Children’s understanding of counterintuitive concepts in maths and science

Dr. Iroise Dumontheil shared fresh results from the CEN Unlocke project, a large-scale school intervention aiming at improving children’s understanding of maths and science. Teachers used a computer software that invited children to « Stop and Think » before answering counterintuitive problems (e.g. What do cows drink?). The intervention lasted for 10 weeks. Each week included 3 sessions of 12 minutes.

As explained in the following video, the outcomes of the intervention varied depending on children’s age (whether they were in Year 3 or in Year 5), and on the subject that was assessed (science or maths). The most promising results indicate an improvement in scientific understanding among Year 5 pupils.

The project was funded by the Education Endowment Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, and was independently assessed by the National Foundation for Educational Research. It was realised in partnership with Learnus.

You can visit the Unlocke website here, and read the full report here.

The role of relational categories in mind, brain and education by Dr Micah Goldwater

Dr. Micah Goldwater from the University of Sydney presented a trio of studies from his lab which have taken different approaches to studying how people use relational categories and analogies in learning.

He says ‘For decades, cognitive lab-based research on category and concept learning, and education research on learning in the classroom have been disconnected in many crucial ways. Even for the moment forgetting the sociocultural, and motivational differences in the two distinct settings, the nature of the concepts to be learned are typically of two distinct kinds. Cognitive research has focussed on how people learn to categorise objects by their intrinsic features – although key concepts in education are about the extrinsic relations between objects and events. For example, consider catalysts and reagents. These labels classify molecules not by their intrinsic features but the roles they play in chemical reactions. In my work, I have argued that a focus on relational categories can help bridge the gap between cognitive and educational research. In my talk, I presented basic cognitive research on the representation and learning of relational categories, how relational category learning is implemented in the brain, and classroom research that leverages how relational categories are learned to improve STEM education.

You can access the full papers here and here and you can stay up to date with Micah’s work via his Sydney lab or by following him on @Mic__G on Twitter

How to enhance word learning in children with developmental language disorder

Image result for children readingProf. Chloë Marshall led a discussion of two papers recently published by Laurence Leonard and his colleagues in the Journal of Speech Language and Hearing Research. They investigated some of the factors that can enhance word learning in children with developmental language disorder (DLD). Paper 1 investigated whether children with DLD, and also typically developing children, learnt words better when they were required to actively retrieve them, rather than just studying them. The authors found that active retrieval on repeated occasions was indeed more effective than repeated study, both when children were tested immediately on those words and when they were tested a week later.

Paper 2 developed this line of research further by comparing two different retrieval schedules – an immediate retrieval schedule, and an interleaved retrieval schedule. The interleaved retrieval schedule was more effective at supporting children with DLD and typically developing children to learn words. Interestingly, the study in paper 2 also incorporated event-related potentials (ERPs) whose data revealed that words were learnt better in the interleaved retrieval condition, supporting the behavioural data.

The papers generated lots of interesting discussion about (1) how neuroimaging methods could be used to support behavioural methods in intervention studies, (2) what the neurological mechanisms underlying the advantage for interleaved retrieval might be, and (3) how far interleaved retrieval might be incorporated into the teaching of vocabulary across all curriculum areas and for all children. We also discussed how interleaved retrieval might be used beyond teaching vocabulary, for example, as here, in maths.

 

Find out more about interleaving from the excellent Learning Scientists here and you can follow Prof Marshall on Twitter.

CEN publishes new overview of progress and prospects in educational neuroscience

Educational Neuroscience (EN) is still a fledging field, with plenty of critics. Director of CEN, Professor Michael Thomas takes on the naysayers and addresses their concerns in his latest commentary for Current Directions in Psychological Science.  Below, he gives us a little taster of his reply…


“The challenge in translating neural insights in learning mechanism into practical implications, can only be done via a well supported dialogue – classroom ready neuroscience not likely to ever exist. Critics generally say that either this can’t be done (perhaps individuals resistant to interdisciplinary research) or they muddy the waters by complaining of neuromyths or the dubious merits of commercial ‘brain training’ packages.

There are two main pathways via which neuroscience can interact with education: either directly or indirectly via psychology. The direct route appeals to brain health, viewing the brain has a biological organ with certain metabolic needs (nutrition, energy), response to stress hormones, or impacted by environmental pollution (air, noise). Here goal is to try to ensure that children’s brains are in the best condition for learning when they enter classroom, no need for psychology.

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The indirect route argues that the psychology of learning will make greater progress when it takes account of the mechanisms the brain has to support learning. Some of these advances concern specific domains, such as reading or maths, and the current focus is on identifying core skills required for academic disciplines, which may be trainable and/or limiting factors on performance (e.g., maths, recognition of number symbols, representations of numerosity and manipulation of quantities, spatial abilities, and knowledge of principles and procedures, which are dealt with by separate interacting brain areas).


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Brain evidence supports the idea that maths is many things in the brain. Other areas of focus in the indirect route are executive functions, social cognition, and the effect of emotions on learning; the specific developmental changes that take place in adolescence; the causes of developmental deficits and what these mean for Special Educational Needs; age-related changes in learning mechanisms and implications for adult learning; the genetic and environmental factors producing individual differences in learning ability and educational outcome; and the quest for activities that produces general improvements in intelligence (such as, meditation, or learning a musical instrument) – a quest that is ongoing but as yet produced few great innovations.


The future of EN involves addressing some challenges (how to improve quality of dialogue of teachers, psychologists, educators); answering some questions (identity crisis: should Educational Neuroscience be a basic science of phenomena relevant to education or intrinsically translational?); and addressing a conundrum (how to advise policymakers before a solid, convergent, evidence base exists). EN needs to encourage evidence-informed policymaking. It needs to avoid overselling the evidence but underselling the importance of science. But its main goal is to furnish teachers with new tools and insights into learning, and the factors that affect it, that will be useful in the classroom. The reality may be that large education gains are available, but only by combining many small improvements, each of which must be separately identified and validated.”

Read Professor Michael Thomas’ commentary in response to Dougherty and Robey: Enough Bridge Metaphors—Interdisciplinary Research Offers the Best Hope for Progress

What teachers think about educational neuroscience: William Emeny

william-emenyWe are delighted to introduce William Emeny, Curriculum Leader and Head of Mathematics at Wyvern College in Southampton. William was the winner of the Pearson Teaching Awards ‘Teacher of the year in a secondary school’ in 2017. He has authored many publications including The Magic of Pineapples and has a wonderful maths blog. We are very pleased to hear his views on educational research. Welcome William.

How do you stay up to date with the latest education research?

I use the Research Gate website regularly, following the researchers and topics that I am particularly interested in so that I receive email notifications each time there are new relevant publications. I also download papers from the university bio web pages of researchers I am interested in [Note from editor: academic researchers are invariably happy to send research publications if you email them]. Furthermore, I read relevant books on cognitive science, evidence-based teaching etc.

Is it important to you whether the research uses particular methods?

I think there are a number of things which make research useful for teachers and methodology is certainly one of them. My view is that ideally there needs to be a combination of lab-based and classroom-based research.

The lab-based research should follow rigorous experimental design principles (controls, independent and dependent variables, avoiding bias, significance testing etc) to illustrate the impact of specific interventions. Classroom-based research should follow as good experimental design principles as possible without overly compromising the ecological validity benefits, e.g. ensuring the methods of delivery are sustainable in regular lessons in real-world schools etc. There are trade-offs between scientific rigour in experimental design and ecological validity when it comes to classroom-based research, but I see it as essential and complementary to the lab-based work.

It is the classroom-based research which helps teachers translate concepts from cognitive and neuroscience into classroom-based practical teaching strategies. Classroom-based research is also important for showing whether observed principles under controlled conditions in a psychology lab are resilient enough to have an impact in a school classroom environment!

Could you tell us how research has influenced your teaching?

There are two main areas whereby research has influenced my teaching. Firstly, I am very grateful to John Hattie for his ‘Visible Learning’ meta-analysis work in which he meticulously compiled effect size summaries of so many different influences which impact on student outcomes. After reading this work, I adopted Hattie’s “Know thy impact” mantra as much as possible in my teaching. A teacher’s most precious commodity is their time and it is essential that we focus our efforts on things which have the greatest impact on our students’ outcomes. By systematically and rigorously evaluating the impact of our teaching approaches, we can make informed decisions about how to teach most impactfully. Hattie’s “Know thy impact” mantra has led to me take an evaluative approach to any changes I make to my teaching practice. If I’m going to make a change, I first think about how I am going to measure and evaluate the impact the change has (or does not have!).  This avoids me going round in circles, trying things multiple times because I don’t know whether they were impactful or not.

Secondly, the research by the Bjorks, Roediger, Rohrer, Karpicke on retrieval, spacing and interleaving effects transformed my practice in recent years. I use retrieval-based teaching strategies regularly in lessons rather than getting students to re-read material. I realised the importance of planning for retention and transfer of learning, not just students’ understanding during first-teaching of an idea. I have built spacing and interleaving strategies into my teaching on a regular, habitual basis and have consequently measured considerable improvements in students’ outcomes.

Could you describe a research-informed idea that you feel has had a positive impact in your classroom?

I implemented distributed (spaced) practice into my teaching by ensuring that once an idea was first taught, I then deliberately planned in further practice opportunities on that topic in multiple future lessons. I also ensured further spaced practice opportunities by deliberately delaying end of unit assessments so they occurred 3 weeks after finishing teaching a topic.

Every maths teacher has experienced students understanding topics when they are taught during lessons, but then failing to remember them later. Learning is as much about building retention of knowledge as it is about acquiring the knowledge in the first place. Research into the Spacing Effect is very robust and the strategies I describe above were one interpretation I made of how to put the Spacing Effect into practice in my classroom.

The impact has been significant with students’ summative assessment scores rising at least twice the previous rate, on average. They are remembering more of what is taught as they go, rather than getting to the end of the course and needing to be retaught so much content.

What do you think researchers should focus on next (i.e. what are the gaps in our understanding)?

The body of research on the Retrieval, Spacing and Interleaving Effects is considerable, but in general it is lab-based studies. There are many challenges that teachers face in order to translate lab-based observed effects into practical sustainable teaching strategies in real-world classrooms. For example, we know we should space out the practice students get on maths problems in order to boost their retention, but what would a good spacing interval be? How many times should they revisit a topic? Do some students need more revisits than others before their learning is retained? Should I space exercises out right from the start or is it OK for students to do some massed practice of a single topic at the beginning of learning that topic? How many exercises should they complete in each practice sessions? Does the number of exercises vary with different types of content? How can I measure whether this approach is working?

These questions cannot be answered with lab-based research; we need classroom-based research that focuses on different approaches to implementing these ideas and measuring their relative impact. Effective classroom-based studies can then be used as case studies for teachers to learn from and to see directly how they can implement these approaches in their own classrooms.

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

Yes, certainly! Firstly, I believe it is important that people ‘with a foot’ in both the academic and school worlds are identified and empowered to set up collaborative relationships. These could be teachers who are keen to learn experimental methodologies etc and want to conduct classroom-based research, or it could be educational researchers with a particular interest in understanding how to implement impactful practice in real-world classrooms. These people need skillsets and credibility ‘in both camps’, i.e. some teaching experience coupled with some post-graduate training in experimental methodologies. Let’s call them “Teacher-Researchers”. They could talk both the language of the academic and the school-based worlds and be credible and relatable to both teachers and researchers.

The next step would be to empower the Teacher-Researchers with support from Educational Researchers in terms of designing their studies, and from schools who will allow time and resource to conduct the studies in their classrooms. Success hinges on relationships and the Teacher-Researchers need time (and funding) in order to develop and sustain these relationships so they are genuinely mutually beneficial.

The Teacher-Researchers could improve communication in both directions by sharing with Educational Researchers the realities, challenges and opportunities of what is possible in real-world classrooms through the eyes of teachers, and then with the teachers important findings from the academic world about potential effective practices and how to evaluate impact rigorously through the eyes of the Educational Researchers. The Teacher-Researchers are the interface between both worlds with experience and understanding of both.

On a personal note, I intend to focus my career on the Teacher-Researcher role. It doesn’t exist, to my knowledge, yet. I am focusing at the moment on trying to gain research funding to allow me time to adopt this role on a part-time basis and to then demonstrate how impactful collaboration could result from it.

 

You can follow William on twitter @Maths_Master. Do also check out his great maths blog Great Maths Teaching Ideas and the links including in this blog (particularly the Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab) for many useful videos and practical teaching suggestions.

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

Adult literacy across the globe: challenges and opportunities

At this week’s CEN seminar, PhD student Cathy Rogers presented findings from a recent report into adult literacy she co-authored with Dr Victoria Knowland and Prof Michael Thomas. The full report will be published here as soon as it is available.

Identifying different types of cognitive ability in scientific thinking…

PhD student Selma Coecke shares with us a summary of her recent CEN seminar titled: An undefined form of fluid intelligence: how its trajectory differs from conceptual development in the context of science 

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Intelligence tests measure two forms of cognitive process: verbal – representing declarative knowledge – and nonverbal -aiming to eliminate the influence of socio-cultural knowledge.
However, my research demonstrates that there are multiple cognitive processes in the context of scientific thinking.  Spatial-temporal cognition for example, is one of these and it consistently explains unique variance in science beyond verbal-nonverbal distinction.
 
Furthermore, although it is often considered part of the verbal domain, scientific vocabulary is another unique measure.  It lies at the interface between the verbal and nonverbal as it draws heavily on imagery. During this talk I explained how my data demonstrates that neither verbal nor nonverbal abilities are unitary. Spatial-temporal cognition in particular, may be a good candidate independent component of fluid intelligence.  This form of thinking appears to satisfy three major requirements: it has a (1) unique predictive/ecological validity, (2) capacity to support abstract thinking, (3) unique qualitative and quantitative characteristics.