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!

 

Teachers share their thoughts on research-based practice

alice-bowmer-photographAlice Bowmer is a teacher and researcher interested in early child development. She currently works in collaboration with UCL’s Institute of Education, and the arts charity Creative Futures. Welcome, Alice, to our teacher Q+A.

How do you keep up-to-date with the latest education research? Is it important to you whether the research uses particular methods?

I go to a variety of conferences, receive email information from colleagues, follow academics on twitter and receive weekly emails from particular journals.

To me, it is important to look at a wide range of methods and subject matter because I find that looking in only one direction gives you only part of a whole picture. I have a pretty flexible mind and so I often move from one subject to another, usually observing a variety of different methods along the way. Each method tends to give you an idea from one angle, and combined, it’s then possible to see from a variety of different angles, which I find helps perspective.

Could you tell us how research has influenced your teaching? 

Well, this is difficult as the two are not mutually exclusive in my life. I am teaching and researching most days of the week and the subject matter for both is largely related so I find that influence travels back and forth and I often don’t realise! I am still learning to be clear about how the two aspects are functioning supportively, but for now I can give one example.

When I began to research how children develop language skills, I took the theory I was reading and started to observe how it functioned in my own teaching practice.

At first I just observed how I might be facilitating, or not, communication and understanding during lessons with my students.

And after a while I began to clearly see that students didn’t always understand what I was expressing to them verbally. This could be to do with my use of language and/or the examples and gestures I used to support the given idea.

So from here I spent a lot of time experimenting with how I introduce concepts. This often involved using smaller or clearer verbal steps, allowing me to see at which point I lost the student’s attention or understanding. Then I can consider how to change my use of language, introduce the same idea in a different context to reinforce whatever the objective is, or, if it’s an attention issue I’ll try working at a different pace.

I also like to observe understanding from the opposite direction by asking students to use their own language to describe what has just happened – this is really interesting! It shows you what the student notices, how they link ideas together, how they use language as a form of expression and over time it supports the development of their note taking skills, which is a great by-product.

Generally, I would say that research has hugely impacted upon the way that I understand and communicate with my students during our work together.

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

The most important factors to me are attention and engagement. When those elements are there, communication is possible. In my own experience as a teacher, attention and engagement can be facilitated by observing your own attention to what you do and to see if there is integrity in how you carry it out. I have not seen much focus on this in teaching research, perhaps because it isn’t easy to measure.

But in practice, teachers can usually perceive different levels of attention and engagement in both their individual students and the classroom atmosphere. I think that observing the dynamics of these factors is a good place to start.

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

I’d like to see research that looks more closely at the various connections between different subject matter, for instance, how do aspects of musical learning support skills in mathematics and vice versa? And following this, within teaching it would be useful to see research that clearly examines how teachers go about linking concepts across different subject matter e.g., how do teachers use language to make links between subject matter understandable to students?

At the moment, I am specifically interested in how teachers and students work together. One aspect of this is working from where the student is, in that moment, which in practice relies heavily on our attention and engagement rather than pre-determined lesson plans, objectives or ideals. It would be great to have some research on the effectiveness of this way of teaching. And I think more of an understanding here would help us escape the current obsession with measurement for ‘expected outcomes’.

Do you have any suggestions of how we can improve the communication and collaboration between teachers and education researchers? 

First of all, we have to see why collaboration could be mutually beneficial and when the interest is there, both parties then have to accept and respect the differences in their collective perspectives during all aspects of the collaborative process.

We also have to get to grips with how collaboration could work practically. I see a lot of potential in teachers delivering interventions with training and support from researchers. This could improve both the quality and quantity of the intervention for researchers as well as getting the latest research out to those who could impact student outcomes the most – teachers!

Over the next few years, I’d like to hear of multiple projects that actively test out different ways of teachers working with researchers. Then we can learn from one another by highlighting the benefits and limitations that are experienced and move forwards from there.

To support this, we also need forums in which to share our experiences – websites and research conferences that have an ear for the teacher’s perspective and an accessible, co-working approach would help here – the recent EarliSig22 conference was a good example, so let’s have more!

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

I was recently at a talk given by Adele Diamond who highlighted that the most important quality of early childhood education is the caring relationship between the teacher and the children (e.g. this paper by Melhuish). This has been shown to completely override many aspects of early life adversity and holds true for both teaching and parenting (see this paper by Asok et al). It’s not always easy but I try to keep my heart in the core of my work.

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!