilience than monolingual speakers to environmental distractions. Remarkably, in another study in which we used modern neuroimaging techniques, we found that the ability to control verbal interference in bilinguals is associated with a specific area of the cerebellum. This may indicate that the bilingual brain has a different functional and structural development compared to the monolingual brain, even in areas that were largely unexplored, such as the cerebellum.

What do you think this means for teachers in the classroom?

We are continuously bombarded by visual and auditory stimuli that affect our concentration. Our attention skills are very limited and prone to distractions that may impair our performance in everything we do. Classrooms are very noisy environments in which children need to learn in the presence of many environmental distractors. If our studies confirm that acquiring two (or more) languages early in life may enrich a capacity for filtering out distractors and learning more efficiently, I think we will offer educators and policy makers additional scientific evidence that multilanguage acquisition is beneficial for cognitive development.

If you could give one tip to teachers based on your work, what would it be?

Never discourage parents from raising their children in multilingual environments. Unfortunately, there are still cases in which educators advise multilingual families to raise their children as monolingual, to avoid “mental confusion”. This advice comes from early research showing that bilingualism was detrimental for a child’s cognitive development. However, this research has proven to be flawed. Decades of more rigorous and controlled scientific studies have not supported this view at all: there is no evidence that second language acquisition can impair development.

Therefore, I think it is the responsibility of the scientific community to provide research-based evidence and actively engage with education professionals. We need to work together to give our children everything they need.

You can read more about Roberto’s research in these papers; on bilingual advantage of language interference in adults, in children and on control of language interference.
Teachers and parents might also be interested in the many resources available on the Bilingualism matters website and the book Raising multilingual children.

Integrating tech into teaching

melpicMusic teacher and researcher Melissa Uye-Parker tells us about her recent tech-based classroom intervention study.

 

In this seminar at Centre for Educational Neuroscience, I presented my research that explored the design of a technology professional development and how it could be implemented to support teacher technology adoption.

Three teachers, T1, T2, T3, took part in a 6-week technology integration programme. Through participation in constructivist-framed activities (encouraging reflection, peer-collaboration, mentor support) the teachers each trialed a new technology into their lessons. Along with their peer-mentor, the teachers reviewed and reflected on their lessons through video recordings.

The results produced three distinct profiles of teacher. T1, who considered herself as a proficient ICT user, lacked the confidence to integrate technology into her teaching. She did not engage with the non-compulsory aspects of the programme.  T2, who considered herself as lacking in ICT skills, was able to use her knowledge of teaching to support her ICT integration. She also did not engage with the non-compulsory aspects of the programme.  T3, who considered herself as proficient in ICT and teaching, demonstrated the highest instance of pedagogical strategies. In additional, she engaged fully with the program. For T3, this was an effective intervention.

The study also found assessing that the role of the mentor and the video-guided analysis of the project contributed to its success. Building on the findings of this study, the following recommendations were made for further developments of the programme: technology professional development programmes must be able to develop teaching skills as well as their technological skills. The level of reflection was higher for the teacher with a secure knowledge of their teaching skills.

Headteachers share their thoughts about research

jo-pearson-photoIn this regular series, we hear from teachers and heads about their views of educational neuroscience. Has ed neuro helped them with their teaching? How? Are there problem areas? Are there gaps where research should be focused? Today, we are delighted to introduce Jo Pearson, Head of Oldham Research School and Teamworks SCITT (School Centred Initial Teacher Training) and TSA (Teaching School Alliance). Welcome Jo!

What does educational neuroscience mean to you?

Educational neuroscience for me means finding out about how we learn, how we retain knowledge and the ways in which I as a teacher could adapt how I teach to support my pupils to learn better.  As someone with a history degree who trained on a one year PGCE a long, long (!) time ago this is an area that was not in my own prior knowledge or training.  Not knowing why some pedagogies worked better than others or indeed why some bits are harder to learn than others is both frustrating and professionally disempowering.  As somebody who is in charge of the learning of others, I really want to be able to have some knowledge about how this happens.

How do you keep up to date with the latest research?

Being a research school is a huge advantage because we get to spend lots of time with the EEF, the IEE and other research school leads. The opportunity to talk about and share research and its implementation in the classroom is so valuable and has been brilliant professional development.  I also subscribe to the cognition-in-science google group; I’m not a science teacher and some (lots!) sometimes goes over my head but there’s also some really brilliant examples of research in practice.  Lastly, I subscribe to lots of email lists; NFER, Evidence in brief from the IEE, Shanahan on literacy….

Is there a specific research-informed idea that you feel has had a positive impact in your school, one which others could potentially try?

We’ve really used it to unpick effective planning and assessment. Cognitive load theory has helped in thinking through planning across the long and medium term and on a lesson level. We’ve identified aspects of curriculum content that have a high intrinsic load, analogue time for example or fractions. As staff, we unpicked why; in these cases it was because the prior learned knowledge seems to contradict the new knowledge (3 not being just 3 but 15 or even quarter; the idea that 1/4 is smaller than 1/2 when everything you knew before said 2 was smaller than 4). This has helped us to think about the time we give to these topics, the frequency with which we need to return to these topics and the prior knowledge we need to unpick when we teach them in our long term planning and has also helped us to identify the points at which scaffolding and modelling can really make our teaching more effective at lesson level. Extraneous load theory has helped us to review our classrooms and teaching materials, especially for hard to teach content and finally our work on germane load and metacognition has helped us to plan explicit points at which we can support the six aspects to self-regulation in our pupils. Just having a shared definition of what we all mean by the term ‘learned’ has been very powerful.

How do you get teachers and students involved?

We use our newsletter, our training programmes and our own staff development programme to build staff knowledge and support changes in practice that help to make this more than just the latest fad.  It’s really important that they know this is not about us giving our personal views and preferred practices; it is about us reporting what the evidence from well-designed projects, gathered over time, suggests is a better bet.

Are there areas where you think research should focus next (ie what are the important gaps in our understanding)?

Marking is an obvious one; we know that we don’t know that much yet but it absorbs such a lot of staff time. It would be great to know more.

Thank you so much Jo. Do check out the hyperlinks to find many more resources. We would also recommend the resources of The Learning Scientists, the EEF Toolkit for an overview of evidence-levels for various educational interventions, and for those who are members of the Chartered College, their regular magazine Impact is consistently excellent. We have also recently published our own CEN resource for anyone who would like to get a better gist of how the brain actually works; if you want to find fascinating answers to intriguing puzzles like why children get their bs and their ds muddled up, look no further.

The role of teacher training in promoting evidence-based education

david-westonAt CEN, we are keen to hear views from all the stake-holders of an evidence-based approach to education. In this blog, we are delighted to welcome David Weston, founder and CEO of the Teacher Development Trust. David is also Chair of the Department for Education’s Teacher Development Expert Group. He is an author, school governor, a former secondary maths and physics teacher and a Founding Fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching.

To what extent is evidence-based practice at the heart of teacher training?

I think we’ve seen people quoting evidence as a basis for recommendations for many years now. What seems different, more recently, is that people are beginning to quote systematic reviews of the evidence and that teachers themselves are more frequently exploring the evidence base and blogging about it. The recent spate of books that bring together findings from educational, psychological and cognitive sciences seems quite promising, though perhaps some recent very plausible ideas could do with being tested in the field a little more before being rolled out.

What enables teachers to take a more evidence-based approach?

For any profession, the most important thing is to have mechanisms where neutral and trusted organisations can summarise evidence in an accessible way, supporting others to embed these ideas in tools, resources and guidance. There is a benefit in helping to develop some teachers to play a role in this, though not all teachers will want or indeed need to be reading original research. I would love to see greater availability and use of curriculum schemes with really practical and evidence-based teacher handbooks and resources.

What are the barriers?

I would say that time and access to expertise are the biggest barriers. It’s difficult to find time for teachers to even complete their classroom-based jobs, let alone finding time to collaborate within their institutions and more widely across the profession or to read and digest research. It’s also difficult for teachers and leaders to identify local, knowledgeable and affordable experts who can come to their school and help them access and translate the best evidence into practice.

Can you give some specific examples from your experience of how a move to more evidence-based teaching has changed practice for the better?

We’ve worked with hundreds of schools and school leaders to help them understand the evidence about how teachers most effectively develop. By then supporting them to re-evaluate their schools’ practices and apply the evidence to make changes, we’ve seen some wonderful examples of change where teachers are more excited and engaged in their jobs, where children are achieving more and where the school is developing a reputation as a beacon of great practice for others to copy.

Is there an example in which neuroscience findings have contributed?

Perhaps not neuroscience per se, but certainly cognitive and psychological sciences are having a great impact – one need only look at the most recent draft of the new proposed Ofsted framework to see how findings about memory are becoming mainstream, at last.

Are there examples from other countries which we should be considering?

Other countries tend to have more centralised systems of knowledge review, summarisation and dissemination. This is often paired with more time for teachers to read and collaborate. The trade-off for these choices is that there is much less drive and innovation from the ground-level and class sizes are often bigger. Singapore and Shanghai are interesting examples to look at here.

I am a teacher who wants to know more about the research evidence; where should I start?

I would suggest starting with Daniel Muijs and David Reynolds book: Effective Teaching.

What areas of teaching and learning are in most need of better evidence?           We need to know much more about how school leaders bring about effective and sustained change within and across schools. In particular, I think it would be helpful to have more evidence on the role of performance management, curriculum materials and the role of facilitators, coaches and trainers.

David has co-authored a book with Bridget Clay ‘Unleashing great teaching‘ for those who would like to know more. David also blogs for TES and you can follow him on twitter @informed_edu and the Teacher Development Trust @TeacherDevTrust

Teachers need more skin in the research game

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At the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, we are interested in finding practical solutions for impediments to bringing research and education together.  Those with a foot in both camps are often key to providing insights into these solutions.

Teacher turned researcher Michael Hobbiss writes a guest blog for us about what he believes are some of the difficulties facing evidence-based education and suggests a solution which may help, as he calls it, ‘teachers get more skin in the game’…..

 

A frequently expressed ambition in evidence-based education circles is that teachers can be trained (or encouraged… or forced) to be ‘critical consumers’ of research evidence. This aim encompasses two imagined steps: that teachers should read more research evidence in the first place, and then that they should also have the skills to appraise each piece of evidence’s potential to positively impact their own practice. Four years ago, before I left teaching to start my PhD, I expressed these ambitions myself, and subjected my long-suffering colleagues to training sessions designed to encourage similar enthusiasm in them. Now, having seen the other side of academic research, I’m not so sure that this is the right approach. I think that to cast teachers as merely ‘consumers’ of research, however ‘critical’, is to unfairly place them at the bottom of a food chain that does not exist; the bottom-feeders hoovering up the morsels drifting down from the academic heights. This not only does teachers a disservice, but actually more importantly it leads to research which is less impactful, less relevant to schools, and ultimately, less useful.

Indeed, the mere fact that this ‘critical consumers’ aim exists is hugely revealing about the state of much educational research, as it shows that as things stand, it doesn’t really matter all that much whether teachers read the research or not. That simply isn’t the metric by which it will be judged. The reward structures of academic research and funding mean that citations from other researchers, and publications in particular journals, are far more valuable to an academic than positively impacting the practice of teachers. This is not to dismiss the use of educational research, nor to question the desire of many academics to make a difference in the real world, merely to observe that the system is not currently structured to facilitate this process. The phrase ‘skin in the game’ re-popularised recently by the book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes how decisions are impacted by the level of involvement a person has with the project. The more ‘skin’ (personal involvement) you have in the game, the more you are likely to work towards ends that are personally beneficial. Currently, in educational research, teachers have no skin in the game. They are expected to invest nothing into the research process, and as a result, they receive no influence over its structure or direction.

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Figure 1: Without ‘skin in the game’, teachers have very little influence over the research process. They are expected to ‘consume’ research, even when it may not be directly relevant for them

Two common examples of ‘educational’ research which reflects this imbalance of incentives are:

  1. Outcome measures are of rarely of direct relevance to teachers. Educational interventions will often use outcome measures which are research-relevant (such as performance on lab experiments, working memory tests, or academic questionnaire measures) rather than ones that are directly applicable to teachers (such as test scores). Teachers are left to guess whether “improved inhibition and task-switching” (for example) means that Johnny is likely to do better in his Science test next week.
  2. Research questions are often theory-focused, as opposed to practice-focused. Building on the first point, frequently the hypotheses investigated by ‘educational’ research are ones that are not really designed to be useful to teachers at all. I frequently see research described as ‘educational’, when actually the questions are more developmental (e.g.  ‘how does algebraic understanding develop across adolescence?’). A research question that was practice-focused and immediately applicable might be more useful, such as ‘What is the best approach for delivering the new AQA GCSE Maths course?’.

One of the consequences of having skin in the game is increased risk-aversion. As things stand, researchers are less likely to adopt more practice-focused research questions and outcome measures, which are far riskier under current incentive systems that often do not reward them. So nothing changes.

Getting teachers in the game

There is clearly no quick, simple fix to these problems. They are structural, deep and can only be changed with small steps and great patience. I do think though, that one fundamental solution to this problem is relatively simple: teachers need some skin in the research game too. If teachers, as a part of their ongoing professional development, were expected to take more of a part in the creation (rather than simply the consumption) of research, then both sides would stand to benefit. Clearly educators would benefit from being able to push for research questions and measurements which were more directly grounded in the everyday experiences and needs of educators. Although it might seem like a risk initially, researchers would also stand to benefit, as being able to demonstrate direct influence on real-world impact of research is (slowly) being increasingly incorporated into academic evaluations such as the (Research Excellence Framework) and grant funding criteria (through demonstrating Patient and Public Involvement, for example). Another huge potential benefit for researchers is recruitment. If we can provide more incentive for schools to take part in research in the first place (for example by having the chance to actively contribute to the process), then they are far more likely to want to participate in it, easing one of the most tiresome chores of the educational researcher: school recruitment.

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Figure 2: The idealised picture of knowledge exchange in a ‘transdisciplinary’ science of learning. Taken from Tokuhama-Espinosa (2010)

A ‘Craigslist’ for Schools and Researchers

So how do get teachers in the game? Simply, we need to talk. We need to talk early, we need to talk often, and we need to talk better. Currently, most contact between researchers and schools happens relatively late in the research process, well after hypotheses and methodology have been decided upon. Teachers are therefore disenfranchised from the research process, and from shaping it to their own benefit. Along with a number of colleagues (including both teachers and researchers) I have recently been working on a system designed to facilitate communication at a much earlier stage, roughly based on the design of the ‘Craigslist’ website (‘Gumtree’ might be the most familiar example of a similar system in the UK). Teachers and researchers can specify their areas of interest using themed ‘tags’, and will then be able to search for and view other members with similar mutual interests to them. In so doing, contacts can be made between researchers and schools with shared priorities far earlier, and far more efficiently, than is currently the case. Schools and teachers will then be in a position to exert far more influence over the subsequent development of the project. They’ll have some skin in the game. Whilst not a silver bullet, we hope that such a platform might at least start to provide the foundation for a much more equal, ‘transdisciplinary’ field than is currently the case.

We hope to publish an article on this project by early summer, along with a working prototype of the platform for road testing. In the meantime, it would be great to hear from any teachers or researchers who are keen to be updated on the further development of the system, or who have any suggestions for its development. michael.hobbiss@gmail.com

Click here to read more from Mike

Is classroom noise bad for learning?

In this week’s CEN seminar, Jessica Massonnié talked about her research looking at the effect of classroom noise on learning. Here she summarises her talk.

jessica-massonnieClassrooms are lively environments and, as you may remember from your own experience, they are also noisy. Teachers and students report classroom chatter, and noise coming from movement (i.e. scraping sounds from tables and chairs) as the most annoying sources of noise.

Previous research has shown that hearing a single person talking does, in most cases, impair performance (whether we measure attention, memory, reading skills or maths performance). However, more complex types of noise (i.e. when different conversations overlap or are mixed with noise coming from tools and devices, making the semantic meaning of the noise less salient) have been shown to have mixed effects, and do not necessarily impair performance. But we know very little about why some children are very impaired, while others do pretty well in noisy environments. That is what my work focuses on.

In my talk I presented results from a study carried out here, at the CEN, in collaboration with Cathy Rogers and fellow PhD students. We used recorded classroom noise, composed of a mix of babble and environmental noise, and measured its effect on children’s creativity. We found that children in their early elementary school years (below 8 years of age) with low selective attention skills were especially impaired by noise. However, older children, in their late elementary school years, and children with high attentional skills performed similarly in silence and noise. That is to say, noise did not have a negative impact for everyone.

A second study explored the same phenomenon, showing that children in late elementary school (from 8 to 11 years of age) had similar scores in silence and noise when they performed academic tasks (reading and maths), and it did not depend on their level of selective attention.

Measuring how noise affect children’s performance is however only one part of the story. Pupils are also more or less annoyed by noise, emotionally speaking. And this annoyance, perhaps surprisingly, often does not correspond to the effect we see on performance. In other words, some children feel very distracted by noise, even if it does not objectively impact their performance.

My current work is looking at the mechanisms behind children’s annoyance, with the optimal goal of providing some cues to improve their well-being.

* * *

If you are interested in the topic, I recommend the article: Sound or Noise? The importance of individual differences written by Lindsay McCunn.

If you have Netflix, I encourage you to watch the first episode of Explained, “Music”. It discusses the relation between sound and music, and how it is to stop “feeling” sound as music.

Finally, if you would like to receive quarterly scientific and artistic updates on the topic, you can sign up to the newsletter of the Pursuit of Silence.