One of the oldest tricks in the education book still works: storytelling (btw, great research-design)

An interesting study that threw me back 35 years to the classroom of Mr. Pieters who used to tell us great stories. Besides inspiring me to become a teacher myself, he taught us a lot too, and this randomized controlled trial confirms. The trial suggests even that storytelling beats activities for learning

Btw, do check the very nice research design to get as close as possible to a causal relationship with replication included!

From the press release:

Storytelling – the oldest form of teaching – is the most effective way of teaching primary school children about evolution, say researchers at the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath.

A randomised controlled trial found that children learn about evolution more effectively when engaged through stories read by the teacher, than through doing tasks to demonstrate the same concept.

The scientists investigated several different methods of teaching evolution in primary schools, to test whether a pupil-centred approach (where pupils took part in an activity) or a teacher-centred approach (where pupils were read a story by the teacher), led to a greater improvement in understanding of the topic.

They also looked at whether using human-based examples of evolution (comparing arm bones in humans with those in animals), or more abstract examples that were harder to emotionally engage with (comparing the patterns of trilobites), produced better results in terms of the children’s understanding of evolution.

Whilst all the methods improved the pupils’ understanding of evolution, the study, published in the journal Science of Learning, found that the story-based approach combined with the abstract examples of evolution were the most effective lessons.

This goes against educational orthodoxy that states that a pupil-centred approach to learning, using human-based examples with which children can easily identify, should yield the best results.

The study recruited 2500 primary school students who were tested for understanding of evolutionary concepts before and after the lessons.

Professor Laurence Hurst, Director of the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath, led the study.

He said: “We were really surprised by the results – we expected that pupils would be more engaged with an activity rather than listening to a story, and that children would identify more strongly with the human-based examples of evolution than the somewhat abstract example of trilobites, but in fact the opposite was true.

“This is the first large randomised controlled trial that is evaluating the effectiveness of different methods of teaching, using similar scientific methods to those used in drug interaction trials to test whether a new treatment works.

“Our results show that we should be careful about our preconceptions of what works best.

“We only tested the teaching of evolution in this way – it would be interesting to see if these findings also applied to other subjects of the curriculum.”

Professor Momna Hejmadi, Associate Dean of the University’s Faculty of Science, helped to design the study and co-authored the paper. She said: “Evolution was introduced to the national curriculum for primary schools in 2014.

“It’s a really important subject as it forms the foundation for many parts of biology. However, many primary school teachers, if they don’t have a science background, are less confident about teaching it.

“At the Milner Centre for Evolution, we’ve developed a range of free lesson plans using really cheap teaching materials, as well as a free online course for teachers to help them engage their pupils with this important subject.

“We’d like to thank the schools who took part in the study, especially the teachers who delivered the lessons. We hope they can continue to successfully use these resources in future years.”

Abstract of the study:

Current educational discourse holds that effective pedagogy requires engagement through active student participation with subject matter relating to them. The lack of testing of lessons in series is recognized as a potential weakness in the evidence base, not least because standard parallel designs cannot capture serial interaction effects (cf. drug interactions). However, logistic issues make large-scale replicated in situ assessment of serial designs challenging. The recent introduction of evolution into the UK primary school curriculum presents a rare opportunity to overcome this. We implemented a randomised control 2 × 2 design with four inexpensive schemes of work, comparable to drug interaction trials. This involved an initial test phase (N = 1152) with replication (N = 1505), delivered by teachers, after training, in their classrooms with quantitative before-after-retention testing. Utilising the “genetics-first” approach, the schemes comprised four lessons taught in the same order. Lessons 1 (variation) and 3 (deep-time) were invariant. Lesson 2 (selection) was either student-centred or teacher-centred, with subject organism constant, while lesson 4 (homology) was either human-centred or not, with learning mode constant. All four schemes were effective in replicate, even for lower ability students. Unexpectedly, the teacher-focused/non-human centred scheme was the most successful in both test and replicate, in part owing to a replicable interaction effect but also because it enabled engagement. These results highlight the importance of testing lessons in sequence and indicate that there are many routes to effective engagement with no “one-size fits all” solution in education.

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