How teaching informs research informs teaching informs research…

alice-bowmer-violin-photo-croppedWe’re always especially pleased to hear from people with one foot in teaching and another in academic research, so today we are delighted to introduce Alice Bowmer who absolutely fits that bill. Alice is a freelance researcher and music teacher. She teaches violin to children aged 6 to 18 and is an honorary research associate at UCL Institute of Education.  Her current research looks at the impact of music and arts training on early cognitive and motor development. You can find her most recent publication here

Welcome Alice! Give us your take on how research and education inform one another.

“I started a violin teaching practice 10 years ago in north London and my research evolved from a desire to understand more about how my students were learning both musically and in other key aspects of their development. After a few years of study, I realised that understanding more about how the brain functions and how children develop was giving me a unique insight into many aspects of the practical work I do with my young students.

As an example, in musical learning it’s quite common for students to memorise a tune with an incorrect note, which becomes really difficult to change. From my research into cognitive development, I saw that to correct a note in this way is actually a really complex skill. First the student has to know that the incorrect note and corresponding muscle movement exists, then, they have to focus their attention at exactly the right moment as well as produce a new movement and learn to hear a new sound. And this correction might have to happen hundreds of times to over-ride the incorrect sound and muscle memory already in their long-term memory. I realised that to make a change is not as simple as just telling the student about the mistake. One simple thing I often do to support this problem is to sing the new, correct note (whilst the student is playing) a split second before they reach the incorrect note, which I’ve found helps them to intercept and correct it themselves in the future. Today, I am really grateful that I can utilise a combination of research and teaching practice to come up with effective strategies to support my students.

Recently, my research partner and I have been designing projects that support teachers and researchers working together. One of our aims is to examine how different types of instruction affect a variety of outcomes for children, in part, by working with teachers to learn about what they do in the real world. In a current project we are designing and analysing preschool music and art curricular, with a secondary focus to support children’s executive function skills. We have found that developing research projects together in this way gives teachers the opportunity to consider how their activities might support particular cognitive processes in more detail and researchers the ability to look at outcome measures through the eyes of different teaching practices.

Unfortunately, we’ve also found it quite challenging to find funding that supports this sort of research design. So far, our way of tackling this problem has been to work within a very limited budget (which is not really sustainable) or to work with an organisation that find funding to deliver the intervention strand, whilst we find funding to support the research. But again, this relies on those two streams coming together in a close time frame, which is not easy to organize.

In sum, I think the teacher/researcher collaboration provides many possibilities, particularly in the realm of educational neuroscience because a collaborative process can help to draw out the practical applications of brain research in a really tangible way. However, for this to happen successfully we need more funding bodies to support research that tries to get at multiple aspects of what happens when children are learning new skills.”


Teachers share their thoughts on research-based practice

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

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

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

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

Could you tell us how research has influenced your teaching? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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