Author Archives: Jonathan Firth

Practical Suggestions for Tackling the Teacher Retention Crisis⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

Career progression: is there enough scope - and enough practical support - for teachers to keep developing and challenging themselves throughout their career? Image: Fras333

Career progression: is there enough scope - and enough practical support - for teachers to keep developing and challenging themselves throughout their career? Image: Fras333

The quality of teaching matters to how well pupils do at school. So how do we, as a society, encourage high-quality and experienced teachers to stay in the classroom rather than leave the profession or move into management?

This question was addressed by the Scottish Government's recent report, 'Teacher Workforce Planning for Scottish Schools', and also featured in the initial findings from their panel of international advisers earlier in July 2017.

It is becoming a major issue well beyond Scotland, too, with record numbers of teachers leaving south of the border. Teaching unions have spoken of a perfect storm of negative conditions: funding cuts which have reduced (real terms) pay, increasing workload and hours, and the likely impact of Brexit on the availability of teachers from the EU, among other pressures.

This problem is of personal interest and relevance to me as someone who works in an HE education department, as my day job involves preparing and educating new trainee teachers. However, my role also puts me in the category of someone who has left the school classroom! I see this choice as being largely due to my enthusiasm for helping to develop the new generation of Psychology teachers at a key time for the subject's development in Scottish schools, but it's also the case that I was motivated by a desire for pedagogy-related career progression which was otherwise absent.

Progression

Both reports mentioned above highlight the need to find ways of motivating experienced classroom teachers to remain in post. This excerpt comes from the Teacher Workforce report:

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The Chartered Teacher Scheme was withdrawn in 2012, having previously provided a way for pay increases to teachers who undertook a course of further academic study. A number of colleagues had attained Chartered Teacher status during my early years of school teaching (my first permanent secondary post began in 2001), and it seemed to me that the view of the Scheme among the staff as a whole was quite negative. In particular, people who were not Chartered did not feel that it rewarded the 'best' teachers or significantly benefited the pupils.

Nevertheless, it certainly did provide an option for progression outside of promotion to management, a route which does not appeal to everyone (and not can everyone be a manager), and which inevitably results in reduced classroom time for the promoted staff member.

Scotland is keen to emulate other countries such as Finland in making teachers a Masters-level profession. This is welcome, but is not likely to tackle all of the issues around retention of staff, given that Masters qualifications tend to be completed early in the teaching career, and are therefore not likely to function as an incentive for more experienced staff to remain in teaching.

It can, of course, be argued that establishing this level of qualification (or above) as the norm will result in teachers being treated as professionals to a greater degree, and that this higher regard throughout society would impact on teacher retention and make teachers less demoralised. I certainly think it could help - though it could be argued that UK teachers already have relatively high status compared to the European norm. Clearly the nature of the job itself also plays a key role, irrespective of career progression; going hand-in-hand with societal respect, we urgently need greater agency for teachers to manage learning and exercise professional judgement in their own classrooms, rather than the more top-down accountability processes which are increasing worldwide. It is also vital to reduce the workload associated with a non-stop round of curriculum updates. However again, these things don't apply specifically to the experienced professionals who exit teaching.

Could a Chartered Teacher programme be reintroduced with more success? I don't think the negative attitudes that I mentioned can be put down just to jealously over colleagues' higher pay; departmental heads, in contrast, tend to be viewed positively by colleagues, with fellow teachers recognising their commitment and hard work. It seemed like Chartered Status was resented in part because it seemed like money for nothing - besides being supposedly expert practitioners, the Chartered Teachers didn't actually do anything more for the school than their colleagues did on an ongoing basis. The other side of this coin is that it provided little for a Chartered Teacher to engage with intellectually. They role wasn't any different, and therefore beyond their initial studies there wasn't much to maintain motivation and provide a sense of purpose.

It follows that there is a need for a means of progression for classroom teachers which is linked to a clear role of benefit to the school - a quid pro quo, where the promoted member of staff is doing something of tangible value, akin to that provided by departmental heads and other middle management, and in doing so gains genuine and meaningful progression throughout their career. 

Mentors

One possibility is to establish a specialist mentor role for those who guide and support trainee teachers during their work placements. This possibility is hinted at in the Teacher Workforce report, which refers to an additional time allocation for mentoring of students:

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Having mentored two student teachers last year, I can confirm that it is certainly time consuming (if anyone thinks that the students do all your teaching while you get a break, this is far from the case!), but it is also professionally challenging and very rewarding. The idea that teachers in positions could have a reduction in teaching workload is interesting, and it would be useful to know exactly what this would involve. To do it well, freeing up time for professional reading, meetings and detailed feedback, something like 20% of contact time, equivalent to a day a week for a full time teacher, would seem reasonable to me. Any less and it is likely to result in increased stress for the mentor, and make it hard to guide students as well as it should be done.

This could provide a specialist route that would allow the most skilled practitioners to not only remain in the classroom, but to make their teaching craft (and perhaps, specific aspect of that craft) a specialism. It would be of benefit to trainees, too, who would be mentored by a motivated expert teacher rather than someone who lacks the time and/or experience to fully support them.

Teacher-researchers

Another possible route for professional progression, via an essentially similar model, would be to create a teacher-researcher role. In my previous school, a number of teachers engaged with research as part of a research centre (see 'Can teachers be researchers?'), and the GTCS and other teaching bodies encourage practical research engagement for teachers (often termed 'practitioner enquiry' - but that's another debate!).

However, the objection that is most often raised by teachers about the prospect of conducting or otherwise engaging with research is that they lack time.

A reduced workload, again of around 20% of contact time while otherwise remaining in teaching duties, could facilitate teacher research engagement very significantly. Most teachers can see the value of research, and it typically links intimately with classroom practice (for example, research into memory, motivation, etc, or research which develops their specialised subject knowledge). Given time to do it properly and to develop the required technical skills, they are much more likely to engage with the research community more broadly, follow high standards and produce good quality work. It would provide a stimulating addition to their teaching work that might help to motivate teachers who would otherwise choose not to remain in a teaching role. What's more, their research work could be part of a school-wide agenda and the findings shared with colleagues, circumventing the criticism of Chartered Status discussed above, i.e. that they weren't contributing anything extra to the school on an ongoing basis.

I'm aware that a significant number of schools/clusters in England and Wales have established a 'research lead' role, and while very interesting, this is not really what I'm advocating - such a position is essentially unique within the institution (we can't all be the research lead!) - and I'm more interested in a route that any experienced teacher could potentially undertake.

As a follow-on from the prospect of engaging more teachers as researchers, any school in which teachers are conducting active data gathering should have an ethical approval process. Again, in my previous role, this was done by volunteers on top of a full teaching workload. Making a position on a research ethics board (which could be run across a cluster of schools rather than one) a specialised form of teacher-researcher role - with extra pay and a time allocation - seems to me a more sustainable model, and one that would encourage those who do it to prioritise it appropriately and to develop the necessary skills and knowledge.

In short, I don't think the answer to the retention crisis is for teachers to do another qualification and then essentially be handed money for nothing for the rest of their career. I do think that they should be offered one or more pathways for career progression that would mean still being in the classroom for the majority of their contracted hours, but would add a stimulating new challenge which was of broader benefit along with increased pay. As well as the prospect of advancement without the need to enter management, such roles would be highly motivating to experienced professionals who perhaps feel that they have developed their skills as far as they can in a standard classroom role.

I have suggested two key types of promoted role - student mentor and teacher-researcher. I'm sure that there are other possibilities, including in pastoral and extra curricular areas.

What is evidence-based education?⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

Finding and interpreting educational research can be a challenge for teachers. Image source here.

Finding and interpreting educational research can be a challenge for teachers. Image source here.

A primer on the ‘what works’ debate, with key sources and a discussion of its pros and cons.

I recently joined and met with SURE - ‘School and University Research Enquiry’, a research group which has put several schools in the Glasgow area in contact with the University of Strathclyde in order to exchange knowledge and conduct new research. The ultimate aim is to promote a more evidence-informed approach to educational decision making and practice.

With this in mind, I thought it would be helpful to write a brief overview of the field of evidence-based education, including some of the main publications and debates.

 

What is it?

Firstly, evidence-based education is the idea that research of various kinds should be used to inform decisions about teaching and learning. It is conceived of as an alternative to teaching practice that is guided by intuition and/or experience.

An educator’s job includes a huge amount of decision making. For example, what should be taught today? What about tomorrow? What type of homework should be set, and when? How can a teacher maintain discipline effectively, and engage their pupils? Evidence-based education aims to tackle these questions pragmatically on the basis of past findings, and is sometimes referred to as a 'what works' approach.

Focusing on the example of homework, a traditional view might be that the teacher should allocate whatever they judge to be useful, or whatever is just ‘the way it’s done’ (or whatever is lying around the office, is quick to mark, or is in the textbook/revision guide!). An evidence-based alternative would be to look at this issue from the perspective of research which has shown that some strategies lead to more effective/durable learning than others - the cognitive psychology of memory tells us that learners remember more if there is a delay before they practice material that they have mastered in class, and that they remember more if they do a closed-book test rather than copying from notes. The teacher may therefore decide to set a practice test, and to do so after a one-week delay rather than on the same day as the material was done in class. 

The above example relates to memory, and the what works approach as a whole usually refers to techniques or interventions that boost attainment (as measured by some form of test or exam), but evidence could inform many other types of decision too. For example, when considering an issue such as student motivation, evidence could be evaluated to help determine the most effective way to proceed.

As a model, this borrows from the philosophy behind evidence-based medicine. We would probably take it for granted that a doctor should select a treatment that has been shown by reliable (and replicated) research to be the most effective, rather than being guided by tradition (leeches, anyone?) or their individual gut feeling about what ought to work. In the same way, it is argued, teachers should look to the evidence rather than relying on their personal preferences or even on classroom experience. Insisting on evidence may have the incidental advantage of making educational practices less vulnerable to fads, such as the learning styles myth.

 

Sounds great! So everyone agrees with this…?

No! It has many critics, and their points are well worth taking on board. Firstly, the idea that education can derive a model of effective practice from medicine is open to doubt. Learning is not really like curing an illness - it’s cumulative, has no clearly defined end point, and there are important subtleties such as how well it can be transferred to new situations. The entire approach could therefore be seen as over-simplistic.

Secondly, what works for one group might not work for all. To take one example, Kalyuga (2007) has described the ‘expertise reversal effect’ whereby tasks that are effective with beginners become ineffective or at least inefficient when used with more advanced learners. Another example, much discussed in recent years, is that homework appears to be more effective for secondary students than for primary (Cooper et al, 2006). This is not a killer blow to the idea of evidence-based practice, but it does suggest that the use of evidence must be cautious and thoughtful - we can’t apply one-size-fits-all solutions.

Thirdly, there are concerns about the validity of some of the evidence used. Education is a notoriously tricky area to research - for ethical reasons it is often necessary to rely on correlations and secondary data, leaving some findings open to confounding variables. Meanwhile, a lot of the research evidence from cognitive psychology in areas such as working memory and learning is based on laboratory studies with university students. That doesn’t make it inherently bad research, but does mean that we should be cautious about generalising it to school pupils. 

Finally - and linked to the previous point - some people argue that the evidence referred to in this approach is often positivist in its underlying scientific philosophy, whereas many educators and learning researchers subscribe to a social constructivist view of learning.

 

Key literature

There is a lot of literature in this field, including both empirical research studies and reviews. For anyone who is new to this area, these are a few very useful publications to get you started. In the main they come from proponents of the idea, but I've also included some key critiques:

American Psychological Association’s ‘top 20’ ways to apply psychology in the classroom

Broader than most, the APA’s guide includes such issues as creativity, classroom management, and growth mindset, as well as strategies that impact on learning more directly.

Biesta (2007)

Gert Biesta here criticises evidence-based practice and also questions the broader assumption that closely-controlled lab work has ever contributed much to society (!). He argues that it tends to link to top-down approaches where administrators and governments say that strategies work on the basis of lab research, when they may not work in a specific context. Additionally, the notion of something working doesn’t address philosophical issues of who it works for, and to what social end.

Coe et al - the Sutton Trust report

Coe et al (2014)’s report ‘What makes Great Teaching?’ is useful in that it goes beyond the cognitive evidence and considers such issues as classroom climate, teacher knowledge levels, and how teachers can improve. Otherwise, it draws on a similar body of research to Dunlosky et al (2013; see below). The Sutton Trust also back the Education Endowment Foundation’s ‘Teaching and Learning Toolkit’, which provides a useful (if rather undiscriminating) visual guide to evidence-based strategies in terms of cost, lasting impact and the security of the supporting research. 

Dunlosky et al (2013)

The authors are psychologists and memory researchers, and this paper reviews a number of different findings from cognitive psychology. In particular, it endorses the use of retrieval practice (the ‘testing effect’) and distributed practice (the ‘spacing effect’), while noting that techniques such as re-reading and highlighting are generally ineffective as study strategies.

Hattie’s taxonomy

Australian researcher John Hattie is probably the biggest name in this field; he has synthesised numerous meta-analyses of educational research and built up a list of interventions together with their average statistical effect size. He takes an effect size of 0.4 as a 'hinge point' above which interventions fall into (roughly) the top half, i.e. they are among the more effective interventions - but the higher the effect size, the better. The work is also helpful in identifying some interventions that have tended not to make a large impact. It has its flaws, both conceptual and statistical, but it’s a useful starting place for finding out about several important strategies.

The Learning Scientists

An excellent blog run by four cognitive psychologists who study learning and memory. It is aimed at students and teachers, and makes the science highly accessible without dumbing it down.

Marzano’s top ten

It’s useful to be aware of the work of Marzano et al (2001), one of the earlier evidence-based summaries of effective teaching interventions. The strategies they endorse include analogies and metaphors, student-generated study notes, and feedback/formative assessment. There have been important new findings and some of the key research questions have moved on a bit since it came out, however, so it is a bit dated.

NCEE

The National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE) in the USA offers the ’What Works Clearinghouse’. It usefully reviews studies of efficacy in terms of learning, but the focus tends to be on large-scale programmes, for example the “Great Explorations in Math and Science® (GEMS®) Space Science Sequence” curriculum, rather than on specific techniques that teachers could use in class. This makes their findings less immediately applicable.

Zhao (2017)

In his paper ‘What works may hurt’, Zhao refers back to the analogy of evidence-based medicine and borrows a further concept - that of side effects. From this perspective, an intervention may ‘work’ from a learning point of view, but it could have any number of side effects. Just as with a drug, any benefits must be evaluated in that context. For example, an intervention that boosts learning over the short-term could also harm motivation over the longer term.

 

Is all of this a threat to teachers?

It is worth considering: does all of this amount to self-proclaimed experts telling us what to do (or what not to do)? At times that might be a valid concern, but the entire nature of making education more evidence based is that that evidence is (or can be) open to scrutiny. You may not agree with all of the conclusions from the sources above, but their arguments are probably backed up by a more thorough factual base than the opinion of a staffroom colleague. And if you are unsure, then you are free to scrutinise and evaluate the sources.

A problem, certainly, lies with teachers’ access to information. If teachers can’t or won’t access the evidence themselves, this puts a lot of power in the hands of central institutions who may try to push inappropriate programmes and interventions. Teachers (and schools more broadly) are in a stronger position to ward this off if they not only learn about the evidence but are also aware of its limitations.

For this to happen, practitioners require journal access, CPD time, and also the skills to critique the research methods and statistics used. How can that be achieved? This BERA report sets out a vision of schools and colleges as "research-rich environments in which to work" (p.5). It's a radical idea, and one that asks us to reconsider the very nature of what teacher professionalism involves.

 

References

Biesta, G. (2007). Why “what works’’ won’t work: Evidence-based practice and the democratic deficit in educational research. Educational Theory, 57(1), 1–22.

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S. and Major, L.E. (2014). What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research. Accessed 14 May 2017 at http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/What-makes-great-teaching-FINAL-4.11.14.pdf 

Cooper, H., Robinson, J. C., & Patall, E. A. (2006). Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research, 1987–2003. Review of Educational Research, 76(1), 1–62.

Hattie, J. (2013). Visible learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement. London: Routledge.

Kalyuga, S. (2007). Expertise reversal effect and its implications for learner-tailored instruction. Educ Psychol Rev, 19, 509–539. doi: 10.1007/s10648-007-9054-3

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement. Alexandra, V.A.: ASCD.

Zhao, Y. (2017). What works may hurt: Side effects in education. Journal of Educational Change, 18(1), 1-19.

What are tests and questioning good for?⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

Retrieval practice can be used in a huge range of learning tasks. Image by Deb Stgo.

Retrieval practice can be used in a huge range of learning tasks. Image by Deb Stgo.

The testing effect is a well-known psychological phenomena whereby people remember things better if they are tested on them. The benefits don't stem just from getting feedback on right or wrong answers - although that can help too. It appears that the process of retrieving information from memory actually helps it to be consolidated. In other words, a test can make the memory more secure and less likely to be forgotten.

So what role should tests play in the learning process? This phenomenon can certainly be applied to self-testing during revision; students who do this appear to get better grades (see Hartwig & Dunlosky, 2012). Self-questioning of a text has also been linked to superior recall and understanding compared to re-reading (Pressley et al., 1990).

More broadly, questioning can help to pique curiosity - leading to the surprising finding that even being tested before you have been taught the information can boost subsequent attainment (the 'pretesting effect').

However, testing can play a much broader role in the classroom than just revision activities. Memory research in this area suggests that retrieval of information plays a fundamental role in the way a new memory forms.

A key research study

A 2006 study by Henry Roediger III and Jeffrey Karpicke has become a classic in this area, and is highly illuminating to teachers. They compared memory for a text after studying (S) it and/or being tested (T) on it. They found that study opportunities followed by a test where students wrote down everything they could remember (S-S-S-T) was led to better recall than being given an additional study opportunity (S-S-S-S). More surprisingly, a single reading followed by three tests (S-T-T-T) was best of all, even though no feedback was given on any of the tests. 

An additional point to note from the Roediger and Karpicke study is that the advantage was only shown after a 1 week delay - if recall was assessed after just a few minutes, the study-only conditions were better. This is important, as it suggests that testing helped to prevent forgetting in long-term memory; participants in the S-S-S-S condition forgot far more (52%) than those in the S-S-S-T condition (28%), with participants in the S-T-T-T condition forgetting least of all (14%).

Current status

A huge amount of research has been done on this area over the past 10 years or so since the Roediger & Karpicke paper, many of them using educationally relevant materials. Benefits that were first established in psychology labs have been shown to apply to real world learning situations such as a middle school science classroom (e.g. McDaniel et al, 2011). 

It is easy to measure the testing effect with simple facts or word lists, and the extent to which the benefit extends to more complex materials has been questioned (e.g. van Gog & Sweller, 2015; see also Karpicke & Aue, 2015). However, the effect has been shown with a wide range of real-world tasks including texts, and Smith et al (2010) found that being tested on material from a passage also improved later knowledge of items that had not been tested (in comparison to a re-reading control condition), suggesting that it does promote integrated understanding. Overall, the current research seems to suggest that most teachers and learners in most learning situations would benefit from increasing the level of retrieval used, i.e. the amount that learners have to actively recall things from memory, and that this should be preferred to re-reading or re-teaching as a learning strategy.

Indeed, the research into retrieval practice can prompt a new way of thinking about learning as a whole - that although initial exposure to material and ideas is clearly necessary, that the actual learning takes place when we retrieve and use the information. Otherwise, forgetting can be quite rapid. Nevertheless, this area of psychology is still developing and it is important to keep an eye on new findings and possible boundary conditions as they emerge.

Educational implications

Despite its name, the testing effect does not just apply to tests - and more recently, researchers have tended to prefer the term 'retrieval practice' rather than testing effect (e.g. Karpicke et al, 2014), because retrieval is a key process in learning, while the term 'testing' tends to imply assessment. Of course, setting a class test is just one way of prompting students to retrieve information from memory; other methods could include:

- Direct verbal questioning

- Self-questioning

- Writing notes from memory

- Using flashcards

- Writing essays

- Group discussion

The key factor in all cases is that information is actively retrieved rather than passively heard or re-read -  a principle that can be applied to any subject discipline. A straightforward method for a teacher who uses Powerpoint would be to insert slides with short questions, either at the end or throughout (see Weinstein et al, 2016, for a discussion of the relative efficacy of interspersing question slides v's testing at the end).

It is also relatively easy to pair retrieval practice with other evidence based interventions, such as distributed learning. Roediger & Pyc (2012) described both retrieval practice and distributed learning as 'low-hanging fruit' in terms of possible educational interventions - in comparison to the millions that are spent on technological innovations, they are quick, easy and cheap to implement.

Overall, a large body of research suggests that integrating more opportunities for retrieval practice into our teaching will improve learners' long-term retention of facts and understanding of concepts. 

See also: Memory in education - a mission statement

Further reading (for teachers): Learn how to study using retrieval practice; Learning how to learn - practicing retrieval.

References

Hartwig, M. K., & Dunlosky, J. (2012). Study strategies of college students: Are self-testing and scheduling related to achievement?. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 19(1), 126-134.

Karpicke, J. D., & Aue, W. R. (2015). The testing effect is alive and well with complex materials. Educational Psychology Review, 27(2), 317-326.

McDaniel, M. A., Agarwal, P. K., Huelser, B. J., McDermott, K. B., & Roediger, H. L. (2011). Test-enhanced learning in a middle school science classroom: The effects of quiz frequency and placement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103, 399–414.

Pressley, M., Tanenbaum, R., McDaniel, M. A., & Wood, E. (1990). What happens when university students try to answer prequestions that accompany textbook material?. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 15(1), 27-35.

Richland, L. E., Kornell, N., & Kao, L. S. (2009). The pretesting effect: Do unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance learning?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 15(3), 243.

Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17, 249-255.

Roediger, H. L., & Pyc, M. A. (2012). Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1(4), 242-248.

Van Gog, T., & Sweller, J. (2015). Not new, but nearly forgotten: the testing effect decreases or even disappears as the complexity of learning materials increases. Educational Psychology Review, 27(2), 247-264.

Weinstein, Y., Nunes, L. D., & Karpicke, J. D. (2016). On the placement of practice questions during study. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 22(1), 72.

Can teachers be researchers?⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

Research for teachers can take many forms, from subject-based work to more general education projects. Image by Leo Hidalgo.

Research for teachers can take many forms, from subject-based work to more general education projects. Image by Leo Hidalgo.

Can teachers engage in research? And if so, should they be supported in doing so?

It has been great to be involved in the launch and running of Scotland's first school-based research centre over the past two years. This work has included running a research conference for our senior pupils with external visiting speakers, establishing an ethics approval procedure for teacher projects, and managing a number of collaborations including a research fellowship for visiting researcher Anna Beck of the University of Strathclyde.

My own experience is that teacher research is valuable but not always valued. Engaging in research is one of the most  valuable CPD activities I can think of, boosting my skills while making me more aware of educational debates and evidence. But practical support for teacher research in terms of time or funding depends on it being seen as a priority, and there is an inherent potential conflict with heavy teaching timetables and the need to focus on pupil attainment.

What is the status of teacher research?

The role of research in a school teacher's job is in some ways a philosophical question: we all agree that it is good for students to do research projects, but should teachers, similarly, be researchers? If so, how does that sit alongside their other duties, and is it actually 'research' at all (or 'action research', or 'practitioner enquiry', or... whatever).

Terminology is not central, but it does matter - if we use a word other than 'research', are we effectively saying from the outset that teachers are not 'proper' researchers, and that there is an essential divide between school and university staff? No doubt the quality of any research work will depend on professional abilities, but these can be developed - and already there are many teachers who have attained research degrees, and some who have published in peer-reviewed journals. Others have the potential to do so with the right support.

Regardless of the output in terms of publication, I feel that teacher research can foster curiosity, develop skills and prompt engagement with the current research literature. It can also lead to useful engagement with the broader research community. These have to be good things for a school and for education as a whole.

What next?

The Scottish Association for Educational Research has recently launched a network for early career researchers, and I'm really pleased to see that school-based researchers have been included from the start. We have a lot in common with PhD students and postdocs, and face many of the same challenges. It will also be important to engage with the FE sector as time goes on.

If you are interested in teacher research and want to find out more about how to develop a research centre in your school, or are simply looking for some support and advice, please do get in touch.

What did memory evolve to do?⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

It is thought that most of human evolution took place on a grasslands environment, but how does that affect learning and memory today? Image by Diana Robinson. 

It is thought that most of human evolution took place on a grasslands environment, but how does that affect learning and memory today? Image by Diana Robinson

Humans have evolved over the course of millions of years. Since we last shared a common ancestors with chimpanzees more than 6 million years ago (White et al, 2009), a number of hominin species have evolved - most, of course, have died out (as recently as 100,000 years ago, 4-5 homo species existed concurrently).

For most of this time, our ancestors and near relatives probably lived in grasslands environments, hunting and gathering. This environment has shaped our physical bodies as well as our behaviour - from our appetite for fatty and sweet foods, to our large brains which facilitate cooperation and interactions in large tribes.

Role of evolution in memory

Beyond a general acknowledgement that our brains and cognitive abilities are the product of evolution, human memory research has largely ignored our evolutionary history, focusing on short-term processing (see Bahrick, 2005) and using tasks which take little account of the context in which things are encountered in the real world.

An important advance was made when James Nairne and colleagues conducted an experiment demonstrating that people remember information better when they process it in a grasslands scenario. In an ingenious study, participants were shown a list of words such as truck, juice, chair and sword and were then asked to rate how relevant these objects were to the following scenario:

Remarkably, in a later surprise test, participants remembered the words significantly better having thought about them in this context compared to the other conditions used in the experiment - one of which involved a moving house scenario, and the other required participants simply to think about the pleasantness of the word (a standard memory intervention which promotes deep processing).

If this sounds like a fluke, the effect has been replicated several times and by many different researchers; other comparison scenarios have been tried - for example a bank robbery (Kang et al, 2008), zombies in the city (Soderstrom & McCabe, 2011), and even an 'in the afterlife' scenario (Röer et al, 2013) - but none have proved superior or even equal in promoting recall of a set of items.

Is this truly 'survival processing'?

A simple but very general question arises from this work - assuming that our evolution has prepared us to do certain things better than others, how specific are these abilities? Have we really been hard-wired to process grasslands survival situations better than other situations in a way that affects all of human memory today?

Alternatively, is the grasslands research scenario somehow drawing on a more general aspect of memory that the other scenarios fail to tap into?

My reading of the research literature so far gives the impression that many researchers are trying their best to demonstrate the latter. Three particularly interesting possibilities include:

- It causes us to plan more more than other scenarios, and planning leads to better encoding to memory (Klein, 2014).

- It causes us to encode items more richly (Bell et al, 2015). Elaborative encoding is well known to benefit long-memory - which, after all, is based on making meaningful connections.

- It allows for more creative thinking in terms of how the objects are used. In keeping with this possibility, Wilson (2016) found that a grasslands scenario was also better at promoting creative thinking about object uses than any of the other widely used comparison conditions. If we think creatively about something, we may well remember it better due to the generation effect.

The exact variables at play are still under investigation, and it could be a combination of these factors - the grasslands scenario may promote more creative, future-focused and meaningful thought processes. It is curious, however, how no other scenario has so far proved to be comparably successful in boosting memory - at least with the original tasks and materials.

What does this mean for education?

As a relatively new area of research, survival processing has not yet had a significant impact on education, but it does have potential. With further testing, a set of principles could be established, allowing classroom activities to be designed to incorporate elements of risk/danger, future planning, creativity, etc.

Survival processing is not the only possible effect of evolution on memory that could impact on education. For example, we also remember animals better than inanimate objects - an effect which has been trialled for use in the learning of language vocabulary (Nairne, 2016).

More broadly, many of the most robust findings from the study of memory make perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective. The spacing effect, for example, fits with the idea that any animal needs to deal with a one-off problem, but needn't waste mental resources storing the responses long-term. In contrast, if something happens periodically with time gaps in between - a type of food that grows seasonally, migrating predators or occasional floods, for example - the adaptive response is to create a more lasting mental record of any any relevant details as well as successful responses that we have previously used.

Similarly, the perspective that students learn better if tasks connect to their interests and social context makes a lot of sense from a survival point of view (at least for social species such as our own), as does the idea that interleaving our learning - something that would happen a lot in the natural world - is advantageous in the 'inductive learning' of patterns and rules.

The classic Zeigarnik effect - incomplete tasks being better remembered than complete ones - also fits well with a scenario where an unfinished task could be a matter of life or death.

Clearly, we can't deliver entire school courses via a grasslands scenario like the one described above. We could, however, pay more attention to the ways in which memory has evolved to work, and establish ways of building these principles into classroom tasks.

References

Bahrick, H. P. (2005). The long-term neglect of long-term memory: Reasons and remedies. In A.F. Healy (Ed.), Experimental Cognitive Psychology and its Applications. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Bell, R., Röer, J.P. & Buchner, A. (2015) Adaptive Memory: Thinking about function. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition, 41, 1038 – 1048 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xlm0000066

Kang, S. H., McDermott, K. B., & Cohen, S. M. (2008). The mnemonic advantage of processing fitness-relevant information. Memory & Cognition, 36(6), 1151-1156.

Klein, S.B. (2014). Evolution, memory and the role of self-referrant recall in planning for the future. In B.L. Schwarz, M.L. Howe, M.P. Toglia and H. Otgaar (Eds.) What is Adaptive about Adaptive Memory? pp. 11-34. Oxford: OUP.

Nairne, J. S. (2016). Adaptive Memory: Fitness-Relevant “Tunings” Help Drive Learning and Remembering. In D.C. Geary & D.B. Berch (Eds), Evolutionary Perspectives on Child Development and Education (pp. 251-269). New York: Springer.

Nairne, J. S., Thompson, S. R., & Pandeirada, J. N. (2007). Adaptive memory: survival processing enhances retention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 33(2), 263.

Röer, J. P., Bell, R., & Buchner, A. (2013). Is the survival-processing memory advantage due to richness of encoding?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 39(4), 1294.

Soderstrom, N. C., & McCabe, D. P. (2011). Are survival processing memory advantages based on ancestral priorities?. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18(3), 564-569.

White, T. D., Asfaw, B., Beyene, Y., Haile-Selassie, Y., Lovejoy, C. O., Suwa, G., & WoldeGabriel, G. (2009). Ardipithecus ramidus and the paleobiology of early hominids. Science, 326(5949), 64-86.

Wilson, S. (2016). Divergent thinking in the grasslands: thinking about object function in the context of a grassland survival scenario elicits more alternate uses than control scenarios. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 1-13.

Memory in education – a mission statement⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

Most students take notes during lessons, but are they adding information to memory? Image by Nick Olejniczak

Most students take notes during lessons, but are they adding information to memory? Image by Nick Olejniczak

I believe that memory is very important in education. This might seem obvious - of course children and students need to remember things. Perhaps it also seems threatening - reducing education to mere passive memorisation?

I don’t think so.

In my view, improving how we use memory is not threatening because remembering is essential regardless of your view of how teaching should be done, or what the syllabus should consist of. Whether you are talking about lectures or discovery learning, a minimum requirement is that the pupils retain some of the information that you have been teaching, and develop skills and understanding over the long-term.

Indeed, educational approaches tend to be judged, at least in part, according to whether people remember anything in terms of their performance on tasks (real or artificial) or tests at a later date. As a learner, a class might be a lot of fun, but I would ask myself whether it was a worthwhile use of my time if I later couldn’t remember anything about it.

From a psychology or neuroscience perspective, we are talking about encoding facts, skills and schema knowledge that is retained over the long-term. This learning is represented in the physical brain by changes to neural structure. There is no learning without these things happening!

Perhaps memory can seem to be a threat because it appears reductive - breaking education down to a list of testable facts. But actually, this may just be a matter of definition; cognitive psychology takes a broader view of memory than that used in everyday speech, and includes any change in behaviour or thinking. This could include developing our creative skills, for example, or our ability to write an essay. There are, of course, various different types of memory - memory for a fact, an experience, a task, and so on. But all of them require, on some level, that the learner takes something in, and that it persists for long enough to affect their future actions and/or thoughts.

I would agree that too much of what currently passes for education is founded on shallow memorisation - much of what is crammed for exams is swiftly forgotten, particularly if not well understood to begin with. But this is exactly where research can come in - by telling us how to make learning last.

As for the role of memory being obvious, well… Perhaps something so fundamental should be seen as obvious, but as such it is easily ignored and neglected. I’d argue that the role of memory is not prominent in current educational debates, and plays too small a role (if any) in teacher training and CPD.

When we talk about improving education, we are essentially saying that we want pupils to do better at maths, science, languages, social science etc, in a way that will allow them to:

  1. pass exams
  2. retain skills that they can use in future

This means that they need to retain key facts (such as what hydrogen is) and skills (such as how to multiply two fractions) for long enough not just to pass an assessment, but also to use it an unspecified period of time in the future - i.e. it must be retained in long-term memory, and be amenable to transfer.

The newly re-elected Scottish Government has made it very clear that education is a top political priority, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has highlighted that we must try to ‘close the attainment gap’ in terms of the academic under-peformance of the least well-off young people in our society. I would certainly commend that sentiment. I would also suggest that interventions that have been shown to improve attainment exist in the psychology research literature, and has increasingly been applied to real settings and with authentic learning material.

What’s more, any such interventions - although they can help everybody - are likely to benefit to the lowest achievers most. This is simply because the less you have learned up to now, the greater the potential for improvement; the worse your study habits, the more you can improve them. In contrast, some other possible interventions tend to preferentially help higher achievers, for example more homework or smaller classes.

A major challenge, then, is to engage with the wealth of scientific research on memory that is out there, digest it, and communicate it in a way that teachers, learners and parents can actually use. There needs to be an increased psychological literacy when it comes to human memory - we need to understand how our own learning processes work, and how to use them better.

That is the aim of this blog.

Improve your focus: The ‘pomodoro’ technique.⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

The classic kitchen timer. Image by alexhung

The classic kitchen timer. Image by alexhung

Coursework, data analysis, revision...  It can be hard to concentrate on a task all day, or even for an hour or two! Which, of course, can lead to procrastination, and to short breaks that become long breaks.

The pomodoro technique is a method of time management that encourages us to focus for 25 minute spells, each followed by a shorter break of 5 minutes or so.

Why 25 minutes?

The exact time can depend on the individual - each of us has a different attention span - but 25 minutes is brief enough that most people can keep up concentration even on a dull or repetitive task, especially with the prospect of an imminent break.

Why such short breaks?

A 3-5 minute break is considered ideal, because it gives your eyes and mind a rest, but avoids stopping for so long that you lose track of what you are doing. Suitable break activities could include going for a short walk outside, getting yourself a drink, doing some press-ups, or playing a tune on a musical instrument.

However don't worry - after 4 'pomodoros', you are advised to take a longer break of 20-30 mins. So you will get your lunch!

Why 'pomodoro'?

Pomodoro means 'tomato'; the technique is the creation of Francesco Cirillo who initially used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to time his 25 minute work periods. He explains that the action of twisting the timer and the mechanical 'clicks' as it slowly revolves are helpful to boost focus (Cirillo, 2012).

But really, any shape of timer will do!

Personally, I am more likely to use the timer of my phone - and you can also download apps specifically for this purpose, some of which are free. I have found the technique very useful for breaking up long and concentration-intensive work, such as marking a stack of exam papers. I think it would be ideal for revision, too.

If you have tried the technique, why not share your views in the comments?

Further reading: Time management and stress

Reference

Cirillo, F. (2007). The Pomodoro Technique (The Pomodoro). Retrieved 27 May 2014 from http://baomee.info/pdf/technique/1.pdf

The social brain hypothesis⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

Did Lemurs' brains evolve to cope with their group size? Image by Erik Coolen.

Did Lemurs' brains evolve to cope with their group size? Image by Erik Coolen.

What caused human brains – and those of other apes – to grow so large? One theory is that it resulted from the complexity of our environment – the day to day problems that our ancestors would have encountered in foraging and survival: Where are the fruit trees? Which ones did I pick from yesterday?

Another idea – the social brain hypothesis – is that the complexity of our social groups require a big brain to keep track of, especially when the group is large. A bigger group means more relationships to remember.

Doing either of these things well could potentially lead to a survival advantage, but which actually triggered the evolution of our unique brain size? Dunbar (1992) put the two theories to the test by comparing both foraging area and group size with neocortex ratio – the proportion of brain neocortex to other brain areas (considered a better measure of overall ‘braininess’ than absolute brain size).

A clear correlation was found – a bigger group was associated with a larger neocortex ratio, supporting the social brain hypothesis. In contrast there was no clear relationship between brain size and environmental complexity. It would appear that primates with larger social groups need larger brains in order to keep track of relationships. That is not to say, as Dunbar comments, that those large brains couldn’t then be useful for dealing with environmental problems – but he does not feel it was the evolutionary driving force (Dunbar, 1998).

Human Groups

Since the early work with other primates, Dunbar began to question whether the same principle would apply to human social groups. To fit with the ratio that had been established, a group size of around 150 would be predicted (Dunbar, 1998). When we look at historical settlements, groups of around 120-150 members abound (Dunbar, 1993), and this is also the size of tribes in most hunter-gatherer tribes - the closest model we have of the lifestyle of our early ancestors.

In a neat application of the concept to the modern world, Hill and Dunbar (2003) looked at the size of networks to which people send Christmas cards. 153.5 was the mean total population of the households receiving cards from any individual - only a fraction over the predicted maximum number, and in practice, senders of cards would probably not know every member of a recipient household equally well.

More recently, other researchers have started to look at new technology and social media, to ask whether technological developments have expanded the size of our natural social network. It appears that they haven’t done so, at least not significantly – despite the large number of contacts people often establish on Twitter, the number they regularly communicate with remains under 200 (Gonçalves et al., 2011).

Conclusions

The key idea from the social brain hypothesis is that evolution has determined a cognitive limit on what we can do; just as we have other mental limits such as short-term memory capacity, the brain is simply not capable of maintaining a greater number of close social relationships.

What does this number mean in practice? An obvious question to ask is how close a relationship has to be to count within the number. Do colleagues and extended family count? Just how do we define who is in our 150 and who is not? According to Dunbar, a simple way to look at it is as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar” (Bennett, 2013). If it truly is a biological limit, it could imply that we should avoid trying to continually extend our circle of friends/acquaintances, and instead foster stronger relationships with those that we are already close to.

Evaluation

Dunbar’s number does seem to be applicable to a large number of situations, from historic communities to hunter gatherer tribes, from the size of army units to Twitter engagement.

However not everyone is convinced. A correlation between brain size and social group size does not prove that there was an evolutionary cause-and-effect. And de Ruiter et al. (2011) have argued that although the neocortex plays an important role in social functioning, its size does not directly determine social skills.

It could also be argued that Dunbar has cherry-picked examples that fit the theory post-hoc, and that had the number from the correlation calculation been different (say 250), he would have been able to find examples of human communities to fit. Nevertheless, the idea that we do have a natural group size seems to fit the evidence of other species, and it makes a lot of sense to suggest that we can't push that limit beyond a certain point without impacting on the quality of the relationships.

References

Bennett, D. (2012). The Dunbar Number, From the Guru of Social Networks. Retrieved 20/11/2014 from: http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-01-10/the-dunbar-number-from-the-guru-of-social-networks

Dunbar, R.I.M. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution, 22, 469-493.

Dunbar, R.I.M. (1993). Coevolution of neocortical size, group size and language in humans. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 16, 681-735.

Dunbar, R.I.M. (1998). The social brain hypothesis. Brain, 9(10), 178-190.

Gonçalves, B., Perra, N. and Vespignani, A. (2011). Modeling Users’ Activity on Twitter Networks: Validation of Dunbar’s Number. PLoS ONE, 6(8): e22656. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0022656

Hill, R.A. and Dunbar, R.I.M (2003). Social network size in humans. Human Nature, 14(1), 53-72.

de Ruiter, J., Weston, G. and Lyon, S.M. (2011). Dunbar’s Number: Group Size and Brain Physiology in Humans Reexamined. American Anthropologist, 113(4), 557–568.