Tags: Classroom Teacher | Teaching & Learning Coordinator | Teaching and Learning

Brin Best calls for a fundamental rethink of what works in the classroom.

What evidence do we as teachers and educationalists use to back up our claims that teaching interventions have worked?

I think there’s so much that we can learn that can really make a difference in the classroom and I want to devote this column to a topic that has caused me increasing concern over the last few months. I know that what I have to say could strike some readers as rather controversial, but I’m convinced that, if we are to move forward with our thinking on what is effective in the classroom, we need to challenge the way in which we’ve seen things in the past.

‘Cognitive conflict’ occurs when we come across an idea that challenges the way that we currently see the world, and can help us to make leaps forward in our understanding – through a kind of cognitive revolution. My hope is that by reflecting on the ideas contained in this column, you’ll enter this exciting zone of learning.

Five cognitive revolutions

As a classroom teacher and head of department, I was always intensely interested in how my teaching methods affected the learning of my students. Having carried out research (in environmental science) before entering the teaching profession, I had a naturally enquiring mind and was keen to investigate what teaching methods worked best and exactly how they helped my students to learn. Perhaps you share this kind of quest?

1. My psychological knowledge was not up to scratch

Early on in my journey, I realised that I was not equipped with much of the basic knowledge that would allow me to judge what was working and the ways in which students benefit. Teachers are highly skilled professionals, who should surely be perceived as experts in learning – as doctors are experts in healing. But curiously, the science underpinning teachers’ work – education psychology – is curiously thin on the ground or absent from many teacher training courses. It’s also not a subject that most teachers choose to learn more about once they become classroom practitioners. I realised that if I were to really understand learning, I would need to immerse myself in education psychology. Only in this way would I begin to understand what the learning landscape of my classroom looked like.

2. Education research won’t tell me everything that I need to know

As I started to read through some of the key educational literature, I hoped that the ‘big picture’ would reveal itself. I naively believed that the answers to all my questions about teaching and learning were out there, waiting to be found. I thought that educationalists had proven what does and doesn’t work in the classroom and that I simply had to track down the books or journals that published such research, so that I could implement these proven methods. However, after a couple of years of serious study, I realised that there are many gaps in our knowledge of learning, even though we know much more about what’s effective than we did 50 years ago. I also soon appreciated that just because something has not been researched, it doesn’t mean that it is not having a positive effect!

3. My classroom was a laboratory for real life learning

My readings pointed to the fact that much of the published research on teaching and learning had not been carried out in real classrooms or schools. This came as something of a surprise. Instead, much of the educational research relates to studies carried out in highly controlled conditions, which have tried to recreate classroom conditions in some way. This presented me with an exciting opportunity to use my classroom as a real-life laboratory for learning.

4. Learning is highly individual and context specific

I realised that I was searching at too coarse a scale for the techniques that would bring me success in the classroom. We all know our learners are individuals, with specific preferences, needs and strengths. I had lost sight of this in my search for the ‘truth’ about what makes for effective teaching, perhaps because I wanted to find the basic universal principles that would enable me to teach all of my classes more effectively. I now realise that it’s not possible to generalise about effective teaching: instead, it’s necessary to approach a specific aspect of the subject or task if we are to understand fully how learning happens.

5. Carrying out high-quality research into what was effective in my classroom would require almost intrusive levels of control

Although I found that there is some classroom-based research on effective teaching and learning to draw upon, I realised it would not be easy for my school to replicate the conditions that are required for research that can be published. This typically includes setting up an intervention, testing it in strict conditions and comparing the results to a ‘control group’ of students who did not witness the intervention. I also had concerns about the ethical issues underpinning such a study. Although I recognised that more qualitative studies that did not rely on hard data were possible, I was keen to find things that other teachers in my school – and further afield – could benefit from.

Moving on to systematic studies

These cognitive revolutions led me to a whole series of projects and studies that tried to cast light on the learning process in my classroom – some basic and some much more sophisticated.

To help explain the variety of approaches that are possible, I offer a simple model that presents, in increasing level of applicability to other schools, how teaching can be investigated.

Four dimensions for investigating teaching

1. Teachers’ professional trial and error

Most teachers use their own judgement to sift out the teaching approaches that seem to work from those that do not get the desired results. Experienced teachers do this instinctively, tending to rely on qualitative information such as students’ behaviour and their responses to the methods used, as well as test or examination scores.

2. Case studies

Case studies are evaluations of work carried out in a single classroom or school, with no attempt to draw out generalisations, which can be used in other schools. They often yield a mixture of qualitative and quantitative data and may include questionnaires.

3. Action research

Action research takes things one step further by investigating a specific topic that is perceived to have a real impact on classroom pedagogy. There is a tendency for action research to collect more quantitative data, and to use this to apply the findings to other contexts.

4. Full-scale educational studies

These often require considerable effort to set up, usually involve control groups, and seek to collect qualitative and quantitative data that will help to show the educational benefits of an intervention, both in the study school and more widely.

It’s worth pausing at this point to consider which of the above approaches you have had personal experience of, and what information each has yielded.

The dangers of avoiding psychology

Educational authors and consultants have not done themselves any favours when it comes to helping teachers understand these key issues. Many – perhaps including myself in some of my earlier writings – have been guilty of greatly simplifying the highly complex nature of teaching. As a result we find lots of ‘folk psychology’ in print regarding what does or does not work in the classroom, which is simply not backed up by the research literature. Sometimes this has been done to support authors’ own models and approaches; at other times perhaps this reflects on their ignorance of the complexity of education psychology. Whatever the reasons, this has resulted in many teachers remaining confused about what is effective, or persuaded that there are simple quick fixes that have universal appeal.

The things teachers say…

I began this article by stating that what’s needed is a fundamental re-think about how we judge the effectiveness of different teaching approaches. Teachers’ thinking is revealed by the things they say and the table below illustrates four statements that I have heard teachers utter, together with suggestions for how these may be reframed in the light of the ideas presented in this column. By being more critical and specific about the language that we use – and about how research in education psychology can help to frame our work – we become more realistic about teaching effectiveness and what research can do to aid our thinking. We also learn to become more discerning teachers.

My own learning journey continues as I carry out doctoral studies into effective teaching and learning in collaboration with Leeds University. Although my thesis is focused on a specific aspect of thinking skills and collaborative learning (LogoVisual thinking), I am also exploring the following:

  • To what extent are accelerated learning methods simply examples of education ‘good practice’?
  • How can thinking skills be used to enhance learning in specific subjects?
  • How do teachers take advantage of the latest findings in education psychology in order to improve their classroom practice?

Having complex questions to mull over can be very stimulating, and I’d like to challenge you to provide a focus for your thinking over the coming months and years by framing some of your own questions about teaching and learning.

Recommendations

  • Take a basic course in psychology, as it will enrich your understanding of learning and human behaviour more than you can imagine.
  • Top up your knowledge of key psychological theories by scanning some of the major journals on learning or attending conferences – there are many stimulating events to attend that are especially tailored to teachers.
  • Consider carrying out your own action research. There is nothing more powerful than critically investigating your teaching methods to help you to understand the principles of educational research and psychology.
  • Spend time in the company of professional educational researchers. Although they often seem to speak a different language, they will help you to undergo a whole series of cognitive revolutions that will enable you to challenge how you currently think about your teaching.
  • Make time for this work. Although you’re sure to feel busy in your job, it’s vital to make time to develop this aspect of your professional knowledge. How would you feel if you knew your doctor had not read about the latest advances in medicine since his or her initial training course 15 or 20 years ago? TEX
Teachers’ comments Possible reframes
‘Give me five tips to get better results using accelerated learning.’ ‘I want to improve a specific aspect of the learning of one of my teaching groups. What approaches under the accelerated learning umbrella should I consider trying first?’
‘What teaching methods work best for reluctant boys?’ ‘I want to teach five reluctant Year 8 boys some science theory. What insights can research offer to help me to design appropriate learning experiences?’
‘Tell me how to teach Shakespeare last thing on a Friday.’ ‘I’m eager to investigate a specific aspect of teaching English literature to 15-year olds, whose energy levels are low. Is there a case study that can help?’
‘We used some new teaching and learning methods and now our students’ results have gone through the roof, proving our efforts were worthwhile. Other schools should introduce these methods too.’ ‘We implemented a series of teaching innovations in Year 11 designed to help our students learn more effectively. This coincided with an increase in examination performance at GCSE for the target group, which suggests a link between the two. Teachers at our school feel that in our case these new methods have helped student learning, and other schools might be interested to find out more about what we did. We are considering carrying out an action research project next year in association with a local university to investigate this further.’

Brin Best is an educational consultant based in Yorkshire, and has written a wide range of books for teachers and school managers on effective teachers and schools.

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