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:
denis

“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.”

Margaret Mulholland, SEND and Inclusion Specialist for the Association of School and College Leaders

margaret-mulholland

At CEN, we are keen to hear from those who are working at the intersection of research and educational practice. We are delighted to introduce Margaret Mulholland, SEND and Inclusion Specialist for the Association of School and College Leaders, former Director of Development & Research at the Swiss Cottage Teaching School Alliance. She shares inspiring resources and insights with us!

 

How do you keep up-to-date with the latest education research? Is it important to you whether the research uses particular methods (e.g. neuroscience, classroom-based)?

I read a lot and I use Twitter to steer me toward things that are beyond my familiar scope. When I am driving or exercising I enjoy podcasts, I sometimes force the whole family to listen!

I particularly like Ollie Lovell’s Education Research Reading Room (ERRR). It broadcasts a series of podcasts. Try the ones with Dylan William, John Hattie or Jon Sweller (you just can’t escape Cognitive Load Theory at the moment), or Podcast 17 for a real challenge to our infatuation with meta analysis – love it!

Provenance of the evidence is what interests me. As an historian I always ask who wrote this? And why? I listened to the ERRR interview with Daniel Willingham – who’s insights on the lessons of cognitive psychology and neuroscience for the classroom are so very popular in our secondary schools at the moment. Willingham is an advocate for teaching of scientific knowledge, so I was delighted to hear him talk about his wife being a Montessori teacher and his children going to Montessori school. This seemed so incongruent based on where Willingham is positioned on the knowledge skills debate. Looking at provenance here helps to unpick the complexities in his position and not be taken in by the polarised positioning translated through the media. To be honest, it made me more inclined to hear him out – however, I’m not shifting!

Could you tell us how research has influenced your teaching?

My own experience of learning to teach was based on the ‘clinical practice’ model used by Oxford University to frame their teacher training programme. Here, theory and practice is bridged for beginner teachers through working with experts. The model sees the university tutor and the classroom mentor as equals in the process of helping the beginning teacher see the link between the theoretical understanding and their response to pupils in the moment.

In fact so heavily influenced was I by this theoretical framework, that most of my career has been focused on the practice development of new teachers. I was lucky enough early in my very first year of teaching to work with Hazel Hagger and Donald McIntyre on an Esme Fairburn research project on the importance of mentoring. I didn’t see it as research – I saw the relationship with evidence and with the researchers as simply helping me to get better as a teacher.

Over the last few years my work has focused on how we help new teachers recognise vulnerable learners as their starting point when planning for learning, rather than as an afterthought. Learners with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities don’t need resources dumbing down, they need alternative routes in, to access that learning. The work of Florian and Black on the adoption of an ‘inclusive pedagogy’ through their research of teachers and the challenges they plan for, is a must! I love this presentation by Kristine Black Hawkins.

How do you tell if something is working in the classroom?

When I see teachers making confident judgements in their classroom.

Levels of engagement and enjoyment – a sense of ownership – metacognition are all important to me. However, it’s contextual too, a holistic picture. It is important to review all or as many elements against each other to inform planning and actions – triangulating quantitative and qualitative evidence to inform next steps. When I took over my first History Department a simple SWOT analysis showed that GCSE grades were poor yet popularity and passion for the subject were high. Reviewing exam technique and empowering Year 11 to understand the skills of an historian involved them rewriting all their coursework whilst not losing faith in themselves – in fact using that retrograde step to build confidence further, to show them they can control the outcomes, my job is to provide tools to achieve these goals. The results that year were the best the school had ever seen.

What do you think researchers should focus on next (i.e. what are the gaps in our understanding, from a teacher’s perspective)?

Profiling strengths and needs that are specific to a learner and how they learn. Teachers need help to move beyond labels and learn how to profile the learning rather than the learner.

Is there anything you don’t think we should be focusing on?

Let’s not give too much airtime to myth busters (those who are making a living from books about what doesn’t work and why – a focus on Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic for example). Research is on a journey – understanding it’s weaknesses is part of that journey but currently we give too much time to what is wrong. If we make teachers fearful – we deskill them.

Do you have any suggestions of how communication and collaboration can be improved between teachers and education researchers?

Through celebration and sharing. The work of Learnus has strengthened the dialogue between teachers and researchers. I am on the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) Council and delighted that our partnership is supporting this growth. Co-production is an aspiration too; but lots to be done to model how this can work effectively.

If you could share one piece of advice about research-informed practice with other teachers and trainee teachers, what would it be?

Don’t promote absolutes; unequivocally support the development of Inquiry mindedness.

Please could you describe a research-informed idea that you feel has had a positive impact in your classroom, so that others could try it as well if they feel it’s relevant. (e.g. Why did you introduce the idea? What did you do? What impact has it had?)

Early in my career – Chris Watkins – short accessible research summaries about metacognition were real favourites and still influence my practice today.

At a time of workload concerns and retention challenges, working with others in the classroom should be part of every school’s Continuous Professional Development. I have used some of the co-teaching strategies explained so well by Colette Murphy. It is an investment in the staff learning together, and the pupils benefit from having two teachers.

I’ve recently been approached by a publisher to write a book about Inclusive pedagogy and I’m so excited to simply understand better and learn more about how we best include struggling learners to access and engage better.

Thank you very much for your time. We are very much looking forward to this book!

You can follow Margaret on Twitter @MargaretMulhol2

Teachers share their thoughts about research

charlotte-hindley-photoNext up in our blog-series where we chat to teachers about their experiences of accessing and using research: We are delighted to introduce Charlotte Hindley who is an assistant head and teacher from Platt Bridge Community School, and delivers professional development programmes both in the UK and internationally. Charlotte also works as part of her local Teaching School Alliance, Westbridge, in a role co-leading Research and Development. Here, she talks about her experiences of using research in the primary setting.

Thank you Charlotte for taking the time to answer our questions. Firstly, how do you keep up-to-date with the latest education research? Is it important to you whether the research uses particular methods (e.g. neuroscience, classroom-based)?

I keep up to date with developments on the EEF website (https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk), and the Impact magazine from Chartered College of Teaching and Learning (https://chartered.college/journal). Regarding the type of research – neuroscience is a relatively new concept for me, so previously I would have been more interested if the research was classroom-based as I felt this held more accountability for pupils’ progress rather than those that were commercially-led e.g. testing a specific company’s product. Also personally taking part in National Teacher-led research into ‘Closing the Gap’ and more recently Neuroscience-informed teaching (using randomised control trials, or RCTs) enables me to use my own research.

Could you tell us how research has influenced your teaching?

RCTs that we have led on have informed our teaching – we now use weekly spelling tests, as our own controlled trial showed this had a positive impact on pupils’ recall of their spellings. We also explored the use of multiple choice testing as a learning event which showed us that this is useful in conjunction with another method. We also use ‘Look, Cover, Write, Check’, based on RCTs led by other teachers. We have implemented interventions that involve 1:1 tuition and done smaller group/1:1 tuition rather than traditional whole class boosters for Y6 SATS based on EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit.

How do you tell if something is working in the classroom?

Impact on pupils’ progress (progress scores based on end of KS1 standardised scaled scores).
Scores on tests (attainment scores); pupil voice and feedback.
Feedback from teachers – teacher voice.
Observations of classroom practice.

What do you think researchers should focus on next (i.e. what are the gaps in our understanding, from a teacher’s perspective?)?

Vocabulary gap in young children (Early Years/KS1) particularly in disadvantaged pupils e.g. not much conversation at home. What interventions could be in place to help accelerate vocabulary learning? Would supporting parents at home at an early stage with vocabulary and language acquisition be helpful? How can we narrow the gap between vocabulary of disadvantaged and other pupils?

How can we improve reading engagement and focus? Parental support and engagement with this?

Memory and recall linked to key facts e.g. times tables facts and spellings.

Do you have any suggestions of how communication and collaboration can be improved between teachers and education researchers?

Involve teachers more in the design process rather than emailing them to be part of an existing trial that doesn’t necessarily link to their School Improvement Plan and targets for improvement.

Support teachers in leading their own research. Establish partnerships between PhD students/universities to support teachers with the design or analysis process.

If you could share one piece of advice about research-informed practice with other teachers and trainee teachers, what would it be?

See the value of it – it is not just an add on but can inform your practice IF you tailor it to link to your pupils’ needs, your classroom gaps, and school improvement plan priorities.

Please could you describe a research-informed idea that you feel has had a positive impact in your classroom, so that others could try it as well if they feel it’s relevant. (e.g. Why did you introduce the idea? What did you do? What impact has it had?)

Our main research has involved exploring the teaching of spelling and how best to ensure pupils can recall spellings. We have carried out 2 RCTs in this field:

  • The use of testing as a learning event helps pupils recall spellings.

Two groups of pupils in Y6 in 2 schools (replicated in Y4) were involved, where one group of pupils did normal classroom practice for learning spellings (control), and the other group were told they would have a test at the end of the week on them too (intervention).

The group who were told they would have a test as part of their learning had greater gains in their scores.

  • The use of multiple choice testing as a learning event (based on retrieval practices from Neuroscience for Teachers textbook).

Three groups of pupils from Y6 from two schools (120 pupils), completed a pre-test of 30 words (split into three groups of 10). Each group used a different method for learning spellings and all groups experienced each condition in a different order:

Control – Look Cover Write Check method (normal classroom practice)
Intervention 1 – Multiple choice testing as a learning event
Intervention 2 – Combining both conditions (L,C,W,C and Multiple choice tests)
Post-test in each condition.

Impact: Although all groups improved their scores, Intervention 2 was more effective than both Intervention 1 and Control. Control was more effective than Intervention 1. Children preferred using multiple choice testing than other method.

As a result: We use weekly testing in every class throughout school, and we use multiple choice testing in addition to other methods but not to replace existing practice (it enhances but can’t replace).