researchED conferences connect teachers and cognitive science

What teachers learn in their training often contradicts what scientists have discovered about how learning works. But conferences around the world bring together teachers and education researchers—including a recent one in Frederick (yes, Frederick), Maryland.

For almost ten years now, a UK-based organization called researchED has been facilitating these low-budget but powerful events with presenters ranging from world-renowned cognitive scientists to classroom teachers. Numerous conferences are held in the UK each year, along with events – this autumn alone – in Australia, Canada and Chile.

About five years ago, the movement came to the United States. Past events have been held in Washington, DC, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But ResearchED hasn’t caught on here like it has in the UK, where conferences often have waiting lists – and where, unlike the US, the government is firmly behind the movement to ground education in cognitive science. I attended two of the previous conferences in the US and although there was excitement among the attendees, they were not as many as hoped.

So I’ll admit that when I heard that ResearchED would be returning this year with a conference in Frederick—a lovely city, but not exactly off the beaten path—I was worried. Would anyone show up?

A well-attended and dynamic event

My worries were unfounded. The October 22 event drew over 350 people and the atmosphere was tense. (The cheeky Twitter hashtag was #researchFRED.) Attendees came from all over the US and even from Belgium (pedagogical scientist Pedro de Bruycker) and Scotland (Tom Bennett, the former teacher who founded researchED and is now a behavior advisor for the UK Department of Education ). As at previous events, there were many squeals of delight as people reunited with old friends or came face to face with experts they had admired from afar.

Why Frederick? The event, which relies on volunteer labor to keep costs low (registration for the day, including lunch, was just $45), was sponsored by Frederick County Public Schools. The school district is implementing approaches to learning based on neuroscience, a movement known as Mind Brain Education Science, or MBE, so the conference was a natural fit. And the district did a great job of organizing a complex event.

A day at ResearchED is hectic. In Frederick, there was a keynote, five sessions and two panel discussions throughout the conference, all limited to 40 minutes each. For each breakthrough slot, there were nine concurrent offerings with topics ranging from whether podcasts can bridge the gap between research and practice to how physical activity affects children’s brains. The biggest problem for attendees was deciding which session to go to (especially if, like me, you were presenting yourself during two of the slots).

What makes the ResearchED event so valuable to teachers is that for most, the information they receive about how to teach effectively is unlike what they were told in college or graduate school. During their training, most prospective teachers learn that it is best to be a “guide from the side” rather than a “sage on the stage”—that students learn best when they are in charge of their own learning as much as possible. Prospective teachers are advised not to waste time making sure students acquire factual information because things like “critical thinking skills” are more important. They end up being told that if kids don’t know a fact, they can always Google it.

In contrast, at a researchED event, teachers will hear about the extensive research showing that when learners are new to a topic, explicit instruction – led by the teacher but with lots of teacher-student interaction – works much better than directed by the students inquiry or discovery. They will learn that having factual information about a topic stored in long-term memory is actually what allows people to think critically about it.

This unlearning process can be painful. At a breakout session I attended—de Bruycker’s session on “Almost Everything You Need to Know About Psychology”—a teacher was visibly dismayed to hear that the work of Jean Piaget, an icon of the school curriculum, had been largely superseded by more recent research.

But it is important. At another session I went to, cognitive psychologist Shana Carpenter explained how after-class tests can significantly boost student learning through a process known as retrieval practice. Her students at Iowa State initially grumbled about having to take the tests, she said, but eventually saw their value.

There are few frustrating things about attending a ResearchED conference other than having to choose between sessions. One just knows that this information has been withheld from teachers during their training and that it is usually absent from the “professional development” they receive on the job. There are complex reasons for this situation and it is unlikely to change soon.

Events like the one in Frederick, while well-attended, can only help a few hundred teachers shake off what they’ve been taught to believe. But imagine if all three million teachers in the U.S. were routinely taught about things like elicitation and distributed practice during their training—and if the standard teaching materials adopted them. Teaching can become a less challenging job and countless students can find it easier to learn.

Science won’t help if you don’t teach anything of substance

Another disappointment, at least for me, is that much of what was said about cognitive science-based practices, as valuable as it was, ignored a huge problem at an elementary level: the lack of any substantive content beyond mathematics. The only other thing that most elementary schools and some middle schools even try to teach is reading. And most of the time spent doing so is devoted to supposed reading comprehension skills like “finding the main idea.”

The assumption is that if children master the skills, they will be able to use them to learn content – in history, science and the like – later. But that’s not how reading comprehension works. Research has found that it depends more on subject knowledge or academic vocabulary and syntax in general than on abstract skills. (Time spent teaching children how to decipher words is also often wasted—again, due to deficiencies in teacher training and teaching materials.)

So an elementary teacher whose school uses a literacy curriculum that focuses on comprehension skills might come away from a ResearchED conference thinking that they can use elicitation practice and other techniques to help their students become more good all-rounders.

But there is nothing essential for him to use these techniques On. If she quizzes her children on, say, “determining the author’s purpose”—a commonly taught comprehension skill—it won’t improve their learning. And when they reach the upper grades, those students who have failed to acquire the knowledge of history and science laid down in the curriculum will be at a serious disadvantage.

I would like to see more recognition of this issue at a future ResearchED conference in the US – if there is one. A note at the end of this year’s program lists the researchED Brain Trust, which “envisioned a sustainable researchED model for the United States and is excited to help the next group launch their event.”

Are you willing? If anyone is interested, you can contact ResearchED via their website, researched.org.uk, or me via mine, nataliewexler.com.

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