The Frontier of Translation: Teacher and Researcher

amy-fancourt_croppedDr Amy Fancourt head of Psychology at Queen Anne’s school and head of research at BrainCanDo, merges the world of research and teaching in an interesting example of how translation can work.

Could you tell us how research has influenced your teaching?
One of the areas of research that has had the greatest impact upon me as a teacher is the research around motivation and the impact of emotional contagion on learners motivations within the classroom. Queen Anne’s School are working with Prof. Kou Murayama and Prof. Patricia Riddell at Reading University on a long-term research project exploring the impact of emotional contagion on motivation and learning. Through this work I have considered my own behaviour and attitudes and the consequence this has on the emotional reaction of the students sitting in my classroom. If I expect my students to be motivated and engaged in the lesson then I have to communicate to them that what I have to teach them is something to be interested in! This has led me to really think about how I present myself and how I’m feeling when working with my students.

Another area of research that has had a great impact on my teaching is the work on memory and retrieval practice. For durable learning to happen it is vital to provide regular opportunities for students to retrieve the information that they have learned. Therefore, in my department we have adopted regular quizzing and consistent assessments to give students the opportunity to regularly retrieve the content we have covered during lessons.

What is the focus of your research?
BrainCanDo is working with university partners on three main research projects at the moment. The first of these is a longitudinal project with Professor Daniel Mullensiefen, Goldsmiths University, exploring the impact of extra-curricular activities on adolescent outcomes over time. The second project we are involved with is in collaboration with Professor Patricia Riddell and Professor Kou Murayama, University of Reading, exploring the role of social networks in emotional contagion. We are also working with Dr Fran Knight, Bristol University, exploring the impact of a later school start time on attention and impulse control in older adolescent girls.

What led you to this area of research?
Each of these projects came about because we had questions about various aspects of education. There has been a lot of discussion concerning the value and importance of co-curricular programs for pupil development and we wanted a way to systematically measure the impact of such pursuits on school children over time. Working with teachers, every teacher knows that motivating your pupils to want to learn is one of the biggest challenges and therefore we chose to work with motivation experts at Reading University to help us to understand what factors are most influential when it comes to pupil motivation. There is now a wealth of research to show that adolescent sleep cycles shift and there may be detrimental consequences on educational outcomes if this shift leads to a chronic state of sleep deprivation in our adolescent pupils. We opted to work with Dr Fran Knight to implement a later school start trial and measure the impact of this within the particular context of Queen Anne’s School.

Could you summarise your findings?
Each of these projects has yielded interesting and thought provoking findings so far and there is more data to be analysed. Our work with Goldsmiths has shown that active participation in music is related to changes in attitudes and mindset associated with conscientiousness and higher academic outcomes. The work with Reading University has demonstrated that there are clear social networks in operation in different year groups and they exert different influences on the attitudes and behaviours of those in the groups. What is perhaps the most interesting finding to emerge from this research so far is that those pupils who scored highly on measures of GRIT or resilience were those pupils who acted as the central hubs within the social networks. Further longitudinal analysis is needed to understand whether the similarities we see within networks is a product of homophily or contagion. Finally, our work with Dr Fran Knight demonstrated that after shifting the school start time for just one week pupils showed improved impulse inhibition which supports previous research showing the positive benefits of enabling older adolescents to have more sleep by shifting back the start of the school day.

How do you tell if something is working in the classroom?
My students are participative and asking good questions. If something is working and durable learning is happening then I would also expect this to be reflected in exam performance.

Which research-informed idea do you feel has had a big positive impact in your classroom
The research-informed idea that has had a big impact in my department has been retrieval practice. As a department we have integrated regular assessment and quizzing into our schemes of work and this has become central to our teaching. Anecdotally we have found that our students feel more confident with the material going into their examinations and are now using this technique much more in their own revision. We also actively encourage students to regularly recall the information they have learned on blank whiteboards during lessons and this too has become a standard revision practice for many of them now.

What do you think other teachers might find useful?
For teachers in the classroom there are some very direct applications that they might consider:

  • Encourage pupils to participate in co-curricular pursuits wherever possible
  • Be aware of the impact of emotional contagion in your classroom. This contagion can spread through pupils but also transfer from teacher to pupil: how you behave in front of your class matters.  Understand the power of emotional contagion!
  • Teenagers are not lazy but most of them are chronically sleep deprived. Teachers may need to think more creatively about how best to engage the learners in front of them in those early lessons in the day

How do you keep up-to-date with the latest education research? 
I subscribe to updates from The Learning Scientists and the CTTL and they send around regular newsletters and articles that focus on one aspect of education research. I am also a member of the Chartered College of Teaching and so receive their quarterly ‘impact’ journal which is filled with digestible articles relating to the application of research in teaching and learning. As a school we are keen to remain research-informed and so I am also involved in learning study groups in the school and write my own summaries of educationally-relevant research to disseminate to other staff and pupils in the school. I also try to come along to the CEN seminars when my timetable allows

Do you have any suggestions of how communication and collaboration can be improved between teachers and education researchers?
It is important to create opportunities for teachers to meet with researchers and talk to them about their research and to allow teachers the time needed to really consider how this they could use this research to inform their own teaching practice. Creating space and opportunities for teachers to come together to share ideas and experiences of education research is also important.

Finally, if you could share one piece of advice about research-informed practice with other teachers and trainee teachers, what would it be?
Try it for yourself. Taking the time to read around research-informed practice is not wasted time as it has the potential to transform the way you teach and how your students learn.

Jo Van Herwegen. Neurodevelopmental disorders and classroom practice

Jo Van Herwegen presented a CEN seminar looking at the translation of research into Williams and Downs syndrome learning difficulties to interventions in the classroom. In the video, she gives a short summary of her talk.

For those interested, you can find out much more about Jo’s research, publications and opportunities to get involved with her research on her Child Development and Learning Difficulties Lab website. You can read her blog here and also stay up to date with her research by following her on Twitter

Teachers and educators on what research means for them: Harry Fletcher-Wood

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We are delighted to welcome him to the CEN to answer some questions for our blog.

What is the importance of formal evidence, beyond what teachers know works in their classroom?

As a new teacher, I improved a lot through trial and error, and trying what colleagues were doing.  This was powerful: you get rapid feedback from students if you’re boring them or they don’t understand what you’re talking about, so I was able to refine some aspects of what I did.  But there are some things which we are unlikely ever to discover through trial and error: for example, the phenomenon of desirable difficulties: making tasks harder for students (and so seeing worse immediate performance) can increase what they retain in the long-term.  That’s pretty counter-intuitive: without evidence, I’d have been reluctant to believe this or act upon it.  More broadly, learning from trial and error is slow: students come to school because they wouldn’t learn everything we’d hope in eighteen years of trial and error; I think evidence helps students in similar ways – teachers will keep getting better, but acting on evidence can accelerate their improvement.

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

I think it’s getting used to questioning what you’re being told, and finding good sources of evidence. The intermediaries are key here: as a history teacher, I didn’t have the training or experience to critically analyse papers in experimental psychology; nor did I have the time.  We need to make this easier for teachers by providing clear, actionable summaries which remain faithful to the underpinning research.

Can you give any specific examples from your experience of how an evidence-based approach has changed practice for the better?

A few years ago I was designing a new history curriculum for Key Stage 3 students.  I’d begun to read around how much students forget, and why.  So instead of designing a curriculum which rattled straight through the topics, I designed it so that we kept revisiting key ideas, key periods and key disciplinary approaches.  Students began Year 7 with a chronological world tour, giving them a rough sense of how Ancient Roman life differed from the Middle Ages, for example.  The next year, we did another chronological course, focused on British political history.  The next year, something similar based around war.  The evidence convinced me that, rather than relying on teaching it really well first time, I needed to design my curriculum to revisit the key ideas from different perspectives.

More recently, as part of the programme I lead for teacher educators, we’ve written a curriculum for teacher educators, designed to offer both a structure and material they can use to help teachers understand how students learn, and adapt their teaching accordingly.  We’ve rooted it in cognitive science.  I’ve seen teacher educators design their entire professional development programme around this, helping teachers understand the evidence and teach accordingly.

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

I got into the evidence via Twitter and blogs.  I’ve shared some of my favourite people to follow and blogs here and a list of some of the most useful and interesting papers I’ve read here.  I’d also recommend attending a ResearchED conference: they bring together teachers interested in research and researchers interested in sharing what they’ve learned with teachers: so you end up with a good combination of accessibility, usefulness and rigour.

Are there specific areas of teaching or learning where we need better evidence? Where are the research gaps? 

I’m fascinated by how we take good ideas and make them work in the messy reality of individual classrooms.  I’d love to see more research which offers teachers the underlying ideas in a promising area of research, supports them to develop their own ways to act on them in the classroom, and rigorously measures the results.  The biggest gap isn’t exciting research or determined teachers, but bringing those two together in ways which respect both the evidence of the researcher and the wisdom of the teacher.

For more from Harry, as well as the links already mentioned, you can follow him on Twitter

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.

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.

Teachers share their thoughts about research

We are delighted to introduce Shafina Iqbal Vohra, who has very kindly shared her thoughts with us about research in education.

shafina-photo-for-cenShafina is very busy! She is an A-Level psychology teacher and part-time PhD student. She is also:

  • a Certified LEGO Education® Academy Teacher Trainer
  • a LEGO Innovation Studio Lead
  • Head of faculty – academic options
  • a Continuous Professional Learning lead.

 

 

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

Reading. I follow various researchers, journals, articles, magazines, speakers, setups, education providers, government, and NGO bodies (WEF, UN, OECD, LEGO Foundation). I also attend seminars and conferences where possible (given the limitations of a teaching timetable) and network by meeting key individuals in education research. Recently, I have also been invited to various public events whether it is volunteering at charitable education-led events (usually related to STEM i.e. Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths), or whether I am a speaker on a panel for education and creativity.  These have included the Bett Show, EdTech Podcast (coming up), TEDxTalk (The hand that rocks the mind: Learning through hands-on processes), or events such as Mayor of London RECODE, Mayor of Newham festival, and Institute of Imagination with the London Brain Project which I really enjoy! Whenever there is opportunity to learn more about the kinds of research that is being undertaken or possibilities for future research, I try to make it!

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

I am equally interested in pure neuroscience/lab-based methodology and classroom/field-based methodology. I strongly see the benefit that the two bring together as they are an excellent way of unwrapping the relationships between the neural correlates of particular functions and the consequential or preceding behaviours we see in classrooms. Of course, there is always the debate about whether it is too simplistic to relate learning to regions of the brain directly, as functionality is all connected to a large degree. But to understand for example specific behaviours or specific challenges, neuroscience is of huge value as it equips us with direct evidence, and then allows educators to apply such understanding to their classrooms. This has huge positive impact. Similarly, classroom-based methodology provides researchers with the direct observable behaviours that also offer huge insights into learning such as how giving tools (in my case, LEGO) can enhance learning, creativity, problem solving and collaboration for the learner which may not always be simple to assess neuroscientifically.

Could you tell us how research has influenced your teaching?

As I teach Psychology and am a researcher myself, I have applied research directly to my teaching and vice versa. Understanding the teenage brain and circadian rhythms for example, has led to my rearranging what when & how I teach, which has resulted in positive learning experiences for my students. Knowing that the Basic Rest Activity cycle exists throughout the day at 90 minute intervals enables my teaching to be planned accordingly. For example, in a lesson after lunch students may feel sleepy, so I ensure that heavy thinking and listening does not continue for too long, knowing that they may lose attention. I have therefore developed hands-on methods that are engaging, less strenuous, and yet still productive.

Research has also shed light on understanding multi-sensory input and how this leads to much more activity in the brain across various regions. This has also informed my teaching practice as I ensure my lessons are a good mix of visual, tactile & auditory stimuli to enhance learning. This improves consolidation as the learners experience the learning through various forms hence repeating the content, leading to better memory and retrieval as they can attach a context to it too.

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

Research from the LEGO Foundation (here and here) has recently verified that play-based learning (early years) is key to motivated learning, independence & resilience – these are key factors that leaners need throughout education. More research in this area (as I am doing) is needed for secondary education. The amount of research on the teenage brain is increasing, but understanding how to engage demotivated teenagers who are experts in some things (gaming, social media, tv) but still maturing in others (prioritising work, taking responsibility for not doing things or accepting constructive criticism) is needed for improving teaching rather than teaching purely for assessments. I feel that research into hands-on learning and innovative thinking in the classroom is needed more than ever to improve the quality and quantity of skills-ready individuals.

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

It should be easier for researchers to work in schools as this is where 6-7 hours of a child’s learning in the day takes place. I also feel that teachers should be heavily involved in research as they are at the forefront of understanding what works and what does not on a daily basis, whilst some researchers may not have extensive classroom experience. An improved dialogue between teachers and researchers would lead to stronger evidence-based research in real settings (classrooms) where natural behaviours are permitted. The collective effort of both teachers and researchers would allow for more fluidity in research, addressing issues at both the behavioural and neuroscience level together that could then have an impact on policy and curriculum. For example, my research question is based on what I have directly experienced in my teaching; a sizeable, observable impact on learners’ motivation and progress when using LEGO. This has led me to examine evidence for hands-on learning which could then be embedded across many subjects to enhance progress and learning.

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?)

My approach in teaching & learning is to bring real life to the classroom. There are many ways of doing this effectively, using tried & tested activities. However, for me as an adult if someone says “let’s play…” I am instantly excited. It is human nature to play and have fun and the positive implications this has on the brain has been demonstrated through much research in early years (PEDAL, Cambridge).

Through my own experience of teaching science to KS3, I have found that children love to play even at secondary level. They want to enjoy school, they want to make things, and they want to use something in the learning that grabs them, that excites them. There is a lot of content to cover in our new curriculum. So, for me to enjoy teaching and my learners to enjoy learning, I introduced some very simple methods of learning and revising using LEGO (as per research on play), alongside more typical activities such as film, documentary, field experiments, plus the usual essays and tests they have to do.

I adapted the LEGO Foundation 6-bricks concept, for A-level Psychology using a regular 2×4 LEGO System brick. I use it in various ways whether it is to teach localisation of function (Broca’s Area, Motor Cortex, Somatosensory Cortex, Frontal Lobe, etc.) by colour coding LEGO bricks to coloured regions on the brain (from the web). An idea from the London Brain Project (Beading the brain) inspired me to create lessons using LEGO for tasks that allow students to engage with the difficult names of regions and also to use their hands, learn, laugh and remember. Added to this, I developed the 6 brick concept for research methods where students have to use 6 bricks to create things about research methods and these are usually fantastically creative, very innovative and simple and clear – it engages them with the concepts that are sometimes difficult to grasp or imagine. I also use LEGO Education’s research work on play and STEM learning by using their “Build To Express” kits to allow students to create key studies in Psychology using the LEGO which acts as a self–differentiated activity. For me it is about my learners valuing their learning and actively thinking.

The impact to my lessons has been tremendous as it means learners have different tools at hand to choose from, they become independent, they collaborate and facilitate within their own groups and it gives them a tangible memory trigger to aid their revision and exam success.

Thank you Shafina!