There are two main problems with the idea that teachers should be reading research. The first is that they don’t have time to do it (see bit.ly/UnreadResearch). Studies by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) have examined methods of encouraging teachers to engage with academic research but report that time pressures – and a lack of opportunities for teachers to work together – appear to undermine the initiatives.
So, if we genuinely want teaching to be a research-informed profession, we should reduce the number of hours we expect teachers to work – and ultimately set aside some time for teachers to read and apply research to their practice.
The second problem is actually finding research related to the questions we have as teachers. Searching through academic journals can be a frustrating and often fruitless investment of time and effort. Too often, even when something looks promising, it’s rare to find clear guidance on how it might be successfully implemented in our classrooms. So instead we become rather passive consumers of the latest “big idea”, which is sometimes presented to us like a magic bullet for all our woes.
One example would be the much misunderstood concept of growth mindset. Following the bestselling book and supportive studies on the subject, many schools enthusiastically began delivering growth mindset-inspired lessons and assemblies. But in contrast to the sometimes heavy-handed approach seen in schools (“growth mindset, good; fixed mindset, bad”), the successful interventions in the studies involved carefully targeted, often imperceptibly subtle and deliberately short-lived messages. This makes them extremely difficult to replicate at scale, though you wouldn’t guess that from the extraordinary (and unjustified) influence the “mindset meme” has had in schools. Even Carol Dweck, the author of so much of the research, has been critical of the way many schools have attempted to apply her ideas (see bit.ly/DweckCritical).
It’s not just schools that get taken for a ride on the “latest research” bandwagon. A recent publication in Harvard Business Review purported to claim that only one type of headteacher can turn around schools and that they tended to have a history or economics background. This story was picked up by a number of news outlets, despite the fact that the HBR piece contained no details regarding the methodology. Analysis by Education Datalab tried to replicate the findings using publicly available data and found no relationship between subject background and lasting improvements to schools (see bit.ly/EduDatalab).
This might seem an odd introduction to an article encouraging teachers to engage with research. But despite my concerns, there are some research reviews that I think all teachers should know about. None of them represents magic bullets, but each of the seven examples on the following pages have been written for teachers and have implications for school leadership and classroom practice.
In a field of research plagued with the problems I have outlined and more, these are the seven research reviews you could bet your house on being useful and reliable.
1. Finding out what does and does not work
Coe R, et al (2014) What Makes Great Teaching? Review of the underpinning research, Centre for Evaluation and The Sutton Trust bit.ly/GreatTeachingReview
Early in my career, I became frustrated by things I was expected to plan into my teaching that had no evidence base indicating that they actually helped my students to learn. Aspiring to become a more evidence-informed practitioner doesn’t mean giving up professional judgement – quite the opposite, it means challenging and cultivating that judgement so that even more of our students can experience success in school.
As well as reviewing a range of evidence-supported approaches to teaching and professional feedback, the CEM/Sutton Trust report What makes great teaching? also identifies a number of ineffective practices – things teachers and school leaders almost certainly should stop doing.
Some teachers might think this sounds a bit negative, but I suspect most will see the advantage of identifying things that might be adding to workload and stress, while not helping students.
Some of these ineffective practices will likely be familiar to readers of Tes: things such as planning different resources and activities for different learning styles (bit.ly/StylesProblems) or grading lesson observations (bit.ly/ObservationFlaws). But others – such as trying to address issues of confidence before you teach content; the limitations of group work; or the mistake of thinking active learning must involve physical or social activity, rather than reading or listening – might surprise some readers.
2. Getting a better understanding of intelligence
Nisbett RE (2013) "Schooling makes you smarter: what teachers need to know about IQ", American Educator bit.ly/SchoolingMakesYouSmarter
Carol Dweck’s research into mindsets is intimately tied to people’s understanding of intelligence. Perhaps one of the reasons why schools struggle to implement it effectively is because many teachers might not have a clear understanding of the complex relationships between genetics, IQ and education (bit.ly/PowerOfPotential). Science rejects the deterministic view that intelligence is fixed at birth, but equally doesn’t support the naïvely optimistic “you can do anything if you just try hard enough” rhetoric that Dweck herself has criticised.
In “Schooling makes you smarter”, Richard Nisbett provides a teacher-friendly summary of decades of research into intelligence. For example, many teachers might not be aware that two types of intelligence are measured by IQ tests: fluid intelligence, which is related to working memory capacity (see point 4, page 40) and involves things such as being able to solve problems in the absence of much prior knowledge; and crystallised intelligence, which consists of the store of knowledge (facts, concepts, vocabulary) we possess. Both types can be increased (bit.ly/ThePlasticBrain).
Another counter-intuitive point is that we can use the heritability of intelligence (the extent to which variation in intelligence is influenced by genetic differences) as a measure of social equity.
A high heritability means genetic rather than social and economic differences (eg, quality of diet or education) are the main influence in the differences between people’s intelligence. Where heritability is low, social and economic differences are likely the strongest influence. Schools and teachers cannot tackle all of these societal inequalities on their own, of course, but great schools and great teachers play a vital part in helping children reach their full intellectual potential.
3. Focusing on retrieval
Dunlosky J (2013) “Strengthening the student toolbox: study strategies to boost learning”, American Educator bit.ly/StudentToolbox
Since Hermann Ebbinghaus’ pioneering studies in the 19th century, psychologists have recognised forgetting as an important part of learning. Students will forget much of even a brilliant lesson, but research has identified that forgotten material is not truly lost – students re-learn it quicker and retain it for longer each time they return to it.
More recent research by Robert Bjork identifies an important difference between the retrieval strength of a memory and the storage strength (bit.ly/TruthAboutMemory). Put simply, the ease with which a memory can be accessed or retrieved (usually with the assistance of contextual cues or recency of learning) is different from the more permanent, entrenched trace in long-term memory. This often undermines a student’s “judgement of learning”. For example, a student re-reading some revision notes might mistake the feeling of familiarity with the material with their ability to genuinely recall the material without the cues and context provided by the notes.
John Dunlosky presents a straightforward summary of the research into study skills and independent learning. A key finding is that, rather than re-reading or using techniques such as highlighting, testing your memory tends to help us learn new material better. Frequent but low-stakes quizzes and tests are a great way to model the techniques that students can use in order to revise more effectively.
4. Getting clued up on memory
Clark RE et al (2012) “Putting students on the path to learning: the case for fully guided instruction”, American Educator bit.ly/PathToLearning
A foundational model for learning involves the relationship between long-term memory, which has a vast capacity for storing facts and concepts organised into what psychologists call “schemas”, and working memory, which has a very small capacity and relies upon these schemas to organise information into meaningful chunks in order to process new learning effectively. This tried-and-tested model underpins the modern science of how we learn and has a number of important implications for teaching.
We’ve evolved, and are motivated, to learn some things readily through play (bit.ly/BusinessOfPlay). But the hard-won cultural and scientific advances of the last few thousand years didn’t (and don’t) come easily. For example, while our first spoken language is naturally learned without effort or instruction, reading is a relatively recent cultural advance that, though building on the core ability of spoken language, benefits from explicitly being taught.
“Putting students on the path to learning” explores how easily working memory can become overloaded when learning new, ideas. Carefully structured sequences of learning allow the foundations of a subject or topic to be consolidated in long-term memory; this helps students to later go on to tackle complex and novel problems.
5. Realising that changing pupil ‘attitude’ is not a fix-all
Gadsby B (2017) Impossible? Social mobility and the seemingly unbreakable class ceiling, Teach First bit.ly/ClassCeiling
Decades of research into human motivation provides lots of examples showing that tackling attitudes doesn’t necessarily change behaviours. For example, attitudes towards organ transplants don’t appear to affect willingness to join a pool of potential donors; and attempts at encouraging smoking cessation through direct persuasion rarely changes people’s smoking behaviour. This means that the way some schools approach mindsets will likely have little influence on pupil outcomes.
Changing behaviour is really hard. Think about occasions when you’ve tried eating more healthily, taking more exercise or using your car less. You may readily agree that it’s important and you really want to do it, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll successfully change your behaviour without support.
Another example of this is the idea that students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, have low aspirations that schools need to raise if they are to succeed. The EEF summarises the impact of aspiration interventions as “+0 months”, indicating that, on average, interventions that aim to raise aspirations fail to produce a positive effect on student outcomes.
The evidence suggests most young people actually have high aspirations, and that underachievement stems not from low aspiration but from a host of social and institutional barriers that hold them back (see page 50).
The recent Teach First campaign Challenge the Impossible examines the available evidence regarding what it calls the “class ceiling” in an accessible way and explores the range of ways that this affects the life chances of young people. Good grades are necessary, but not sufficient, it appears; students from poorer backgrounds face hurdles at every phase of education – from early years to apprenticeships or postgraduate study.
Rather than thinking of the attainment gap as being caused by some deficit of character, aspirations or mindset, it might be more helpful to consider the range of barriers that undermine the aspirations and attainment of young people from low-income backgrounds (bit.ly/AspirationNation).
6. Recognising what constitutes a sure bet
Rosenshine B (2012) “Principles of instruction: research-based strategies that all teachers should know”, American Educator bit.ly/PrinciplesOfInstruction
One of the problems with the latest research is that the conclusions are necessarily tentative and there’s a good chance that the next researcher might identify something that contradicts it. This leaves teachers with a problem when trying to identify evidence-informed approaches to developing their teaching: is it worth embarking on something involving lots of time and effort, only to discover that researchers change their minds in a year’s time?
One way around this problem is to look for findings that have been triangulated. For example, if we find an outcome in well-controlled, but quite artificial, laboratory experiments and we find the same result in authentic classroom settings, despite all the noisy variables involved, then that likely makes it a good bet to try to implement it in your classroom.
In this paper, Barak Rosenshine reviews different bodies of research, including cognitive science and classroom studies, to identify where the science and practice appear to tell us the same thing about how we might take a research-informed approach to improving our teaching. If you have time to read only one research summary this year, I would recommend this one.
7. Discovering the secrets of transferring learning
Deans for Impact (2015) The Science of Learning bit.ly/TheScienceOfLearning
In contrast to claims by some educationalists, advancements in information technology haven’t rendered “knowing” obsolete: children learn by connecting new learning to what they already know. But “knowing stuff”, while a necessary foundation, does not mark the limit of our ambitions for student learning; we also want children to be able to apply their learning to novel situations and problems.
Since Edward Thorndike’s experiments in the 1920s, psychologists interested in education have considered the issue of transfer. The problem involves how individuals learning in one context often fail to transfer learning to another, similar context. For example, as a science teacher I might find that students struggle to mark out an appropriate scale on the axis of a graph, but discover that the same students appear to do this task quite well in their maths lessons.
The issue is that they know this stuff in maths, but don’t readily or automatically transfer this knowledge to apply it in the different context of my lessons.
The question of how to help students transfer their learning to new situations, whether inside or outside the classroom, is one of the areas summarised in the Deans for Impact Science of Learning review. If you encounter the same issue as I’ve had when trying to encourage students to apply and transfer their knowledge and skills, the practical suggestions in this review are worth experimenting with.
Nick Rose is a former leading practitioner for psychology and research and now works as a researcher for Teach First. He tweets @Nick_J_Rose.
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