How to boost pupils’ learning? Stop relying on hunches and use research instead

The first ever ResearchEd conference for teachers took place in Ireland earlier this month. Here are five things we learned

There is a wealth of research that can help teachers improve how they work with students but academic studies aren’t always easy to access, or to translate into the realities of classroom practice.

It’s one of the reasons for the growing popularity of ResearchEd, a teacher-led conference that focuses on evidence-based practices.

It has grown from a single tweet by UK teacher Tom Bennett to become an international conference movement that spans much of the globe.

St Columba's College in Rathfarnham provided the Hogwartian setting for Ireland's first ResearchEd conference on a rainy Saturday in October earlier this month.


Some 350 professionals attended the event and chose from a variety of talks given by fellow teachers, academics and researchers throughout the day. But the main focus boiled down to one thing: the quality of evidence used in education.

Here are five key take-always from what was a lively, stimulating and hugely informative gathering:

1. Cracking down on bad behaviour: don’t react to problems – teach what’s acceptable

Tom Bennett, a teacher and UK government “behaviour czar”, says poor discipline in schools is an issue that has been swept under the carpet for decades.

Recent reports suggest some Irish schools are struggling to control behaviour, with evidence of significant numbers of children on reduced timetables as a result.

Bennett says a key issue is that many teachers nowadays do not get a chance to learn how to control a class.

“Behaviour has been marginalised from teacher training in the classroom,” says Bennett. It is, he says, a craft that needs to be taught.

Many schools, Bennett suggests, are reactive in their approach to behaviour management, waiting for the bad behaviour to happen and then responding.

He encourages schools to treat behaviour like a subject and not to overestimate what they think students know about acceptable behaviour.

Bennett advises schools to teach behaviour the same way they would teach maths.

“You don’t start with trigonometry, you start at the start and it’s the same with behaviour.”

He stresses the importance of consistency and that desired behaviours must be demonstrated and practiced until they become routine.

Much like fundamental maths skills, when children no longer have to think about behaviour, the space is freed up for learning.

2. Maths interventions: what adds up for primary school children?

Dr Victoria Simms, a research director at Ulster University, and her team were surprised when they went looking for evidence-based maths interventions for primary school pupils.

Some had partial results, others were delivered by the people who were doing the research and had a vested interest in the outcomes.

“These studies have, what we would say in science terms, a high risk of bias and the quality of that evidence is weak to moderate,” says Simms.

Simms suggests teachers need to be more sceptical when reading research. “They need to ask if it rings true for their practice, if something sounds unbelievable then it probably is.”

Another barrier for teachers when it comes to examining the evidence that supports maths-based interventions is that 70 per cent of the research is behind a firewall that only researchers can access.

Educational practice should, in theory, be guided by the best available evidence but, if teachers can’t read it, they can’t refute it.

“We have to make sure, as researchers, we are communicating everything we are finding in an accessible way,” says Simms.

On a more positive note, she said research suggests that focusing on mathematical fluency can help build fundamental skills.

“This helps to free up space in working memory and allows children to do more complex computation,” says Simms. “We found evidence about how we can teach children to think flexibly about problem solving and that makes them adaptive problem solvers.”

3. Film studies: it’s about education, not entertainment

TVs on trolleys rolled into classrooms usually triggered delight for the students in situ. It meant the downing of tools and the chance to switch off while the film was being switched on.

It seems that, bar the trolley, not much has changed and Conor Murphy, teacher of Film Studies in Skibbereen Community School, was at ResearchEd to challenge the role that film plays in the curriculum.

“Film is seen as a treat, like giving out lollipops for a right answer,” says Murphy. He believes film should be viewed as an art form and not a sweet treat and that aligning film studies with English on the curriculum has restricted how it is seen.

“Film crosses so many of the arts, it should be across all subjects,” says Murphy, “English limits the study of film down to narrative, character and theme. We never have to mention editing or sound.”

Many of Murphy’s students will complain that he “ruined it for them” when he teaches them how to decipher moving image manipulation. But he views the complaint as a positive.

These skills are even more pertinent when it comes to enabling students to identify propagandist content that circulates on digital platforms and compounds the problem of fake news.

“We are teachers,” says Murphy. “We are supposed to be educating our students not entertaining them.”

4. Gifted students: can they be catered for in regular schools?

Peter Lydon, a specialist in gifted education, says describing a child as gifted can provoke a myriad of negative reactions.

“The issue is not the label it’s the attitude that we attach to it,” says Lydon. “Every child has their own talents and abilities, but giftedness is the extent to which they have that talent or ability.”

With over 30,000 students classed as gifted in Ireland, teachers need to be familiar with the indicators.

Identifying a gifted student can be difficult and teachers should not rely on the results of an IQ test alone.

“In a classroom, while I might be looking for a child who processes and comprehends everything faster, I am also looking for the child who might be underachieving but who still strikes me as being very smart, yet somehow it doesn’t come through in their work,” says Lydon.

Lydon highlighted how the lack of training available for many teachers in the area could be impeding the recognition.

“We need training that encourages to teachers to see that there is a possibility that this child is gifted and it’s not a behaviour issue.”

Identifying whether a child is gifted may be difficult but Lydon says it doesn’t take much to cater for their needs in the classroom.

“There is an assumption that gifted kids will be okay. The fact is they aren’t necessarily going to be okay, they still need wisdom and guidance to challenge them and they need it are their level.”

5. Growth mindset: just a pedagogical fad?

English teacher, Carl Hendrick, challenged what he believes is the unwarranted promotion of the Growth Mindset theory in schools and classrooms.

The suggestion being that theory was lost in translation from the laboratory to the classroom and works best as a philosophy rather than an educational intervention.

He also questioned the demand placed upon teachers to make lessons entertaining for their students. “2b or not 2b” doesn’t make Hamlet accessible to students, he argues; it makes it redundant.

He believes that achievement doesn’t come from motivation but quite the opposite. When students achieve, they are motivated.

One of the final images Hendrick displayed during his talk was of a teacher delivering a science lesson dressed as Darth Vader.

Suggesting, perhaps, that if entertainment became the driving force in the classroom then schools would be heading towards an educational Death Star?

Here’s hoping it doesn’t get to that point.