GUEST POST: The Emerging Consensus
By Mike Bell
Mike Bell taught science in UK secondary schools and then became interested in evidence. He now runs EBTN: the Evidence Based Teachers Network. About 7000 teachers receive their newsletter.
In this blog post, Mike Bell suggests that there is sufficient consensus among those educationalists who look at the evidence to say that we now know how learning happens, why some students struggle and how to improve learning for any learner.
By combining lists of effective methods derived from both classroom experiments and psychology and then checking them with the neuroscience to provide a brain-based explanation, it is now possible to implement the evidence in a simple, six-step process.
The experience of teachers
Karen and Kevin are both trainee teachers. They spend part of their week in college (which includes lectures from education department staff), and part in their placement schools (where they both have experienced teachers as mentors). They attend the same college, but different schools.
This week they hear a lecture on ‘Learning Styles’. The lecturer explains the theory and even puts up diagrams of the brain showing the different areas used for visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning. It’s all very convincing and both decide to try the ideas in their lessons later that week.
They both discuss the idea with their school mentor. Karen’s mentor is dismissive. “Are they still teaching that stuff!? Don’t they know it’s disproved?” Karen quickly does a Google search and finds a Wikipedia page with links to the research. Yes, it been debunked. Kevin’s mentor listens and agrees that he should try it. “I used to use that myself, but haven’t for a while. I know that some of my students are visual learners because they struggle with reading and diagrams are better.”
Both trainees attend a staff training session at their schools. One school is single sex selective while the other is mixed comprehensive. At each school the principal extols the virtue of their school type and make a persuasive case for it. Kevin and Karen are both convinced – but in the opposite direction.
Throughout their training and teaching they find the same pattern.
Kevin reads a research paper which claims that a particular method is effective. His college lecturer warns against using individual studies and suggests research-reviews, or meta-analyses which combine the results from several experiments. Karen’s lecturer warns against the use of meta-analyses as we cannot be sure all the combined methods were actually the same.
They both watch a TV news magazine program. The education minister is outlining a new policy. She uses the same methods they had heard in their lectures: a well-reasoned argument. In response, the program gets reactions from leading ‘experts’ – but, again, they profoundly disagree. The union leader profoundly disagrees. The professor resolutely agrees. Not only the minister but also the journalist and even parents act as though they are more expert than the teacher.
The experience of other professions
How different this experience is from that of nearly every other profession. Engineers, archaeologists, midwives etc are all respected for their expertise. Government tends to consult them rather than direct their day-to-day activities. If a disagreement arises, these professionals have a mechanism to resolve the dispute and arrive at a general consensus. They look to research and discuss the evidence, not their opinion.
Anita and Amrita are midwives in the UK and India. Despite their geographical and cultural separation, they both study their midwifery from the same textbook.
The need for consensus
Why are the judgements of most professions respected while teachers are treated so badly? Is there a connection between the lack of shared ideas and the lack of respect? Are the politicians and journalists exploiting the lack of shared ideas in the teaching profession? What would it take to become respected?
The main difference between teaching and many respected professions is not just that we disagree, it is that there is no shared understanding of what we are doing. We lack a shared ‘theory of learning’ to underpin our thinking. This theory creates the questions which researchers then try to solve. The reason midwives Anita and Amrita agree is because they share a theoretical understanding of the birthing process and its complications.
The emerging consensus
The good news is that all the basic ingredients for a shared theory (and from there a respected profession) already exist. Among those who look at the evidence there is very little disagreement. Blog posts by the Learning Scientists do not clash with the output from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). Hattie’s Visible Learning list is quite compatible with the EEF and other evidence compilations.
There are three main sources for the shared theory:
Educational neuroscience (which explains what is happening in the brain)
Educational psychology (where experiments are done in laboratories)
Classroom evidence (where the methods are tried by teachers with regular students)
Taken individually, each of the three has problems. Most scientists agree that we are very far from being able to say “The neuroscience shows…., therefore, in your classroom you should …”. We may never get there without the usual extensive trails. Psychology experiments are in artificial environments and so we may not be able to translate the results into the classroom. Classroom experiments are problematic for the reasons Karen and Kevin found above.
But, what if we stop relying on one source and apply the evidence only if it is backed up by another? What if we only implement a classroom method if it can be explained by neuroscience? What if we don’t implement psychology research unless it has had classroom trials?
At first this may sound far-fetched. “Surly it’ll take decades to do all that extra research?” I hear you say. The good news is – we don’t have to wait; there already exists enough cross-referencing for us to explain the learning process, suggest effective ways to improve it, understand why some students struggle (in different ways) and have ways to help them.
We know from psychology that spaced repetitions work better than repetitions massed at the end of the topic. We also know from neuroscience that long-term memories are formed when the links are made permanent by a process called ‘long-term potentiation’ – and this requires spaced repetitions (listen to this podcast episode for more on spaced practice).
We know from classroom experiments that linking the new knowledge to what the student already knows is effective way to improve learning. This is supported by the neuroscience understanding that memories are simply links to the component parts – not separate memories (as they may be on a computer) (see here).
Further support for the idea that we already have a broad consensus is the way so many bloggers, gurus and conferences are saying very similar things. A consensus is already available. Let’s join in.
EBTN has worked to compile the evidence into an easy-to-implement order. By combining several different lists of effective methods, derived from classroom psychology experiments and checking them against the brain-science we have come up with a six-step process. The easiest way to see this is to look at the Evidence sources section of our website.