Research. What is it good for?

Research Copy

Can the use of more research and evidence based practice be a good thing for education? In this post I want to explore why it could be a good thing to expand the use of research in the area of education.

So why might it be that research plays an important role in education?

Research and evidence based practice shows up in the NZ curriculum, so I am thinking that is a good place to start. The NZ curriculum suggests inquiry as being an effective way of improving teacher practice. “The teacher uses evidence from research and from their own past practice and that of colleagues to plan teaching and learning opportunities aimed at achieving the outcomes prioritised in the inquiry”.

Inquiry cycle from the NZ Curriculum

Inquiry cycle from the NZ Curriculum

So why is research important?

  1. Understanding and using research can help more accurately attribute causation to what is and what is not working in our classrooms and schools. This acts as a guide to what practices might need to change and what to keep. Example: We changed to mixed ability grouping in mathematics after looking at the research around ability groupings. Our maths data is generally very good, but we wanted to know what was working and what was not and how we could improve. Because our data was good it was an easy trap to fall into to think that all of what we were doing was good. But when we looked at what the research said, we could identify a variable to change to see if that had a positive impact. When we looked at the data after the intervention it showed there was improvement because of the changes we made.
  2. Research can empower teachers to become more autonomous and have more agency in their school. Having a good working knowledge of relevant research allows teachers to present strong arguments for why they want to implement change. This is an opportunity for the locus of control to shift from ‘leaders’ making decisions to teachers making more decisions about what happens in their classrooms.
  3. Engaging with research is part of building knowledge and improving practice. Knowing what does and doesn’t work helps inform future focused thinking as we are not circling round and round in what doesn’t work, but rather building on and innovating from what does.
  4. Confirmation bias – how do you know? Confirmation bias is the tendency to select and perpetuate information that aligns with our existing beliefs or practices. How much of what we do is collecting anecdotal evidence to support the status quo? Research is a way of testing our beliefs and assumptions about what is and isn’t working in our schools. It gives us a way of being more impartial and less bias about our practice.
  5. It matters. It matters that we know what we are doing in the classroom is having an impact. Research is another tool in the tool box to narrow down what it is exactly that is and is not having an impact. It matters because our kids matter and if we can do things better then we should.

What is possible?MindsetBook

Imagine using Carole Dweck’s research in the classroom 25 years ago – where would we be today with our kids?

Much of Dwecks work has been around for 25 – 30 years, imagine how great it would be to get that information sooner. With a culture that values research, knowledge would move faster through the channels into classrooms. What else is out there right now that we won’t see in classrooms for another 25 or so years?

I also think it is possible to raise the status of teachers and shift more power and autonomy to them through using more research.

I think though for me, the biggest ‘what’s possible’ is continuous consistent improvement in teacher practice that impacts on student learning outcomes.

Possible Problems:

Research behind pay-walls.

Perception that more work will be involved.

Reading and using research in itself is a skill.

*I am not advocating teachers as researchers. This is already an option with study leave and e-fellowships etc.. I am simply suggesting that a higher-level understanding and use of research could benefit education, teachers and students.

What do you think about research in education? Do you agree/disagree or do we need to think about research in education in an entirely different way?

Adapted from the Atkinson & Shriffrin (1968) model of memory

Adapted from the Atkinson & Shiffrin (1968) model of memory

Information Processing Theory is a theory from cognitive psychology that suggests information is processed in three stages. In order to remember and recall information, one must ensure that information successfully navigates through three memory stores called sensory memory, working memory and long-term memory.

Sensory memory

Sensory memory is like a temporary storage where information that is attended to will be passed on for further processing. Sensory memory has unlimited storage, but here is the catch – it only holds stimuli for approximately 2-5s. Thousands of inputs are entering sensory memory, but if that information is not further processed it will be lost. So what information gets processed? The information that gets processed is information that we pay attention to. This happens in (roughly) two ways: We pay attention (automatically) to what is familiar to us, or we have to consciously orientate our attention to stimuli. The first scenario allows information to be processed easily as it is instantly recognised from information in our long-term memory store (this is why prior knowledge helps us learn new information). The second scenario requires educators to cue learner’s attention to the important aspects of the material they are learning. You can read more about cuing attention here.

Key points:

  • Link new information to existing information.
  • Cue learners by explicitly saying ‘this is important’ ‘you will need to know this to be able to do x’
  • Present information in varied ways and contexts to increase the chances of activating prior knowledge
  • Students with little prior knowledge in a subject may need more exposure to the material.

Working memory

Information that is processed then transfers to working memory. Working memory has limited capacity and duration, holding just 7 + – 2 items for only 30s (or up to 2 min if engaging in rehearsal). We can think of working memory as a place where what we are currently thinking about is stored – when we stop thinking about that information it disappears from working memory. Working memory is receiving information from sensory memory and long-term memory (this is why prior knowledge is so important – the more you know the more information you have to associate with incoming information). Information that is recognised or can be linked to something already in your long-term memory gets processed quickly without much ‘work’. New information needs to be worked on to get it into long-term memory. A key factor in getting information into long-term memory is reducing the cognitive load. Information needs to be chunked into smaller manageable bits. Try remembering the following letters: E A D K M R E as compared with MAKER ED. You can see that if we rearrange the words and chunk them, it becomes effortless. Mind maps can be used to group or organise similar information together. Mind maps work because they create a more complex meaningful unit and they also help with recall of information as they make links between words and concepts.

Key points:

  • Too much information at once overloads WM resulting in information loss.
  • Break large concepts into smaller digestible ones that make up the whole.
  • Use concept maps or organisers
  • Try not to be verbose, only give the fewest words in instructions. Simpler lesson plans are best, introducing 1-2 concepts at a time.
  • Present new information in the context of prior knowledge.


 Long-term memory

Information then makes its way into long-term memory storage. Long- term memory is both unlimited in amount it can hold and duration. It’s suggested that we don’t lose information that is successfully stored in LTM, rather we can’t recall it successfully. The best way to successfully encode information into LTM is to make the information meaningful to the learner. This can be done in three ways:

  1. Organise information in a way that connects with existing information. Using conceptual models that explicitly show the connections between material being taught and how that relates to information previously taught.
  2. Elaborate on the information. This can be done by using analogies to help learners connect the information to something familiar. Another way is to have students come up with their own examples from their own lives.
  3. Increase the level of active processing a learner has to do. Getting students to compare and contrast information gets students to draw on multiple sources of information and think deeper about the material. Sometimes when we have to learn new material that is difficult to link to existing knowledge we can use mnemonics to create a link. Two good strategies to use are the peg word method and method of loci. Also have students come up with their own questions about the material that other students can then answer. The PQ4R method is also a simple way to get students to be more active in their reading process

Key points:

  • Encoding is important to ensure information gets into and stays in long-term memory
  • Connect what you don’t know with what you do know.
  • If you are not actively processing information chances are you are not encoding it.

Last word: Whilst students will have similar limitations on their memory system, there will be a lot of variation in levels of prior knowledge between students. With the shift to personalising learning, one of the best things we can do is get to know what our students know and what they don’t know. But this is more (much more) than what they can produce on a test – it involves all the knowledge and interests a leaner has in their lives including sociocultural values and knowledge of past and present.



Eysenck, M.W., & Keane, M.T. (2010). Cognitive Psychology – A Student’s Handbook (6th ed). New York. Psychology Press.

Mayer, R.E., Heiser, J., & Lonn, S. (2001). Cognitive Constraints On Multimedia Learning: When Presenting More Material Results In Less Understanding. Journal Of Educational Psychology, 93, (1), 187-198.

Shunk, D.H. (2008). Learning Theories – An Educational perspective. (5th ed.). New Jersey. Prentice Hall.

Slavin, R. E. (2012). Educational Psychology: Theory and Practice. (10th ed.) Chapter 6.


MoM_header brand

I wasn’t going to do a personal post about Make Club as Stephen and Kim have already so beautifully captured much of the thinking behind the initiative. However Make Club has been a constant thought on my mind and this post is a personal reflection of those thoughts.

Make Club emerged form a series of conversations that revolved around empowering our kids and bringing the community together in ways that lead to meaningful learning for all. We wanted to create a space where children, parents, teachers & community members could learn with and from each other.

One of the things we do in education is work hard to make sure all children have opportunities to be great. But opportunity isn’t always enough. Our kids come to school with varying levels of cultural capital and this affects how well they can access learning opportunities. Kids that come from backgrounds where technology, making and tinkering is valued and who’s parents have some skills in those areas tend to be the ones that have more digital cultural capital. Teaching parents along side their kids can build a bank of cultural capital and help lessen the divide. Teachers can also build their confidence and skill level with technology and making.

For some, technology can be scary and it is easy for techy people to forget that for some the basics need scaffolding. We wanted to create a safe place for people to take risks and try new things whether it be learning their way around a computer to serious engineering challenges.

Another challenge in education is battling stereotypes. Girls tend to get labeled as good at reading and boys good at maths and computing. Research shows that these stereotypes lead boys and girls to believe they are good at some things and not others based on gender. These beliefs are formed early and it is our hope that having lots of female role models and cultivating a gender-neutral environment at Make Club will help negate these stereotypes.

As a board member and parent I love the idea of our students and community learning to use a diverse range of technologies and tools in authentic contexts. I think this better equips people with the skills they need in the real world and more importantly stimulates many different ways of thinking and approaches to solving problems.

Make Club is about cultivating curiosity and empowering people to control their world and their learning. Kids and adults alike get to play, create, experiment, break, make and share their work in ways that are meaningful to them and their world. I can’t wait to share the rest of this year with my kids and community learning in Make Club! M_spanner icon


One sunny Auckland afternoon, I sat talking with two of my favourite people, Sandra Russell and John Edwards. We chatted all things learning and got talking about child centered learning and agency. Sandra mentioned a poem she wrote with John: The Things We Steal From Children. I loved it so much I asked if I could share it on my blog – I hope you enjoy it as much as I did as I think it hits at the heart of agency and child centered learning.



Sandra Russell and John Edwards

 If I am always the one to think of where to go next.

If where we go is always the decision of the curriculum or my curiosity and not theirs.

If motivation is mine.

If I always decide on the topic to be studied, the title of the story, the problem to be worked on

If I am always the one who has reviewed their work and decided what they need.

How will they ever know how to begin?


If I am the one who is always monitoring progress.

If I set the pace of all working discussions.

If I always look ahead, foresee problems and endeavour to eliminate them.

If I never allow them to feel and use the energy from confusion and frustration.

If myself and others are allowed to break into their concentration.

How will they learn to continue their own work?


If all the marking and editing is done by me.

If the selection of which work is to be published or evaluated is made by me.

If what is valued and valuable is always decided by external sources or by me.

If there is no forum to discuss what delights them in their task, what is working, what is not working, what they plan to do about it.

If they have not learned a language of self-assessment.

How will they find ownership, direction and delight in what they do?


If I speak of individuals but present learning as if they are all the same.

If I am never seen to reflect and reflection time is never provided.

If we never develop a vocabulary to speak about our thinking

If I signify that there are always right and wrong answers.

If I never openly respect their thoughts.

If I never let them persevere with the difficult and complex.

If I discourage playfulness.

If there is no time to explore.

How will they get to know themselves as a thinker?


 If they never get to help anyone else.

If we force them to always work and play with children of the same age.

If I do not teach them the skills of working co-operatively.

If collaboration can be seen as cheating.

If all classroom activities are based in competitiveness.

If everything is seen to be for marks.

How will they learn to work with others?


For if they

have had all of their creative thoughts explained away.

are unaware what catches their interest and how then to have confidence in that interest.

have never followed something they are passionate about to a satisfying conclusion.

have not clarified the way they sabotage their own learning.

are afraid to seek help and do not know who or how to ask.

are paralysed by the need to know everything before writing or acting.

have never got bogged down.

have never failed.

have always played it safe.

How will they ever know who they are?

 (Russell and Edwards: 1996)


*please note the special CC that applies to this post and this post only.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.



Image via Michael Scott

Image via Michael Scott

Anyone who has had any contact with the world of Education or Psychology will be very familiar with the word ‘metacognition’.  Metacognition is ‘thinking about thinking’ and involves the capacity to think about our cognitive processes. It also involves monitoring, controlling and organising our own mental processes.

There are two types of Metacognition: Metacognitive knowledge and Metacognitive control. Metacognitive knowledge is a person’s knowledge of cognitive states and learning processes. This involves information about how we learn, specific strategies and when and why we use a particular strategy. Strategies might include concept mapping, PQ4R method, creating analogies or mnemonics and self questioning.

Metacognitive control is the management and regulation of learning. These two components interact in a dynamic way to produce strategic learning. This involves planning (selection of strategies) , regulation ( monitoring)  and evaluation (how did I go).

This is what metacognition can look like when writing (through student’s eyes)

Nettlestone Primary

Nettlestone Primary

  • What is the essay question asking me do?
  • What do I know about this topic?
  • What else do I need to know and how am I going to get that information?


  • What strategies do I need? Concept maps?
  • How many paragraphs am I going to write?
  • What do I need to do to stay on task? Minimise distractions?


  • How am I going?
  • What am I doing well?
  • What do I need to change?
  • Am I answering the question?
  • How am I going for time?


  • How did my strategy work?
  • What will I change next time?
  • What worked well for me?


Why is metacognition so important in the learning process? Metacognition develops the ability for a learner to self-reflect and direct their learning. This aligns well with a growth mindset as learners will reflect and change their behaviour based on those reflections. Metacognition is an essential ingredient in critical thinking. To think critically one must correct their own thinking, ask questions and problem-solve. Metacognition directs attention, manages working memory load and utalises information in long term memory.

I recently read about an idea called wrappers’ Here is an example of a ‘wrapper’ for homework

“Before beginning a homework assignment, students answer a brief set of self-assessment questions focusing on skills they should be monitoring. Students complete the homework as usual, and then answer a follow-up set of self-assessment questions. For example, for a homework assignment about vector arithmetic, a student may be asked (beforehand) “How quickly and easily can you solve problems that involve vector subtraction?” and (afterward) “Now that you have completed this homework, how quickly and easily can you solve problems that involve vector subtraction?” Student reports from the homework wrappers ranged from noting that the practice exercises were helpful to them to commenting that they were probably overconfident before doing the homework problems.”  Ormond, C. (2013). Teaching Metacognition. Retrieved from:

This process makes thinking visible and activates prior knowledge allowing the student to be more in control over the learning process. In a similar vein ‘just in time’ response papers  get students thinking about what they need to know and how they will manage their learning.

How good is your student’s metacognitive knowledge? Do they know how their brain processes information and what strategies help them manage that information process? How well do students manage and evaluate how their learning is going and how are these processes visible to students, teachers and parents?



When students have knowledge and control of their own cognitive processes, learning is enhanced: Metacognition:

Developing Metacognition

The wrapper idea for teaching metacognition

Teaching students to plan: Plan/set goals. Apply strategies/moniter. Adapt /evaluate.

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