Do researchers know what it’s like in the classroom?

Uncontrollable pupils in classroom acting out, frustrated teacher tearing a hair out.

Dr. Jessica Massonnié is a CEN alumnus who received her doctorate from Birkbeck in 2020 for her thesis on the impact of noise in the classroom. Jessica recently wrote an entry on ‘Perspectives on learning from neuroscience’, for the forthcoming International Encyclopedia of Education (4th Ed). In her entry, Jessica argued that it is essential for educational neuroscience researchers to spend time in schools. As she says, ‘placements in schools and involvement in learning communities provide invaluable opportunities to gain insight into the objectives, constraints and challenges of educators.’

In this blog, we hear from one of the CEN’s co-directors, Prof. Denis Mareschal, who has combined his academic research activities with volunteering one day a week in a local primary school to teach maths. We asked Denis how his experiences in the classroom have helped to shape his research. Here’s what he told us:

“I started my volunteer work in an inner city London primary state school almost 10 years ago. While I had considerable hands-on experience of working with children in educational and recreational settings in the past, I had moved away from the front line of educational practice as my academic career had progressed. Although I very much enjoy the research topics that I work on, I also missed the direct impact that teaching has on children. I therefore approached a local school and offered a day a week of my time.

At first, my role was to support classroom teachers (much like a teaching assistant), especially Newly Qualified Teachers. However, after a few years, the school realised that I had advanced maths training and could deliver “stretch” sessions for the top performing students in Years 5 and 6. Alongside this, I have continued to contribute one-on-one literacy and reading support for children who may not get as much support at home as others. I do this for children from Years 1 through 3.

Probably the biggest lesson I have learnt from this work is the reality of the challenges that teachers face in the classroom. While we researchers tend to focus on detailed questions of learning (e.g., whole word vs phonics as the best way to teach reading), teachers face much more substantial obstacles to learning that often arise from outside the schools. Sociological questions about how regularly a child comes to school, how engaged those at home are with the school work, and what message they get from carers about the value of school all impact very substantially on the child’s educational achievements.

‘the role of basic research into the learning sciences is to ensure that, however small the “learning windows” when the child is at school and focussed actually are, their learning uptake is the most effective’


In the end the cognitive variables that we explore as scientists often feel very secondary given these much bigger issues. That said, I have also come to understand better that the role of basic research into the learning sciences is to ensure that, however small the “learning windows” when the child is at school and focussed actually are, their learning uptake is the most effective. In this way the child can benefit maximally from the time they are actually present in class.

A second point is that frontline primary teachers have to deal with a large number of directives and changing pedagogical frameworks that disempower them. The consequence is that they are often reluctant to take up any new approach. Consequently, as a research scientist who may wish to transfer my findings to practical classroom practice, I have to make sure that my suggestions are clear, easy to implement, engaging and empower the teachers to use their own judgement, experience and skill. This will maximise the likelihood that teachers actually take up the suggestions and integrate them within their own classroom practice.

Beyond the classroom environment, it is clear from my tutoring work with the children how much repetition forms the basis of learning. Unlike what theories of “insight learning” advocate, I have found that children learn new concepts by gradually and repeatedly dealing with relevant problems or tasks.

Once they have acquired a lot of experience or practice (and even though they may still not be able to explicitly explain how or why they do something), children of all ages can have moments of insight during which the information being taught “clicks” and they are able to provide an explicit explanation. This corresponds to a moment when the new information suddenly fits within their mental model of how other parts of (say) maths work. That said, children can also often have the feeling of an “insight moment” and still have a completely wrong reasoning process. Experiencing an “aha” moment… does not necessarily mean that they have the right answer or understanding!

In short, while my time in the classroom has not directly shaped the research questions that I have followed, it has helped me understand the large challenges that both the teacher and the learner face in a classroom. This has led me to think of solutions that are practical and practicable in the real world.

Most importantly, it has been fun — not a bed of roses everyday — but a chance to reconnect with why I am doing research in the learning sciences in the first place.”

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