We are delighted to welcome Megan Dixon to our blog series in which teachers involved in research give us their take on educational neuroscience. Megan is Director of English at the Aspire Educational Trust and Director of Aspirer Research School. Welcome Megan.
What does educational neuroscience mean to you?
As teachers, I think we need to understand what happens in the brain when children learn; what accelerates and supports learning and what can hinder it. It is also interesting and helpful to understand the challenges pupils might face. Educational Neuroscience helps in a precise way, helping to explain what happens in the brain and support us to be more effective at teaching and learning. It is also helpful when we consider how to support children with special educational needs. Our multi academy trust is an inclusive community and we are passionate about supporting each and every child in our schools.
How do you keep up to date with the latest research?
I run an EEF research school, so I am immersed in the evidence – my particular interest is literacy acquisition and teaching and learning in the early years. Twitter makes it easier to find newly published studies, I often buy books (or borrow them from the library) and will email an author if I can’t get hold of a study I am interested in reading. I subscribe to a number of journals, too – although that can be expensive. I also ask, as part of my performance management, if I can attend a conference each year (rather than attending courses or other training). Last year I attended the Scientific Studies of Reading Conference in Brighton. Although I felt a little out of my depth as a teacher, rather than a researcher, I returned to work with a long list of interesting things to consider and develop with the teachers I support. I often attend teacher conferences, such as Research Ed and Research School conferences too.
Can you give some examples of how neuroscience understanding has helped you and your school?
It has helped with understanding why something works or is important and ensures we continue to make decisions for the right reasons – for example providing breakfast for children in school. This could be seen as an expensive thing to do, but the weight of the evidence, including the EEF Magic Breakfast trial and the neuroscience hit or myth describing the importance of good nutrition helped us understand the importance of maintaining this for our children.
It has also helped us develop principles and practices for teaching and learning that we use across all the schools in the trust. Our understanding of what aids learning, and what hinders – such as how we can support our pupils to learn to read, write and become competent mathematicians is underpinned by a nuanced understanding of the research literature. An example of this is how we ensure children develop their counting skills in the early years and Key Stage 1. The neuroscience suggests it is a complex and challenging task for young children to develop a conceptual, abstract understanding of a number. The child needs to be able to write the digit, recognise the digit, recognise (and count) visual patterns that represent that number – in a group, in a line, in a random collection and when each object has different colours or features. They need to understand where the number comes in relation to every other number and all the language associated with it – for example -bigger, smaller, greater than, less than, one more, one less. We systematically give the children opportunities to understand each aspect of each number, within a wide range of activities. To the untrained eye, it can look like we are simply repeating the same teaching, but without this deep conceptual level of understanding, from the very beginning, the children will find maths extremely difficult. We are always trying to learn more and be more effective in how we teach and adjusting our practices to support each and every child.
How do you get teachers and students involved?
As a Research School, and Teaching School we host a range of opportunities from newsletters to longer CPD programmes to short seminars and information twilights. We often ask researchers to come and share their work with us and we are actively involved in a wide number of research trials. Reading research, reflecting on it and sharing the learning outcomes have become an integral part of our school and trust community. We are always interested in new findings and working to translate them into practice. Over the past 5 years or so, my colleagues and I have worked to build a culture where research and evidence is integral to our practice – it is a habit now for us!
If you would like to understand more about the workings of the brain – what underpins the research mentioned above, do have a look at our new CEN resource How the brain works. We would love to hear what you think. Do let us know on Twitter @UoL_CEN