Demystifying learning

The ‘BrainCanDo’ Handbook of Teaching and Learning: Practical Strategies to Bring Psychology and Neuroscience into the Classroom, published by Routledge, is out now. Our Deputy Editor Annie Brookman-Byrne contributed to the book, and asked the editors Julia Harrington, Jonathan Beale, Amy Fancourt and Catherine Lutz about the motivation behind it.

Tell us about BrainCanDo and how the book came about.
‘BrainCanDo’ is an educational neuroscience and psychology research centre based at Queen Anne’s School, Caversham. We take an evidence-informed approach towards improving teaching and learning by conducting research in collaboration with university experts and applying research in the classroom.

For the past seven years, we’ve been working with schools, educationalists and academic researchers on research projects related to learning and pupil well-being. Now seemed a good opportunity to draw some of our research together into a comprehensive book, useful and accessible for those working in education and those carrying out educational research.

Do you think it’s helpful for educators to understand the science behind learning?
Yes, we think that there’s still a lot of mystery around teaching and what makes a ‘good teacher’ or a ‘good lesson’. An understanding of the science of learning can help to demystify the learning process and unveil some of the reasons why certain practices may be beneficial for teachers and for learners.

It’s our hope that by de-mystifying the learning process, there can be a move away from the notion that we can label some teachers, pupils, classes, year groups or schools simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’. An understanding of the complexities surrounding the learning process and the role of cognitive, social and emotional factors in that process can help to inform the day-to-day decisions a teacher makes in the classroom alongside the wider decisions around curriculum design and school-wide policies and practices. This two-pronged approach to embedding a culture of evidence-informed practice has the potential to maximise learning opportunities for all pupils in a variety of different educational settings.

In Michael Thomas’s foreword, he praises the ‘culture of research’ in education encouraged by the book. Do you think it’s possible for this culture to be embedded in schools?
Yes, we believe that it’s a conscious decision of educators and the institutions to which they belong to engage meaningfully with research. Crucially, schools need to prioritise professional staff development opportunities, creating the time and space needed for teachers to engage with research evidence, conduct their own action research and share good practice with one another.

We believe that vital to the success of fostering a culture of research in schools is to demonstrate the benefits of evidence-informed teaching and learning, but to present this as a valuable option for teachers to try in their practice, rather than prescribing it as something that all teachers should do. A way to do this is to present staff with clear examples of how applying research in the classroom can have pedagogical benefits, using examples from teachers’ experiences and case studies in schools.

What’s the biggest challenge for educational neuroscience?
There are many challenges facing this movement. Its biggest challenge is, perhaps, crossing the bridge between theory and practice – that is, bridging the gap between neuroscience and psychology, on the one hand, and the practical application of findings from those fields in education, on the other.

Relatedly, another major challenge concerns language and the translation of concepts and methodologies from these disciplines into education. It’s not always clear or directly apparent how scientific research can be applied in day-to-day classroom practices.

At BrainCanDo, we do our best to carefully cross the bridge between theory and practice, by trying to provide clear links between scientific evidence and educational applications, and offering practical guidance of how to apply particular findings emerging from scientific studies.

What’s your vision for the future of education?
We’d like to see better and increased collaboration between educational researchers and schools, such that educational practices and policy decisions – for example, those made by the Department for Education – are better informed by rigorous research. We’d also like to see a greater application of research in schools on important areas related to education and student well-being – for example, research on memory, sleep, motivation and social development – such that learning outcomes and student well-being improve.

While schools need to be the drivers of such developments, the responsibilities to engage more closely with research in education should certainly neither solely nor primarily fall upon schools. We’d like to see an increased emphasis on engaging with research-based pedagogy during teacher training courses and increased engagement between educational organisations and schools.
 
Full disclosure: the book contains a chapter co-written by our Deputy Editor, Dr Annie Brookman-Byrne.

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