The Science of Learning

US-based Deans for Impact are not only one of the leading organisations driving evidence-informed teacher training, but also ground-breaking communicators of evidence-informed education. And one of their most successful publications, The Science of Learning, is part of that success. Benjamin Riley and Charis Anderson explain what it is, and why it has proven such an international success.

Benjamin Riley and Charis Anderson

When Deans for Impact launched in 2015, its members – all leaders of US educator-preparation programmes – wanted to chart a new course in education that pushed for the broader use of scientifically supported learning principles within programmes that prepare future teachers. At the same time, we wanted to make sure whatever we did would resonate with practising educators in the field. Could we create a resource to do both?

From this question, The Science of Learning – a short, six-page summary of principles of cognitive science and their application to teaching practice – was born. Three years after its publication, it remains the most widely used resource Deans for Impact has developed, with ongoing international interest. And we think the reason for this stems in part from the fact that the main authors of The Science of Learning – Daniel Willingham and Paul Bruno – spanned the ‘research to practice’ divide that so often creates a barrier to improving education.

Willingham, a professor at the University of Virginia, is a cognitive scientist. Earlier in his career, his research focused solely on the brain basis of learning and memory, but since around 2000, he has focused on the application of cognitive psychology to K-16 education. The Science of Learning offered Willingham another opportunity to bring information about cognitive psychology to educators in a useful way.

By contrast, when Bruno started working on The Science of Learning, he was fresh out of the classroom after spending five years teaching middle-school science in Oakland and Los Angeles. Bruno’s own teacher-preparation experience had left him with relatively little understanding of the science of learning, and much of what he did know he learned on his own. Based on his own experience, Bruno thought there was an enormous need to help make learning-science research accessible for educators.

‘I think it’s great when teachers take the initiative and want to dive into the research themselves,’ said Bruno, who is now a PhD student at USC Rossier. ‘But I think it is pretty unfair, for most teachers, to demand that they do that proficiently: that’s not their job.’

There’s a distinction between being a practitioner and being a researcher of how the mind works, according to Willingham. ‘Knowing what the mind does is not identical to knowing how to put those principles into practice in a classroom,’ Willingham said.

The Science of Learning focuses on the cognitive view of learning in order to focus on those principles that are most applicable to what teachers do in classrooms, such as helping students understand new ideas or motivating students to learn. The principles are organised through six framing questions – e.g., how do students understand new ideas? – and are paired with specific, concrete implications for instruction. Above all, The Science of Learning makes the research accessible.

The field of education often lacks clear paths to keep practitioners up to date on the latest relevant research. This stands in contrast to other professions, such as the medical field, where the American Medical Association takes an active interest in continuing education for physicians, according to Willingham. But in teaching, ‘I would say that most teachers feel they’re sort of on their own in navigating the research world and figuring out what’s new in research and what’s quality,’ Willingham said. Bruno agreed. ‘Particularly for a new teacher, it can be very helpful to have something like The Science of Learning that you can get your arms around and is relatively digestible,’ he said.

The lack of specificity or clarity in standards and other guidance given to teachers – both novice and more experienced – is also a real problem, in Bruno’s eyes. For example, teachers are told that it’s important for their students to have foundational knowledge as a precursor for critical thinking – but what is meant by ‘having foundational knowledge’? And what specific things do teachers need to do to help their students gain that knowledge?

‘A lot of times, educational advice can sound very aspirational, and watching teachers who are good can often seem like you’re watching something that’s indistinguishable from magic,’ Bruno said. A novice teacher who is told to differentiate her instruction, but isn’t given clear directions on what that means or looks like – or even on what basis instruction needs to be differentiated – will be left fishing for plausible ways of achieving the objective.

It’s in these types of situations where neuromyths like learning styles can easily take hold, Bruno believes. ‘Learning styles seems to offer some of this concreteness: take the activity you were doing, and turn it into something visual, or something kinesthetic,’ he said. ‘That seems actionable, and it’s something to latch onto.’

Empowering individual teachers with knowledge of learning science principles can change the way instruction is delivered in individual classrooms and contribute to changing the norms of the profession. Indeed, while we originally conceived of The Science of Learning as a tool to support individual learning, at Deans for Impact we’ve increasingly come to see the principles of learning science as central to organisational learning as well. We’re now using The Science of Learning to undergird a vision of change within educator-preparation programmes that prioritises candidate learning above all else.

In our most recent publication, Building Blocks, we laid out a vision for effective educator preparation that connects learning-science principles with practical considerations about how teacher preparation should be designed. In this vision, not only do teacher-educators teach and model behaviours that are aligned with our best scientific knowledge, but programmes themselves are designed with that knowledge at their core.

When teacher-educators model effective pedagogy, for example, it gives aspiring teachers ‘worked examples’ – step-by-step demonstrations that break down a teaching practice into its component parts – that reduce their cognitive burdens and help them see and understand the underlying concepts.

Interleaving practice opportunities throughout teacher-candidates’ preparation experience helps them better learn content and understand theory and practice as interrelated concepts. Pairing those practice opportunities with feedback that is targeted toward developing a specific skill and given as soon as possible after the skill is practice – and giving teacher-candidates another opportunity to practice the skill – make them powerful levers for improvement.

Finally, designing the arc of the preparation process to build teacher-candidate knowledge, skill, and understanding over time helps align theory to practice and creates a coherent experience for all candidates. This approach to program design is based one of the bedrock principles of cognitive science: that we learn new ideas by referencing ideas we already know.

Three years after Deans for Impact first conceived the idea for The Science of Learning, it continues to guide much of our work. We believe that cognitive science can drive improvements within individual teachers’ classrooms and within the organizations that prepare those teachers – and researchED is playing a pivotal role in helping spread these ideas across the globe. We have made a great deal of progress – and our best work lies ahead.

You can download all Deans for Impact publications (including The Science of Learning and Building Blocks) for free here:

Download a PDF version of this issue.

Founded in 2015, Deans for Impact is a US nonprofit organisation that empowers, supports, and advocates on behalf of leaders at all levels of educator preparation who are committed to transforming the field and elevating the teaching profession.

Benjamin Riley is the founder and executive director of Deans for Impact. Prior to founding Deans for Impact, Ben conducted research on the New Zealand education system, worked as the policy director for a national education nonprofit, and served as deputy attorney general for the State of California. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington and JD from the Yale Law School.

Charis Anderson is the senior director of communications at Deans for Impact. Prior to joining Deans for Impact, she was the director of publications for a Boston-based national education nonprofit. Charis also worked as a reporter at a local newspaper in Massachusetts, for an independent high school in San Francisco, and at a management consulting firm. Charis received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Williams College and her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Research that changed my teaching

In the first of a series in which educators explain how research has transformed their practice, English and media teacher Hélène Galdin-O’Shea tells us about one paper that changed everything for her classroom.

Research paper: ‘Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching’

Authors: Kirschner, Sweller and Clark, 2006.

The end of my first decade as a teacher was nearly the end of my career as a teacher. I had become so frustrated with the way in which ‘outstanding’ teaching was defined and enforced that I was ready to give up. It was a horrendous regime of having lessons graded against a never-ending tick-list of dubious items and the dual premises of minimal teacher talk (no more than five to ten minutes and based in great part on the flawed – and now thankfully debunked – cone of learning or learning pyramid) complete with compulsory group work (or a ‘fail’), and finding a way to demonstrate ‘visible progress’ in 20 minutes. Five minutes of talking is just about enough to give a set of learning objectives and a set of instructions for group work if you want to avoid utter confusion when the signal is given.

Organising resources which are accessible and will give students something from which they can learn new information on their own is time-consuming enough, but add to that the provision of clearly defined roles for group members in order to make them ‘accountable’, and tasks through which students can engage with the materials, can do ‘something’ with the knowledge and prepare to feedback in a way that does not make students and teacher want to kill themselves after group 3 of 6 have had a go – well, all that is quite a feast. Dishearteningly, my role of ‘facilitator’ often led to the need to re-teach the materials – and ‘un-teach’ misconceptions. Could the group work task have worked better with clearly guided instruction at the start? Certainly so. But these were the rules of the game then. And boy, did I try!

When the focus of lesson planning becomes ‘What can I do in order not to explain this explicitly?’ as opposed to ‘How can I refine my explanations and polish the scaffolding work to maximise students’ understanding?’, something has to shift. It had become painfully obvious that the way ‘independent learning’ (as cited in the ‘outstanding lesson’ criteria) had come to be interpreted in schools was unhelpful. Did it really mean letting students struggle mostly on their own trying to make sense of the materials, organising themselves and others, formulating a response, and preparing to feed back that response? Even with timely interventions to redirect or explain, the process was painful, particularly for students who had a lower starting point. Why not provide more structured guidance with instant corrective feedback to start with?

After 13 years on the job, I went online, connected with many colleagues, and started reading. I am eternally grateful to whoever pointed in the direction of a paper which gave me new teacher-life, so to speak. It was a
paper by Paul Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard Clark (2006) titled ‘Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching’ in which the authors make the case for fully guided instruction and the idea that most people learn best when provided with explicit instructional guidance. They argue that it is an ‘instructional procedure’ that takes into consideration the ‘structures that constitute human cognitive architecture’ with over 50 years of evidence from empirical studies to support its effectiveness.

The aim of all instruction is to alter long-term memory. If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.

A couple of years later, someone shared a follow-up article which had been published in American Educator in 2012 – ‘Putting students on the path to learning: the case for fully guided instruction’ – which, to this day, I use with teacher trainees as it presents the research evidence in a very clear and accessible way. The first paper helped me redefine what had become for me a bête noire: the concept of ‘independent learning’, and what it may mean, firstly by shifting the idea to ‘independent practice’, and more broadly by conceptualising it as guiding students towards independent learning from a novice status to a more expert one over the course of a unit of study but also over the course of a year, a key stage, one’s formal education. In this model, guided then independent practice logically follows carefully guided instruction, feedback is proffered as an ongoing process and its two-way nature is reinforced as the teacher tweaks instruction taking cues from student response. It seems obvious now but the concept of cognitive load was an eye-opener in so far as it greatly explained why many of my students had struggled to learn and retain information through the convoluted tasks I used to prepare for them.

The paper also opened for me the ideas behind the role of memory in learning and allowed me to plan sequences of lessons aimed at carefully revisiting and building on knowledge, taking into consideration ways in which I could help my students with ‘knowledge organisation and schema acquisition’. They suggested that ‘there is also evidence that [unguided instruction] may have negative results when students acquire misconceptions or incomplete or disorganised knowledge’, which again chimed strongly with my experience. The lofty aims of ‘higher-order thinking’ that we were asked to prioritise now made sense as part of a carefully orchestrated and rehearsed foundational knowledge base, since ‘expert problem solvers derive their skill by drawing on the extensive experience stored in their long-term memory and then quickly select and apply the best procedures for solving problems.’ The paper culminated for me in the assertion that ‘the aim of all instruction is to alter long-term memory. If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.’

The authors also introduced me to the worked example effect and the expertise reversal effect, the latter being summed up in: ‘The advantage of guidance begins to recede only when learners have sufficiently high prior knowledge to provide “internal” guidance.’ After a few years of chewing over these concepts and reading far more about them (starting with Barak Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of instruction’), I find it hard to believe that I was not introduced to these ideas at the start of my career. I am certain that teachers get a much better deal today but my own training can broadly be summed up by ‘Do group work’.

Now at the end of my second decade as a teacher, I feel more at peace with my practice and enthused about the future, knowing that I still have much to learn, practise and refine, but also knowing that there is a clearer path ahead in terms of finding helpful reading and research evidence, and having colleagues with whom discussions focus on student learning as opposed to nebulous proxies.

See Paul Kirschner’s article for more on this research paper.

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Benjes-Small, C. (2014) ‘Tales of the undead…Learning theories: the learning pyramid’, ACRLog [blog].

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J. & Clark, R. E. (2006) ‘Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching’, Educational Psychologist, 41 (2) pp. 75–86.

Clark, R., Kirschner, P. and Sweller, J. (2012) ‘Putting students on the path to learning: the case for fully guided instruction’, American Educator, 36 (1) pp. 6–11.

Rosenshine, B. (2012) ‘Principles of instruction: research-based strategies that all teachers should know’, American Educator, 36 (1) pp. 12–19, 39.

The psychology of habits

Teacher, blogger and trainer Joe Kirby takes a look at the force of habit – one of the most powerful influences we have on our behaviour whether we like it or not – and how we can use this in school.

Scientific research suggests that cues and consistency make habits last.

Why do we automatically wash our hands after going to the toilet? Why do we automatically tend to put our seatbelt on when we get into a car? Why do we tend to forget our New Year’s Resolutions by March?

These puzzles can partly be explained by the psychology of habit. Knowing this scientific research can come in very handy as teachers and school leaders.

Scientific research

In 1899, one of the founders of modern psychology, William James, gave some talks to teachers on the human mind. ‘It is very important that teachers realise the importance of habit, and psychology helps us greatly at this point … Habits cover a very large part of life,’ James argued; much of our activity is automatic and habitual. ‘The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work’ (James, 1899).

Research a century on suggests that around 45% of our daily actions are habitual (Wood et al., 2002; Wood et al., 2005; Wood & Neal, 2007; Evans & Stanovich, 2013). Scientifically, habits are learned, contextual, automatic responses (Verplanken & Aarts, 1999; Wood & Neal, 2007). Simply repeating an action consistently in the same context leads to the action being activated on later exposure to the same cue (Lally & Gardner, 2013). Using the toilet is the cue for washing our hands. Getting into a car is the cue for putting on a seatbelt. When a specific behaviour is performed repeatedly in an unvarying context, a habit will develop. Habits, scientists have found, do not rely on conscious attention or motivation, so persist even after conscious motivation or interest dissipates (Bargh, 1994). Habits free mental resources for other tasks. For example, learning to drive requires conscious attention to the pedals at first, but after that becomes a learned habit, attention is freed for scanning the road and for conversation. Decades of studies show that habit strength increases following repetition of a behaviour after the same cue (Hull, 1943; Lally et al., 2010; Lally et al., 2011). Cues and consistency combine to create a new habit. One study showed that it took an average of 66 days for a habit to form, with a range of 18 to 254 days (Lally et al., 2010). The time taken for automating the habit depended partly on the complexity of the habit: drinking a glass of water every day is easier than doing 50 sit-ups every day. Psychologists now argue that habit formation advice – that is, to repeat an action consistently in the same context – offers a simple path to long-term behaviour change (Gardner, Lally & Wardle, 2012).

Cues and consistency

In schools, we can use the power of habit to improve our pupils’ lives, just as a parent says to their child, ‘What’s the magic word?’ to teach them to be thankful and thoughtful. From the research evidence, two principles suggest themselves to make a habit last:

Choose a ‘cue’ or a reminder that occurs without fail at least daily.

Repeat the action consistently after the cue for as many days in a row as possible.

The best cues recur unfailingly, such as waking up or entering or leaving a lesson. This explains why so many of us forget our New Years’ resolutions: because we haven’t turned them into daily habits with unfailing cues or consistency.

Greeting people professionally is a useful habit for young people to learn for any interview they attend and anywhere they work later in life. A simple cue is seeing a teacher. I have seen how teaching pupils to smile and greet teachers cheerfully with ‘good morning!’ or ‘good afternoon!’ helps pupils learn how to interact positively and politely. Because this cue occurs many times a day at school, pupils have many chances every day to practise. Some pupils already have this automated, and are at an advantage in later life. Schools can help all pupils to achieve this advantage by teaching and reinforcing it consistently until it is an automatic habit for everyone.

Pupils have to remember lots of items every day: uniform, books, equipment, homework and kit. Quite often, something gets forgotten. Checking they’ve got what they need in their bag the night before and in the morning is a useful habit. A simple cue is to check their bag just after they’ve woken up. When it comes to exams, having this habit automated hugely reduces stress, pressure and panic.

Focusing on with practice in lessons straight away and not time-wasting is another habit that gives pupils great advantages that accumulate rapidly over time. Compared to a pupil who wastes just the first two minutes of practice each lesson, a pupil who focuses gains an extra 10,000 minutes of learning from Year 7 to Year 11. A simple cue to start practice such as ‘Ready…go!‘ is powerful when it is consistently applied. If all teachers in the school give the same cue, it makes it easier for pupils to establish the habit.

If teachers and school leaders decide collective cues and ensure consistency together, they can set their pupils up for habitual success.

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Bargh, J. A. (1994) ‘The four horsemen of automaticity: awareness, intention, efficiency, and control in social cognition’ in Wyer, R. S. & Srull, T. K. (eds) Handbook of social cognition, vol. 1: basic processes. Hove: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 1–40.

Evans, J. & Stanovich, K. (2013) ‘Dual-process theories of higher cognition: advancing the debate’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8 (3) pp. 223–241.

Gardner, B., Lally, P. & Wardle, J. (2012) ‘Making health habitual: the psychology of “habit-formation” and general practice’, The British Journal of General Practice, 62 (605) pp. 664–666.

Hull, C. L. (1943) Principles of behavior: an introduction to behavior theory. New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

James, W. (1899) Talks to teachers on psychology. New York, NY: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company.

Lally, P and Gardner, B. (2013) ‘Promoting habit formation’, Health Psychology Review, 7 (sup. 1) pp. 137–158.

Lally, P., Wardle, J. & Gardner, B. (2011) ‘Experiences of habit formation: a qualitative study’, Psychology, Health & Medicine, 16 (4) pp. 484–489.

Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W. & Wardle, J. (2010) How are habits formed: modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psycholology, 40 (6) pp. 998–1009.

Verplanken, B. & Aarts, H. (1999) ‘Habit, attitude, and planned behaviour: is habit an empty construct or an interesting case of goal-directed automaticity?’, European Review of Social Psychology, 10 (1) pp. 101–134.

Wood, W. & Neal, D. T. (2007) ‘A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface’, Psychological Review, 114 (4) pp. 843−863.

Wood, W., Quinn, J. M. & Kashy, D. A. (2002) ‘Habits in everyday life: thought, emotion, and action’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83 (6) pp. 1281−1297.

Wood, W., Tam, L. & Witt, M. G. (2005) ‘Changing circumstances, disrupting habits’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88 (6) pp. 918−933.

Read this book now! Why Don’t Students Like School?

This issue:
Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham

Published in 2010, Professor Daniel Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School? set out to describe as simply as possible – but no simpler – the main lessons that cognitive psychology could teach us about memory, learning, focus, motivation and a host of other topics vital to education. In doing so, it helped catalyse a revival in the interest of evidence-informed education that is still blowing up around the world. Consultant and former headteacher Tom Sherrington tells us why it turned the way he taught and led teaching upside down.

Tom Sherrington

It’s incredible to consider that, as teachers, we’re only recently beginning to understand the processes we muddle through every day. Thankfully, help is at hand. Way up high on my list of ‘books every teacher should read’ is Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham. Packed with insights, it’s a masterpiece of communication, making the complex world of cognitive science accessible
for teachers.

Written in 2009, the book continues to be highly influential. My recent re-reading made me realise just how many ideas I’ve encountered in the last few years are covered in the book – from his sound debunking of learning styles to his exploration of knowledge as the foundation of skills and the famous line ‘memory is the residue of thought’. Of course, Willingham is not alone in his field but, without question, he is one of its best communicators and we owe him a great deal for his ability to penetrate the wall of institutional inertia and edu-dogma with evidence and wisdom.

My favourite chapter in Why Don’t Students Like School? is ‘Why do students forget everything I say?’ This frustration resonates widely with teachers I talk to. Willingham offers advice that he suggests ‘may represent the most general and useful idea that cognitive psychology can offer teachers’: Review each lesson plan in terms of what the student is likely to think about. Superficially this may sound blindingly obvious but actually it requires a great deal of thought.

Take an example – learning about thermal decomposition in chemistry. A teacher might reasonably think it useful – as well as memorable – to explore this by engaging in a practical experiment. If you heat copper carbonate, a green powder, it becomes copper oxide, a black powder, plus invisible carbon dioxide. However, if you consider what students think about whilst doing an experiment, largely it is the business of assembling apparatus and then the process of examining the original green stuff that turns into black stuff. Most of the thinking is at a macro human scale, not about atoms, formulae, chemical bonds or even the terminology. They will form valuable memories about doing experiments and some general ideas about chemical change – but not necessarily that copper carbonate decomposes to copper oxide or the related formula.

Willingham acknowledges how hard it is to build abstract understanding while also giving very clear guidance as to where to focus our energies.

If you want students to learn this reaction in detail – i.e., to retain the knowledge in long-term memory – they must spend time thinking about the words and their semantic meaning; if you want them to develop a mental model of atoms being rearranged, they need to spend time thinking about a representation of the model you want them to learn.

That’s my example, but one that Willingham cites is the use of PowerPoint. If you ask a class to present their findings from research on the Amazon rainforest, for example, via PowerPoint, they will need to spend time thinking about its features – fonts, graphics, animation tools and so on, especially if those skills are recently acquired. This is time they are not spending thinking about features of the Amazon rainforest. In the long term, they may retain more knowledge of the PowerPoint features than the key aspects of the Amazon because of the focus of their thinking. Memory is the residue of thought – so make students do things that give them no choice but to think about the ideas you want them to learn.

This powerful advice feeds into various other considerations. Willingham suggests teachers explicitly construct learning so that students think about what new words mean, rating them or ranking them; he recommends using ideas that create conflicts to resolve or using narrative structures that place ideas in meaningful sequences. At the same time, ‘attention grabbers’ and discovery learning need careful consideration because unless they provide immediate feedback that the subject is being thought about in the right way, there’s a big risk that students think about the wrong things; they will remember things but not what you actually intended.

Another favourite chapter is ‘Why is it so hard for students to understand abstract ideas?’ The key piece of advice is to make deep knowledge the spoken and unspoken emphasis. This means avoiding giving the impression that learning some superficial facts is enough; there are always underlying models and concepts. It means making explicit comparisons between connected ideas such as literary themes or techniques in different poems, building up students’ knowledge of different examples of abstract ideas, but not just learning each example at a surface level.

I love the way Willingham acknowledges how hard it is to build abstract understanding while also giving very clear guidance as to where to focus our energies. That sense of being grounded in teachers’ realities helps him to communicate his thoughts. Helpfully, Willingham devotes some of his thinking to the nature of teachers’ professional learning. His main advice should be no surprise: teaching, like any cognitive skill, must be practised to be improved. This needs experience – but that’s not enough; it also requires conscious effort and feedback. ‘Education makes better minds, and knowledge of the mind can make better education.’ Amen!

Professor Daniel Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School? is available to buy on Amazon, published by Jossey-Bass ISBN 047059196X

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The fight for phonics in early years reading

One of the most important things a child will do at school is learn to read, but there are few battlefields in educational discourse as contested as how to best teach it. Here, Jennifer Buckingham outlines the evidence base for systematic synthetic phonics as the most reliable method we have – and also why so many find it hard to accept.

There is extensive research on how children learn to read and how best to teach them. One of the most consistent findings from methodologically sound scientific research is that learning to decode words using phonics is an essential element of early reading instruction.1 Language comprehension (vocabulary and understanding of semantics, syntax, and so on) is also essential to gain meaning from reading, of course. But children must first be able to accurately identify the words on the page or screen before they can bring meaning to what they are reading.2

Many high-quality studies over the last two decades in particular, including systematic reviews, have shown that classroom programmes and interventions with an explicit, systematic phonics instruction component are more effective in teaching children to read than those without such a component.3 More recently, a teaching method called systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) has garnered strong evidence in its favour.4 In synthetic phonics, teaching starts with a sequence of simple letter-sound correspondences, building to the more complex code as children master the skills of blending and segmenting.5

Systematic synthetic phonics is well-researched in school classrooms and in clinical settings. It is also supported by cognitive science research on the processes that take place in the brain when children learn to read. This research shows that reading is not like speaking: the human brain is not innately wired for reading to develop automatically with exposure to print. Making the cognitive connections between print, sound and meaning requires making physical neurological connections between three distinct areas of the brain.6 Some children create these neural connections relatively quickly but others require methodical, repeated and explicit teaching.7 This is particularly true for a complex language like English where the relationships between letters and sounds is not uniform in all words.

Despite the clear evidence supporting systematic phonics instruction, there is still debate about the role of phonics in learning to read and how to teach it effectively. The reasons for this are many, and interrelated. While the points listed here are drawn from the Australian context and experience (particularly in the state of New South Wales), they are also relevant in other countries.

  • Many teachers do not have sound knowledge of language constructs and the most effective ways to teach reading, and generally overestimate what they know.8 A recent study of prep teachers (first year of formal schooling), found that only 53% could correctly define a morpheme and only 38% could correctly define phonemic awareness.9 The latter is a powerful predictor of reading ability and a critical element of initial reading instruction.10
  • Initial Teacher Education courses do not consistently provide graduate teachers with evidence-based reading instruction strategies and this is often compounded by low-quality professional learning.11
  • Contradictions within one department lead to teachers being given strongly conflicting messages.
  • For example, the NSW government reading programme ‘L3’ is inconsistent with a document on effective, evidence-based reading instruction produced by the same government.12
  • Important policy decisions are frequently made by education ministers and department executives who don’t have a good understanding of the evidence and research. They are often guided by people whose knowledge and experience is in literacy more broadly, or even just primary education generally; while early reading instruction and intervention is a highly specialised field of research and expertise. An example of this was the NSW Ministerial Advisory Group on Literacy and Numeracy (MAGLAN), which produced a report that misrepresented important educational strategies such as response to intervention.13
  • Very few literacy teaching programmes and interventions are subjected to rigorous trials or evaluations.14
  • Endorsement of expensive and unproven interventions that invoke neuroscience or involve computers, or both. There are numerous programmes that claim to help children learn to read by doing anything but actually teaching them to read.15

Despite the clear evidence supporting systematic phonics instruction, there is still debate about the role of phonics in learning to read and how to teach it effectively.

  • The influence of people in both the public and private sectors who continue to promote theories of reading that do not reflect current research on effective reading instruction.16
  • Rejection of research-informed policy proposals without careful consideration of the evidence, instead relying on conspiracy theories and ad hominem attacks.17
  • The perception of some programmes and policies as being ‘too big to fail’. It can take years, and sometimes even decades, to replace them even after research has shown them to be ineffective (for example: reading recovery).18
  • Significant investment in resources, buildings and furniture that are connected to outmoded and ineffective ways of teaching. For example:
  • Schools have spent thousands of dollars building up libraries of levelled readers and other resources designed for reading methods based around whole language and ‘three-cueing’ approaches. This makes it difficult for those schools to make dramatic changes to reading instruction.
  • School furniture and buildings are frequently designed in ways that do not accommodate explicit instruction pedagogies. The open classroom is one example of this: research has shown that noise levels in open classrooms are a problem for students.19 Yet many new government and Catholic schools are being built with open classrooms that exacerbate these problems.
  • Widespread misinformation about effective teaching methods, including the misrepresentation of synthetic phonics and the misuse of terms like ‘explicit teaching’.20

Despite all of this, there are reasons for optimism. The NSW government has recently allowed public schools to use funding that was earmarked for the reading recovery programme for other reading interventions; the Australian government is negotiating with the state and territory governments to introduce a Year 1 Phonics Check; and the newest version of the Australian Curriculum has a much greater emphasis on phonemic awareness and phonics. Acknowledgement of the importance of explicit instruction is growing and becoming more accepted, even if it is not always put perfectly into practice. Much has been achieved but there is still much to be done.

Dr Jennifer Buckingham is a senior research fellow and director of the FIVE from FIVE reading project at The Centre for Independent Studies ( Jennifer’s doctoral research was on effective instruction for struggling readers and she has written numerous reports and peer-reviewed articles on reading instruction and literacy policy. She is a board member of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, an Associate Investigator at the Centre for Cognition and Its Disorders at Macquarie University, a member of the Learning Difficulties Australia Council, and recently chaired an Australian Government expert advisory panel on the introduction of a Year 1 literacy and numeracy check.

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Hulme, C. & Snowling, M. J. (2013) ‘Learning to read: what we know and what we need to understand better’, Child Development Perspectives, 7 (1) pp. 1–5.

Stuart, M., Stainthorp, R. & Snowling, M. J. (2008) ‘Literacy as a complex activity: deconstructing the simple view of reading’, Literacy, 42 (2) pp. 59–66.

Ehri, L. C., Nunes, S. R., Stahl, S. A. & Willows, D. M. (2001) ‘Systematic phonics instruction helps students learn to read: evidence from the National Reading Panel’s meta-analysis’, Review of Educational Research, 71 (3) pp. 393–447.

Johnston, R. S., McGeown, S. & Watson, J. E. (2011) ‘Long-term effects of synthetic versus analytic phonics teaching on the reading and spelling ability of 10 year old boys and girls’, Reading and Writing, 25 (6) pp. 1365–1384.; Seidenberg, M. (2017) Language at the speed of sight. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Five from Five (no date) ‘Explicit phonics instruction’.

Wolf, M., Ullman-Shade, C. & Gottwald, S. (2016) ‘Lessons from the reading brain for reading development and dyslexia’, Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 21 (2) 143–156. DOI: 10.1080/19404158.2016.1337364

Rupley, W. H., Blair, T. R. & Nichols, W. D. (2009) ‘Effective reading instruction for struggling readers: the role of direct/explicit teaching’, Reading & Writing Quarterly, 25 (2–3) pp. 125–138. DOI: 10.1080/10573560802683523;

Snow, P. (2016) ‘Elizabeth Usher Memorial Lecture: language is literacy is language – positioning speech-language pathology in education policy, practice, paradigms and polemics’, International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 18 (3) pp. 216–228.

Stark, H. L., Snow, P., Eadie, P. A. & Goldfeld, S. R. (2016) ‘Language and reading instruction in early years’ classrooms: the knowledge and self-rated ability of Australian teachers’, Annals of Dyslexia, 66 (1) pp. 28–54.

Melby-Lervåg, M., Lyster, S. A. & Hulme, C. (2012) ‘Phonological skills and their role in learning to read: a meta-analytic review’, Psychological Bulletin, 138 (2) pp. 322–352.

Meeks, L. J. & Kemp, C. R. (2017) ‘How well prepared are Australian preservice teachers to teach early reading skills?’, Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 42 (11) pp. 1–17.

Neilson, R. & Howell, S. (2015) ‘A critique of the L3 Early Years Literacy Program’, Learning Difficulties Australia Bulletin 47 (2) pp. 7–12; NSW CESE (2017) ‘Effective reading instruction in the early years of school’. Sydney: NSW Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation.

Buckingham, J. (2012) ‘Mistakes writ large if reading goes wrong’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 7 May.; Ministerial Advisory Group on Literacy and Numeracy (2012) ‘Report on the outcomes of consultation: literacy and numeracy action plan – initial framework’.

Meiers, M., Reid, K., McKenzie, P. & Mellor, S. (2013) Literacy and numeracy interventions in the early years of schooling: a literature review: report to the Ministerial Advisory Group on Literacy and Numeracy.

Han, E. (2013) ‘Brain Gym claims challenged’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 January.; Wood, P. (2017) ‘Experts question Arrowsmith program for kids with learning difficulties’, ABC News Online, 21 March

Emmitt, M., Hornsby, D. & Wilson, L. (2013) ‘The place of phonics in learning to read and write.’ Australian Literacy Educators’ Association.

Mulheron, M. (2017) ‘President writes: the darker purpose’, Education NSW Teachers Federation website.

NSW CESE (2015) Reading recovery: a sector-wide analysis. Sydney: NSW Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation.

Mealings, K. (2015) ‘Students struggle to hear in new fad open-plan classrooms’, The Conversation, 10 February.

Adoniou, M. (2017) ‘How the national phonics test is failing England and why it will fail Australia too’, EduResearch Matters, Australian Association for Research in Education.

Battling the Bandwidth of your Brain

Why some people think cognitive load theory might be the most important thing a teacher can understand.

Recently, there has been a surge of interest in cognitive load theory, perhaps aided by comments made by Dylan Wiliam on Twitter that it is ‘the single most important thing for teachers to know’ (Wiliam, 2017). So, what is cognitive load theory, how did it arise and what are the implications for teachers in the classroom?

The origins of cognitive load theory can be traced back to the results of an experiment published by John Sweller and his colleagues in the early 1980s (Sweller, 2016). In this experiment, students were asked to transform a given number into a goal number by using a sequence of two possible moves; they could multiply by 3 or subtract 29. Unknown to the students, the problems had been designed so that they could all be solved by simply alternating the two moves e.g. ×3, –29 or ×3, –29, ×3, –29.

The students who were given these problems were all undergraduates and they solved them relatively easily. However, very few of them figured out the pattern.

By that time, it had been established that people solve novel problems by the process of means-ends analysis: Problem-solvers work backwards, comparing their current state with the goal and looking for moves that will reduce this distance. Sweller wondered whether this process drew so heavily on the mind’s resources that there was nothing left to learn the pattern. In other words, solving problems induces a heavy ‘cognitive load’.

It has been known since the 1950s that our short-term memory is severely limited. In a classic 1956 psychology paper, George Miller argued that the maximum number of items that can be held in memory for a short period is about seven (Millar, 1956). However, an important question arises: what is an ‘item’? One of the tasks Millar examined was reciting a string of random digits, with each digit representing one item. Compare this with a string of digits such as, ‘SPIDERS’ – this is no longer seven items. Instead, it represents a single item because most people already possess a concept of what a spider is. An item is therefore the largest unit of meaning that we are dealing with and this will therefore depend upon what a person already knows. When we gain new knowledge – new meanings – we therefore reduce the number of items that we need to consider, a process known as ‘chunking’.

The concept of working memory is similar to that of short-term memory except that it doesn’t just store information, it also manipulates it. The limitations of working memory are what lead to cognitive overload.

We now know that different kinds of item impose different limits (Shriffin & Nosofsky, 1994). Words are generally more intensive than digits, cutting the short-term capacity further. Many cognitive scientists today accept a model of the mind that includes a ‘working memory’ (e.g., Baddeley, 1992). The concept of working memory is similar to that of short-term memory except that it doesn’t just store information, it also manipulates it. The limitations of working memory are what lead to cognitive overload.

Sweller’s initial experiments did not involve tasks that are educationally relevant and so a natural progression was to examine the kinds of problems that students are asked to solve in real academic courses. Working with Graham Cooper, Sweller tested whether school students and university students learned more by solving simple algebra problems or by studying worked examples. If Sweller’s hunch was correct, students may well be able to solve some of these problems, but the cognitive load imposed by this would lead them to learn little. Conversely, by imposing less cognitive load, the worked examples should lead to more learning. This was confirmed by the research (Sweller & Cooper, 1985) and this finding has now been replicated in many different situations involving a wide variety of subject matter (Sweller, 2016).

However, these results seemed counterintuitive and presented researchers with a conundrum. How is it possible for small children to pick up their mother tongue by simple immersion? Wouldn’t that lead to cognitive overload? If Sweller and colleagues were right, wouldn’t we need to give children worked examples of talking and listening in order for them to learn?

The answer to this problem may be found in the work of David Geary. His suggestion is that some forms of learning are ‘biologically primary’. Humans have presumably been speaking a kind of language for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of years and this is long enough for evolution to have had an impact, equipping babies with a mental module for picking up language without conscious effort. In contrast, reading and writing (and all other academic subjects, for that matter) have been around for only a few thousand years and for much of that period, only a small elite engaged with them. They therefore cannot have been affected by evolution, rely on repurposing biologically primary mental modules and are therefore known as ‘biologically secondary’ (Geary, 1995).

Cognitive load theory suggests that all biologically secondary knowledge must pass through our limited working memories in order to be stored in long-term memory. For learning new, complex academic concepts such as algebra or grammar or the causes of the First World War – as opposed to learning simple lists – it is probably wise to try to minimise cognitive load by avoiding approaches that look like problem solving and to instead utilise those that provide clear and explicit, step-by-step guidance (Kirschner et al., 2006).

In the process of its development, cognitive load theory has also incorporated a number of learning effects that are related to the load that they impose. For instance, the ‘split-attention effect’ demonstrates that it is better to place labels directly on a diagram rather than provide an adjacent key because this avoids the need to cross-reference, which imposes unnecessary load. Similarly, the ‘redundancy effect’ shows that it is best to avoid adding unnecessary additional information for students to process. For example, if a diagram of the heart clearly shows the direction of blood flow then adding a label saying which way the blood flows is redundant (Sweller, 2016). This has clear implications for teaching – don’t provide lots of text on a PowerPoint slide and simultaneously explain the same concepts verbally. In general, it is best to minimise the number of different things that students have to pay attention to at any one time. Remove those fancy borders, animations and cartoons unless they are fundamental to what is being communicated.

And this is why cognitive load theory is so powerful. Unlike much of what we are told during training and professional development, cognitive load theory has real implications for teachers in the classroom that are based on sound evidence derived from robust research designs. Perhaps Dylan Wiliam is onto something. Perhaps cognitive load theory is an important thing for teachers to know.

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Baddeley, A (1992) ‘Working memory’, Science, 255 (5044) pp. 556–559.

Geary, D. C. (1995) ‘Reflections of evolution and culture in children’s cognition: implications for mathematical development and instruction’, American Psychologist, 50 (1) pp. 24–37.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006) ‘Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching’, Educational Psychologist, 41 (2) pp. 75–86.

Miller, G. A. (1956) ‘The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information’, Psychological Review, 63 (2) pp. 81–97.

Shiffrin, R. M. & Nosofsky, R. M. (1994) ‘Seven plus or minus two: a commentary on capacity limitations’, Psychological Review, 101 (2) pp. 357–361.

Sweller, J. (2016) ‘Story of a research program’, Education Review, 23.

Sweller, J. & Cooper, G. A. (1985. ‘The use of worked examples as a substitute for problem solving in learning algebra’, Cognition and Instruction, 2 (1) pp. 59–89.

Wiliam, D. (2017) ‘I’ve come to the conclusion Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory is the single most important thing for teachers to know’ [Twitter], 26 January. Retrieved from

Bold beginnings and the importance of reception

In 2018 Ofsted appointed Professor Daniel Muijs to be its new Head of Research. One of his first publications, Bold Beginnings,  proved to be an explosive read. In the report, he made recommendations into how the early years curriculum could be improved. Here, he writes exclusively for researchED magazine, setting out some of the research that informed the piece.

Early years matter. The Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE) study, in which the impact of the take-up and quality of early years provision in England was tracked over time, showed that good early education had significant lasting effects across primary schooling (Sylva et al., 2004).

Furthermore, there is evidence that children who fall behind in pre-school do not find it easy to catch up later. Early deficits can persist throughout primary education, meaning children who lag behind in reading and numeracy during pre-school will continue to do so for the rest of their schooling (Olofsson & Niedersoe, 1999; Foorman et al., 1997; Sparks et al., 2014).

This is a particularly important issue in terms of social justice, as children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are most likely to lack reading or numeracy skills when they enter primary school (Chatterji, 2006). Promisingly, though, there is evidence that attending high-quality pre-school provision can reduce the effect of social background on a child’s cognitive development (Hall et al., 2013).

In England, the Reception year is pivotal in providing a bridge between pre-school and the start of formal primary education. So it is should come as no surprise that Ofsted chose to take a closer look at this phase, nor that our resulting report, Bold Beginnings, generated widespread interest and indeed some controversy within the sector, not least as we found that the effective Reception providers we visited prioritised reading instruction and early mathematics alongside play-based learning.

One of the criticisms of our report is that it does not take into account the research base on early years education. This is a simplification of the evidence base, which ignores a range of research supporting the balanced approach we advocate in Bold Beginnings. In this article I will look at some of this evidence.

Play matters…but so does the formal teaching of reading and numeracy

Criticisms of Bold Beginnings have emphasised the importance of play for early development, not least in developing dispositions for learning, but also in supporting reading and numeracy (eg Whitebread & Bingham, 2014).

Bold Beginnings clearly acknowledges the importance of play in Reception, as have previous Ofsted reports such as Teaching and play in the early years – a balancing act?

However, there is also clear evidence that, alongside play-based approaches, the formal teaching of reading and numeracy are important, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Programmes aimed at improving early years education can have long-standing effects, not just on educational attainment but on a range of societally desirable outcomes, such as reduced delinquency and higher graduation rates (Barnett, 2011; Kagan and Hallmark, 2001; Stipek and Ogana, 2000).

For example, a large-scale meta-analysis of 123 comparative studies of early childhood interventions in the US found that attending pre-school (defined as prior to Kindergarten) was positively related to cognitive outcomes and social skills. The study also found that within EY interventions, the use of teacher-led instruction was positively related with cognitive gains (Camilli et al., 2010).

The EPPE study I mentioned earlier showed that effective early years pedagogy included direct teacher instruction. This refers to the provision of instructive learning environments and ‘sustained shared thinking’, where the child works with an adult to solve a problem (Sylva et al., 2013).

Looking specifically at reading, it is rather depressing to have to continue making the case for systematic phonics instruction when this is possibly the most extensively researched and solidly supported practice in education. Of course, we need to engender a love of reading and literature in children. And authentic texts are important to this, as is reading to children, which we acknowledge in Bold Beginnings.

However, authentic literature and rich contexts are not a suitable substitute for the explicit teaching of phonics decoding skills. Evidence for this comes from, among many others, the large-scale National Institutes of Health studies in the US, and subsequent evidence reviews from the National Reading Panel (Lyon, 1999; Moats, 1996; NICHD, 2000). These findings replicate across countries, with Hattie (2009), for example, likewise finding strong positive effects of phonics instruction.

There is also evidence that synthetic phonics instruction is particularly effective. In a widely cited study in Scotland, Johnston & Watson (2004) compared the reading skills of children taught using synthetic phonics with those of a group taught using analytic phonics, and found the former to be more effective.

A subsequent study of 10-year-olds whose early literacy programmes had involved either analytic or synthetic phonics methods found that the pupils taught using synthetic phonics had better word reading, spelling, and reading comprehension (Johnston et al., 2012).

Reading instruction should not have to wait until the start of formal schooling. And indeed for many children from middle-class households it doesn’t, which is one of the factors that exacerbates inequality. Early phonemic awareness and decoding skills substantially predict later reading achievement, and interventions aimed at improving them are shown to particularly benefit children who struggle with reading (Kendeou et al., 2009; Ehri et al., 2001; Hatcher et al., 2004).

Similar findings emerge from research on numeracy. Early numeracy skills predict attainment in primary school, and the quality of early years provision is one factor that influences early numeracy, alongside experience of counting and numbers at home (Anders et al., 2013; Aubrey et al., 2006; LeFevre et al., 2009).

Another review of 19 studies showed that both formal instruction and play-based activities led to improved numeracy skills (Mononen et al., 2014).


The Bold Beginnings study did not explicitly set out to confirm the evidence reviewed above, although it had a clear focus on reading and numeracy. The study underlying our report was an empirical analysis of 41 good and outstanding schools, selected because they performed highly against a range of indicators, including EYFS development levels, the Phonics screening check and attainment at Key Stage 1 (for full details see the technical document).

However, in supporting a balanced approach that includes explicit instruction in reading and numeracy alongside play-based learning, Bold Beginnings does corroborate a wealth of research in the field.

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Anders, Y., Grosse, C., Rossbach, H.-G., Ebert, S. & Weinert, S. (2013) ‘Preschool and primary school influences on the development of children’s early numeracy skills between the ages of 3 and 7 years in Germany’, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 24 (2) pp. 195–211.

Aubrey, C., Godfrey, R. & Dahl, S. (2006) ‘Early mathematics development and later achievement: further evidence’, Mathematics Education Research Journal, 18 (1) pp. 27–46.

Barnett, W. S. (2011) ‘Effectiveness of early educational intervention’, Science, 333 (6045) 975–978.

Camilli, G., Vargas, S., Ryan, S. & Barnett, S. (2010) ‘Meta-analysis of the effects of early education interventions on cognitive and social development’, Teachers College Record, 112 (3) pp. 579–620.

Chatterji, M. (2006) ‘Reading achievement gaps, correlates, and moderators of early reading achievement: evidence from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) kindergarten to first grade sample’, Journal of Educational Psychology, 98 (3) pp. 489–507.

Ehri, L., Nunes, S., Willows, D., Schuster, B., Yaghoub-Zadeh, Z. & Shanahan, T. (2001) ‘Phonemic awareness instruction helps children learn to read: evidence from the National Reading Panel’s meta-analysis’, Reading Research Quarterly, 36 (3) pp. 250–287.

Foorman, B. R., Francis, D. J., Shaywitz, S. E., Shaywitz, B. A., & Fletcher, J. M. (1997) ‘The case for early reading intervention’ in Blachman, B. A. (ed.) Foundations of reading acquisition and dyslexia: implications for early intervention. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 243–264.

Hall, J., Sylva, K., Sammons, P., Melhuish, E., Siraj-Blatchford, I. & Taggart, B. (2013) ‘Can preschool protect young children’s cognitive and social development? Variation by center quality and duration of attendance’, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 24 (2) pp. 155–176.

Hatcher, P., Hulme, C. & Snowling, M. (2004) ‘Explicit phoneme training combined with phonic reading instruction helps young children at risk of reading failure’, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45 (2) pp. 338–358.

Hattie, J. (2009) Visible learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York, NY: Routledge.

Johnston, R. S. & Watson, J. (2004) ‘Accelerating the development of reading, spelling and phonemic awareness skills in initial readers’, Reading and Writing, 17 (4) pp. 327–357.

Johnston, R. S., McGeown, S. & Watson, J. E. (2012) ‘Long-term effects of synthetic versus analytic phonics teaching on the reading and spelling ability of 10 year old boys and girls’, Reading and Writing, 25 (6) pp. 1365–1384.

Kagan, S. L. and Hallmark, L. G. (2001) ‘Early care and education policies in Sweden: implications for the United States’, Phi Delta Kappan, 83 (3) pp. 237–245, 254.

Kendeou, P., van den Broek, P., White, M. J. & Lynch, J. S. (2009) ‘Predicting reading comprehension in early elementary school: the independent contributions of oral language and decoding skills’, Journal of Educational Psychology, 101 (4) pp. 765–778.

LeFevre, J.-A., Skwarchuk, S.-L., Smith-Chant, B. L., Fast, L., Kamawar, D., & Bisanz, J. (2009) ‘Home numeracy experiences and children’s math performance in the early school years’, Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 41 (2) pp. 55–66.

Lyon, G. R. (1999) The NICHD research program in reading development, reading disorders and reading instruction. NICHD: Keys to Successful Learning Summit.

Moats, L. C. (1996) ‘Neither/nor: resolving the debate between whole language and phonics.’ Lecture given at the 1996 Washington Summit Conference of Learning Disabilities.

Mononen, R., Aunio, P., Koponen, T. & Aro, M. (2014) ‘A review of early numeracy interventions for children at risk in mathematics’, International Journal of Early Childhood Special Education, 6 (1) pp. 25–54.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) (2000) Report of the national reading panel: teaching children to read: an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: reports of the subgroups. Washington, DC: NIH.

Olofsson, A. & Niedersoe, J. (1999) ‘Early language development and kindergarten phonological awareness as predictors of reading problems’, Journal of Learning Disabilities, 32 (5) pp. 464–472.

Sparks, R., Patton, J. & Murdoch, A. (2014) ‘Early reading success and its relationship to reading achievement and reading volume: replication of “10 years later”’, Reading and Writing, 27 (1) pp. 189–211.

Stipek, D. & Ogawa, T. (2000) ‘Early childhood education’ in Halfon, N., Shulman, E. & Shannon, M. (eds) Building community systems for young children. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities.

Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I. & Taggart, B. (2004) The effective provision of pre-school education (EPPE) project. Nottingham: Department for Education and Skills.

Whitebread, D. & Bingham, S. (2014) ‘School readiness: starting age, cohorts and transitions in the early years’ in Moyles, J., Georgeson, J. and Payler, J. (eds) Early years foundations: critical issues. 2nd edn. Maidenhead: Open University Press, pp. 179–191.

researchED Birmingham: an unexpected journey

Why and how I set up #rEDBrum, February 2018

I began to understand the world of edu-Twitter about 18 months ago. I had no idea what a hashtag was. Twitter handles were an alien concept. I was oblivious to arguments about whether pupils should face boards or windows; I was puzzled about what gazing at trees could teach my kids about symbolism in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or the nuances of monosyllabic metre in Shakespeare unless Ents were rapping at the panes. And even then, I wasn’t sure their explanations would be clear enough. Such was the influence of Twitter. So it wasn’t just me who thought pupils should face the board! Huzzah! Suddenly I’d found comrades-in-arms, like Rebecca Foster (@TLPMsF).

Now my emergent understanding of Twitter meant that I became more familiar with the ‘ED’ noun-into-verb suffixes that punctuated Twitter. These ED groups and opinions are prolific, and full of strong opinions. Opinions and experiences are important, but sometimes we wander into the apple-bobbing land of Teaching Folklore. This can often be a wonderful place to be, but a tricky place to navigate. Folklore, though pretty, can trip you up.

And, Twitter, with great power comes great responsibility. In navigating the waves of voices and choppy opinions in my exciting ‘Twitter Voyage’ for the Holy Grail of understanding, I found one welcoming community of people, not all of whom agreed with each other, but with a common purpose: researchED.

I began with a small team of researchED enthusiasts at my school. They devoured research, attended as many researchEDs as they could, even Skyped with the ‘Master Magician of Visualising Teaching Concepts’, Oliver Caviglioli. Momentum grew. And with that, so did the outcomes of our pupils. Our English results in 2017 were the best they’d ever been; our history results improved twofold. This wasn’t a happy accident. Those heads of faculty had engaged with research, and had tailored teaching in their faculties in response to this. I salute you, Rekha Dhinsa, Rachael Atton, Tom Hutton.

So to the ‘how’. Much as I like maypoles and bunting, the Fayre of Teaching Folklore didn’t appeal. What did, though, was establishing the first-ever researchED Brum. There’d been one a few years back in the outskirts in Solihull, but never one here, in Middle Earth itself. I put it to Tom Bennett, who let me run with it.

I was incredibly grateful for the ‘been there, done that’ wisdom of other researchED organisers, like #rEDRugby’s sagacious Jude Hunton. Ever-patient with my frantic DMs at 11pm (‘How do I make Eventbrite do this?’), along with providing an immense #rEDRugby model to work from, his researchED cup runneth over. I had a model, and like any Rosenshine disciple knows, this is a Good Thing.

I got stuck in. First thing was to arrange a date. I did that with Tom, and with my headteacher. This was back in the hazy days of July 2017. We agreed February 2018. It was only in the December snow days that I started to lose sleep about it. Would it be snowed off? Too late, it was happening. I’d booked lunch, I’d booked site team for the day, but I hadn’t booked snow ploughs. Gutted.

I began booking speakers in August. For researchED, the work presented has to be grounded in evidence, from published work to case studies. This made sense. Everyone was unquestionably generous. researchED is grass roots. One way we try to keep ticket costs as low as possible is by speakers not being paid a penny; some even contribute their travel expenses – amazing really. And democratising, too: it means you can access fantastic professional development without forking out a fortune. It’s accessible, and it’s cheap. Another Very Good Thing.

When organising researchED, there are a few things you have to remember. Things like getting the space right, like having good IT support, like a supportive SLT who can calm your rattled nerves. Even whether or not you have enough toilet paper. That was a last-minute thing I had to rectify on the day!

We were grateful at #rEDBrum to have primary, secondary, and ITT colleagues presenting, as well as researchers and other educators. For #rEDBrum19, I’d like governors presenting too; in #rEDBrum they were well-represented as delegates. #rEDBrum was a mix of altruistic, open-minded people. Nearly 70% of ticket buyers were female – researchED is clearly perceived as a supportive space for all. It was important to us that #rEDBrum was accessible to those on parental leave. We encouraged #MTPT colleagues to come along; it was fab to see teachers and toddlers enjoying the ‘live lesson’!

Miraculously, things just seemed to work on the day. But this wasn’t by chance. I tried to ensure our speakers had everything they needed beforehand, that our IT network manager had everything he needed beforehand so his life was as easy as possible, that our fabulous prefects knew exactly what to do (I am indebted to our other deputy headteacher, Waris Ali, for this), and that I had a support network of people just to check I was OK. What I didn’t expect were so many generous-hearted delegates and presenters making a point of telling me what a great day they’d had. The vast majority of these people didn’t know me personally, or recognise me from Twitter, but they were kind enough to find me and tell me. This typifies everyone I have met that is involved with researchED: kind, thoughtful, generous. I am very proud to be one small part of such a community.

Claire Stoneman


Claire is deputy headteacher for curriculum, assessment, and standards of teaching at Dame Elizabeth Cadbury School, Birmingham. She also line manages English, humanities, a large pastoral house and the lead practitioner team. Claire teaches English and loves it. She is a blogger (, a writer, and occasionally an opera singer. Claire’s interests in education include narratives around teacher wellbeing and the concept of ‘authenticity’, curriculum development, and the development of middle leaders.

If you have been inspired by Claire’s story and want to host a researchED event of your own, get in touch with us at

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The one thing you need to read

For teachers or educators who want to get more evidence-informed, one of the most daunting things can simply be knowing where to start.