Jack White-Foy, Biology teacher

jawfTime for the next exciting conversation in our teacher-chat blog series! Introducing Jack White-Foy who is a biology teacher in key stage 4 and 5.

This year, his school has launched a student-led research group in Educational Neuroscience. They have two Emotiv Insight EEG headsets and will be carrying out a range of research projects in the classroom and in the laboratory. Any teachers and researchers who would like to get involved, please email neurolab@dulwich.org.uk

Jack, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. Firstly, how do you keep up-to-date with the latest education research?

My primary source is from other teachers. We have a dedicated Staff Tutor who shares articles, research papers and ideas either through email or through short teacher meetings after school. My link with Birkbeck and UCL through the MSc Educational Neuroscience course has also given me access to journals, specific authors and conferences (e.g. The CEN and FutureEd) that prove very useful. The latter are particularly useful to me because they are more tailored to my specialism.

Is it important to you whether the research uses particular methods (eg neuroscience, classroom-based)?

Knowing and understanding the methods used by researchers is key when judging the validity, reliability and generalisability of any findings. For me, there is a hierarchy of research methods in education that will influence how confident I can be that the findings might apply to my own students. Anecdotal evidence is still informative and interesting, yet provides little support to generalise beyond the sample. If the methods used by researchers are not disclosed, it is very difficult to evaluate the findings and any conclusions.

Could you tell us how research has influenced your teaching?

Throughout my PGCE and NQT years, I listened carefully to my teacher mentors. Their advice was invaluable in developing skills in lesson planning, behaviour management, and assessment. Trial and error still plays a big part because each class and each student are different and respond more positively to some methods over others. Research is the driving force for change and guided experimentation. Innovation and intuition are part and parcel of the skill of being a professional teacher and research gives one confidence in trying out new methods. Time is one of the most limiting factors in teacher development, so I am always looking for reliable ways of improving student learning whilst reducing teacher workload. Research in motivation, attention, inhibitory control, memory and risk-taking have all influenced how I structure lessons, plan group work, design schemes of work and promote independence. Without research into these areas, I would be flying blind and relying on luck. The futures of my students should not depend on chance.

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

One of the major gaps in rigorous research is the impact of marking compared to the time invested by teachers. There are as many marking polices as there are departments in some schools, with very different demands put on teachers. New policies are frequently put into place with various assumptions given to justify them. To date, there is no reliable and objective method for measuring the impact of marking. Any activity that can add several hours to a teacher’s working day should only be compulsory if it has a distinct benefit to students over other things a teacher could be doing (e.g. plan more engaging lessons, invest time into extra-curricular activities, reduce stress, explore professional development opportunities).

The second area that I think is important to mention is that of misconceptions. During my master’s degree with Birkbeck and UCL, I helped work on a project that wanted to understand more about why some students can overcome science misconceptions relatively easily, whilst others struggle. Conceptual change is, for me, one of the biggest obstacles to understanding science and enjoying it. Doors to a career in medicine, engineering, research and others could be opened to many more students if they were better able to grasp the more challenging aspects of the sciences. Giving students choice is arguably a worthwhile endeavour.

Do you have any suggestions of how communication and collaboration could be improved between teachers and education researchers?  

Teachers are not always confident when it comes to interpreting research. In Educational Neuroscience, for example, the links between a study’s findings and applications in the classroom are not always obvious, so this is more demanding even for an experienced researcher. The trust I have in the field comes from a deep-seated confidence that all of our behaviour, learning and memory, motivation and passion resides in the 1.4kg mass of neurones in our brain. This draws me to developments in neuroscience and keeps me looking for ways to apply it to my teaching. Education researchers need to recognise that their audience is open to ideas, with limited time to decipher them. Similarly, teachers need to familiarise themselves with research methods, so they can meet researchers half way. Teacher training has, for a long time, included some aspects of research into their programmes of study. This needs to be more explicit with trainee teachers being given much more support and opportunity to get involved with projects that follow the scientific method. There has been a growing interest, from my perspective, in action research (research carried out by teachers). However, this can fall short of meeting the standard to be considered publishable research. Teachers are often unable to exclude confounding factors, and the research may be affected by reverse inferencing, confirmation bias, and the observer effect. There is a hunger for collaboration between teachers and researchers. It just needs more guidance.

Please could you describe a research-informed idea that you feel has had a positive impact in your classroom, so that others could try it as well if they feel it’s relevant. (e.g. Why did you introduce the idea? What did you do? What impact has it had?)

I had the privilege to hear Sarah-Jayne Blakemore speak at the FutureEd conference in February. I was particularly grabbed by the social influence on risk-taking behaviour in adolescents and how this might apply to positive risk-taking in the classroom. According to the idea, adolescents are influenced more by people of a similar age and those they consider to be popular. In each of my classes, I have tried to identify which students are the more confident as well as those viewed favourably by others. When we tackle a particularly challenging topic, where no one wants to volunteer an answer, I will look to the identified ‘leader’ to hazard a guess. What I have experienced is this tends to result in more students volunteering for subsequent questions and especially if the ‘leader’ gets the question wrong. Whilst entirely subjective so far, my feeling is that the more each student tries to answer a question, the more invested they will be at discovering the correct answer. I am hoping to turn this into a more empirical study later in the year.

Thank you!