This week CIRL co-hosted a ‘Researchers in Schools’ event alongside Holyport College, with attendees from across the state and independent sector. Short talks were given by Dr Tom Perry, Warwick University, Ian Warwick, London Gifted and Talented, and Matt Gracie, Bedford School, followed by discussion. The aim of the event was to bring research-engaged teachers together from across different schools to support one another. This week’s blog post summarises each of the short talks, including some of the discussion which followed.
Tom Perry: The Application and Misapplication of Cognitive Science in the Classroom
Tom Perry worked on an EEF report on Cognitive Science in the Classroom (2021). As an academic, Tom provided an overview of some of the issues that arise when university researchers work with classroom teachers.
The aim of the report was to find out whether cognitive science techniques work in real classrooms, both across the curriculum and across different pupil groups. They looked at the following techniques:
- Spaced learning
- Retrieval practice
- Managing cognitive load
- Working with schemas
- Cognitive theory of multimedia learning
- Embodied learning and physical approaches
- Mixed strategy programmes
Using these techniques, they established 14 teaching strategies and these were tested out by classroom teachers.
- Spacing across lessons
- Spacing within lessons
- Worked Examples
- Scaffolds/Guidance SBI
- Collaborative prob solving
- Concept/knowledge mapping and organisation
- Schema/concept comparison and conflict
- Visual representation
- Spatial, visualisation and simulation approaches
- Embodied learning
- Mixed Strategy Programmes
The transition from theory to practice, however, meant that occasionally these strategies were not always applied in the way in which they were first imagined.
This is one of the main problems with academic research: it requires conditions that are often very unlike actual classroom conditions, such as:
- Do it in a single school
- Don’t let teachers deliver it
- Use booklets/programmes/scripts
- Don’t let teachers and students interact
- Supervise and step in when necessary
- If teachers deliver, make sure they are experts
- Keep research to two weeks or less
- Don’t teach in classrooms, do in small groups
- Make comparisons
- Design your own test
As a result, this makes the research less realistic and compromises the ‘ecological validity’ of projects.
Ian Warwick: ‘What’s in it for Them? How to get teachers to engage in research?’
Ian canvassed a number of different teachers and school leaders to find out their opinions on why teachers engage in research and why they do not. Here is an overview of their responses:
Why do they not engage?
- Firefighting: research can sometimes be a low priority when there are other issues facing a school. However, this is often where you find best practice.
- ‘A lethal mutation’: this is what happens when teachers get hold of research and interpret it according to their own preferences. As a result, it ends up being very different from what was intended.
- Research is often conducted by those who have little to no experience in the classroom which creates blind-spots.
- Vague abstractions can often become slogans.
How to increase engagement?
- Research questions need to be set bottom-up rather than top-down: this means that the right questions are asked by the right people.
- Context needs to be taken into consideration, or teachers should feel confident in adapting research to make it relevant. Teachers know their classes best and are therefore best placed to tailor the theory.
- Healthy cynicism: research often needs to be taken with a pinch of salt and delivered selectively.
- Observations should be conducted separately from performance management – they should be a means for personal improvement.
Matt Gracie: Changing Common Room Culture
Matt Gracie worked on a project which focused on developing a thriving workplace, and in particular considered the welfare of teachers. The project was part of his Masters in Education and explored the ways in which institutional culture can be changed.
The project sought to find out what teachers liked about the school’s common room culture by asking ‘what does a good day look like?’ and ‘when are we at our best?’. Data was collected via focus groups and posters, before being coded.
The project found that staff were at their best when they were:
- Placing value upon good practice, trust and high morale
Here is what he learnt through the process:
- Get ‘insiders’ involved: this does not necessarily have to be the senior management team, but could be colleagues who can access areas of the school that others cannot, acting as project allies.
- Culture change focuses on the following three areas: artefacts (what culture actually is), values (how culture is propagated) and assumptions (people’s bases for interpreting culture) – each of these areas needs to be assessed first before a culture can be ‘unfrozen’.
- Buy-in is the most important element; allow participants to opt in rather than opt out.
- Accept that despite the messy nature of research in schools, the process is worthwhile both for progress and discovery.
If you would like to get involved in the next ‘Researchers in Schools’ event, please do get in touch to be added to the mailing list.
 EEF, ‘Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom: A Review of the Evidence’, Available: <https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/education-evidence/evidence-reviews/cognitive-science-approaches-in-the-classroom> Accessed: 4 October 2021.