Talking boosts learning. Now let's prove it, says EEF

Positive findings on attainment gap prompt research drive

A major drive is being planned to investigate how learning through talking can close the achievement gap between deprived pupils and their wealthier classmates.

Four unrelated studies funded by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), the government-backed research body, have revealed that helping pupils to talk through their ideas can boost English and maths results - and that the impact is greater on children from poorer homes.

Now Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the EEF, has said that several more studies are being prepared to build on the findings. The foundation is also working towards producing guidance for teachers on how pupils can learn through talking.

"What talk does is motivate children to want to engage, to want to write, to want to express themselves and to want to think," he said. "It is about giving children the idea that they have got something to say that is worth saying. We want to go further and do more studies of this kind. This is a vein that we need to mine; we really need to understand this in detail."

Scaled-up studies

This autumn, the EEF board will consider whether to fund a scaling up of two of the four trials that have piqued their interest (see box, right). A third project, Using Self-Regulation to Improve Writing, has received pound;752,800 to begin a larger trial this September and the fourth, Philosophy 4 Children, is already a large-scale trial.

In addition, a similar project based on the work of Professor Robin Alexander of Cambridge University, about improving the quality of discussion between pupils and teachers, is due to report next year. The EEF is also interested in hearing from researchers doing further work in this area.

Although the importance of encouraging pupils to talk about their thinking and learning has been highlighted in several influential studies, turning research findings into classroom practice has proved more difficult and sometimes controversial.

It's complicated

Ofsted came under fire last year for evaluating teachers on whether they adopted a specific teaching style, although the regulator has said it will not rate teachers in this way. The Civitas thinktank said it had found that three-quarters of Ofsted reports tended to back pupil-centred lessons rather than the "chalk and talk" style of teaching.

David Didau, educational consultant and author of What if everything you knew about education was wrong? (see review, left), said he did not think there was anybody in teaching who would advocate pupils just sitting and listening to a teacher. But he added that successful, structured learning through talking was complicated. He cautioned against looking for quick, easy solutions.

"For me, the potential harm in these kinds of studies is the illusion of certainty," Mr Didau said. "People are almost programmed to rush towards doing what they believe is the right thing, rather than remaining uncertain or holding on to doubt. But that doubting mindset is more likely to lead to great practice."

Bridget Holligan, director of education and engagement at Science Oxford, which helped develop Thinking, Doing, Talking Science - one of the four EEF-funded studies - with Oxford Brookes University, said that a key finding was to not be prescriptive about what teachers did, as long as they embraced the philosophy that pupils benefited from discussing their thinking.

"Teachers told us that pupils were capable of deeper thinking than they realised," she said. "Lower-attaining pupils really blossomed once they were freed of the burden of having to find the `right' answer."

Good to talk? Four EEF-funded studies

Philosophy 4 Children

Pupils were asked to discuss philosophical questions such as "What is bravery?"

Extra progress* made by non-free school meals (FSM) pupils: two months in maths and reading.

FSM pupils' extra progress: three months in maths; four months in reading.

Thinking, Doing, Talking Science

Primary teachers were trained to ask their pupils about "big questions" in science, such as "how do you know that the Earth is a sphere?"

Extra progress made by non-FSM pupils: three months in science.

FSM pupils' extra progress: five months in science.

Changing Mindsets

The study included asking pupils to see how different ways of verbally describing their learning affected their feelings about it.

Extra progress made by non-FSM pupils: two months in maths and English.

FSM pupils' extra progress: not possible to measure.

Using Self-Regulation to Improve Writing

Pupils were shown how to plan out, write and evaluate their work and encouraged to talk about how to improve it.

Extra progress made by non-FSM pupils: nine months in writing.

FSM pupils' extra progress: 18 months in writing.

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