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Pay closer attention to the research on how students learn more efficiently and effectively

December 15, 2020, 14:54 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Jon Tait asks do teachers need to be more like doctors?
Pay closer attention to the research on how students learn more efficiently and effectively

So much teacher training and professional development time over the last 20 years has been devoted to areas such as relationship building, behaviour management and the ability to engage students.

It goes without saying that these are all vitally important skills and without them you are certainly not going to be an effective teacher, but some of the most alarming areas of professional knowledge and learning that appear to have been missing from almost everyone’s professional toolkit, are the very fundamentals about how we learn and retain information as human beings.

When you strip back what our core business is as teachers and how our students (whether we like it or not) are assessed at the end of our input to judge how well they have progressed under our care, it staggers me that as a profession, we have not paid closer attention to the research on how students learn more efficiently and effectively.

Far too much time has been spent on thinking that if we ensure that our students are engaged (or in some of the worst cases, ‘entertained’), then they will somehow just ‘get it’ when the time comes to put pen to paper in the exam hall.

But that is only half of the battle. Getting students to a stage where they are engaged in what you are delivering is paramount, but that still doesn’t mean that they are going to remember everything you are talking about when they come to be assessed on it.

The blood, sweat and tears that we lose at the front of our classroom every day may be completely wasted if we don’t have a good grasp of cognitive science and the implications this may have on our classroom craft.


From planning to assessing and everywhere in between, cognitive science should form the bedrock on which we stand as teachers. Unnecessary time, money and resources should not be wasted on strategies that have already been proven to not be particularly successful.

Blindly trialling new approaches on students and using them as your crash test dummies when there is a wealth of research already written on what might be your best bets in the classroom is almost negligent as a professional.

Rest assured though, this isn’t about removing human judgement, experience and essential knowledge of context away from the decision making of teachers and replacing it with a raft of research reports and directives that teachers must follow in robotic form.

Evidence and educational research should add to the experience and skill of a teacher to help their strategic decision making, ensuring it becomes more reliable, efficient and effective.


Professor Rob Coe summed up the use of, and need for, research in education very well in his 2019 ‘20 Years Later’ follow up to his 1999 ‘Manifesto for Evidence-based Education’: ‘Research can never tell teachers what to do, nor should it; it can, however, help provide teachers and leaders with what Prof Steve Higgins (and others) have called ‘best bets’.

It can – and should – provide the theory underpinning the action in classrooms, leadership meetings, governing body committees and policy-making discussions’.


One way of looking at it is by comparing teaching with the medical profession.

You wouldn’t expect to go to the hospital and have a surgeon try out a new medical procedure on you, just because he or she thought it sounded like a good idea would you?

Unfortunately, an identical situation has been happening in classrooms up and down the country for decades, with teachers trying to find effective ways to get students to learn, by a process of trial and error with very little evidence to back up our choices and strategic decisions.

In our defence though, unlike the common cold or a broken leg, which can probably be treated as similarly in Middlesex as it can in Middlesbrough, context is key in education.

No one child is the same and as the experienced ones amongst us will even tell you, a strategy that works for a group of students before lunch, might not be a successful strategy straight after lunch.

Dylan Wiliam summed this up perfectly in 2015 when he said ‘In education, everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere’ (Wiliam 2015).

Having said that though, and not wanting to dismiss or diminish the significant part that research can play in education, a set of guiding principles firmly rooted in robust and globally accepted research, would be a great place to start when thinking about how we might teach our children.

Irrespective of the context that a teacher may find themselves in, whether it’s socio-economic, geographical or a gender bias, robust research from globally accepted studies gives you sufficient confidence to know that it is a tried and tested theory that is based on biology and psychology and not just on hearsay and rumour.


Thankfully it seems that through evidence-based research, followed by a trend of more research informed practice sweeping into schools, a new dawn has broken, shining light on how we truly learn as human beings.

Research on cognitive science from leading academics from some of the finest universities across the world is now being brought into the mainstream education arena as a basis for designing our teaching practices around.

Organisations like the Education Endowment Foundation, Evidence Based Education, ResearchEd, The Chartered College of Teaching and the Research Schools Network, are making huge strides in this area.

The fact that teachers and school leaders are beginning to consult key pieces of research on cognition, before they plan, write and deliver their curriculum means that there is a definite shift in the sands.

If we pride ourselves on delivering a world class education system, then surely we also need to pride ourselves on the fact that our strategies for getting the best out of those children under our professional guidance are based on firm foundations, rather than a guessing game in the hope that something might work for the majority.

Don’t bury your head in the sand

There are many different reasons why we haven’t engaged with research as much as we should have over the years.

From it being inaccessible due to length, language and knowing where to find it; to our own confirmation bias wanting to only engage with things we already believe in; to every school having its own context and challenges so we believe that what works in Shanghai couldn’t in Sussex.

It can be all too easy to dismiss a piece of research because you were too busy to read it, or that it wasn’t trialled with your students, but if we continue to bury our heads in the sand when it comes to trialled and tested strategies about how children learn best, we will continue to waste time, energy and money while helping to squander the life chances of the young people in our care.

Jon Tait, Director of School Improvement and Deputy CEO, Arete Learning Trust (North Yorkshire) and author of Teaching Rebooted.

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