Increasingly, there are calls for education policy and practice to be guided by the best available research evidence. But how do we achieve this? The link between education research and classroom practice is not simple and can be the subject of passionate debate. What’s missing in much of this discussion is the role of learning theory.
A wide range of research from education, psychology and neuroscience can have implications for children’s learning in the classroom. This research takes different forms including quantitative and qualitative studies of behaviour or more formal trials of interventions.
What these research approaches have in common, and what links research and practice, is the role of theory. Different types of studies are ways to develop and test theories of learning. For example, observational studies can demonstrate that certain behaviours or skills are related to successful learning while intervention trials can provide evidence that particular pedagogical approaches lead to improved learning.
“Theories of learning that are relevant to teachers are specific hypotheses that explain why certain behaviours or skills are associated with successful learning.”
However, it’s not the specific findings of a study that are relevant for classroom practice; it’s the theory that explains the findings. The theory should be translated to the classroom, not the research study itself.
So, what is learning theory? At its simplest, a theory is an explanation that can predict future behaviours. We’re not talking here about the “grand theories” of cognition such as working memory or mental models. Theories of learning that are relevant to teachers are specific hypotheses that explain why certain behaviours or skills are associated with successful learning. Once these theories of learning have gained sufficient support from research studies, we can try to apply them to the classroom.
This approach also helps us to identify when research from different fields may have implications for education; if the specific theory being tested is relevant for the classroom then the research itself can be relevant, whether this is from education, psychology, neuroscience or beyond.
Example: What does the equal sign mean?
A nice example of the role of theory comes from the field of mathematical cognition, an area of research that aims to understand thinking skills related to mathematics. Many children fail to understand the true meaning of the equal sign. Rather than understanding that it means that both sides of the equation have the same value, many children and adolescents think the equals sign means “the answer to the problem” or “the total”. This incorrect operational conception of the equal sign can limit children’s achievement and cause particular problems when children move from arithmetic to algebra.
“Teachers might choose to vary the format of problems they give children.”
Why do so many children develop an operational conception of the equal sign? Nicole McNeil and colleagues proposed that this might be due to the way that the equal sign was commonly used. Across a series of lab and classroom-based studies they demonstrated that an over-reliance on operation = answer format problems (e.g. 3 + 4 = 7) can cause children to develop an operational view of the equal sign.
What does this set of studies mean for the classroom? It doesn’t mean that teachers need to copy exactly what the researchers did in their studies. But it does mean more broadly that the researchers’ theory was supported, and we can apply this theory to classroom activities. Consequently, teachers might choose to vary the format of problems they give children (e.g. “7 = 3 + 4” or “2 + 5 = 3 + 4”).
What does this mean for researchers and educators?
What are the implications of shifting the focus from research findings to learning theory? If theory is to bridge the gap between research and practice, we need to make sure that research is theory-driven.
In a recent review of interventions to support primary mathematics my colleagues and I identified that many published interventions are not based on a clearly articulated theory of learning. This limits what we can take from these studies and how far they can impact classroom practice. Researchers also need to be clear about the extent of support for a theory that their study provides.
Theories of learning that are appropriate to translate to the classroom will be supported by a body of research, not a single study. Researchers should resist the temptation to make speculative recommendations for classroom practice on the basis of single studies.
On the other hand, when there is solid evidence for a learning theory, researchers need to do a good job of communicating this theory to teachers at an appropriate level of detail (for example Daniel Willingham’s “empirical generalisations”). Teachers can then draw on their expertise, experience and understanding of their own context to identify the best way to apply these theories in their classroom.
“Theories of learning that are appropriate to translate to the classroom will be supported by a body of research, not a single study. Researchers should resist the temptation to make speculative recommendations for classroom practice on the basis of single studies.”
Co-author of this blog post: Victoria Simms