How education research can get lost in translation

A new report from the Education Endowment Foundation on cognitive science makes welcome reading - Mark Enser explains why

Mark Enser

New cognitive science report shows us the pitfalls of applying education research

A new report from the Education Endowment Foundation (EFF) has just landed, reviewing the evidence on the use of cognitive science in the classroom.

In the foreword to the report, EFF CEO Professor Becky Francis writes: “Our hope is that by providing a transparent summary of the evidence that shows both the strengths and weaknesses of the current research, we can support schools as they consider how principles might make a difference to their pupils. ”

I am sure that this report will go a long way to realising that hope.

Cognitive science in the classroom: Realistic interpretations

The reason I am so hopeful is that this report highlights not only the strengths of approaches to teaching drawn from cognitive science (elements like spacing, interleaving, retrieval practice, managing cognitive load and dual coding) but the weaknesses as well.

This is something you tend to hear from people who are interested in educational research but it can get lost in translation by the time it gets into schools. 

One of the first talks I went to at a ResearchEd conference (in which teachers and researchers meet to present ideas on the application of educational research) was given by James Mannion, exploring the lack of silver bullets in education, including a look at the EEF’s own claims about the benefits of feedback.

Most other talks I have given or attended have likewise been loaded with caution about misapplying research. In Generative Learning in Action, my co-author and I spent as much time discussing caveats, pitfalls and boundary conditions of the strategies as we did their application, and in the Research Lead programme I run for Durrington Research School the bulk of our time is spent looking at how we evaluate claims made in the name of educational research. 

Applying education research in the real world

Despite this, there are still stories of schools that have tried to bring in ideas from cognitive science and implement them across the school with none of the nuance or care that anyone who had really thought about the research would suggest.

Instead teachers get instructed to "do" something like dual-coding, or spacing or interleaving, without much thought as to whether this strategy is appropriate to the subject or age group or how it might need to look if it were to be applied there. This EEF report tries hard to counter this problem. 

Page 11 of the report is perhaps the most useful part of the document and something that should be pinned to the wall next to anyone responsible for designing CPD in schools.

It explores how sensible theories become poor practice and suggests four ways that the theory may get lost in translation.

  1. Misunderstanding an important part of the theory – for example, interleaving becomes mixing up topics within a curriculum so students do tectonics one day and urbanisation the next.
  2. Failing to equip teachers to deliver the theory – for example, not providing them with suitable examples of how it could be used or not changing the things in the school that are a barrier to it working.
  3. Failing to target the theory effectively – for example, using the wrong approach at the wrong part of the learning process.
  4. The theory doesn’t work in schools – for example, taking a study done in business and trying to apply it to the classroom.

It is very clear when reading the rest of the report that the researchers have kept these four problems in mind.

The discussion on each approach considers exactly how it could be applied in the classroom and discusses how it has been misapplied in the past.

Treating teachers are professionals

There is also a clear explanation of the research base, which focuses on the ages and subjects in which the approach has been seen to work so that teachers can see whether something has only been tried and tested in maths (which is often the case) or only with older children. 

The main reason why I think teachers will welcome this report from the EEF is that it treats us as professionals who are able to read research and draw our own conclusions.

I hope that gone are the days when someone will stand at the front of the hall and instruct teachers on what “the research says”.

Those days when the “research says” pupils only learn when teachers stop talking, they need to be taught according to their learning style or discover all learning for themselves are fading fast and ushering in a new era of nuanced discussion about what is most likely to be useful in given contexts.

That is something I think we can all welcome. 

Mark Enser is a head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex. His latest book, The CPD Curriculum, is out now. He tweets @EnserMark

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