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

Social, Emotional, and Academic Development report

Georgie Donati presented a recent report from the Aspen Institute, an international think tank. The report was the result of findings from a commission set up to look at Social, Emotional, and Academic Development in young people – with the aim of re-envisioning what constitutes success in schools.

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There is a wealth of information available from Aspen here and Georgie’s slides of the presentation are available on the link below:

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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.

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

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

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.

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

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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.