Bringing the science of learning into the classroom: teacher-led RCTs and evidence-informed pedagogy

Richard Churches

While the benefits of using neuroscience and psychology to inform pedagogical techniques may seem obvious – not to mention appealing – a disconnect between research and classroom practice has long presented challenges of translation. In response, a team of education and neuroscience researchers, led by Richard Churches, Lead Adviser for Education Reform and Evidence-Based Practice and Programme Director for Future Teaching Scholars at Education Development Trust, has pioneered an exciting, new, teacher-led research programme to bridge the gap from laboratory experiments to actual teaching practice.

A key belief lies behind this project: serving teachers are best placed to develop and test education interventions and to apply what we know about the biology of learning to real classrooms. The programme therefore used randomised controlled trials (RCTs) designed and conducted by teachers to assess the impact of different interventions on their students’ attention, memory and spaced learning. The full results of the study, ‘Translating Laboratory Evidence into Classroom Practice with Teacher-Led Randomised Controlled Trials – A Perspective and Meta-Analysis’, were published in Mind, Brain and Education in May 2020. While teachers noted positive effects of these interventions in many areas, especially different aspects of attention and metacognition, critically, the study concluded that such teacher-led trials have huge potential for effective use in future research, policy and programming.

There are several reasons why teacher-led trials hold so much promise. Crucially, classrooms present much more effective settings than laboratories to inform effective pedagogy: classroom-based, teacher-led trials are likely to yield results and scenarios which are far more representative of the average learning environment than a researcher-led, lab-based equivalent. Unlike a lab, they naturally account for factors such as student behaviour management, which may be absent or altered in a lab-based trial, as well as pupil age, subject area, and the way that testing is used – all of which may affect the results of an intervention.  Results from the research can be seen here (adapted from Mind, Brain and Education).

Moreover, teacher-led trials provide teachers with agency and a voice in educational research, bridging what has been described as a ‘democratic deficit’ in education. Training teachers to design and conduct this type of research will enable them to be both consumers and producers of the education research which will influence their pedagogy, the training that future teachers will receive, and potentially wider education policies, while also helping individual teachers to refine their own teaching practices throughout their careers. Such agency may help to increase teacher investment in continuous professional development, which may in turn even have a positive impact on teacher engagement and retention.  What we do know is that participation in such research improves teachers’ evidence-based practice.

In addition, these RCTs can, by their nature, be carried out more easily at scale – and at lower cost – than would be the case for lab experiments. They may therefore provide a good means of testing education initiatives: multiple planned teacher-led RCTs and replications, with meta-analysis, could provide large, cost-effective data samples for future studies. They also present significant potential for adaptive programming – where testing, learning and iteration are required to find effective interventions and solutions that really make a positive difference. This may be especially valuable for testing government-led initiatives prior to national rollout, as these changes can be scientifically tested to see whether they will produce the desired outcomes in real classrooms.

Teacher-led RCTs are a truly exciting prospect for future research in the education sector, and we look forward to seeing more evidence of them being used to bring in and develop the science of learning in real-world classrooms.

To learn more about the study, read it in its entirety here.