Interaction with learners

researchED Conferences Link Teachers And Cognitive Science

What teachers learn during their training often conflicts with what scientists have discovered about how learning works. But conferences around the world bring together teachers and educational researchers, including a recent one in Frederick (yes, Frederick), Maryland.

For nearly a decade now, a UK-based organization called researchED has been hosting these low-budget but high-powered events, with presenters ranging from world-renowned cognitive scientists to classroom teachers. Several conferences take place each year in the UK, as well as events – this autumn only – in Australia, Canada and Chile.

About five years ago, the movement arrived in the United States. Past events have taken place in Washington, DC, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But researchED hasn’t caught on here like it does in the UK, where conferences often have waiting lists and where, unlike in the US, the government strongly supports the movement to ground education in cognitive science. . I attended two of the previous American conferences, and although there was enthusiasm among the attendees, they were not as numerous as one would have hoped.

So I confess that when I learned that researchED was returning this year with a conference in Frederick, a charming town but not exactly on the beaten track, I was worried. Would anyone introduce themselves?

A busy and fast-paced event

My concerns were unfounded. The event, on October 22, attracted over 350 people and the atmosphere was electric. (The cheeky Twitter hashtag was #researchFRED.) Participants came from across the United States and as far away as Belgium (science educator Pedro de Bruyckere) and Scotland (Tom Bennett, the former teacher who founded researchED and is now a behavioral consultant in the UK Department of Education). As in previous events, there were many cheers as people reunited with old friends or came face to face with experts they had admired from afar.

Why Frederic? The event, which relies on volunteer labor to keep costs low (registration for the day, including lunch, was just $45) was sponsored by Frederick County Public Schools. The school district implements educational approaches grounded in neuroscience, a movement known as Mind Brain Education Science, or MBE, so the conference was a natural fit. And the district did a terrific job of putting together a complex event.

A day at researchED takes place at a frantic pace. At Frederick, there was a keynote address, five breakout sessions, and two conference-wide roundtables, all limited to 40 minutes each. For each slot, there were nine concurrent offerings, with topics ranging from the ability of podcasts to bridge the gap between research and practice to how physical activity affects children’s brains. The biggest issue for attendees was deciding which session to attend (especially if, like me, you were presenting yourself during two of the slots).

What makes a researchED event so valuable to teachers is that, for the most part, the information they get on how to teach effectively has nothing to do with what they were told at college or graduate school. During their training, most future teachers learn that it is better to be a “side guide” rather than a “wise on stage” – students learn best when they are in charge of their own learning as much as possible. Student teachers are advised not to waste time ensuring that students acquire factual information, as things like ‘critical thinking skills’ are more important. After all, they are told, if kids don’t know a fact, they can always Google it.

At a researchED event, on the other hand, teachers will hear about the voluminous research showing that when learners are new to a topic, explicit teaching – teacher-led, but with lots of teacher interaction and students – works much better than student-led. investigation or discovery. They will learn that having factual information about a topic stored in long-term memory is actually what enables people to think critically about it.

This process of unlearning can be painful. During a discussion I attended – de Bruyckere’s session on “Almost Everything You Need to Know About Psychology” – a teacher was visibly dismayed to learn that the work of Jean Piaget, an icon of the school curriculum, had been largely superseded by more recent works. to research.

But it is important. In another session I attended, cognitive psychologist Shana Carpenter explained how after-class quizzes can dramatically boost student learning through a process known as remedial practice. Her students at Iowa State initially complained about having to take quizzes, she said, but eventually realized their value.

There are a few frustrating things about attending a researchED conference, besides having to choose between sessions. The first is simply knowing that this information has been hidden from teachers during their training and is usually absent from the “professional development” they receive on the job. There are complicated reasons for this situation, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Well-attended events like Frederick’s can only help a few hundred teachers unlearn what they’ve been taught to believe. But imagine if all three million teachers in the United States had learned things like cool-down and spaced practice regularly during their training — and if standard teaching materials incorporated them. Teaching could become a less difficult job, and countless students could find it easier to learn.

Science won’t help you if you don’t teach anything substantial

Another frustration, at least for me, is that much of what has been said about cognitive science-based practices, valuable as they are, has overlooked a huge problem at the elementary level: the lack of any substantial content outside of mathematics. The only other thing that most elementary schools and some middle schools even try to teach is reading. And most of the time spent on this is spent on supposed reading comprehension skills like “finding the main idea”.

The assumption is that if children master the skills, they will be able to use them to learn content – ​​in history, science, etc. – later. But that’s not how reading comprehension works. Research has shown that it depends more on knowledge, either of the subject or of academic vocabulary and syntax in general, than on abstract competence. (Time spent teaching children to decipher words is also often wasted, again, due to shortcomings in teacher training and teaching materials.)

For example, an elementary school teacher whose school uses a literacy program that focuses on comprehension skills might leave an educational research conference thinking she could use retrieval practice and other techniques to help his students to become better understanding.

But there’s nothing substantial for her to use these techniques on. If she asks her children about, for example, “determining the author’s purpose” – a commonly taught comprehension skill – it is not going to stimulate their learning. And when they reach the higher levels, students who have not been able to acquire the knowledge in history and science assumed by the program will be seriously disadvantaged.

I would like to see more acknowledgment of this problem at a future US researchED conference, if there is one. A note at the end of this year’s program lists a “researchED Brain Trust” that has “envisioned a sustainable researchED model for the United States and is excited to help the next group launch their event.”

Any takers? If anyone is interested, you can contact researchED through their website,, or me through mine,