From neuroscience to the classroom

Can neuroscience add anything to our understanding of the classroom? And what should teachers make of it? Efrat Furst looks into how this lens might prove useful in the future. 

What I’m most curious about is human learning. How does it take place in the brain and how does it take place in the classroom? From my point of view, shaped by my background in both cognitive neuroscience and teaching, they are equally interesting and greatly interrelated. These questions guide my everyday work in communicating (neuro)science and education. Educators and researchers often have similar questions about learning, but different ways to approach them, with different goals, ranging from pure theory to pure practice. I find it fascinating and valuable to look at these goals through both lenses, striving to understand both the ‘Why’ and the ‘How’, shaping both teaching practices and research.

From neuroscience

My background is in cognitive neuroscientific research on human long-term memory. I did my research in the Dudai Lab at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. The lab studies memory using two approaches: neurobiological research, and human behavioural research combined with functional neuroimaging. This combination allowed me to study memory from both the biological and the cognitive points of view. While working on my research I was also active in science teaching, teaching topics in science and neuroscience in various programmes for students (grades 4–12). This experience triggered my interest in making connections between research and practice.

Looking back, it was my multidirectional view on the retrieval process, the process by which we access our memories, which turned this plan into a reality. The neurobiological branch of the lab was working for years on the dynamics of memory processes: establishing that consolidation, the post-learning biological modifications of neurons and synapses, is necessary for long-term memory and future retrieval.

Intriguingly, in the early 2000s the lab was among a group of labs that demonstrated that the consolidation processes is not a one-time event: when well-consolidated memories are reactivated during retrieval, they become malleable and subject to reconsolidation. These findings have led to an updated view of memory consolidation:1 it is not just the initial learning experience that registers the information, but also every subsequent activation by retrieval of the memory bears an opportunity to modify the memory trace. The idea that when we try to retrieve memories we update and strengthen their trace emphasises the importance of retrieval – it’s not just the end result of learning and remembering, but actually a vital phase in the process of modifying and strengthening memories in the brain.

With this background, in 2008 I came across a fascinating article in Science journal by cognitive psychologists Jeffrey Karpicke and Henry Roediger.2 They studied the contribution of retrieval practice, as a method of learning, to long-term performance. They demonstrated that by trying to recall the meaning of words in a foreign language, participants dramatically improved their recall ability after a week (when compared to learning by rote memorisation). These important findings made a lot of sense: the neurobiological basis of retrieval seemed like a plausible explanation for the cognitive-behavioural findings. On top of that, I realised the immense practical potential of these findings. This was a turning point in my career, when neuroscience, cognitive science and education came together.

To the classroom

Upon graduation I decided to pursue the field of education. I studied for a teacher certificate in biology, and also started teaching in schools (curricular science and non-curricular neuroscience). This was obviously an intensive and challenging experience: learning pedagogy in theory and by practice, learning from my students and from experienced teachers. This new knowledge was built upon my established expertise and views on human learning and memory, igniting my motivation to connect them.

In a process of several years I was designing research-based, classroom-oriented curriculum for students and teachers. I was teaching students in secondary and post-secondary education, teachers and lecturers, getting feedback and adjusting accordingly. Thankfully, teachers and students have found these topics to be interesting, counterintuitive and applicable for their practice. I was frequently asked, ‘How come we have never learned this before?’ With growing certainty about my professional path, and motivated by the increasing demand, I kept working on filling this welcoming void.

I teach education professionals – across levels and fields – a unique programme that integrates three layers: the basic neuroscience of learning as basis, then cognitive research-based effective learning and practice strategies as core, and classroom application as goal. In a related avenue, I guide research projects performed by students and teachers to experiment with ideas from cognitive science to promote self-reflection and motivation to adapt practice.

After several exciting years of intensive work in Israel, our family adventures took us to Boston. This was an opportunity to evaluate my work so far, and to discover what is done in this field in the world. About one year ago I discovered the inspiring edu-Twitter and researchED communities. It was thrilling to discover a range of professionals with shared goals, and multiple avenues of insightful thought and impactful applications. Being part of the lively community of researchED called me to better define my professional identity as a communicator between (neuro)science and education, and to share some personal takeaways from this work so far.

Neuroscience in education

There is a current debate whether neuroscience can practically contribute to the field of education. A common claim is that neuroscience cannot contribute anything beyond cognitive and behavioural findings. While I agree that most of the current research is not immediately applicable to the classroom, I have found that some aspects have clear added value when combined with findings from cognitive sciences.

Core direction is to teach the essence of how a learning experience is potentially turned into memory – how new information is constructed in the brain on the basis of prior knowledge, and how effective practice should lead to creating well-established schema structures in the learner’s mind. Importantly, the use of visualisations supports clearer and more concrete understanding. A principal example of such a visualisation depicts a simplified model, on the basis of current theories, of how learned information is stored in long-term memory. In the model neurons (nodes) and synapses (connectors) create neuronal representations of learned information; they are formed after learning, stored, and potentially reactivated upon retrieval.

This model has several valuable properties: it creates a concrete way to explain the learning process and its outcomes. It also emphasises how the basic principles of learning and memory are common among all learners. Additionally, it allows us to separately discuss the initial learning phases (‘presentation’ and ‘explanation’ in the figure) and the ‘practice’ phase. Specifically, in the initial learning the focus is on forming long-term representations by creating meaningful associations, explaining a newly learned concept in already familiar terms or with familiar examples. Examples of relevant applications are using deliberate elaboration, concrete examples and preventing overloading the limited working memory resources. Then, in the practice phase, the focus shifts to establishing the representations and making sure they are usable and accessible by building and maintaining retrieval pathways. This is when effective practice approaches (like distributed retrieval practice) are discussed.


I use a similar framework to further explain the consolidation and reconsolidation processes and their possible contribution to the benefits of retrieval practice and distributed practice. Presumably, when trying to retrieve, we are activating and reconstructing interconnected networks and pathways in attempt to find the relevant piece of information, in comparison to mere rehearsal of already-presented information. The mechanistic point of view of the brain asserts that whatever was active and connected meaningfully during the practice session has chances to undergo reconsolidation.

Between research and classroom practice

Many teachers find these ideas relevant, important and applicable. Some immediately see the relations to practices that they regularly use, and the research-based point of view helps them identify the critical points, refine and develop them further. For others, this perspective is an effective trigger for update and transformation.

And yet the process of shifting form understanding to implementation raises challenges. I learned that dealing directly with these challenges and the ways to overcome them is essential and equally important to communicating the science. Teachers face their students’ challenges as well as their own.

For once, the effective learning strategies cannot be ‘taught’; they must be practised. When we are telling students how they should learn, we are probably only helping the minority of students who already use the strategies or are inclined to. However, most students, even when informed, would not voluntarily choose effective strategies. Because while these strategies are rationally better, emotionally they are neither intuitive nor compelling. Retrieval practice, for one example, requires significant effort, it does not provide immediate reward and the benefit is evident only in the long term. The opposite is true for restudying or cramming, which is easy, rewarding and effective in the short term. Since it is in our nature to act upon immediate rewards, it is unrealistic to expect that students would choose the seemingly unrewarding options. Therefore, it is not enough to tell students how to study, even if we explain why. As teachers, we should build routines in the classroom that closely support the students in applying effective strategies.

However, helping students to overcome their challenges is by itself challenging – and for similar reasons. Pedagogical transformation for the sake of long-term goals requires significant effort without immediate rewards. Moreover, teachers must face students, parents and the system they work in – all of which may demand immediate results. Many teachers, myself included, testify that even though they understand why they should change their practice, it is still not trivial: our reward system is working against us, and at times so are the ‘systems’ we work in. Like with students, these practices come naturally to some, but not to most, and a systematic acknowledgement and support in the process are crucial.

Working in the realm between research and education teaches me that there is much more to it than translating research findings into classroom practice. It has several phases, and each requires deliberate efforts as well as resources.

The ways the information is selected, planned and taught immensely influence the way it is accepted and the motivation it triggers. The attitude and personal relationships are crucial too – just like any other teaching practice! As mentioned above, the implementation takes great effort and requires systematic and continuous support to allow multi-level implementation processes that include discussions, experimentation, allowing time and resources for evaluation of the process, and publishing conclusions in a scientific (but mostly idiosyncratic) manner (e.g. blogs and opinions). On this basis, practice-originated and -oriented research questions could be raised to further feed the communication cycle.

Discovering researchED was a dramatic revelation: the realm I was visioning and working toward actually existed! I am excited to learn about the various realisations of these ideas through the work of organisations, schools, and – importantly – individual teachers and scientists. This experience has caused me to learn, reflect on and better define my work, and has motivated to me to aim even higher. My goal is to continue to actively develop and invest in all phases of the communication process, through learning, teaching, implementation, field research, and engaging in bi-directional communication. It is inspiring and empowering to do so as part of an international community that is devoted to learning and teaching.


Nader, K. and Hardt, O. (2009) ‘A single standard for memory: the case for reconsolidation’, Nature Reviews Neuroscience 10 (3) pp. 224–234.

Karpicke, J. D. and Roediger, H. L. (2008) ‘The critical importance of retrieval for learning’, Science 319 (5865) pp. 966–968.

How to use evidence to make decisions

Policy-makers are often criticised for making decisions based on ideology rather than evidence. Here, Sam Freedman, who worked for years in the UK Department for Education, talks about ways it can be done.

Education is a social science. It will never give us the kind of proofs that are possible in physics or maths. On almost any given pedagogical controversy, you’ll be able to find at least one impressive-looking study to back up your prejudices. How then can a teacher, leader or policy-maker make decisions ‘on the basis of evidence’ when the evidence is so murky? There are those that argue the quest for ‘evidence-based education’ is entirely quixotic and we should focus instead on trusting the wisdom of experienced professionals.

This feels like a council of despair but it is a real problem, and it does worry me when well-intentioned practitioners base crucial decisions on a glance at a simple summary of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) or John Hattie meta-analyses.

The dangers of this approach were illustrated a few years ago when the EEF toolkit was originally published and the entry on teaching assistants indicated they had no impact. This was picked up by various newspapers – no surprise, given that more than £4 billion a year is spent on teaching assistants. The EEF was forced to put out a clarifying statement explaining that, while research suggests that, on average, teaching assistants do not have a positive effect on attainment, other studies showed that, if deployed in certain ways, teaching assistants can have a very significant impact.

And this is true of most of the other interventions in the toolkit – the averages hide huge variance that will depend on the exact structure of the intervention and, crucially, the context in which it is deployed. For instance, on ‘social and emotional learning’ the toolkit gives a positive rating overall; but an evaluation of the national social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL) programme – which was poorly implemented in many schools – found no impact on attainment.

So how should we weigh up evidence when making decisions if it’s often contradictory and nearly always context-dependent? My starting point is to think of every question as a balance of probabilities rather than something with a right answer. Every piece of data then nudges the balance one way or the other; the better and more relevant the study, the bigger the nudge. Let’s say I want to know if I should introduce a uniform policy to my school. If a gold-standard randomised control trial (including schools like mine) published in my country shows that having a uniform makes a positive difference, that’s going to change the balance significantly. A small qualitative study from a developing country won’t push it far at all.

This way of thinking allows you to add your own experience and the qualitative feedback of colleagues into the mix. If the balance is fairly even, either because evidence of similar quality and context is contradictory or, more usually, because there just isn’t very much of it, then your own experiences can make the decisive nudge. The uniform example is a good one here. There isn’t much evidence to suggest it makes a difference or does any harm – so if in your school you feel it’s valuable, that’s enough to make the call. If there was strong evidence of harm, however, then that shouldn’t be outweighed by your own positive experience.

As a general heuristic, this is a useful model; but there’s still the problem of how to gather information. Teachers, and policy-makers have full-time jobs – how can they accurately calibrate the balance of probabilities without spending all their meagre spare time reading research? Given their lack of time, there’s no real choice but to start with meta-analyses like the EEF toolkit and Hattie.

But simply relying on summaries won’t give anything like the necessary nuance, so it’s vital to pick them apart and look at the collection of underlying studies. Often the first layer under the summary is another set of
issue-specific meta-analyses which have very helpful overviews of the existing evidence in their introductions. They should also help to identify which are the gold-standard evaluations in that area – which should have extra weight in your decision-making – as well as the context for the key studies. Typically, most of the best research comes from the US, so often there is a trade-off to be made between quality and context. Once you’ve done an initial review then it’s relatively easy to stay up to date by following a few key accounts on Twitter (my public ‘education’ list is a good starting place).

Perhaps the greatest challenge in doing this type of analysis is managing your own cognitive and political biases. If the evidence is genuinely unclear then using your own beliefs and experiences is the best available option. But if you rig the underlying analysis by favouring studies that support your existing opinion while finding reasons to dismiss those that don’t, then you’ll calibrate wrong in the first place. This tendency is apparent in all education debates – the recent one on grammar schools being an obvious example. Supporters, many of whom benefited from a grammar school education themselves, latch on to the evidence that selectively educated pupils do well, while ignoring the research showing that the system as a whole suffers.

It’s impossible to eliminate this instinct but we can at least become self-aware enough for the problem to weaken its hold over us. I would recommend everyone involved in education read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which explains how we’re affected by cognitive biases, and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which does the same for political/cultural biases. Philip Tetlock’s Superforecasting, which looks at how the best predictors of the future eliminate biases, is also worth a look.

To make the best use of evidence, decision-makers need to think of it as a way to calibrate the balance of probabilities that requires regular readjustment, rather than simply a way to identify whether something is right or wrong. They need to use meta-analyses and social media to be reasonably on top of the available data. And they need to do as much as possible to remove their irrational biases. Research will never give us the perfect answers; but if used right, it’s a hell of a lot more valuable than gut instinct and prejudice.

researchED speaks to…the RT Hon Nick Gibb MP, Minister of state for school standards

Nick Gibb was appointed Minister of State at the Department for Education on 15 July 2014. In 1997 he was elected Conservative MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. He went to school in Maidstone, Leeds and Wakefield before going on to study law at Durham University, and was formerly a chartered accountant specialising in corporate taxation with KPMG. He served as Shadow Minister for Schools from 2005 until 2010, and as Minister of State for Schools from May 2010 until September 2012.

Here, he talks to researchED founder Tom Bennett about his own education, his journey through policy, and why he believes that better evidence usage is essential to raising education standards and improving life chances for children.

TB: What was school like for you?

NG: I had a very interesting school career. I went to a state school in Acton in 1965 just as the Labour government’s reforms of schools – like the abolition of grammar schools – took place, and after two years I moved to Canada (which in hindsight, had higher expectations all around) where I was accelerated. Then we came back two years later to Northamptonshire. The teacher said to my parents, ‘He should be sent to an independent school,’ and in those days, they were grant aided and my parents could just about manage to pay my fees, so I went.

My father was a civil engineer and so we moved to Maidstone. It was really tough. Really tough for me. Very rigorous academically and I had to catch up a year. So, I was copying out of kids’ exercise books.

And then we moved house again – to Yorkshire. It had been a grammar school and it had just gone comprehensive. The education I got was a grammar school education, but in a comprehensive setting. Then after O levels, 1976, we moved again to a village outside Wakefield, where I went to a very weak comprehensive school sixth form, but did well because of my education to date.

TB: Did exposure to that variety of schooling teach you anything?

NG: During that period you can see I was at school when all those changes were happening. What I also learned was – especially when I went to a sixth form – what a bad school was like from the inside. The ethos, the lethargy amongst the students, like a malaise, that I’d never really seen before.

TB: What from your own experiences of primary/secondary school stuck with you as a lesson which has continued into your educational philosophy today?

NG: The key thing I learned was that mixed-ability teaching doesn’t work. And secondly that the progressive – even as a kid, I could see it – ideology was damaging children’s education. And I remember a lesson about geography. It gave you this blank, made-up map of an island; it had a few mountain ranges on it, and a river, and you had to say where on it the capital should be. I hadn’t got a clue where the capital should be. I thought, ‘Maybe they want me to say, “It’s near the river.”’ Why not near the coast? Or the mountains? And it struck me that that was an absurd lesson. And then another lesson, in an independent school, where they gave you a bunch of wires, some batteries and some bulbs, put it in a box – complete mess of a thing. ‘Make it work.’ And I was furious.

TB: Why?

NG: I said, ‘Make what work?’ So I just switched off. I thought, ‘This is an absurd waste of time. Don’t bore me.’ And it put me off, actually the whole notion of science. Guessing. Teach me! Tell me, and I’ll do it. So it occurred to me then, and subsequently looking back at these episodes, there were some absurd notions in education that didn’t fit in with the way that I knew I wanted to learn things. And I don’t think I was particularly unusual.

TB: Tell us more about your own journey towards evidence in education as an MP and a minister.

NG: Well, I knew there was a progressive ideology. I remember in opposition going to see Charles Clarke as education secretary, and saying, ‘You need to deal with this progressive ideology because it’s damaging.’ And he said, ‘Well what do you mean precisely?’ So then I joined the education select committee in 2003. I became a minister in 1997 and visited some schools on my patch. They said that a third of their kids were starting school with a reading age below their chronological age. I didn’t know why this was. My mother was a teacher and I knew the reading age of most of her kids were above their chronological age. And then I went to some primary schools and I said, ‘How often do you get children to read?’ and they said once a week. My mother read with every child in her class of 40 every day.

Then I joined the select committee and was introduced to phonics, the Reading Reform Foundation and the academics like Jennifer Chew, Ruth Miskin. I read the Clackmannanshire study and realised it was quite compelling, so whenever I went on visits as a committee I asked about reading and realised that there was a big issue here, about synthetic phonics – that ‘Look and Say’ was ‘progressive’ and phonics was the thing that I knew worked.

And so I got the committee to do a review into reading, and it led to the national curriculum, it led to the Rose review, which then meant there were changes in the curriculum as a consequence. It was seen as a big victory about what you can achieve in opposition. The lesson for me as a policy maker is that you have to get into that nitty gritty detail sometimes about what happens on the ground in the policy. It’s not always a high-level thing. You really need to understand that.

The key thing I learned was that mixed-ability teaching doesn’t work. And secondly that the progressive ideology was damaging children’s education.

So then I went on holiday and my researcher persuaded me to read the E.D. Hirsch book The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them. I read this over the summer in South Carolina, on the beach. I was completely taken away by this book. It encapsulated everything I had been worrying about but couldn’t articulate. I had underlined bits of it, and I emailed E.D. Hirsch. When I came back I knew this was not just the knowledge-based curriculum, but also about where the ideology that I’d been worrying about since school had come from: the John Dewey, Teachers College Columbia, Rousseau-based ideology that had led to some of these absurd notions – learning by self-discovery, the science with the wires. So I made everyone read it: in opposition, people I met – sales must have gone through the roof! And I came to where I am now. I made Michael Gove read it.

TB: It must be hard to get a detailed understanding of the brief when roles change so often.

NG: Yes, the Conservative party at the time was – and to an extent still is – interested in the structural approach to education. It was unfashionable to be interested in this agenda: what should an A level comprise, what should a curriculum look like, what about pedagogy and things? Those were regarded as ‘not matters for politicians’.

TB: The secret garden.

NG: They’re the secret garden. They will be driven by the structural things. Structural changes, competition within the teaching sector will drive those changes because they’ll be so keen to get pupils into their schools that they’ll have to do the things that the parents want to drive up standards. I didn’t accept that because I was in favour of the structural things but you had to do more to break up the cement of the ways things had been done since the 1960s. It would take policy initiatives to liberate teachers to enable them to do what they want, to respond to the demands of parents. Because at the moment this approach to teaching was so compressed, that no one teacher or school could possibly rail against it. And that always creates a tension because if you’re saying ‘We’re going to have a DfE imposed curriculum’ then that kind of goes against autonomy and structural reforms. But in the end Michael basically charged me with leading the curriculum review and phonics.

TB: Ah, so you were behind the revolution?

NG: (Laughs) No, no, no! Absolutely not. The brains were clearly Michael Gove who went to Sweden to see the free school programme and that’s what drove it. But wanting to address the ideology has been my driving force.

TB: What are the advantages for a policy-maker of leaning on an evidence-informed reform, and what are the challenges?

NG: Well the advantage is that you can be confident that what’s implemented will lead to higher standards. That gives you the argument when you’re trying to present a policy. But it also gives you the confidence to look long term. So, yes, it can go through controversy, but it doesn’t matter because we know this will lead to higher standards of reading, we know this will lead to better maths in primary schools because you have all the evidence of Shanghai and elsewhere. So, we can withstand the slings and arrows that happen in the meantime because in X years we will be vindicated. Which is exactly what’s happened with the reading. And we did take a lot of criticism when we introduced it, but it does give you that ballast to plough on. 58% passing going up to 81%, you can see.

For a policy-maker it is that confidence. People sometimes accuse me of simply making a policy based on my own life; but if you can explain your own experience with reference to the evidence, it then does give you that confidence to pursue policies and to get into the detail of policy that previously was regarded as idiosyncratic, or indeed an area where you shouldn’t be going.

The other thing I did in 2003 when I joined the select committee was going on school visits, and I had a routine of going every Monday, somewhere. And being in opposition you could. And I realised you could get to anywhere in the UK by 11 if you left early. So I would arrange to visit schools all over England. And I learned a huge amount just by visiting schools and hearing the discussions. Then you realise things. There were a lot of non-academic subjects being taught in schools, and in some schools it was quite depressing. There were conscientious teachers running those schools, teachers who genuinely believed that doing these vocational qualifications was the best thing for these children, when it clearly wasn’t.

TB: I heard you had a test for visiting school libraries.

NG: Yes, when I went to schools I had a Fielding test: did they have Henry Fielding, Tom Jones on their shelves? But really the Fielding test was just ‘Have they got the classics?’ Often, they have, but they’re not read. But the fact that they’re in the library means they can be read.

TB: How can a policy-maker reconcile the direction that evidence sometimes takes us in, as opposed to manifesto and party pressure?

NG: The only way it has conflicted was really this issue of the party being driven by this notion of autonomy, driven by structural reforms, the academies programme, and the Conservative party had felt that was sufficient. And all the centre-right think tanks around Westminster, that was all they were interested in: how do you create a structure that would drive up standards? And so to have policy saying ‘Actually there’s a better way to teach or to read, or there’s a better approach to pedagogy like direct instruction rather than learning by self-discovery,’ this jarred with Conservative party thinking at that time.

What was great about the PIRLS results last year, 2017, based on nine-year-olds’ reading ability, taken in 2016, was that it was a vindication of all the stuff I’d been talking about for years about phonics. It was a vindication of everything that I’d been talking about. And that therefore gave me more credibility. You do need to be engaged with ‘How is maths taught? How is history taught?’ So it gave strength to my argument in that debate.

I’m pleased that more and more control over teacher training is happening at a school level. And the schools are driving what they want, from the university courses and students. And/or they are awarding QTS themselves.

TB: Why are some parts of the education sector still relatively reluctant to embrace things like phonics, or evidence bases in general?

NG: It’s difficult to know. It really is. I still go to schools and you see they haven’t genuinely bought into this debate and they tend to be schools that are getting 70–75% of their children through the check. And then you look into their reception class and it’s all a big play area, very little teaching going on. I think it’s because they’ve been trained this way, ten, twenty, thirty years ago…

TB: Can you describe some of the directions you might like to see ITT going in the future?

NG: I’m quite critical of education faculties of universities; I’m on the record for being critical. I remain critical. I find it absurd that the whole debate about the knowledge-based curriculum has taken place on the websites, or has taken place at conferences like yours, researchED, or the Knowledge Network and you don’t hear a bleat of this debate from those university campuses. And if you look at the reading lists, it’s fairly hard to find Willingham or Hirsch. And there’s something very atrophied and unintellectual about those faculties, and the debate is still not happening. It’s happening elsewhere. And that should not be the case in our university sector. We have some great universities, but as Hirsch says it’s something he worries about, the education faculties of great universities – what is actually going on in these places?

But what I’m pleased about is that more and more control over teacher training is happening at a school level. And the schools are driving what they want, from the university courses and students. And/or they are awarding QTS themselves.

But I want the universities to come on board. I’d like them to be a bit more pluralistic in terms of the approach they take to teacher training. I will keep trying.

TB: What have been some of the least evidence-informed fads in education?

NG: I just look at the national strategies and things that came in the maths curriculum – this notion of chunking of long division, and the grid method of multiplication. I showed these methods to the Shanghai Education Service – and they just laughed. They just thought this was absurd. Why would you develop new, written methods only done in this country, and despite centuries of mathematical development? I’ve never understood that. So that’s a classic example. Same with reading. People say, ‘Where’s your evidence for phonics?’ I say well there’s the Clackmannanshire studies, the National Reading Panel in the US, there’s loads of evidence. But you ask someone for the evidence for Look and Say, and there’s no real evidence for these approaches, and they’ve been a disaster.

TB: Who are the writers that you think other policy-makers should read in order to make sure that their decisions are evidence-informed?

NG: Well obviously the canon is E.D. Hirsch and Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School? It’s Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths, and I would also recommend Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse. If people were to read those four books, they would have a much better understanding of education policy.

TB: Has the OECD become too political in its pronouncements?

NG: I think so. They are pushing a particular, progressive approach to education, the 21st-century competence-based curriculum. We tried this in this country with the 2007 curriculum, and what happened was that schools stopped teaching the quantum of knowledge they needed. So history was confined to the Tudors and the run up to WWII, because they were focusing on the so-called skills of a historian. I don’t know how many people become historians out of our schools system. It’s a tiny percentage. We don’t need that many historians. What they do need and they’re not getting, is the ability to read a history book, to read complicated language, and they need to have the deep knowledge of the complexities of those periods and other periods.

When you go to these international conferences with Andreas Schleicher and others, it’s almost assumed that you want to have a competence-based curriculum; and I talk to other education ministers from around the world, including some from developing countries who have been advised by the OECD to go down this route that we know doesn’t work. So we have to challenge it, and I’ve started challenging it internationally and I am a lone voice (laughs). But Nuno Cratto for example, who was the secretary of state for education in Portugal, absolutely agrees with what we’re doing in this country and shares our concerns. And I think that gradually we’ll get the message across that this is not the right approach.

True change comes from within

Eric Kalenze, researchED ambassador to the US, writes about how quickly his understanding of evidence in education has changed, and how being part of a network was crucial to that growth.

Do you remember the educator you used to be? Like, the one you were before you learned all you have from education research?

If you haven’t done so in a while, I invite you to think back to the person you were so many research ‘thresholds’1 ago. Compare what you believed then about matters like effective learning conditions, kids’ development, assessing students’ progress, etc., to the things you think now.

Also, compare the practices you designed and carried out then to those of now. Do they look the same, or did you alter them over time to reflect the research insights you acquired?

And consider the support network you had when all those research-sparked epiphanies started popping: the people, in other words, you shared your new learning with, had your thinking pushed by, got clarifications from when necessary, and collaborated with on new practical actions. Were you surrounded by fellow travelers in your school/workplace, for instance, all of you similarly inspired by common sources? Or were you on your own to take in new concepts and accordingly re-design your instruction (and subsequently run online for necessary support, answers and echoes)?

I’m suggesting you consider these kinds of questions because the ‘pre-research educator’ has been on my mind a lot of late – first, because I’ve recently had the chance to get re-acquainted with my own pre-research self; and second, because that re-acquaintance has reminded me of how exciting it is to have an evidence-informed improvement movement like researchED gaining momentum in the US.

For with researchED, we finally have a way – through a network of fellow educator-learners, that is – to bridge the fads and snake-oil slicks out there and get the best instructional information straight to the people applying it every day. And let’s face it: with so much of the field having been unaware for so long about what research actually says about kids’ learning and the conditions that enable such learning, we’ve needed a better way for some time now. (As the late Jeanne Chall observed in her 2000 posthumously released classic The Academic Achievement Challenge, educators choose practices ‘in a direction opposite from the existing research evidence’.2)

Now let me back up a minute to explain how I came to be thinking about all this.

I’ve been able to spend some time with my own pre-research self via work I’m doing on my next book,3 and it’s been remarkably instructive. Through interviews with former colleagues, supervisors, and students, as well as through a review of various planning documents and classroom activities I’d created, I’ve been struck by a couple of revelations. First, the research I was studying at the time really did transform my instructional priorities, planning, and execution – and, of course, kids’ results (!). In other words, this is not something that my imagination has overblown through the years and frozen into some ego-protecting amber. Next (and importantly to this piece), I was struck by how difficult it was, learning and designing largely by myself, to bring that research into practice.

The time period covered by my book-in-progress is 2004–2008, which means I was nowhere near Twitter (heck, it didn’t exist until 2006), and a watershed cognitive-science-and-education title like Dan Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? hadn’t even been published. (However, I was familiar with Dan via his ‘Ask the Cognitive Scientist’ column in the professional journal of the American Federation of Teachers, American Educator.4) As my only real guides in the early 2000s were the references sections of the works I was reading, my research wasn’t particularly time- or energy-efficient.

I could see my random practices deepening into actual classroom premiums. And I’m not sure I’d have seen the same without such a network to affirm and push me.

Also, self-study revealed to me that my research learning and application was a bit too random. Essentially, as I looked over my past work I could see that I was pretty much choosing research-guided solutions according to my classroom’s most pressing needs. To put it another way: while I may have been doing something to build background knowledge here and tweaking my writing/conventions instruction there, I was really taking a ‘band-aid’ approach to applying research. While consistency and depth weren’t helped by the various priorities of my department and school (at multiple points of my self-study I found myself wondering, ‘What’s this meaningless film unit doing in here? And why in hell did I take them to the computer lab for this thing?’), it remains what it is: as my pre-research self was growing into using research-informed practices, I was rather all over the place.

Still, looking back on it this many years out, it’s clear to see which ideas from research were resonating with me enough to productively build around.5 Getting there was a few-years-long process, though, and it was undoubtedly buoyed by my school-within-a-school (which, again, I joined in 2004) colleagues. Indeed: by the latter part of the 2004–2008 span that is the focus of my book, I could see my random practices deepening into actual classroom premiums – philosophies, even. And I’m not sure I’d have seen the same without such a network to affirm and push me.

I also gradually acquired the confidence necessary to challenge instructional truths many of my colleagues had long accepted as self-evident, thus widening my impact beyond my classroom. (Like I say, this experience was profound. If you are interested in learning more, see the book when it’s ready!)

Though conducting this kind of mesearch wasn’t ever my aim, doing so through my current book-work led me to consider a number of important things about building evidence-supported practices in education. Most of all, it reminded me that everyone starts somewhere, and that some help can go a long way to building focused, sensible instructional practices supported by evidence.

As researchED exists for educators to hold one another up through just these sorts of learning, design, and application efforts, I’m thrilled to be part of organising it here in the US (and, of course, taking part at other conferences and online). We’ve needed a better way for a long time, and I feel like with researchED it might actually be here. I can’t wait to see how many education professionals’ careers – and, by extension, kids’ futures – benefit via the researchED learning network.


Cousin, G. (2006) ‘An introduction to threshold concepts’, Planet 17 (1) pp. 4–5. Available at:

Chall, J. S. (2002) The academic achievement challenge: what really works in the classroom? New York, NY: Guilford.

By the way: the book revolves around a profound teaching/leadership experience I had while a classroom teacher (designing and teaching in a school-within-a-school for at-risk high-schoolers, that is). I’m aiming to have drafting complete by late spring or so and, if all goes well, a release in early 2019 on John Catt Educational.

I found in my self-search that I’d used Willingham’s piece for AFT on teaching critical thinking in some staff PD I’d done in that period. See Willingham, D. T. (2007) ‘Critical thinking: why is it so hard to teach?’, American Educator 31 (2) pp. 8–19.

It’s clear that Ravitch’s Left Back (2001) and Egan’s Getting it Wrong from the Beginning (2004) had helped me see where my teacher-training had come from, for example, so I’d started jettisoning some pieces I’d long considered obligatory. Also, based on adjustments I was making to my English instruction, I can see the effects of having read at least some E.D. Hirsch (in particular The Schools We Need (1999) and The Knowledge Deficit (2006)), Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich (their sample piece for American Educator, ‘What Reading Does for the Mind’ (1998)), and John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel (2003) and Word on the Street (2007).

Psychology and the classroom: Avoiding both hype and cynicism

Teachers have long looked to psychology for theories and ideas which might inform classroom practice. However, where these fields of psychology are relatively new, they may not provide solid foundations for thinking about how we teach. On the other hand, cognitive science, especially the reliable findings from decades of research into learning, can make an important contribution to the professional learning of teachers – but it’s certainly not a panacea for all the knotty problems that keep teachers awake at night, says Nick Rose.

As a secondary teacher in a comprehensive school, I would put together a little showcase of my subject for open evening each year (as I’m sure many readers have done). Along with offering an opportunity to discover more about some of the areas of psychology that pupils could study as part of GCSE or A level, I had a presentation of optical illusions, little activities like the Stroop Test, and a few potted bios of famous psychologists and their ideas. Younger children attending the event would enjoy these activities while I chatted to older students and their parents about the courses.

However, it was also common to attract a few teachers to the room – they would peruse the textbooks or look through the course – and sometimes say things along the lines of ‘I wish I’d studied psychology; it’s so interesting and relevant to teaching.’

Education has frequently looked to psychology for inspiration and insight – from William James and John Dewey in the 19th century, to Daniel Willingham and Carol Dweck in the 21th. As you’d expect in any science, ideas and theories about learning have changed over that time – though the ideas teachers are exposed to haven’t always reflected the changes in evidence. In addition, academic psychologists are understandably keen to see their theories and findings applied, but many of the ‘big ideas’ that teachers might read about may not survive long in the crucible of science – undermined by failed replications – or are not terribly relevant to the complex environment of the classroom.

When David Didau and I sketched out the chapters for What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology, we wanted to capture this fascination with psychology and explore where it might have useful implications for the classroom, but also highlight where teachers needed to exercise a bit of professional scepticism. Quite often, we argue, enthusiasm for a branch of psychology runs ahead of the evidence, or simply lacks tried-and-tested applications.

Are we a bit naïve about neuroscience?

For example, while there’s a great deal of enthusiasm regarding neuroscience, bolstered by the advent of new technologies to examine processes within the living brain, I’d argue that the number of practical applications of neuroscience, directly useful to teaching, is approximately zero.

Jeffrey Bowers1 argues that eagerness to apply neuroscience to education is misguided: while neuroscience can grant scientists insights into the biology of learning, a teacher cares about the learning behaviour of their pupils. Whether learning involves activity in the hippocampus or pre-frontal cortex is basically irrelevant: it’s simply the wrong level of description to apply to the complex social, behavioural and cognitive problems of teaching.

Some of the recent ‘big ideas’, he argues, represent fairly trivial findings for education. For example, neuroplasticity – which describes the lasting changes to the brain throughout an individual’s life –provides the biological explanation for a phenomenon that teachers are already well aware of (i.e. that we have the ability to learn!).

Lastly, Bowers argues that important and useful findings about learning are often misappropriated as examples of neuroscience. For example, retrieval practice or the ‘testing effect’, which suggests testing of information often improves learning more than restudying, was recently included in an EEF review of educational interventions ‘informed by neuroscience’,2 despite the fact that all the research and important findings are based on behavioural psychology rather than brain scans. In fact, behavioural descriptions of ‘retrieval practice’ first emerged about 100 years ago – and have been repeatedly demonstrated using the strict controls of psychological experiments, but also found to be successful in the messy (but much more authentic) environment of the classroom. 3

Neuroscience holds powerful promise, especially as a way to help psychologists test some of their theories. However, while it’s possible that neuroscience will produce useable knowledge applicable to teaching at some point in the future, personally I doubt it. I wonder whether educational neuroscience represents an example of what the philosopher Daniel Dennett calls ‘greedy reductionism’.4 The activity of neurons is a level of description so far removed from learning behaviour of children in a classroom that it essentially ignores too many important intervening levels of description and theory.

Are we too positive about positive psychology?

Another new branch of psychology, called positive psychology, is also the source of new ‘big ideas’. Angela Duckworth’s ideas about ‘grit’5 or Carol Dweck’s work on ‘mindset’6 probably represent the largest influence of this new field in education – which emphasises positive attitudes toward subjective experiences and life events.

However, the latest theories coming out of psychology are not necessarily a reliable basis for teachers to use to inform their professional learning. Both ‘grit’ and ‘mindset’ have run into problems as they come under increasing scientific scrutiny. Grit7 appears to share a great deal with ‘conscientiousness’, a dimension of personality already well established and not necessarily something that in adults is especially open to change. It may also have a much weaker influence on outcomes than the original research suggested (the overall correlation between grit and success is only about 0.18).

Mindset research has also run into some difficulty as other researchers have attempted to replicate some of the key findings. For example, many teachers will be aware of the advice that we shouldn’t praise intelligence (‘You’re so clever!’), but rather praise the process (‘I like the way you used different strategies to solve this problem!’). However, a recent study8 found that praise for intelligence didn’t appear to reduce cognitive performance and that children’s mindsets had no relationship to their school grades or improvement of grades across the year.

The debates in psychology are far from over: both Duckworth and Dweck have defended their work and perhaps future research will better support their claims. This is ‘situation normal’ in science – new ideas frequently get refined or rejected as new experimental evidence comes to light. The science isn’t ‘settled’ yet, and this makes it an uncertain platform for teachers to base changes to their classroom practice on.

Start with the ‘settled science’

Given the to and fro of scientific debate, it would be understandable if teachers adopted a cynical attitude: ‘Beware psychologists bearing gifts!’ However, I think this would be a mistake.

In contrast to the relatively new fields of neuroscience and positive psychology, there is an example of ‘settled science’ which has survived many decades of scientific testing – and has examples of applications which have been successfully trialled in classrooms. Based upon a key theory within cognitive science – working memory and its relationship with long-term memory – the field provides us with some general, reliable principles of learning which teachers can use with some confidence when thinking about changes to practice.

There are some excellent introductions to this body of science. Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?9 – along with his many American Educator articles10 exploring some of the nuances and implications of cognitive science – provides a jargon-free, invaluable starting point for any teacher. Some of the important reliable principles arising from cognitive science have also been summarised as teacher-friendly resources: for example, The Science of Learning by Deans for Impact,11 and Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning by the US-based Institute of Education Sciences.12

It is the scientific longevity of these theories and behavioural findings which means they provide a reliable set of principles that can help inform, challenge and refine our professional learning as teachers. Where we find the same results, triangulated between laboratory and real-world environments, they have potentially useful applicability within teaching. This is the sort of psychology that can make a genuine contribution to evidence-informed practice within teaching, I argue.13

However, while the principles arising from the science of learning are often well established and reliable, that doesn’t mean they are ‘plug and play’. Teachers looking to improve the revision techniques their students use, or design sequences of learning to exploit the benefits of spaced practice, still need to evaluate whether what they’ve implemented is having the benefits they anticipated.

Furthermore, let’s not pretend that this body of reliable science can solve all of the problems in education. Science can’t tell you what the ‘purpose of education’ should be, or what a ‘socially equitable education system’ should look like. Wider goals and policy within education aren’t the domain of science – but more properly the topic of social and political debate. It would be wrong to seek to circumvent that debate by making appeals to science.

Science is better thought of like a compass – it really becomes useful once you know where you want to go. Where we have a clear goal – and for most teachers I suspect helping children to learn is not the most controversial aim – this is where scientific evidence can, incrementally and by degrees, help us to move in the right direction.

Teaching has long been vulnerable to hype stemming from ‘cutting-edge’ psychological research and, given that new ideas emerging from psychology are often tentative, sometimes spurious and rarely replicated, it is understandable why some teachers might cynically dismiss the whole field. However, while it certainly is not a panacea for all the knotty problems that keep teachers awake at night, teachers would do well to steer a path avoiding both hype and cynicism. There are some reliable principles arising from long-standing and well-tested fields of psychology that should form part of every teacher’s professional knowledge.


Bowers, J. S. (2016) ‘The practical and principled problems with educational neuroscience’, Psychological Review 123 (5) pp. 600–612.

Howard-Jones, P. (2014) Neuroscience and Education: A review of educational interventions informed by neuroscience. Education Endowment Foundation.

Adesope, O. O., Trevisan, D. A. and Sundararajan, N. (2017) ‘Rethinking the use of tests: a meta-analysis of practice testing’, Review of Educational Research 87 (3) pp. 659–701.

Dennett, D. C. (1995) Darwin’s dangerous idea: evolution and the meanings of life. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit: the power of passion and perseverance. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Dweck, C. (2017) Mindset: changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. London: Little, Brown.

Credé, M., Tynan, M. C. and Harms, P. D. (2017) ‘Much ado about grit: a meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 113 (3) pp. 492–511.

Li, Y. and Bates, T. C. (2017) ‘Does mindset affect children’s ability, school achievement, or response to challenge? Three failures to replicate’. SocArXiv Preprint.

Willingham, D. (2010) Why don’t students like school? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Deans for Impact (2015) The science of learning. Austin, TX: Deans for Impact.

Pashler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M. and Metcalfe, J. (2007) Organizing instruction and study to improve student learning. IES Practice Guide. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Research.

Rose, N. and Eriksson-Lee, S. (2017) Putting evidence to work: how can we help new teachers use research evidence to inform their teaching? London: Teach First.

In-school project: start a researchED reading group

A lot of teachers come away from researchED conferences with new ideas and the desire to do something with them – but what? How do they pursue their interest in evidence-informed education? One answer is to do what teacher Adam Boxer did at the Jewish Community Secondary School (JCoSS), London, and form a researchED Reading Group. Here he explains what he did, and how people reacted to it.

Just over a year ago, a couple of colleagues approached me to ask about research- and evidence-informed practice. Following a conversation with Tom, we decided to set up a local chapter of researchED which would meet once a week. The drill was pretty simple: each week I would send out some evidence-based reading and on a Friday lunch we would meet to sit and talk about the reading.

This lasted throughout that summer term, but there were a few problems:

The reading was coming in thick and fast – too fast for frontline staff to keep on top of.

Some of the reading was a bit technical, and people would have preferred more ‘secondary’-type readings.

It wasn’t part of any formal CPD programme, leading it to feel like something else we had to do.

Despite the above, the feedback was generally positive. People had really enjoyed the conversations and had already found the reading to be influencing their practice: we were keen to continue and expand.

In September of this year I gave a little plug at morning briefing and invited staff to come and join our group. Around 15 staff from across the school (including 3 LSAs) signed up and we met one lunchtime to discuss plans going forward. Most people said that they were interested in learning and how it happens, so we looked at Willingham’s simplified model of cognition:

I sketched this up on the board and then we started putting more information around it until we had something looking a bit more like this:

From that basis, teachers were able to identify something that they found interesting and pursue that. I tried to rephrase things as specific questions to clarify and focus our reading. (This wasn’t intended to be ‘action research’ per se; the nature of it was far less formal and structured.) I then provided staff with a bank of readings, and sorted their particular questions by that reading. This would give them a straightforward starting point from which to begin, as well as a lot of ‘crossed-over’ topics:

What makes an effective explanation?

1 Rosenshine’s principles of instruction

2 Kirschner et al., the case for fully guided instruction

3 Ben Newmark, great explicit teaching

How do I ensure that students are behaving in a way that will optimise learning?

1 Joe Kirby, Great School Ethos

2 Doug Lemov, SLANT archives

How can I actually tell if my students have learned anything?

1 David Didau, Why AfL might be wrong

2 Soderstrom & Bjork, Learning versus performance

3 Rob Coe, a Triumph of Hope Over Experience

How can I use students’ prior knowledge to circumvent the constriction of working memory?

1 Willingham, How knowledge helps

How can I use visuals to circumvent the constriction of working memory?

1 Dan Williams, Why use visuals?

2 Richard Mayer, principles of multimedia learning

Is drilling students a bad thing?

1 Dani Quinn, Drill and thrill

2 Daisy Christodoulou, is all practice good?

3 Soderstorm and Bjork, Learning versus performance

4 Rosenshine’s principles of instruction

What is all the fuss around mastery learning?

1 Mark McCourt, Teaching for Mastery

2 EEF, Mastery learning

How are different memories stored in the long-term memory?

1 Clare Sealy, Memory not Memories

How does low-stakes quizzing improve memory?

1 Me and others, Assessment as learning

2 Toby French, Testing isn’t evil

How do I space between quizzing to optimise memory effects?

1 Damian Benney, Optimal time for spacing effects

How is memory dependent on external cues?

1 The Learning Scientists, Transfer

2. Clare Sealy, Memory not Memories

As the year went on, we met as a big group a couple more times; and due to the nature of people’s timetables I also had ‘micro-meetings’ with smaller groups of people who were researching similar topics.

By the end of the year, our main areas of discussion were:

  • The use of mini-quizzes and retrieval practice to support long-term memory
  • 1:1 work with cognitive load in mind for students with SEN
  • How can we know if learning has occurred?
  • How can we use the evidence base to better observe teaching and learning?

Throughout the year I also sent out any interesting journal articles or blogs that I had found; and next year we will be sending out a blog every week with a synopsis from one of our group. Hopefully, by having it come from different people, we will achieve better coverage. We were also lucky enough to have Efrat Furst and Flavia Belham come in to deliver lectures on retrieval practice and cognitive load theory, respectively. I have received some very positive feedback from the staff involved.

Next year, researchED JCoSS will be part of the school’s formal CPD track. We are hoping that this will give us more time to spend on it – as well as being able to reach more staff.

Tips for helping your colleagues become more evidence-based:

Identify those interested; start with them and then spread out.

Regularly send out reading; write a brief synopsis each time.

Narrow people’s interests into a very specific question.

Provide as much relevant reading as you can.

Don’t jump in with peer-reviewed articles. Probably best to start with evidence-based blogs and more ‘teacher-friendly’ articles like Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’.

Want to start a researchED reading group in your own school? You don’t need to ask anyone – just go ahead and start one! And if you want to let us know you’re doing it and how it’s going, get in touch with us at the addresses listed on the contents page. Good luck!

Best in class: do we even know what expert teaching is?

Teacher training is sometimes criticised as being too reliant on weak evidence bases, or leaning on research that is decades out of date or ideologically driven. Peps McCrea of the Institute for Teaching describes the new approach they have taken to designing their Masters in Expert Teaching programme as a response to these concerns.

We started designing the master’s course about 18 months ago, and one of the first questions we needed to answer was: what even is expert teaching? When we went looking, there were few clear answers.

Fortunately, we found a few pieces to the puzzle, which we’ve been working to fit together. We recognise that we’ve still got a lot to learn, but this article is an overview of where we are in our understanding so far.

What do expert teachers do?

In any field, experts are those people who can tackle the most persistent problems of their profession in reliably effective ways. In teaching, our most persistent problem is helping pupils learn, and so expert teachers are people who consistently help pupils make progress.

This impact definition is compelling, particularly as it focuses on the very thing we want to improve. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to measure.1 The relationship between teaching and learning is noisy and ephemeral – it’s tricky to tease out which aspects of teaching influence learning and so we end up with little insight into how we might actually help teachers get better. The impact definition is insufficient for designing teacher development.

An alternative approach is to think about what expert teachers actually do that leads to this impact. The literature on this appears to coalesce around four broad categories:

1. Perception

Expert teachers see their classrooms in different ways to novices. Like the goalkeeper who focuses on an attacker’s posture to anticipate where they will kick, expert teachers are tuned in to the most critical, revealing and often subtle movements of their classrooms.

They perceive events at a deeper level, filtering out everything that doesn’t enable them to draw conclusions about pupil learning. In many ways, experts can be distinguished as much by what they don’t see as what they do.2

2. Simulation

Expert teachers are able to mentally simulate the consequences of various actions and events over a range of familiar situations. This allows them to anticipate what might happen well in advance, and so make the most effective professional judgement. This explains why their lessons often appear to just happen in fairly uneventful ways – they are constantly several steps ahead of their pupils and others in the room.3

3. Execution

Although they tend to do less than their colleagues,4 and sometimes take longer to arrive at a decision, expert teachers consistently select the most effective actions across a wide range of situations. They are also more flexible and opportunistic in their choice of actions, and carry them out with fluency and precision.5

4. Conservation

Expert teachers do much of their work on automatic pilot. This enables them to devote a large proportion of their mental capacity to monitoring the complex, chaotic environment of the classroom. It also allows them to focus their attention and energy on only the most important teaching processes, and tackle unexpected problems as they arise. As a result, expert teachers are highly sensitive to what happens during a lesson. They can monitor and recall what happens during a lesson, even if they are engaging with individuals.

Defining expertise by what teachers do certainly makes our picture of expert teaching more tangible, but it still doesn’t necessarily tell us how to help teachers get there.

For a definition of expertise that has the power to fuel teacher development, we need to look at how expert teachers think. More specifically, we need to examine their mental models – what they know, and how this knowledge is organised to guide perception, decision and action in the classroom.

What do expert teachers know?

Expert teachers have vast, complex and refined mental models for the domains of their practice. They don’t know everything, but few others will know as much as them about their subject, what their pupils know about their subject, or how to help their pupils learn their subject. Crucially, they know all this in ways that enable them to act with fluency and precision. Expert teacher knowledge falls into four broad buckets:

1. Path knowledge

Knowledge of the pathway towards mastery of a curriculum. This includes the concepts and processes that pupils need to know at different stages of their educational journeys,6 how these things might be best represented and sequenced, and the common misconceptions that pupils can develop along the way.7

2. Pupil knowledge

Knowledge of what their pupils know and don’t know, what motivates and concerns them, and how these things change over time. The development of pupil knowledge is produced (and limited) by teacher assessment knowledge – how to assess with validity and efficiency.8

3. Pedagogical knowledge

Knowledge of how learning works and how to catalyse it. This is about understanding what goes on ‘under the hood’ of the classroom, and draws on fields such as cognitive, evolutionary and behavioural science – alongside personal experience – to help teachers build a ‘mental model of the learner’.9

4. Self-regulation

Knowledge of how to analyse, evaluate and iterate their own thinking and behaviour in order to produce a greater impact, including an awareness of cognitive biases and how to mitigate them.10 Expert teacher knowledge is threaded throughout with their personal and professional values. They care deeply about their craft, their subject, and about elevating the life chances of their pupils. As a result, they take full responsibility for their actions, and are generally driven to continually improve their practice.11

If you ask an expert to teach a different subject or year group, or even give them a new group of pupils, they are no longer likely to enable consistent learning. In short, expertise is highly domain-specific.

Importantly, it’s not just what teachers know that makes them expert – it’s how that knowledge is organised. The mental models of experts are extensive, actionable and fluent. They are organised around the cues they routinely encounter in their classroom as a result of multiple interactions with their pupils.

The vast majority of this knowledge can be accessed and used rapidly, with very little effort. Its automatic nature also means that expert teachers are not always aware of, or able to fully articulate, what they are doing. It can also be hard for them to make and sustain significant changes to their knowledge and habits.

Implications for education

To summarise, a teacher needs to have extensive, well-organised knowledge in each of the above domains to perform with expertise. For example, if you ask an expert to teach a different subject12 or year group,13 or even give them a new group of pupils,14 they are no longer likely to enable consistent learning. In short, expertise is highly domain-specific. Even the PE teacher who is proficient at teaching fitness may be lacking when it comes to teaching racket sports.15

This model of expertise has various implications for schools. For example, the ‘interview lesson’ conducted by many schools during recruitment can limit just how expert a teacher can be in this situation. It also raises questions about how to make the best use of human capital in schools. Is it better for secondary teachers to specialise in phases or for primary teachers to specialise in particular subjects?

In short, teacher mental models dictate what teachers do and what teachers do dictates the impact they have. If we want to help teachers improve, we must strive to develop a greater understanding of all three of these components, how they relate to each other and the implications for how we organise our schools. Without this, our vision of expertise will be incomplete and our power to develop it will remain limited.


1. Christodoulou, D. (2017) Making good progress? The future of assessment for learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

2. Miller, K. (2011) ‘Situation awareness in teaching: what educators can learn from video-based research in other fields’ in Sherin, M., Jacobs, V. and Philipp, R. (eds) Mathematics teacher noticing: seeing through teachers’ eyes. New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 51–65.

3. Berliner, D.C. (2004) ‘Describing the behavior and documenting the accomplishments of expert teachers’, Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 24 (3) pp. 200–212.

4. Schempp, P., Tan, S. and McCullick, B. (2002) ‘The practices of expert teachers’, Teaching and Learning 23 (1) pp. 99–106.

5. Wolff, C. E., Jarodzka, H. and Boshuizen, H. P. A. (2017) ‘See and tell: differences between expert and novice teachers’ interpretations of problematic classroom management events’, Teaching and Teacher Education 66, pp. 295–308.

6. Westerman, D. A. (1991) ‘Expert and novice teacher decision making’, Journal of Teacher Education 42 (4) pp. 292–305.

7. Sadler, P. M. (2016) ‘Understanding misconceptions: teaching and learning in middle school physical science’, American Educator 40 (1) pp. 26–32.

8. Wiliam, D. (2016) Leadership for teacher learning: creating a culture where all teachers improve so that all pupils succeed. West Palm Beach, FL: Learning Sciences International.

9. Willingham, D. (2017) ‘A mental model of the learner: teaching the basic science of educational psychology to future teachers’, Mind, Brain, and Education 11 (4) pp. 166–175.

10. Ericsson, K. A. (2015) ‘Acquisition and maintenance of medical expertise’, Academic Medicine 90 (11) pp. 1471–1486.

11. Ibid. 4.

12. Sternberg, R. J. and Horvath, J.A. (1995) ‘A prototype view of expert teaching’, Educational Researcher 24 (6) pp. 9–17.

13. Kini, T. and Podolsky, A. (2016) Does teaching experience increase teacher effectiveness? A review of the research. Learning Policy Institute. Available at:

14. Ibid. 3.

15. Ibid. 3.

Reviving research on effective schools

The effect of socioeconomic factors on children’s academic achievement is a perennial concern for educators the world over. Karin Chenoweth – writer-in-residence at the Washington-based Education Trust and creator of the ExtraOrdinary Districts podcast – considers some often-overlooked research into the power of good schooling.

‘One of the common responses of practitioners to any piece of research in the social sciences is that it seems to be a tremendous amount of hard work just to demonstrate what we knew already on the basis of experience or common sense.’

Sir Michael Rutter, 1979

Back in the 1970s Michael Rutter1 became interested in the question whether schools could affect student achievement. At that time Rutter was already well established as a child psychiatrist but had not yet achieved the international regard that he later garnered after doing landmark work on autism, resilience, and the experience of Romanian orphans after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu.

Rutter was intrigued by the findings of American social scientist James Coleman who had found, in 1966, that when he correlated all kinds of school factors with student background, background almost always explained student achievement results. ‘The school appears unable to exert independent influences to make achievement levels less dependent on the child’s background,’ the Coleman Report2 said, casting doubt on whether it was possible to educate children living in poverty.

Rutter found a clever way to test Coleman’s finding. He took advantage of a large-scale study of thousands of children in a rather dismal and economically depressed area of London in the 1960s that had collected all kinds of information, including class status (using the proxy of father’s job status), academics, delinquency, and health. He and a team of researchers were able to follow up with the 12 high schools most of the students fed into.

After controlling for prior achievement and socioeconomic factors, Rutter’s study concluded that a student’s achievement depended heavily on which school a student attended. ‘We may conclude,’ the study says, ‘that schools can do much to foster good behavior and attainments, and that even in disadvantaged areas, schools can be a force for good.’

That is to say, he found that schools can make a difference. A big difference.

He and his research team went on to identify the factors that caused some schools to be more effective than others, and the key was school leadership that provides strategic vision and creates what he called a school ‘ethos’, which he later3 defined as:

‘An orderly atmosphere, an attractive working environment, appropriate well-conveyed high expectations, the involvement of pupils in taking responsibilities, positive rewards with feedback and clear fair discipline, positive models of good teacher behavior, a focus on achievement and good behavior, and good teacher-pupil relationships in and outside the classroom.’

The book that emerged from his study was 15,000 Hours, a reference to the amount of time most students spend in school.

The really stunning thing about the work Rutter and his team of researchers did is that it is almost totally forgotten. The Coleman Report continues to be cited,4 along with its many descendants which demonstrate correlations between students’ achievement and mothers’ educational levels, the number of books in their homes, the number of words they hear in babyhood, and lots of other markers of poverty.

There is a distinguished and rigorous research pedigree for those who believe that schools can open worlds and create opportunities for children whose life opportunities would otherwise be circumscribed by their family background.

Rutter’s report, which pointed to ways that schools might break the correlation between poverty and achievement, is not often mentioned.

The research of American Ronald Edmonds has suffered much the same fate. Like Rutter, Edmonds sought to test Coleman’s conclusion and he re-analysed Coleman’s original data and studied a large sample of elementary schools in Michigan to find what he called ‘effective’ schools – that is, schools that eliminated the difference in achievement between children living in poverty and those not living in poverty. His most succinct conclusion echoed Rutter’s:

‘What effective schools share is a climate in which it is incumbent on all personnel to be instructionally effective for all pupils.’

To establish such a climate required quite a few things, he said, including an atmosphere that is ‘orderly without being rigid, quiet without being oppressive, and generally conducive to the instructional business at hand’ and ‘strong administrative leadership, without which the disparate elements of good schooling can neither be brought together nor kept together’.

That is to say, he found5 that the way in which schools are organised makes a big difference in whether children living in poverty achieve. Similar to Rutter, he didn’t conclude that there was one particular programme, practice or policy that made the difference.

‘No one model explains school effectiveness for the poor or any other social class subset. Fortunately, children know how to learn in more ways than we know how to teach, thus permitting great latitude in choosing instructional strategy. The great problem in schooling is that we know how to teach in ways that can keep some children from learning almost anything, and we often choose to thus proceed when dealing with the children of the poor.’

Teachers in low-performing high-poverty schools can attest to the last sentence in that quote. The faddishness and the lack of empirical rigour in evaluating programmes, practices and policies that confronted Edmonds in the 1960s and 1970s continue to this day, plaguing the field and preventing generation after generation of children from learning what they need.

Perhaps it isn’t all that important to revive the work of Rutter and Edmonds. Others, such as the UChicago Consortium on School Research, have taken up the research mantle of trying to understand what makes an ‘effective’ school and how to create one.

But educators with a research bent should know that there is a distinguished and rigorous research pedigree for those who believe that schools can open worlds and create opportunities for children whose life opportunities would otherwise be circumscribed by their family background. That is not to say that poverty has no effect on student achievement. But how schools organise themselves to respond to the effects of poverty has an even greater effect.

Karin’s latest book is Schools that Succeed: How Educators Marshal the Power of Systems for Improvement (Harvard Education Press, 2017). She will be a speaker at the researchED US conference in Philadelphia in October 2018.