Teachers share their thoughts on educational neuroscience

niki-kaiser-twitterWe are delighted to welcome Dr Niki Kaiser, Network Research Lead at Norwich Research School, to our blog series in which teachers involved in research give us their take on educational neuroscience.

What does educational neuroscience mean to you?

Neuroscience helps me to link the ‘art’ of teaching to the science behind approaches that help me be a more effective teacher. Neuroscience is the science behind the ‘natural flair’ that great teachers appear to have, and it helps explains the mechanisms that help make learning more memorable.

It isn’t enough for me simply to be told how to apply approaches because “they’re evidence-based”, however strong that research base might be. I believe it’s just as important to understand why approaches are effective. By understanding why approaches work, I can hone my teaching of each topic within specific contexts.

For example, unless you understand why retrieval practice is effective, you might believe that it’s simply about asking students a few questions here and there. “Low-stakes quizzing: tick! I’ve now “done retrieval practice”! But knowledge of why retrieval practice works means I realise that it’s not just the questions or the quizzes themselves that are important, but rather the process of bringing information to mind. For example, for long-term retention, it appears to be more effective to retrieve information 70% correctly than to re-read 100% correct information (Smith et al., 2013). Understanding this can inform how and when (and why) you embed retrieval practice on a day-to-day basis.

This understanding of why approaches are effective is where neuroscience comes into the equation, for me. Neuroscience helps us to understand how and why empirically-based approaches, grouped under an umbrella of the Science of Learning, are effective. And also how they might be developed further.

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

Our school is an EEF research school. We receive regular news and updates via the Research School Network at meetings, via email, and through conversations with colleagues.

Networks are important to me (see my article on this), and last year, I helped to form a group called #CogSciSci, an online peer-support network with over 500 teachers, who regularly share ideas and questions about applying The Science of Learning to science teaching. The teachers on this forum are an amazing and generous bunch, who constantly keep me on my toes as they point out things they’ve read, ask pertinent questions, and discuss key research.

I can access research articles via my membership of the Chartered College of Teaching, and their recent edition of Impact on the Science of Learning was excellent.

I also spend rather a lot of time of Twitter (!), and find myself regularly disappearing down rabbit holes, as I follow up links and leads to interesting research. Signing up to email lists is another way to keep abreast of what’s out there. I receive regular updates from the Education Endowment Foundation and the Institute for Effective Education.

Can you give some examples of how neuroscience understanding has helped you and your school?

An understanding of what we mean by learning, and how this links to the model of memory, has really helped shape my approach to planning and teaching. I now consider the limitations of working memory at all points, so I can better support long-term learning and retention.

I understand the benefits of spaced review and retrieval practice, and of encouraging my students to develop automaticity, thus freeing up their working memory to process the more interesting, higher-level thinking needed in science.

One of my rules of thumb when introducing new approaches is that it shouldn’t take me too far away from “business as usual”. And it shouldn’t increase my workload. So I embed research-informed ideas by tweaking what I do, rather than totally re-working everything.

However, this demands a deeper understanding of the underlying research, so I particularly enjoyed the review by Weinstein 2018 as a very readable overview, and a gateway to further reading. It picks apart the “6 strategies for effective learning”  from the Learning Scientists website and goes into depth about exactly what the research behind them does (and doesn’t) say. For example, they ask whether spaced practice can ever be effective enough to completely alleviate the need or utility of a cramming period, which is just the kind of question teachers ask themselves.  And I like Karpicke, 2008, because the results are so striking. When you compare the re-test and re-study groups, and see how much more effective it was to re-test, it really hammers the point home that it is worth doing (despite students actually feeling less confident at the time, compared to the re-study group). This was explained particularly effectively by Efrat Furst who spoke at one of our Research School meetings last year.

I do quiz students at the start of each lesson, which is a low-maintenance approach to retrieval practice, but I’m also careful to introduce as many opportunities as possible for students to think hard and work to bring information to mind. I also plan in spaced review opportunities via my normal class and homework activities, rather than reworking the entire curriculum.

How do you get teachers and students involved?

We are a Research School, and we share ideas via our newsletter and website. But we are very much of the mindset that “schools listen to schools and teachers listen to teachers”, so we are working hard to build a network of research-informed teachers in and around Norwich. We meet half-termly to share ideas and hear from others, and at a recent meeting, Dr Flavia Belham presented ideas around memory and learning.

Within school, all staff meet in groups to discuss research and how to apply it, as part of our whole-school CPD system. We also have a school Journal Club, and various initiatives, such as a Research Bulletin summarising research and case studies of how it’s been applied in school.

I have used Dunlosky’s toolkit to help encourage students to study more effectively, and this has helped them to move away from simply reading through their books and making beautiful notes towards more impactful study approaches. But I am careful to explain to them how and why certain strategies are more worthwhile than others, even though they might feel harder at the time. An understanding of the research helps me to sell these “desirably difficult” study approaches to them.

Teachers share their thoughts about research

jawfTime for the next exciting conversation in our teacher-chat blog series! Introducing Jack White-Foy who is a biology teacher in key stage 4 and 5.

This year, his school has launched a student-led research group in Educational Neuroscience. They have two Emotiv Insight EEG headsets and will be carrying out a range of research projects in the classroom and in the laboratory. Any teachers and researchers who would like to get involved, please email neurolab@dulwich.org.uk

Jack, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. Firstly, how do you keep up-to-date with the latest education research?

My primary source is from other teachers. We have a dedicated Staff Tutor who shares articles, research papers and ideas either through email or through short teacher meetings after school. My link with Birkbeck and UCL through the MSc Educational Neuroscience course has also given me access to journals, specific authors and conferences (e.g. The CEN and FutureEd) that prove very useful. The latter are particularly useful to me because they are more tailored to my specialism.

Is it important to you whether the research uses particular methods (eg neuroscience, classroom-based)?

Knowing and understanding the methods used by researchers is key when judging the validity, reliability and generalisability of any findings. For me, there is a hierarchy of research methods in education that will influence how confident I can be that the findings might apply to my own students. Anecdotal evidence is still informative and interesting, yet provides little support to generalise beyond the sample. If the methods used by researchers are not disclosed, it is very difficult to evaluate the findings and any conclusions.

Could you tell us how research has influenced your teaching?

Throughout my PGCE and NQT years, I listened carefully to my teacher mentors. Their advice was invaluable in developing skills in lesson planning, behaviour management, and assessment. Trial and error still plays a big part because each class and each student are different and respond more positively to some methods over others. Research is the driving force for change and guided experimentation. Innovation and intuition are part and parcel of the skill of being a professional teacher and research gives one confidence in trying out new methods. Time is one of the most limiting factors in teacher development, so I am always looking for reliable ways of improving student learning whilst reducing teacher workload. Research in motivation, attention, inhibitory control, memory and risk-taking have all influenced how I structure lessons, plan group work, design schemes of work and promote independence. Without research into these areas, I would be flying blind and relying on luck. The futures of my students should not depend on chance.

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

One of the major gaps in rigorous research is the impact of marking compared to the time invested by teachers. There are as many marking polices as there are departments in some schools, with very different demands put on teachers. New policies are frequently put into place with various assumptions given to justify them. To date, there is no reliable and objective method for measuring the impact of marking. Any activity that can add several hours to a teacher’s working day should only be compulsory if it has a distinct benefit to students over other things a teacher could be doing (e.g. plan more engaging lessons, invest time into extra-curricular activities, reduce stress, explore professional development opportunities).

The second area that I think is important to mention is that of misconceptions. During my master’s degree with Birkbeck and UCL, I helped work on a project that wanted to understand more about why some students can overcome science misconceptions relatively easily, whilst others struggle. Conceptual change is, for me, one of the biggest obstacles to understanding science and enjoying it. Doors to a career in medicine, engineering, research and others could be opened to many more students if they were better able to grasp the more challenging aspects of the sciences. Giving students choice is arguably a worthwhile endeavour.

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

Teachers are not always confident when it comes to interpreting research. In Educational Neuroscience, for example, the links between a study’s findings and applications in the classroom are not always obvious, so this is more demanding even for an experienced researcher. The trust I have in the field comes from a deep-seated confidence that all of our behaviour, learning and memory, motivation and passion resides in the 1.4kg mass of neurones in our brain. This draws me to developments in neuroscience and keeps me looking for ways to apply it to my teaching. Education researchers need to recognise that their audience is open to ideas, with limited time to decipher them. Similarly, teachers need to familiarise themselves with research methods, so they can meet researchers half way. Teacher training has, for a long time, included some aspects of research into their programmes of study. This needs to be more explicit with trainee teachers being given much more support and opportunity to get involved with projects that follow the scientific method. There has been a growing interest, from my perspective, in action research (research carried out by teachers). However, this can fall short of meeting the standard to be considered publishable research. Teachers are often unable to exclude confounding factors, and the research may be affected by reverse inferencing, confirmation bias, and the observer effect. There is a hunger for collaboration between teachers and researchers. It just needs more guidance.

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?)

I had the privilege to hear Sarah-Jayne Blakemore speak at the FutureEd conference in February. I was particularly grabbed by the social influence on risk-taking behaviour in adolescents and how this might apply to positive risk-taking in the classroom. According to the idea, adolescents are influenced more by people of a similar age and those they consider to be popular. In each of my classes, I have tried to identify which students are the more confident as well as those viewed favourably by others. When we tackle a particularly challenging topic, where no one wants to volunteer an answer, I will look to the identified ‘leader’ to hazard a guess. What I have experienced is this tends to result in more students volunteering for subsequent questions and especially if the ‘leader’ gets the question wrong. Whilst entirely subjective so far, my feeling is that the more each student tries to answer a question, the more invested they will be at discovering the correct answer. I am hoping to turn this into a more empirical study later in the year.

Thank you!

Genes, Environment and Academic Achievement

CEN research group member, Dr Emma Meaburn, was recently interviewed by our friends at TILE in Dundee who share our passion for an interdisciplinary approach to improving evidence-based education. You can find out more about TILE here https://learningspaces.dundee.ac.uk/tile or follow them on twitter @TILEnetwork. And you can find out more about Emma’s work by following her on twitter @emma_meaburn.

In her interview, Emma talks about her research into the role that genes play in educational attainment and the implications for teachers.

Can you briefly introduce yourself? So, a little bit about me and my research interests. We all differ in interesting ways, and since childhood I’ve been intrigued by the origins of these differences – what factors shape who we become? This question spurred my interest in genetics and psychology during my undergraduate studies and I went on to a PhD in Behavior Genetics at King’s College London. I joined Birkbeck as a faculty member of the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development in 2010, where the majority of my research is centered on understanding the genetic (DNA sequence) contributions to individual differences in educationally relevant outcomes, and how genetic effects are moderated and mediated by the environment.

A robust finding to emerge from twin and family studies is that DNA differences contribute (in part) to variation in cognitive traits and academic outcomes, and rapid progress has been made in identifying specific DNA variants. However, despite these advances, there remains a gap in our ability to understand the mechanisms by which variations in the DNA sequence influence brain development and so result in behavioural and cognitive differences between people. This is partly because genetic effects are context dependent – and mapping causal paths between genes, brain and behaviour will need to factor in non-genetic (i.e. environmental) information as well. This is not straightforward, but is an area I am increasingly focused on, because understanding the relationship between genes and environment in a developmental context is critical for translating research to the classroom.

How can research into our DNA help us understand individual differences in academic achievement?

I’m a behavior geneticist, and – generally speaking – I use statistical and molecular genetic approaches to measure the contribution of genetic variation (the differences in DNA sequence that exist between individuals in a population) to individual differences in behavior. Typically, this requires measuring DNA directly using genomic technologies in very large samples of people, and correlating genetic variation to behavioural variation.

DNA-based approaches such as the ones I use can help us in several ways. They tell us about the origins of variation — that students differ, and this is not entirely for environmental reasons. They are also able to index the extent of genetic overlap between traits related to education and educational success. For example, individual differences in education are correlated with a great many social, behavioral and cognitive factors, and DNA-based research has robustly shown that this is in part due to shared biology. Most importantly, they can shed light on mechanisms. Identifying specific DNA sequence variants associated with individual differences in education is the first step required for understanding the biological basis of learning.

In principle, you are a scientist exploring the interface between nature and nurture. Can knowing about the contributions of nature to individual differences in abilities inform optimal nurture, e.g. learning and teaching environment?

This is a very interesting question, and the answer to this will depend on how ‘optimal’ nurture is conceptualized, and what we want from our educational system. For example, do we want to maximize every student’s educational potential, do we want to narrow the gaps in achievement between students, or do we want to focus resources on identifying those students most likely to struggle so that we can intervene early? These kinds of questions are thoughtfully tackled in Kathryn Asbury’s book ‘G is for Genes’. Ultimately the answers to this will depend on the values of society and are not for scientists alone to decide.

Right now, the main message is that students differ and some of these differences are due to genetic effects. Whether we measure years spent in education, personality traits, general intelligence or high-stakes exam outcomes, a consistent finding to emerge is that a notable proportion of the differences we see between students can be attributed to genetic differences that exist between them. The question then, is how might this information be useful to teachers? Perhaps it will inform how we think about differences between children, and how we can cater to individual interests and aptitudes in the classroom.

Somewhat counterintuitively, greater genetic influence is observed in enriched educational and social environments. This is because the variation in environmental experience is minimised (for example, every student has access to books, technology, medical care etc) so the differences that remain between students are more readily explained by their genetic differences. Perhaps in the future genetic studies might be a useful index of educational equality.

Most recently the field has incorporated comprehensive molecular genetic strategies to move from explaining the sources of variance (‘it’s in the genes’) to identifying specific causes (what genes, where and how?).  As mentioned, identification of specific DNA sequences associated with educational traits will allow us to build explanatory models of how genetic variation influences cognitive development and learning. A key discovery here is that educational achievement is influenced by the combined action of many thousands of genetic variants; each DNA sequence variant alone explains only a fraction of the differences seen between individuals. This means we are still a long way off from understanding the biological mechanisms of how we process information, but critically I think this is the type of knowledge that is required if we want to gain insights into why certain educational practices work, how they might be improved, or the optimal timing and format of educational input.

Finally, there is great interest in using an individual’s genetic profile to predict their academic strengths and weaknesses. This approach (called polygenic scoring or polygenic risk scores) combines the effects of all measured genetic variation for an individual to predict academic outcomes – much in the same way we do for environmental predictor variables such as socioeconomic status and level of parental education.  Polygenic scores can be used in a variety of ways, but a potential application is to use them to identify individuals ‘at risk’ early in development and target them for early interventions or screening before problems take hold. Currently, the application of polygenic prediction approaches outside of academic research is still a hypothetical, and in the interim, there are important ethical discussions to be had around ownership and use of an individual’s genetic information in this context.

What is your take home message?

In summary, we know that both nature (genes) and nurture (environment) explain the differences that we see between students in the classroom. However, we cannot view genetic and environmental factors as separate and independent; both are important, and a key challenge lies in understanding how specific genes act and interact with environmental experiences over the course of development to shape learning and educational fulfilment.

Senior leaders share their thoughts on educational neuroscience

shaun-allison-photo-smallerWe are delighted to introduce Shaun Allison, Director of Durrington Research School and Head of School Improvement of Durrington Multiple AcademyTrust.

His book, co-authored with Andy Tharby ‘Making every lesson count‘ outlines six key principles to support teaching and learning and you can also follow Shaun on Twitter @shaun_allison. We are very pleased to welcome him to our blog.

What does educational neuroscience mean to you?

As teachers we are in the business of helping students to learn, which requires a change in their long term memory.  With this in mind it seems strange that as a profession in recent years we haven’t really embraced the fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology to inform our practice.  As a biologist and a teacher, it seems really important to me that if we are trying to facilitate learning, which happens in the brain, we should really try to use the evidence about how this works to inform what we do?  Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning and there seems to be a gathering of momentum towards this research-informed approach to teaching.  Which is great news.

The challenge for teachers and leaders up and down the country, is taking these findings from research, which can sometimes be very lengthy and complex, and turning them into actionable strategies for busy teachers.  This is what the work of the Research School Network is focusing on.

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

In a variety of ways:

  • Twitter is fantastic for this. There are a growing number of researchers and teachers on twitter who are very generous and share their thoughts on research and how to implement it in the classroom.
  • Similarly, there are a huge number of researchers and teachers blogging about this. There are some great examples of this here.
  • The EEF Teaching and Learning toolkit is a great starting point to find a summary of thousands of research papers, as are their guidance reports.
  • Similarly the ‘Institute for Effective Education’ publish a fantastic fortnightly digest of the most recent research – Best Evidence in Brief.
  • The ‘Research Schools Network’ are doing a fabulous job of helping teachers to implement the latest evidence from research in their classrooms, through training programmes, twilights, newsletters and their website.
  • Conferences such as those organised by ‘researchED’ are a brilliant way to hear from teachers and researchers and are held up and down the country.

Can you give some examples of how neuroscience understanding has helped you and your school?

It has added a clarity to how I teach and how I lead teaching and learning across the school.  As a result, we disregard many of the myths and gimmicks that have permeated teaching in the last few decades and focus our attention on approaches to teaching that have a strong evidence base.  For example, the importance of dual coding, elaborative interrogation, cognitive load theory and desirable difficulties at the explanation and modelling phase of teaching have all influenced our work.  Likewise, we understand the importance of retrieval practice and spaced practice, in terms of supporting long term memory retention.

About six years ago, when we first became interested in this, my colleague Andy Tharby and I used this body of evidence from research to come up with six pedagogical principles that we wanted all of our teachers to focus on, to support an evidence informed approach to teaching across the school:

  • Challenge so that students have to think deeply and have high expectations of what they can achieve.
  • Explanation so that they acquire new knowledge.
  • Modelling so that students know how to apply their knowledge (including explicit modelling of metacognitive strategies and the thinking processes of adults).
  • Questioning so that students are made to think hard with breadth, depth and accuracy.
  • Feedback so that students further develop their knowledge.
  • Purposeful practice so that students think deeply and eventually achieve fluency.

You can read about this approach in our book ‘Making every lesson count’.

We spend a lot of time discussing these ideas as a team of teachers, and most importantly, how these ideas can be mobilised on a day to day basis.

How do you get teachers and students involved?

We use INSET days to share these ideas with the whole staff, but then department teams meet every fortnight and are expected to discuss how they will use these ideas to inform their teaching. In a large secondary school, it is essential that subject specialists are given the opportunity to contextualise these ideas in their subject.

We hold half termly ‘journal clubs’ for our teachers, where they meet informally to discuss a particular research paper. We write and share regular articles on our school teaching and learning blog and our Research School blog about how teachers are using this evidence in their classrooms.  As a research school we lead a range of training programmes and twilights to support teachers and leaders with mobilising this research. We send out a monthly newsletter to keep teachers informed about the most recent research.

We also use assemblies and parental workshops to share these findings from cognitive science with students and parents/carers – in a way that is manageable for them e.g. supporting retrieval practice by using flashcards.  This is then supported throughout the school year by various strategies e.g. a  half termly memory challenge for all Y7 and then guided workshops and resources  on how to revise effectively for Y10 and Y11.

Are there areas where you think research should focus next?

There is a huge body of evidence that exists around cognitive science e.g. we know that retrieval practice, spaced practice and dual coding are really important when it comes to learning.  The focus now needs to turn to codifying these ideas into practical approaches that teachers can adopt on a day to day basis in their classroom, that are then rigorously evaluated and shared. This body of research research evidence will only be of any use if it is mobilised in classrooms.

The direction of travel towards a more evidence-informed approach to teaching, is great for the profession and the young people we teach.  Whilst research evidence can’t give us all the answers, it can tell us the ‘best bets’ in terms of the approaches to adopt, that are most likely to improve the learning of our young people.  I think we have a moral duty to be doing this.  The education of the next generation is too important to be left to chance.


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).


Teachers share their thoughts about research

daria-picNext in our series of interviews with teachers, we are delighted to welcome Daria Makarova. Daria is Head of Science, and is a passionate proponent of evidence-based practice and applying current research in schools.

Thank you Daria for taking the time to answer our questions. Firstly, how do you keep up-to-date with the latest education research?

I read TES and Impact and am also subscribed to BPS digest weekly newsletter which has clear summaries of psychological research (which can often be applied to education).

I also develop contacts with other teacher-researchers via the Teacher-Led Randomised Control Trials project, and through being a member of various groups on Facebook, such as the EEF and teachers networks where articles and research are commonly shared. ResearchEd is great for sharing relevant research and for talking to people ‘in person’.

I use google scholar to read latest articles on specific interventions relevant to my practice.

Is it important to you whether the research uses particular methods (eg neuroscience, classroom-based)?

I am particularly interested in quantitative research; specifically well-controlled studies across a range of schools. Classroom-based studies are most relevant as they relate directly to my practice. Lab-based studies give insight but would require replication in the classroom for me to be convinced!

Could you tell us how research has influenced your teaching?

I have based my own teaching practices on research on retrieval practice (e.g. including regular quizzes/ practice testing), feedback (peer versus teacher) and motivation (e.g. applying Dweck’s mindset theory to the classroom).

Having a research background has also meant that I have questioned and examined the evidence-base for interventions which have been frequently introduced in the schools I have worked in.

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

Data from students – regarding performance in tests across time.
Feedback from students regarding their personal experience of the intervention.

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

Motivation changes between the ages of 11 and 18 – what are the largest influences on these changes? What can be done to maintain motivation?

The impact of the new curriculum on education and outcomes.

Comparing different methods of schooling & school structures e.g. are there any other school structures that may give better outcomes and opportunities for students – more personalised routes that give rise to qualified professionals in vocational fields etc.

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

A clear website (e.g. like TES) and e-newsletter for teachers where research in education is succinctly and clearly summarised (quick to read with a clear conclusion – if it is emailed, teachers are more likely to read it).

Teacher and researcher conferences which are funded (such that teachers can be released from schools to attend).

Specific roles for ‘teacher-researchers’ in schools / establishing more ‘research schools’.

High quality research methods training on PGCE courses.

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

Read research, evaluate it and trial it in the classroom if it applies! Base your practice on evidence!

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?)

I found research on peer-feedback at university very useful and decided to apply it to my practice with A-level. I carried out a RCT (randomised control trial) at A-level examining peer versus teacher feedback on psychology essays. The results showed no difference in progress following teacher versus peer feedback. I have therefore introduced structured peer feedback sessions prior to taking in the final pieces of work which has worked very well, and has helped to reduce my marking load.

Thanks very much for your time!

Teachers share their thoughts about research

And now for the first in a new series of blogs where we ask teachers about their experiences of accessing and using research. We are thrilled that our first teacher-chat is with Mark Enser.


Mark is a key stage 3 geography teacher, Head of Geography, and Research Lead at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex.
He tweets @EnserMark and blogs at www.teachreal.wordpress.com.
His first book, Making Every Geography Lesson Count, is soon to be published by Crown House.


Mark, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. Firstly, how do you keep up-to-date with the latest education research?

It is very difficult to keep up to date as there is so much being produced and so much of variable quality and of variable practical use. I am a member of The Chartered College of Teachers and have found Impact to be very useful and the access to academic articles online invaluable.

I also attend education conference such as ResearchEd and read books on education. I follow up the references in footnotes and check out the original research for myself. I also make use of the EEF toolkit and again follow up by reading the research they have used. TES (formally Times Educational Supplement) are also running more and more articles about education research and Jon Severs Pedagogy Podcast in which he interviews academics is excellent.

Is it important to you whether the research uses particular methods (eg neuroscience, classroom-based)?

I need to be able to see an application for the research in a classroom setting but this doesn’t mean the research has to have come from a classroom. I think findings from neuroscience can be very useful to teachers and it is something I wish my training and early-career CPD had focused on more.

Could you tell us how research has influenced your teaching?

The main way that research has influenced by teaching is to simplify what I do. It has allowed me to cut out a lot of the complications that made my teaching less effective and efficient. I no longer try to plan activities to take into account different learning styles or try to differentiate learning objectives. I started to teach at a time in the early 00’s when it felt that a lot of what we did in the classroom was done to please various outside observers and to meet their criteria for what a good lesson would look like. Reading research has given me the ability and confidence to strip away a lot of the bad practice I was trained in.

Reading and applying research has helped me to make my explanations more memorable and I use principles of dual coding to help support working memory. I also use more structured retrieval practice to make sure that pupils are recalling material from much earlier in the course and not assuming that because they have done it they have learnt it.

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

I would interesting in seeing more research into high and low achieving pupils and understanding more about the difference. When does the gap between them begin, what causes it, and what can be done to close it?

I would also like to see more work done on the transition between key stages. It feels as though a lot of what was learnt at primary school is unavailable to pupils when they arrive in a new setting. I hear from teachers in further and higher education that much is the same for pupils leaving secondary school. I think anything that can improve retention between schools could lead to a dramatic improvement in education. We just need to know what those thing are!

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

The first issue is access. Too much research is expensive to access. If we want an informed profession it needs to be free to teachers.

Secondly, we need to find a way of bringing useful research into schools. There is a huge amount out there and teachers at the chalk face don’t have the time to sift through it and search for the pearls. Research leads in schools can help with this as they can be given the time and space to do this searching and disseminating. It would be useful if researchers can get access to the contact details of research leads to improve communication.

Thirdly, teachers need to be given time for this communication and collaboration with researchers. A teacher’s time is expensive and with crushing real time funding cuts coming from central government it is hard to see how many schools are going to manage to give staff the time to sit and read and discuss.

It would be useful if education researchers got on twitter and started blogging and discussing their work informally with teachers. Although they may initially be talking to a small group of the profession, it will help to get their work out there more widely.

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. 

Retrieval practice has made a huge difference to my pupil’s ability to retain information to use. I usually start a lesson with a short quiz and ensure that the questions go back over several previous topic. This means that pupils are having to think back and bring something back into their working memory, making recall in the future easier. However, I also make sure that the questions relate to the work they are about to do. This helps to make this new learning’s place in their schema more explicit and helps to avoid the misconceptions that arise when new learning is de-coupled from what has gone before.

Although I keep the quizzes low stakes, I do go through the questions and ask for a hand-up for who got that question right. I allows me to quickly ascertain any gaps in their knowledge and anything that might need re-teaching before I move on.

Thank you very much for your time! 

Interview with Annie Brookman-Byrne

Annie Brookman-Byrne is a final year PhD student at the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, at Birkbeck, University of London. She has kindly taken a break from writing her thesis to chat to us about the work she does, and about educational neuroscience more generally.

Annie summarises her research in this short video:

Hi Annie

I’d like to start off by finding out a bit about how you came to be a PhD student in the field of educational neuroscience. What made you decide to study that particular subject?

I became interested in educational neuroscience as a result of conducting research in both psychology and education departments. I loved aspects of both environments and felt that educational neuroscience was the perfect way to combine the two. Educational neuroscience takes a scientific approach to education, which seemed like a great way of conducting psychology research with application to the real world. Of course there is much more to the science of education than psychology, so it’s also fascinating to think about the role of other disciplines within education (such as genetics or learning technologies), and educational neuroscience considers all of these disciplines.

Another appealing aspect of this field is that researchers share a common goal of improving teaching and learning, so it really feels like everyone is working together to see how best to achieve that goal. Educational neuroscience is more than just research: there are lots of resource-sharing and public engagement activities that aim to bring researchers closer to educators and learners. These efforts are essential in making sure the latest findings are fed back to have the greatest impact.

Why do you think educational neuroscience, generally, is an important area of research?

Teachers have a wealth of knowledge about different techniques that work in the classroom, but we don’t necessarily know why they work. One of the aims of educational neuroscience is to get to grips with why different strategies work; if we can find out the science behind these successful techniques then we may be able to use that knowledge to make them even more successful. Equally, there may be techniques that work but not for the reasons we think they do, so we may be able to find a way of streamlining them. And of course, finding out more about the science behind learning enables us to try out new techniques.

All of this is important in helping students to be more successful learners. This doesn’t necessarily mean achieving higher grades, but may mean learning in a way that is more enjoyable, less anxiety-inducing, and more efficient. Many researchers are interested in individual differences in learning. By finding out more about how different people learn, it is hoped that learning experiences can be better tailored to give everyone the best possible chance in school, including those who struggle to learn.

What are the particular challenges you’ve encountered during your research?

Anyone who conducts research in schools will tell you that recruitment is a challenge, and I’m no different! It can be difficult to find schools with the time and resources to let a researcher in to see a large number of children one at a time over the course of a few weeks. Even with a very enthusiastic school, the parents need to give consent, and children need to remember to bring back their consent forms. It can be a long process! Nonetheless, I have been lucky enough to work with teachers who are fascinated in the research and keen to help out—they have made a huge difference.

For me, another challenge has been developing the language to explain my research to teachers and students. Over the course of my PhD I have spoken to teachers about my research through focus groups, teacher training day talks, and conferences. I have also given a number of talks to groups of students. This has been a challenge because I have had to think hard about the best way of explaining my research to different groups who are not already familiar with the background. I have adapted the language I’ve used based on the feedback I’ve received, and now feel much more comfortable in explaining what my research is all about and why it’s important.

And what positive experiences or opportunities have you had when carrying out your research studies?

Speaking to teachers and students have been positive experiences, just a little nerve-wracking at times! I also had a really great time collaborating with teachers to design a series of small-scale classroom-based studies. To me this felt like what educational neuroscience is all about—working with teachers to find a research question of common interest and conducting the research together.

You are also very busy with creating opportunities for educationalists and researchers to communicate and share ideas. Can you tell us a bit about these projects, and why you consider them to be important?

I am a coordinator for the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI) special interest group on neuroscience and education, also known as SIG 22. I worked with Lia Commissar from the Wellcome Trust to put on the biennial SIG 22 conference in June which was a great chance to bring together educators and researchers. In addition to the usual conference activities like talks and poster sessions, we also had an “open space” event, where anyone could suggest a topic to discuss, and small groups got together to talk about them. I am looking forward to seeing what comes of those discussions—initial feedback was positive and suggested that some new ideas for projects came from discussions between researchers and educators.

I also spent January to June this year working with the team behind “I’m A Scientist” to put on an online event called the Learning Zone to connect teachers and researchers. The website hosted content for teachers that outlined the latest science in this field. Educators and researchers also chatted in the zone which was a great opportunity for sharing of expertise in both directions.

These kinds of activities that bring together teachers and researchers are so important because they help to build a common language. Educators need to understand what researchers are working on, and what the latest scientific findings are. It’s also important to communicate to teachers what the science hasn’ttold us yet, and where findings reported in the media may be misleading. Researchers need to understand what teachers already know, and what teachers want to know. This helps drives the research in a direction of interest to teachers, and also helps researchers frame their engagement activities, based on what teachers already know.

Congratulations on your recent ‘Exceptional Trainee’ award from IMBES (International Mind, Brain, and Education Society) – very well-deserved. In your experience, do you think there are differences in the study of educational neuroscience / mind, brain, and education between the UK and USA?

The main difference I have come across between the UK and USA is simply the different term used to describe the field. While it is typically called educational neuroscience in the UK, it is usually called mind, brain, and education (or MBE) in the US. My understanding is that this does not reflect any differences in the type of research conducted, but may alter the public perception of the field. I don’t know why this difference emerged, and I have heard it suggested that MBE better reflects the nature of the field, which is not simply education and neuroscience. A common criticism of the field is that education and neuroscience are too far removed for neuroscience to have anything useful to offer education. Perhaps if we called it MBE in the UK, those not in the field would have a better understanding that it is not simply about connecting education and neuroscience. However, now that educational neuroscience has gained some prominence in the UK, the term may be here to stay!

And finally, what do you consider to be the most important ‘next steps’ for educational neuroscience, and the science of learning?

This is said time and again but communication and collaboration between educators and researchers is essential. I hope to see more networks that allow for this to happen, ensuring that both parties are given the time and resources needed to make fruitful collaborations. There has been a real rise in the sharing of information and I also hope to see more of this, and I think we need to get creative in sharing the latest science in accessible and interesting ways. Finally, my view is that as a field we need to take steps to ensure that research is replicated, and that we are carefully considering issues of sample size and power in study design. Pre-registration of studies is becoming a widely used way of reporting psychological research, whereby study design and analysis is registered and sometimes peer reviewed prior to the data collection. This ensures that researchers are not biased in their analysis. In order to ensure we are making robust claims about science I think our field should follow suit. The way in which students learn and are taught has lasting impact so it’s important that we make sure decisions related to their learning are based on the best possible scientific evidence.

Thanks very much Annie – we wish you all the best with your future research!

Annie can be contacted on abrook07@mail.bbk.ac.uk and via Twitter @abrookmanbyrne

Annie regularly writes blog posts for:

Her recent papers include:

Using research in the classroom: Socio-economic status and stress

sam-wass-photoIn this week’s blog, Dr. Sam Wass from University of East London tells us about his research into socio-economic status and stress, and how this relates to teaching and learning.

What is the focus of your research?

At the moment I am working mainly on my ESRC fellowship, which looks at how the early living environment affects stress and concentration abilities in babies growing up in socio-economically challenged households. We know that children from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to develop mental health problems later in life, and we think that early-life stress might cause this. But we understand very little about what exactly causes stress in infants. The project is looking at two areas – environmental noise (how physically noisy the living environment is) and stress contagion (how our stress levels are influenced by people around us).

What led you to this area of research? 

There is a personal story behind this. A few years ago, my sister wanted to get two of her children into a good primary school that had a small catchment area – so she moved with her partner and her four children into a much smaller flat, that was all they could afford in the area. The effect on the children of moving from a more spacious to a much more cramped living space was, all the family felt, enormous – it seemed to affect their general stress levels, even when they weren’t at home, and their concentration. It was that that got me interested – because there is very little formal research in this area.

Could you summarise your findings?

It’s too early to know what our main findings are – we’re still collecting the data. But, based on other research, it may be that the picture that emerges is more complex than a simple case that ‘stress/noise is bad’. One big theory doing the rounds in developmental psychology at the moment is the orchids/dandelions theory – that some children (‘orchid children’) are more naturally sensitive, which makes them more sensitive to ‘bad’ things, such as background noise, but also makes them more sensitive when interesting/ memorable learning events happen. So being more sensitive is a double-edged sword. It may be that our findings fit in with this theory.

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

I think there is a tonne of useful material for teachers here. First, the idea that the external environment – how noisy, chaotic and cluttered things are – can affect children’s levels of physiological stress – which, in turn, can affect their concentration. Second, the idea that some children might be more sensitive to this than others. There is also the idea of ‘stress contagion’ – that my own levels of physiological stress are affected by the people around me. And finally, the idea that not all stress is bad.

Could you give one tip to teachers, based on your work?

I think – ‘imagine what the world feels like from the child’s point of view’. Children naturally experience more intense mood swings than adults. As adults we have been highly trained at filtering out background distractions – so much so that we hardly notice them sometimes – but children find this much harder. Being a little child often feels like being a speedboat with a very powerful engine and a small rudder – you might know where you want to go but spin off uncontrollably in a different direction. And understanding this can help, I think, in how we interact with young children.

You can find out more about Sam’s work here: https://www.uel.ac.uk/staff/w/sam-wass


Headteachers talk about educational neuroscience


For the second in our series of headteacher interviews, we are very pleased to introduce Julia Harrington, Head of Queen Anne’s School and Founder of BrainCanDo https://braincando.com/ to share her thoughts on educational neuroscience.

What does educational neuroscience mean to you?

The developments in neuroscience in the last two decades have given us a much improved understanding of the human brain and its functions, albeit the brain is still very much a mystery!  I believe that this greater knowledge and understanding has direct and indirect applications for the educational sector which, after all, is based in the ‘engine room’ of so many young brains, working to help them develop to flourish both in terms of mental health and their learning and development. Not to have a knowledge and understanding of this is not just a missed opportunity, it is arguably at best bad practice and at worst downright negligent!

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

At BrainCanDo we are involved in active research with our university partners. I also keep up to date through journals, conferences, websites which I seek out on this topic. I would particularly recommend the journal Impact [produced by the Chartered College of Teachers] which is excellent.

How has neuroscience understanding helped in your school?

We have written our own Teacher’s Handbook.  It covers topics such as memory, stress, music and the brain, biological rhythms and flipped learning.   This explains the neuroscience and psychology behind these areas and then gives ideas and guidance on how to apply in the classroom.   Our teachers also conduct their own small scale research through Learning Study Groups, analysing their findings and feeding back to students and staff.

How do you get students and teachers involved?

Firstly through making sure that BrainCanDo is firmly rooted in all of our practices and training for our staff. The Handbook has helped with this, but it is supported by inset training and work around sharing good practice.  The students are also given training throughout the year on different strategies for learning and mental health and how this relates to understanding the brain. This is delivered by our in-house team.  We also talk about brain function at assemblies, tutor sessions etc.

Are there areas where you think the research should focus next?

We are continuing with our work on music and the brain, looking at ‘character’ education and what this actually means and links to brain function/psychological belief systems/emotional contagion and regulation. I would like to see more work on education for adolescents on emotion regulation feeding into positive mental health.