Education consultant and author Brin Best uses findings from education research to help improve your teaching skills

I’ve had a long-standing interest in what education research can tell us about effective teaching. During my time in the classroom I tried to keep up with some of the advances in knowledge by scanning through major education research journals, but it was really hard to keep abreast of all the new findings, on top of a busy teaching schedule.

I’ve worked in a support capacity with schools, and have been able to schedule in much more time in order to read education journals. My part-time PhD research has also brought me into close contact with the academic world, and has helped to improve my understanding of what education psychology has to offer teachers.

I’m convinced that there’s much we can learn from education research that can make a real difference to classroom practice. Here I examine a fascinating study into learners’ views on teaching and learning that was first published in the winter 2004 issue of the journal Educational Research.

The research project

Ian Kinchin, from King’s College, London, has made an important contribution to our understanding of how learners perceive effective teaching and learning, with his research into the kind of learning environment that learners prefer.

Methods used

The work involved questionnaires with 349 students in years 7 and 9 at two schools. They were asked to state which of two learning environments they preferred. The choice was made with reference to two ‘concept cartoons’ that showed two contrasting teaching and learning environments (see below). These had been designed in consultation with students who provided advice on the language used. They were:

  • Classroom A: an ‘objectivist’ learning environment, characterised by much direct teacher instruction and student compliance.
  • Classroom B: a ‘constructivist’ learning environ-ment, characterised by a more collaborative relationship between teacher and student.

Students were also asked to make written comments on why they chose one classroom over the other.

Results

The results showed an overwhelming preference among students for Classroom B, with almost 89% of students preferring this option. Results were consistent across both year groups. Interestingly, there was a difference between the responses of girls and boys, with boys twice as likely (13.1%) to choose Classroom A than the girls (6.7%).

Students indicated that they thought Classroom B would be more interesting and more effective at developing their understanding. They also believed that it would allow them to take greater ownership of their learning.

Some teachers from the case study schools expressed surprise that such a large proportion of students selected Classroom B, given that they had seemed so comfortable in a Classroom A environ-ment. The latter was identified by a number of teachers as the dominant teaching environment in their own schools.

Conclusions

The research suggests that students are strongly attracted to a learning environment that is typified by close collaboration between the teacher and the learner, where the emphasis is on students building their understanding, rather than being told things. It’s interesting to note that such constructivist strategies are now being implemented in schools as part of the key stage 3 national strategy. The fact that fewer boys preferred Classroom B than girls is also noteworthy, but it should be noted that boys still overwhelmingly opted for Classroom B in the study.

The research also highlights the value of investigating students’ views on the learning process. Contrary to some teachers’ views, when given the opportunity to comment critically on teaching and learning, students are able to offer meaningful insights into their experiences. The author suggests that this can extend into the primary phase too.

There’s a growing body of literature describing how teachers generally find students’ views gen-erous, insightful and constructive when talking about teaching and learning.

Establishing an effective dialogue between teacher and student should clearly be a priority in all classrooms, especially when new teaching approaches are being implemented.

The results suggest that students would be receptive to moves by teachers to introduce more techniques in which students are active builders of understanding, rather than passive receivers of information. The students participating in the study were clearly arguing for a move away from curriculum as delivery, to curriculum as the joint making of meaning.

One of the key messages of the research can be illustrated by the words of some of the students who participated:

‘Cartoon B is where all things should start – understanding what the students know and how they learn’. YEAR 7 GIRL.

‘In Cartoon B I might not be taught as much, but I would learn more’. YEAR 7 BOY.

Reflection points

After reading the research described above, reflect on the following:

  • Is your classroom usually characterised by
  • (A) an objectivist or (B) a constructivist learning environment? Perhaps you use a mixture of the two approaches?
  • Are there times when an objectivist approach seems necessary? When? Why?
  • Do you take the views of your students on teaching and learning seriously?
  • How do you try to maintain a positive dialogue with your students about teaching and learning? What more could you do?
  • Are you aware of your students’ views on the kind of learning environment they would like to work in? If not, how could you find out their views? If so, do you try to mirror that environment?
  • In what other ways could your students’ views help you to improve as a teacher? TEX

Further reading

How to Improve Your School: giving pupils a voice. Rudduck, J. and Flutter, J. (Continuum 2004). This book shows how students’ views can be used to improve a whole range of key issues in schools, with case studies of projects carried out in the UK.

Reference

1. Kinchin, I. M. (2004) Investigating students’ beliefs about their preferred role as learners. Educational Research 46: 301-312.

Brin Best worked as a teacher and head of department before joining the advisory staff of an LEA in Yorkshire. He is now the director of Innovation for Education Ltd, and is carrying out part-time doctoral studies at Leeds University into effective teaching and learning approaches. Brin is the author of a wide range of books for teachers and school managers, and is the series consultant for the award-winning Teachers’ Pocketbooks.

First published in Teaching Expertise magazine, Issue 10 Winter 2005

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