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Education research

Why don’t teachers use education research in teaching? Paul MacLellan spoke to researchers and teachers to find out. Steve, a chemistry NQT, described his recent experiences:

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I don’t know about experienced teachers, but while doing my training I’ve become very sceptical of educational research. Having just come off the back of a chemistry PhD I was reasonably surprised at what constitutes research in this area. Study samples tend to be small, limited examples of how to actually apply the methods are generally given and I’ve lost count of the number of papers I’ve seen that are effectively just opinion pieces.

There also seems to be a huge gulf between academia and real life, much more than the gap between chemistry academia and the chemical industry. At least in chemistry everyone’s talking about the same molecules. Some papers make me wonder if researchers even know what children are, let alone if they appreciate the real life pressures teachers are under that result in the reading of educational literature lying near the bottom of a constantly refilling to do list.

But finally, I think teachers are using educational research in the classrooms. It just takes time. Just as it takes years for new chemistry to become reliable and robust enough to be taken on and used in industry, so it takes time for educational research to gain enough momentum and support to be used in the classroom. We no longer teach by rote (that often …) and even in the 13 years or so since I left school, techniques have changed and evolved.

Glen Gilchrist wrote a comment describing his experiences, which concluded:

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All this is to substantiate the point you’ve made about education research papers being written for a different audience – these papers aren’t written for teachers to explore ideas, use in the classroom and make a difference to the outcomes of a specific cohort. They’re written for other education researchers to discuss potentially bigger truths, the implications of which can simply be discussed further in another paper over a far longer timescale. The work of John Hattie is a good example of this. [His] comments and insights into feedback are based on research some of which is 15+ years old – 15 years to go from a research paper into something that teachers can get to grips with.

What we’re left with is action research as a vehicle for teachers to research their own practise and impact the outcomes of young people they actually teach. No wide scale generalisations but rather what works for them, in their classes.

Chemical clues

In this issue’s CPD article, Joe Ogborn describes how to introduce inorganic chemical tests and use them to develop students’ problem-solving skills. Elaine Farrow added her suggestions:

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Inorganic analysis provides a really useful tool to encourage learners to use databooks of expected observations and other sources to rationalise their observations. My model for teaching is to introduce new tests gradually, inviting learners to identify compounds from an increasing range. They are finally assessed on their ability to independently identify a given two from up to 20 different compounds to include transition metal compounds.

The sense of achievement they get from obtaining the correct identity is worth the effort, and the formation of awesome colours from complex ions never loses its appeal and provides a platform to extend the understanding of the more able.

Making chemical language easier

In this article, Ann Marie Farrell and Michael Seery consider the diversity of learners in every classroom and offer some ideas for how to meet students’ language and literacy needs within chemistry.

Naomi Hennah recommended some techniques to help students get to grips with the meanings of the words we use in science, particularly those that may have different meanings in everyday life.

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So how can we teachers help? Get students to talk, as suggested [in the article] – this frees students from the burdens of writing, spelling and punctuation. Trying to verbalise answers from thoughts is a great way of identifying gaps in understanding and adding in pointed questions (the Socratic questioning technique) can really help force miscomprehension to the surface.

Identify words that have multiple meanings during discussion and encourage the use of the correct meaning in chemistry. Oracy is a much undervalued skill in lessons – try getting students to make notes to support a verbal answer rather than asking for written answers. Speaking about your subject clearly and correctly will be a huge asset in interviews.

Vocabulary lists have limited value but putting words and meanings together in context (concept cards) can create a memory hook that enhances learning.

To encourage reading, recommend appropriate Twitter and Instagram links. I work with boys, so asking for the strangest/funniest/most incomprehensible chemistry news generates healthy competition.