There have been recent calls for more interaction between learning scientists and teachers. However, this requires mutual access and sustained time together, which is difficult to achieve in practice. Teachers are very busy people and scientists also have many demands on their time. Initial Teacher Education (ITE) could provide an interdisciplinary bridging point by bringing together relevant stakeholders to select and translate relevant research for trainee teachers. Here, we introduce a design-based research project in which teacher educators, cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists are collaborating to enhance the learning sciences for a primary PGCE. This article explores how this interdisciplinary working is leading to curriculum development.
Our project at Bath Spa University: Enhancing learning sciences in primary initial teacher education
The aim of our project is to develop resource materials to engage trainee teachers in primary ITE with key ideas and contemporary issues in the learning sciences. This will help them support children’s learning and prepare them to critically evaluate the claims and packages they may encounter in their future careers. An interdisciplinary team of neuroscientists, psychologists, education researchers and teacher educators are collaborating to design and trial materials with a total cohort of 340 ITE primary trainee teachers on primary PGCE or School Direct routes. Through the process of designing and trialling resources, we are seeking insights into how primary trainee teachers are understanding the learning sciences and how to better support them. We will also seek to understand how the learning sciences can best be integrated into existing ITE programmes.
Why focus on ITE?
ITE makes an important contribution to the values, beliefs and ideas that teachers carry throughout their careers. However, it is a very short period of time in a teacher’s professional learning, and as such there is little systematic consideration of recent developments in the learning sciences, or how this may inform the future practice of trainee teachers. This is compounded by the fact that, despite well over 10 years of calls to improve the relationship between neuroscience and education (Rodriguez, 2006); (Royal Society, 2011), there is evidence to suggest that misapplications of neuroscience are still pervasive at all levels in education – including, crucially, in higher education (Newton and Miah, 2017). This is particularly prevalent in terms of neuromyths and how they are applied in the classroom.
Our project focuses on trainee teachers of primary age children (four to 11 years). Primary school years are a critical time in education for equipping children with long-term teacher- and self-directed learning skills. It is therefore crucial that primary teachers have a clear understanding of what we know about learning science and, importantly, how to confidently assess any claims that are made about how learning progresses.
Targeting primary trainee teachers can provide a long-term, developmental solution to improving the way in which neuroscientific research may inform educational practice, by equipping teachers from the very outset with the ability to critically analyse claims from both robust and questionable research.
ITE as a bridge between teachers and learning scientists
Although there is a great diversity of routes into teaching, with School Direct and others now sitting alongside the PGCE, the role of universities in ITE remains crucial, and has huge potential to act as a bridge between teachers and scientists. Where else might we find psychologists, neuroscientists, education researchers and trainee teachers queuing for coffee together?
A key focus is to develop and trial a set of resource materials that explain the concept of neuromyths to trainee teachers. An interactive, tutor-led seminar introduces students to studies from experimental psychology, and gives them insight into the scientific process from both a participant’s and a researcher’s perspective. Following this, we consider the implementation of so-called neuroscience-based teaching initiatives in the classroom more broadly, and encourage discussion of the importance of taking a critical, evidence-based approach to classroom initiatives. The aim is to give trainee teachers the confidence and critical thinking skills necessary in order to be able to evaluate potential classroom initiatives they may encounter in the future.
A second focus centres on understanding how trainee teachers actually develop an understanding of the learning sciences through their ITE training, and how their comprehension of key issues about the brain and learning mature throughout the course. Through surveys and focus groups, we aim to create a rich data set that provides insights into what trainee teachers understand about the brain when coming into an ITE course, and how specific teaching in critical thinking modifies that understanding.
A critical consumer stance on neuroscience
As explained above, the main emphasis of our project is a critical consumer stance on neuroscience. We have developed activities that introduce trainee teachers to the concept of the ‘seductive allure of neuroscience’ (Weisberg et al., 2008). A key message is that in order to keep a critical view of neuroscience-based classroom initiatives, it is important to understand how our own personal opinions and beliefs can cloud our ability to be objective. The multidisciplinary nature of the project means that the psychologists in the group brought their knowledge of the research literature to design an appropriate, evidence-based activity, which teacher educators are then able to develop in order to fit with the trainees’ needs at that point in the course.
Part of this work involves challenging neuromyths and considering why they might have arisen. For example, a common myth concerns brain lateralisation – a typical example might be that left brain learners are thought to be analytical and logical, whereas right brain learners are more creative. In recent years, there have been suggestions that this conceptualisation of learning should be incorporated more in schools – to the point that, in 2014, the then Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) proposed a motion to implement initiatives based on this concept (Etchells, 2014). However, while it is true that some cognitive processes can occur predominantly or preferentially on one side of the brain, there is absolutely no evidence for a clear-cut division of learning styles based on hemispheric differences. The fact that the myth nevertheless persists is problematic at a practical level though, as it could lead to teachers narrowly labelling themselves or students in an unhelpful way. By explaining that although the brain does have two halves, these are connected and many different regions of the brain are involved in any activity, we hope to challenge the myth and introduce a more general way of being critical – are real research findings being hugely oversimplified and used to support pre-existing beliefs? By using the pedagogical expertise of the teacher educators to help trainees understand the relevance of this for them as future teachers, with the learning scientists checking the scientific content, further teaching resources are being developed.
Can the learning sciences inform pedagogy?
However, simply taking a critical stance without offering some constructive advice does not go down well with trainee teachers, who are naturally focused on their action in the classroom. The second, more tentative thread of our work considers how specific knowledge and findings from the learning sciences might inform pedagogy. However, we want to avoid presenting a disconnected series of chunks of knowledge or advice. Furthermore, we are wary about taking laboratory-based research findings and applying them to teaching and learning without further evidence that this works within the complex and varied reality of classrooms.
One challenge that we have encountered involves how best to locate some key and well-established insights about learning, such as neuroplasticity, in relation to the educational theories of learning that students are introduced to. Some of the constraints are practical – if simply added onto existing content, it takes more time for teaching and for students to read and synthesise ideas. But there is also work to do to provide a coherent, critical discussion of learning sciences from the perspective of education theory, examining where ideas are contested and where there is congruence.
The value of design-based research
Our project is taking a design-based research (DBR) approach; meaning that it has iterative phases of development in order to build, trial and refine the resources being produced, and that alongside this product-centred process, a deeper understanding of the situation emerges. Initial Teacher Education is a highly complex system of people, ideas and regulatory frameworks, and an advantage of DBR is that it acknowledges complexity. We are working in collaboration with ITE tutors and trainee teachers, developing the design principles and evaluating the intervention (Anderson and Shattuck, 2012).
The design process requires the research team to actually produce something that the many users are happy employing and with robust evidence that has the kinds of impact we intend. At this midpoint in the project, we have found that the nature of our discussions has shifted from comfortable collaboration to mutual challenge. For example, the psychologists on the team have come to a better understanding of the ways in which teachers think and their priorities, while the teacher educators have learned not only about research findings, but also about cognitive and neuroscience research processes, thus coming to a more nuanced understanding of which areas of learning science are more robust and which are more tentative. For a number of years, there have been calls for greater levels of communication between scientists and teachers, and our project is putting this into practice in such a way as to be able to identify key bottlenecks in developing a shared language between these two groups.
Faced with an array of articles, claims and ministerial rhetoric advocating greater application of the learning sciences in classrooms, ITE institutions want to design a curriculum and teaching materials that take account of robust findings while establishing a critical perspective and maintaining the integrity of educational research and values.
Recommendations for practice in education are based on more than research evidence. Views on what an educated person is like, or what kind of a society education should be helping to create, are very much disputed. As we know from cognitive science, we are all at risk of confirmation bias: selecting evidence that fits with our existing views. Educational theory is informed by philosophy and argument as well as by empirical research. There is wariness in the education community about giving too much credence to scientific approaches. Teachers as professionals should be informed, critical users of research; we argue that ITE is well placed to help teachers develop as critical consumers of learning sciences. An emerging question concerns where the learning sciences sit in relation to education as an existing multidisciplinary field and what would need to change. We would recommend further interdisciplinary collaborative action that goes beyond knowledge-exchange to a deeper, purposeful appropriation of each other’s ideas and perspectives, such as that achieved through DBR.
We would like to acknowledge and thank the Wellcome Trust for funding this work, and Lia Commissar for her support.