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. 

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.

Headteachers share their thoughts about research

jo-pearson-photoIn this regular series, we hear from teachers and heads about their views of educational neuroscience. Has ed neuro helped them with their teaching? How? Are there problem areas? Are there gaps where research should be focused? Today, we are delighted to introduce Jo Pearson, Head of Oldham Research School and Teamworks SCITT (School Centred Initial Teacher Training) and TSA (Teaching School Alliance). Welcome Jo!

What does educational neuroscience mean to you?

Educational neuroscience for me means finding out about how we learn, how we retain knowledge and the ways in which I as a teacher could adapt how I teach to support my pupils to learn better.  As someone with a history degree who trained on a one year PGCE a long, long (!) time ago this is an area that was not in my own prior knowledge or training.  Not knowing why some pedagogies worked better than others or indeed why some bits are harder to learn than others is both frustrating and professionally disempowering.  As somebody who is in charge of the learning of others, I really want to be able to have some knowledge about how this happens.

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

Being a research school is a huge advantage because we get to spend lots of time with the EEF, the IEE and other research school leads. The opportunity to talk about and share research and its implementation in the classroom is so valuable and has been brilliant professional development.  I also subscribe to the cognition-in-science google group; I’m not a science teacher and some (lots!) sometimes goes over my head but there’s also some really brilliant examples of research in practice.  Lastly, I subscribe to lots of email lists; NFER, Evidence in brief from the IEE, Shanahan on literacy….

Is there a specific research-informed idea that you feel has had a positive impact in your school, one which others could potentially try?

We’ve really used it to unpick effective planning and assessment. Cognitive load theory has helped in thinking through planning across the long and medium term and on a lesson level. We’ve identified aspects of curriculum content that have a high intrinsic load, analogue time for example or fractions. As staff, we unpicked why; in these cases it was because the prior learned knowledge seems to contradict the new knowledge (3 not being just 3 but 15 or even quarter; the idea that 1/4 is smaller than 1/2 when everything you knew before said 2 was smaller than 4). This has helped us to think about the time we give to these topics, the frequency with which we need to return to these topics and the prior knowledge we need to unpick when we teach them in our long term planning and has also helped us to identify the points at which scaffolding and modelling can really make our teaching more effective at lesson level. Extraneous load theory has helped us to review our classrooms and teaching materials, especially for hard to teach content and finally our work on germane load and metacognition has helped us to plan explicit points at which we can support the six aspects to self-regulation in our pupils. Just having a shared definition of what we all mean by the term ‘learned’ has been very powerful.

How do you get teachers and students involved?

We use our newsletter, our training programmes and our own staff development programme to build staff knowledge and support changes in practice that help to make this more than just the latest fad.  It’s really important that they know this is not about us giving our personal views and preferred practices; it is about us reporting what the evidence from well-designed projects, gathered over time, suggests is a better bet.

Are there areas where you think research should focus next (ie what are the important gaps in our understanding)?

Marking is an obvious one; we know that we don’t know that much yet but it absorbs such a lot of staff time. It would be great to know more.

Thank you so much Jo. Do check out the hyperlinks to find many more resources. We would also recommend the resources of The Learning Scientists, the EEF Toolkit for an overview of evidence-levels for various educational interventions, and for those who are members of the Chartered College, their regular magazine Impact is consistently excellent. We have also recently published our own CEN resource for anyone who would like to get a better gist of how the brain actually works; if you want to find fascinating answers to intriguing puzzles like why children get their bs and their ds muddled up, look no further.

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