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

harry-fletcher-wood-photo
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

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.