Teachers share their thoughts on educational neuroscience

niki-kaiser-twitterWe are delighted to welcome Dr Niki Kaiser, Network Research Lead at Norwich Research School, to our blog series in which teachers involved in research give us their take on educational neuroscience.

What does educational neuroscience mean to you?

Neuroscience helps me to link the ‘art’ of teaching to the science behind approaches that help me be a more effective teacher. Neuroscience is the science behind the ‘natural flair’ that great teachers appear to have, and it helps explains the mechanisms that help make learning more memorable.

It isn’t enough for me simply to be told how to apply approaches because “they’re evidence-based”, however strong that research base might be. I believe it’s just as important to understand why approaches are effective. By understanding why approaches work, I can hone my teaching of each topic within specific contexts.

For example, unless you understand why retrieval practice is effective, you might believe that it’s simply about asking students a few questions here and there. “Low-stakes quizzing: tick! I’ve now “done retrieval practice”! But knowledge of why retrieval practice works means I realise that it’s not just the questions or the quizzes themselves that are important, but rather the process of bringing information to mind. For example, for long-term retention, it appears to be more effective to retrieve information 70% correctly than to re-read 100% correct information (Smith et al., 2013). Understanding this can inform how and when (and why) you embed retrieval practice on a day-to-day basis.

This understanding of why approaches are effective is where neuroscience comes into the equation, for me. Neuroscience helps us to understand how and why empirically-based approaches, grouped under an umbrella of the Science of Learning, are effective. And also how they might be developed further.

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

Our school is an EEF research school. We receive regular news and updates via the Research School Network at meetings, via email, and through conversations with colleagues.

Networks are important to me (see my article on this), and last year, I helped to form a group called #CogSciSci, an online peer-support network with over 500 teachers, who regularly share ideas and questions about applying The Science of Learning to science teaching. The teachers on this forum are an amazing and generous bunch, who constantly keep me on my toes as they point out things they’ve read, ask pertinent questions, and discuss key research.

I can access research articles via my membership of the Chartered College of Teaching, and their recent edition of Impact on the Science of Learning was excellent.

I also spend rather a lot of time of Twitter (!), and find myself regularly disappearing down rabbit holes, as I follow up links and leads to interesting research. Signing up to email lists is another way to keep abreast of what’s out there. I receive regular updates from the Education Endowment Foundation and the Institute for Effective Education.

Can you give some examples of how neuroscience understanding has helped you and your school?

An understanding of what we mean by learning, and how this links to the model of memory, has really helped shape my approach to planning and teaching. I now consider the limitations of working memory at all points, so I can better support long-term learning and retention.

I understand the benefits of spaced review and retrieval practice, and of encouraging my students to develop automaticity, thus freeing up their working memory to process the more interesting, higher-level thinking needed in science.

One of my rules of thumb when introducing new approaches is that it shouldn’t take me too far away from “business as usual”. And it shouldn’t increase my workload. So I embed research-informed ideas by tweaking what I do, rather than totally re-working everything.

However, this demands a deeper understanding of the underlying research, so I particularly enjoyed the review by Weinstein 2018 as a very readable overview, and a gateway to further reading. It picks apart the “6 strategies for effective learning”  from the Learning Scientists website and goes into depth about exactly what the research behind them does (and doesn’t) say. For example, they ask whether spaced practice can ever be effective enough to completely alleviate the need or utility of a cramming period, which is just the kind of question teachers ask themselves.  And I like Karpicke, 2008, because the results are so striking. When you compare the re-test and re-study groups, and see how much more effective it was to re-test, it really hammers the point home that it is worth doing (despite students actually feeling less confident at the time, compared to the re-study group). This was explained particularly effectively by Efrat Furst who spoke at one of our Research School meetings last year.

I do quiz students at the start of each lesson, which is a low-maintenance approach to retrieval practice, but I’m also careful to introduce as many opportunities as possible for students to think hard and work to bring information to mind. I also plan in spaced review opportunities via my normal class and homework activities, rather than reworking the entire curriculum.

How do you get teachers and students involved?

We are a Research School, and we share ideas via our newsletter and website. But we are very much of the mindset that “schools listen to schools and teachers listen to teachers”, so we are working hard to build a network of research-informed teachers in and around Norwich. We meet half-termly to share ideas and hear from others, and at a recent meeting, Dr Flavia Belham presented ideas around memory and learning.

Within school, all staff meet in groups to discuss research and how to apply it, as part of our whole-school CPD system. We also have a school Journal Club, and various initiatives, such as a Research Bulletin summarising research and case studies of how it’s been applied in school.

I have used Dunlosky’s toolkit to help encourage students to study more effectively, and this has helped them to move away from simply reading through their books and making beautiful notes towards more impactful study approaches. But I am careful to explain to them how and why certain strategies are more worthwhile than others, even though they might feel harder at the time. An understanding of the research helps me to sell these “desirably difficult” study approaches to them.

Senior leaders share their thoughts on educational neuroscience

shaun-allison-photo-smallerWe are delighted to introduce Shaun Allison, Director of Durrington Research School and Head of School Improvement of Durrington Multiple AcademyTrust.

His book, co-authored with Andy Tharby ‘Making every lesson count‘ outlines six key principles to support teaching and learning and you can also follow Shaun on Twitter @shaun_allison. We are very pleased to welcome him to our blog.

What does educational neuroscience mean to you?

As teachers we are in the business of helping students to learn, which requires a change in their long term memory.  With this in mind it seems strange that as a profession in recent years we haven’t really embraced the fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology to inform our practice.  As a biologist and a teacher, it seems really important to me that if we are trying to facilitate learning, which happens in the brain, we should really try to use the evidence about how this works to inform what we do?  Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning and there seems to be a gathering of momentum towards this research-informed approach to teaching.  Which is great news.

The challenge for teachers and leaders up and down the country, is taking these findings from research, which can sometimes be very lengthy and complex, and turning them into actionable strategies for busy teachers.  This is what the work of the Research School Network is focusing on.

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

In a variety of ways:

  • Twitter is fantastic for this. There are a growing number of researchers and teachers on twitter who are very generous and share their thoughts on research and how to implement it in the classroom.
  • Similarly, there are a huge number of researchers and teachers blogging about this. There are some great examples of this here.
  • The EEF Teaching and Learning toolkit is a great starting point to find a summary of thousands of research papers, as are their guidance reports.
  • Similarly the ‘Institute for Effective Education’ publish a fantastic fortnightly digest of the most recent research – Best Evidence in Brief.
  • The ‘Research Schools Network’ are doing a fabulous job of helping teachers to implement the latest evidence from research in their classrooms, through training programmes, twilights, newsletters and their website.
  • Conferences such as those organised by ‘researchED’ are a brilliant way to hear from teachers and researchers and are held up and down the country.

Can you give some examples of how neuroscience understanding has helped you and your school?

It has added a clarity to how I teach and how I lead teaching and learning across the school.  As a result, we disregard many of the myths and gimmicks that have permeated teaching in the last few decades and focus our attention on approaches to teaching that have a strong evidence base.  For example, the importance of dual coding, elaborative interrogation, cognitive load theory and desirable difficulties at the explanation and modelling phase of teaching have all influenced our work.  Likewise, we understand the importance of retrieval practice and spaced practice, in terms of supporting long term memory retention.

About six years ago, when we first became interested in this, my colleague Andy Tharby and I used this body of evidence from research to come up with six pedagogical principles that we wanted all of our teachers to focus on, to support an evidence informed approach to teaching across the school:

  • Challenge so that students have to think deeply and have high expectations of what they can achieve.
  • Explanation so that they acquire new knowledge.
  • Modelling so that students know how to apply their knowledge (including explicit modelling of metacognitive strategies and the thinking processes of adults).
  • Questioning so that students are made to think hard with breadth, depth and accuracy.
  • Feedback so that students further develop their knowledge.
  • Purposeful practice so that students think deeply and eventually achieve fluency.

You can read about this approach in our book ‘Making every lesson count’.

We spend a lot of time discussing these ideas as a team of teachers, and most importantly, how these ideas can be mobilised on a day to day basis.

How do you get teachers and students involved?

We use INSET days to share these ideas with the whole staff, but then department teams meet every fortnight and are expected to discuss how they will use these ideas to inform their teaching. In a large secondary school, it is essential that subject specialists are given the opportunity to contextualise these ideas in their subject.

We hold half termly ‘journal clubs’ for our teachers, where they meet informally to discuss a particular research paper. We write and share regular articles on our school teaching and learning blog and our Research School blog about how teachers are using this evidence in their classrooms.  As a research school we lead a range of training programmes and twilights to support teachers and leaders with mobilising this research. We send out a monthly newsletter to keep teachers informed about the most recent research.

We also use assemblies and parental workshops to share these findings from cognitive science with students and parents/carers – in a way that is manageable for them e.g. supporting retrieval practice by using flashcards.  This is then supported throughout the school year by various strategies e.g. a  half termly memory challenge for all Y7 and then guided workshops and resources  on how to revise effectively for Y10 and Y11.

Are there areas where you think research should focus next?

There is a huge body of evidence that exists around cognitive science e.g. we know that retrieval practice, spaced practice and dual coding are really important when it comes to learning.  The focus now needs to turn to codifying these ideas into practical approaches that teachers can adopt on a day to day basis in their classroom, that are then rigorously evaluated and shared. This body of research research evidence will only be of any use if it is mobilised in classrooms.

The direction of travel towards a more evidence-informed approach to teaching, is great for the profession and the young people we teach.  Whilst research evidence can’t give us all the answers, it can tell us the ‘best bets’ in terms of the approaches to adopt, that are most likely to improve the learning of our young people.  I think we have a moral duty to be doing this.  The education of the next generation is too important to be left to chance.