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.

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.

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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.

Using research in the classroom: executive function and maths

This week we are very pleased to welcome two researchers – Camilla Gilmore from Loughborough and Lucy Cragg from Nottingham University to talk about their research and what it might mean for educators.

What is the camilla-gilmorelucy_craggfocus of your research? 

The focus of our research is understanding which general thinking skills are involved in different aspects of learning and doing maths. Our first project (SUM) had three main aims: The first was to discover how executive function skills (e.g. manipulating information in memory, flexible thinking, ignoring distractions) are involved in knowing maths facts, applying maths procedures and understanding maths concepts. The second was to distinguish between the skills needed for learning new mathematical material and those needed for performing already‐learned mathematical operations. Finally, we explored how the role of executive function skills might change as children grow older and become more proficient in maths.

What led you to this area of research? 

We shared an office while doing our PhDs on mathematical cognition (Camilla) and executive function development (Lucy). At the time, people doing research on the role of executive function skills in mathematics were either experts in mathematical cognition or executive function, but not both. We decided it would be a good idea to join forces and combine our expertise to better understand the complex interactions between these two sets of skills.

Could you summarise your findings?

Some of the main findings from our work are:

1. Different combinations of executive function skills are important for different components of maths. For example, holding and manipulating information in mind (working memory) and ignoring distractions are more important for learning maths facts and procedures than they are for conceptual understanding.

2. While children’s understanding of mathematics develops dramatically through primary and secondary school, they are drawing on the same set of underlying executive function skills from KS2 right through to young adulthood.

3. In children who have just started school, mathematical and executive function skills interact.

4. Children with good procedural skills have better overall mathematics achievement if they also have good conceptual understanding and working memory.

5. Young children with similar levels of overall mathematical achievement can show very different patterns of strengths and weaknesses across the component skills.

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

If a child is having difficulties with maths, it makes sense to look at their strengths and weaknesses in learning maths facts, carrying out procedures and understanding concepts, rather than focusing on their overall performance. It might also be helpful to consider the underlying skills, such as how good they are at storing and manipulating information in mind, ignoring distractions and thinking flexibly. Maths is a complex subject and there are many reasons why children might struggle; sometimes it’s related to general thinking skills, rather than maths-specific skills.

If you could give one tip to teachers based on your work, what would it be?

You might want to consider how the activities you use in the classroom challenge children’s executive function skills, such as the amount of information they need to hold in mind. Sometimes this might be a good thing, but at other times you might want to reduce these demands, by using concrete manipulatives such as hundred squares or number lines for example, so that children have the cognitive resources to focus on a new idea that is being introduced.

 

Lindsey Richland discusses factors affecting maths performance

In today’s CEN seminar, Prof. Lindsey Richland talked about her research which looks at factors affecting maths performance – making connections (e.g. Teaching mathematics by comparison: Analog visibility as a double-edged sword), impact of executive functions (e.g. Executive function in learning mathematics by comparison: incorporating everyday classrooms into the science of learning) and impact of stereotyping and expectations (e.g. Stereotype Threat Effects on Learning From a Cognitively Demanding Mathematics Lesson).

“Children’s executive functions are well known to predict overall mathematics achievement, but their role in everyday classroom learning is not always considered in educational reform. Strategies for raising the quality of classroom mathematics instruction has led to the recommendation that teachers use more lessons designed to increase students’ engagement in higher level reasoning, yet teaching these lessons effectively for all students is challenging. I describe a series of experiments using one such instructional practice, comparing multiple solutions to key problems, to show that by considering the cognitive demands of such a specific learning context, we can infer ways to improve the likelihood of student learning and better understand mechanisms that may lead to achievement gaps. I’ll show that visual-spatial cues and reminders of relevant mathematics background may aid students in gaining more, while individual differences in executive function resources, pressure, and identity threats may exacerbate achievement gaps in learning from identical lessons.”