May 18, 2022
Research in Action
By Dr Kathy Weston
We send our children to school, trust in teachers to deliver high quality teaching, and hope that they will do well, but do we ever think about the science behind learning?
In every single sphere of work, continuing professional development is generally considered a key driver in improving outcomes and quality of service. As a user or consumer, one hopes and believes that anyone offering a service (particularly one that has a connection to children and young people) is up to date with the latest evidence or guidance that could directly impact practice and, in turn, children’s outcomes.
In my role, I am lucky to be able to regularly attend numerous webinars and conferences featuring some of the most eminent researchers, but the extent to which their research gets heard by those on the frontline of practice varies. Professor Dimmock of Glasgow University addressed a conference I attended last week and stated: “when you can’t apply research in practice, what’s the point of it?” This statement had me punching the air in agreement.
In parenting, as in classroom practice, there are small, evidence-based things that we need to be aware of, which can optimise outcomes for children. Therefore, when people shrug their shoulders and say that “there is no manual for parenting”, I would argue that this isn’t strictly true. There is a wealth of research that provides guidance as to “what works” and “what might work”. But, it struggles to see the light of the day and regularly fails to reach busy parents in hectic households.
Often, the smallest of tweaks can lead to big gains. Take breakfast. It’s incredibly motivating to know that habitually eating breakfast is consistently associated with an acute positive impact on cognitive performance and academic outcomes! Lockdown homeschooling enhanced parental interest in how learning works. Parents everywhere questioned how to best motivate children to engage in tasks. How can I retain their attention? What are the best ways to help my teen memorise this material? How do I know that they know it? As we parents dipped our toes in the waters of teaching, we all realised exactly how complex learning really is. As schools returned, we may have experienced a newfound appreciation of the teaching profession, and rightly so.
At this interval, ‘post-pandemic’, parents (myself included) are quite happy to pass the teaching baton back to teachers. However, we need to remember that a basic knowledge of how learning works is important for us to support our children, no matter what stage or age they are at.
So what do we need to know? Let’s start with the home learning environment and how instrumental it can be to children’s achievement in school.
It isn’t rocket science, but valuing learning, setting realistic but high expectations for your children, providing them with access to books and even simply talking to them, can impact on school achievement. As Professor Charles Des Forges says, “It doesn’t matter how rich or poor we are, but what we do with our children that matters”. The home learning environment is not just about the act of learning, but about the conditions that facilitate it. Is your home calm? Do you parent consistently? Are there boundaries for behaviour? Do your children enjoy a good night’s sleep? Again, the research is clear that sleep quality affects learning; a good night’s sleep aids memory, learning, concentration and may ward off poor mental health outcomes later on.
Parental engagement in children’s learning is key and it doesn’t have to be onerous. Taking an interest in what they are doing in school, cultivating their curiosity about anything and everything, and attuning to whatever floats their boat, matters. With the arrival of summer, particularly post-pandemic, it is important to consider how we might support our children’s interests in ways that feel fun and engaging. It is equally crucial to find ways of sustaining the learning gains that they have made throughout the year. Avoiding the ‘summer slide’ matters now more than ever.
Having an understanding of how learning works is beneficial for all parents. Here is a terrific summary. If you don’t have the time or inclination to read this ten page document, here are a few points that I think are fascinating and potential gamechangers. According to educator and author, Patrice Bain, “when learning is too easy, our children don’t retain it”. This is reiterated by the great researcher, Professor Daniel Willingham, who says that if students do not have to work hard to make sense of what they are learning, then they are less likely to remember it in six weeks’ time. The struggle is real and it’s optimal!
If we watch our children sitting down to revise over the coming days and weeks for various exams, we might witness them aiming to go over what they already know, avoiding the difficult stuff. This is totally understandable. However, if we can encourage them to surface the tough stuff and support them gently through understanding it as best we can, it will serve them well. When we encourage our children to think metacognitively – to judge what they think they know and assess how accurate they are, before working out where they most need to focus, we really benefit their learning. Being a family that values challenge in learning, talks about how tricky learning can be and normalises mistakes can aid children’s progress overall.
Paying attention to where children study, revise or even do their homework matters too. I attended a brilliant webinar recently by the researcher Gemma Goldenberg, whose research explores how we might optimise classroom environments for learners. She made the point that children may perform better in low-visual load environments and referred to research that talks about the great benefits for children’s cognitive performance of being in ‘natural soundscapes’. Whilst Gemma was generally looking at school-based learning environments, it got me thinking about allowing my son to do his revision outside (his current request) and potentially decluttering study spaces over this revision period.
More generally, whether we are parents or teachers, we need to bust persistent myths about learning. Check out some of the common ones and why the evidence just doesn’t stack up.
Having a garden to revise in, access to physical books and even breakfast isn’t a problem if you are economically advantaged. This is why the current cost of living crisis may impact on children’s learning and on social mobility itself.
Teachers, certainly across many British schools, are witnessing increasing numbers of children arriving into school hungry and the situation is predicted to get worse. In this scenario, we can only focus on what we can control, so perhaps, as individuals, families and businesses, if we are able to, we might consider how we can sponsor or support breakfast clubs or breakfast packs in our local nurseries or primaries. If it is feasible, can we remember to donate food to local food banks? By supporting the most disadvantaged children in this way, we are supporting their ability to do well at school too.
Championing your local library, campaigning to support local bus routes and fundraising for school items are all ways in which to support aspirational families under a great deal of financial stress. If you or your business is doing well financially, consider paying for, funding or sponsoring a child to attend a summer holiday course. There are lots of ways for all of us to do more to support children in our own communities, particularly at this challenging economic time.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
At Tooled Up, we are lucky to work with many excellent researchers and disseminate their findings and tips to our community of parents and educators. Our library is packed full of webinars and podcast interviews (and accompanying notes) with experts in education, psychology and neuroscience, along with articles, tip sheets and activities which we create using tips from the world of research. In fact (fanfare, please), we’ve just released our 100th podcast! One of our recent favourites is a podcast with Patrice Bain, which is full of usable, science-based ways that parents can unleash children’s learning potential at home.
A quick browse through our webinars will give you expert insights into subjects as diverse as the relationship between sleep and mental health, the science behind dyslexia, the impact of nature on wellbeing and what we know about body image and social media. Take a look – there are 27 to watch, plus more for our Tooled Up school staff’s CPD!
Each month, we also select one researcher who is working in an area particularly relevant to parents or school staff and make them our Researcher of the Month. For each of our researchers, we always tell you exactly how it is relevant to real life, both in the classroom and at home. Since we started, we’ve highlighted research on a wide range of subjects, including the importance of fun, kindness, sibling relationships, neuromyths and how they can damage children’s outcomes, nurturing positive body image, the intrinsic value of play, cultivating good sleep hygiene, factors that might predict self-harm and eating disorders. Phew! We’ve actually just published our 15th Researcher of the Month feature, focusing on the work of Dr Ola Demkowicz, who examines risk and resilience factors in adolescent mental health.
Finally, if you’d like to encourage your child to reflect on what aspects of learning challenge them, why not use our Challenge Levels for Learning activity?