What works in the lab may hit a wall in the classroom

12th October 2018 at 00:00
Trials of the Abracadabra reading programme have shown it to be effective, but we are missing a trick if we assume such findings can be easily replicated in schools, writes Megan Dixon

We are, it seems, addicted to our screens. And we cannot escape them, even in the classroom. Lessons that I’m involved in are frequently taught through a screen – either on a hand-held device or on an interactive whiteboard – and it is an easy assumption that such technology is somehow better than the more old-fashioned tools of paper, pencils and books.

Looking into that assumption, I came across the findings of a trial by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) of an online reading programme called Abracadabra, also known as Abra.

This programme was originally developed in Canada as a resource for all schools to use and had been widely researched to ensure its effectiveness. The researchers, based in Montreal, concluded that it was effective when delivered by the researchers themselves and had varying degrees of success in the classroom (Savage et al, 2010).

In the UK, the EEF trial showed that the programme was effective (great!), but the sting in the tail was that it had the most impact when the materials were printed out and completed with a pencil, at a table – not online.

How should we interpret this finding? Well, first, the sticky world of the classroom is very different from the carefully controlled conditions of a research lab. It is not so surprising that the programme is more effective when delivered by researchers who are immensely experienced in using it.

Second, further research in Montreal looked at the impact of the confidence of teachers in using digital technology itself. The academics followed the implementation of Abra in different classrooms with teachers who reported different levels of comfort and confidence in using computers at home and as part of their teaching practice.

It will come as no surprise that the teachers who were most experienced at using digital technology found it easier to learn to use the programme and integrate it into their teaching practice as the developers had intended.

What’s more, they were quick to notice and respond to the children’s learning appropriately.

Those who were learning about the technology themselves found it frustrating, made time-consuming errors and were more prone to use it in a very limited and restricted way.

So, back in the UK, maybe it isn’t so surprising that the paper and pencil version of Abra had more impact. It might be that the teachers and teaching assistants who were using it felt more comfortable delivering the programme via the technology they were most familiar with.

The moral of all of this is that what works in the lab may have different outcomes in the classroom, and we must think about how we implement new practices.

We need to not only consider whether the evidence suggests that the new approach will work but also reflect carefully and ensure that we have all the other pieces of the jigsaw in place.

Megan Dixon is director of literacy at the Aspire Educational Trust



Savage, R, Erten, O, Abrami, P et al (2010) “Abracadabra in the hands of teachers: the effectiveness of a web-based literacy intervention in grade 1 language arts programs”, Computers and Education, 55/2: 911-22

For the EEF research into Abracadabra, go to bit.ly/EEF_Abra

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