ResearchEd’s motto is “Working Out What Works” and is a grass-roots, teacher-led organization focused on raising educators research literacy. At the ResearchEd Ontario conference, OSSTF members from across the province networked and participated in workshops that explored the research behind ‘what works’ in education. In the conference introduction by ResearchEd co-founder Tom Bennett, members were encouraged to think critically and ask “What is the research?” behind any new educational initiatives and reminded us of the caveat from Dylan Williams, “Everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere.”. Although there was a healthy skepticism and general debunking of many “good sounding” educational fads or “urban legends”, the focus of the Conference and workshops was to share what has been proven to work in classrooms according to evidence-based research and cognitive science.
Some of the overarching educational “myths” that were challenged included the following assumptions: 1) that the new generation of learners are “digital natives” who are intuitively experts in technology, able to learn independently, and multitask; 2) that students are able to self-manage their learning, based on individual Learning Styles versus strategies related to cognitive abilities, prior knowledge, and subjects; 3) that content knowledge is not as important in the Internet age, where information is easily acquired; 4) that student-led learning replaces teacher-led learning.
In the keynote speech on the first day of the conference, Tom Bennett discussed the increasing challenges related to student behaviour and classroom management. There are often high levels of disturbances (noise and disorder) reported in classrooms around the world, especially when reported by classroom teachers. The result is that many students lose important instructional time because of disturbances or bad behaviour. According to the research summarized by Bennett, effective school cultures require decreased negative behaviour and increased positive behavior. To improve behavior, you have to get in front of the behavior by “building the environment”, or creating a positive class culture (beliefs and values) where students can “flourish”. You have also to be good at responding to the specific misbehaviour. Bennett reminds us that what children see is often more powerful than what you tell them. Do we accept students answering by just calling out? Do you walk by students who are misbehaving in the hall? The most effective classroom management strategies include creating standard class routines, positive social norms, constant behavioural feedback, and positive habits and character. Children must be clear about what is expected of them, and teachers need to help and scaffold that behaviour with them at all times.
There was also push-back from a number of speakers regarding the promotion of generic 21st Century Skills or Global Competencies and self-discovery learning as opposed to the direct instruction of subject content knowledge. Michael 17 Zwaagstra, a high school teacher from Manitoba and author, argues that teaching content and learning subject background knowledge is necessary for students to learn deeply and practice the Global Competencies such as Critical Thinking. He provided research to support his claims that teaching subject content knowledge is essential for reading comprehension, makes critical thinking possible, and empowers students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. He concludes that creative and critical thinking skills are not possible without background knowledge of the subject at hand and that these skills are not easily transferred between disciplines.
Dr Eva Hartell, a STEM classroom teacher from Sweden with a PhD in classroom assessment, shared her research on formative assessment using comparative judgment as a methodology to develop language to describe and understand what is “good work”. Comparative judgment is the process of repeatedly making judgments between pieces of work until a rank order has been established. The process includes teachers or students sharing and articulating the reason behind their ranking. Her research suggested that teachers often have difficulty explaining and student have difficulty understanding the learning criteria and expectations described in rubrics. Therefore, she recommends teachers provide students with examples of work to compare and judge to develop the self-efficacy to create good work.
Many conference speakers warned of over-corrections related to new educational paradigms and were skeptical when teachers are encouraged suddenly to reverse direction. Remembering the caveat from Dylan Wiliam, “Everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere”, educators were encouraged to embrace an evidence-based research approach when adopting new instructional and assessment strategies and to collaborate, particularly on Twitter (@ researchED1), with other classroom teachers and educational researchers.
Here are some additional books and articles that were recommended by the various conference speakers:
- Christodoulou, Daisy. Making Good Progress (2017)
- De Bruyckere, Pedro. The Ingredients for Great Teaching (2018)
- Dunlosky, John. ‘Strengthening the Student Toolbox’ (2013)
- Hattie, John, Visible Learning (2011)
- Hirsch, Jr., E. D. Why Knowledge Matters (2016)
- Kirschner & Merrienboer. ‘Do Learners Really Know Best?’ (2013)
- Rosenshine, Barak. ‘Principles of Instruction’ (2012)
- Nuthall , Graham. The hidden lives of Learners (2007)
- Schmoker, Mike. Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning (2011)
- Sweller, John, ‘Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning’, 1988
- Wiliam, Dylan. Creating the Schools Our Children Need, (2018)
- Willingham, Daniel T. The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads (2017)