Category Archives: Review

Again: the power of forgetting

People who read my book or who saw a presentation probably know it already, but I’m a big fan of Ebbinghaus who described the forgetting curve in 1885. His influence on things such as spaced repetition – one of the most effective ways to remember stuff – is big. Spaced repetition already shows the power of forgetting, this announcement of a talk by Bjork, Robert A. that is, gives a good short overview:

Contextual clues play a role in what people are able to store and retrieve from their memory, says Robert A. Bjork, PhD, distinguished research professor in the department of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. A change in context can cause forgetting, but it can also change–and enrich–how information is encoded and retrieved, which can enhance learning. Bjork defines forgetting as “a decrease in how readily accessible some information or procedure is at a given point in time.” For example, some items may be strongly imprinted in our memories (referred to as “strong storage strength”)–such as a childhood phone number–but may be difficult to retrieve quickly due to the length of time since that information has been accessed (“weak retrieval strength”).


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So glad this review is open access: “Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition From Novice to Expert”

I’m much in favor of open access and I’m so glad this new review by Anne Castles, Kathleen Rastle and Kate Nation is free to read for everybody out there. Why is this great news? Well, this review is a very nuanced overview of anything related to reading acquisition. In a field that has known several reading wars, this is no little thing to try to achieve. But will it end the reading wars? Looking at the history described at the beginning of the article I’m not so sure, but if so those wars will continue despite this article.

Do note, because of the big scope of this article, it’s a really long read. But well worth of your attention.

Abstract of this review:

There is intense public interest in questions surrounding how children learn to read and how they can best be taught. Research in psychological science has provided answers to many of these questions but, somewhat surprisingly, this research has been slow to make inroads into educational policy and practice. Instead, the field has been plagued by decades of “reading wars.” Even now, there remains a wide gap between the state of research knowledge about learning to read and the state of public understanding. The aim of this article is to fill this gap. We present a comprehensive tutorial review of the science of learning to read, spanning from children’s earliest alphabetic skills through to the fluent word recognition and skilled text comprehension characteristic of expert readers. We explain why phonics instruction is so central to learning in a writing system such as English. But we also move beyond phonics, reviewing research on what else children need to learn to become expert readers and considering how this might be translated into effective classroom practice. We call for an end to the reading wars and recommend an agenda for instruction and research in reading acquisition that is balanced, developmentally informed, and based on a deep understanding of how language and writing systems work.

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A small review of the new book by Andreas Schleicher: World Class

Andreas Schleicher has published a new book called World Class, with as subtitle “How to build a 21st-century school system” and you can download the book for free here.

I’ve been able to read most of the book already and for people who haven’t been following PISA and Schleicher there is a lot of information in the book. For people like me who have been following intensively the international survey and it’s boss, there is not much new stuff to discover.

I could repeat some of the elements from my open letter to Schleicher, although he does try to defend his answer to questions about the importance of memorization since the discussion he had at the Wise conference last year. Again, I’ve seen the charts he uses at page 233 and 234 before, but they don’t explain the chart from PISA 2015 I shared before.

But I want to focus on 2 details that worried me a bit:

  • There is this paragraph on the Flemish Educational system, one that I know very well because I’m living and working here. I do think a lot of Flemish politicians, teachers and researchers would look a bit puzzled when they read this:

The Flemish Community of Belgium benefits from many of the advantages of school choice, such as a wide variety of pedagogies, which offers real choice for parents, and a strong drive towards quality, through competition between schools. It also suffers from some of the disadvantages of school choice, such as a relatively high level of socio-economic segregation among schools and a strong relationship between family background and learning outcomes. But overall, the education system largely succeeds in limiting inequity and social segregation by implementing some steering and accountability mechanisms that apply to all schools.

Well, the first part in which Schleicher mentions the segregation, that has been at the center of our discussions for quite a while now, but the second part? Well, that will be news for a lot of people (and I don’t think they will agree).

  • Secondly there are a lot of sources missing in the book on what we do know about education. A key element of PISA is that we get at best a view of correlations between policy decisions and possible effects, although we do know that we need other kinds of research to establish causal relations. Schleicher sums up again his list of educational myths dispelled by PISA, forgetting that other studies often showed a more nuanced image to say the least (e.g. when discussing class size). Again Schleicher does mention that maybe other people have said something about it, but he forgets to mention who and what they said.

The book has a feeling of an end of era to me. I don’t know of Andreas Schleicher will be retiring soon, but as the book seems to have some elements of a professional memoir, it sure looks that way. I wished that in that case Schleicher would also have responded to some of the fierce criticisms PISA has received the past few years. Now some parts seem to be more of a self-written liber amicorum as someone mentioned earlier to me.

So, do you need to read this book? The advance praise does say so, and I do think it’s a good starting point to read, but while reading you should bear in mind that PISA can be used as a great source, but never should be the only or prime source.

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Important reports to read: metacognition, the word gap and what teacher trainees need to learn

The past few weeks there were so many interesting reports and studies published that it’s sheer impossible to keep track while teaching. In this post I want to highlight what you really shouldn’t miss.

First there is the report that  Daniel Muijs and Christian Bockhove wrote on metacognition and self-regulated learning for the EEF:

This guidance draws on a review of the evidence about self-regulated learning and metacognition led by Professor Daniel Muijs and Dr Christian Bokhove (University of Southampton). It is not a new study in itself, but rather is intended as an accessible overview of existing research with clear, actionable guidance. More information about the review and the process is at the end of the review. Some key references are included here; for those wishing to explore the subject in more depth, the forthcoming report will contain a more comprehensive reference section.

This is a summary of the more important recommendations:

Next up is this Oxford report on why closing the word gap is crucial. It’s a pretty big report, so if you only have limited time, do read the first part with the overview of the evidence, although the whole report is important. You want to know why, well read this excerpt:

Almost all primary school teachers surveyed by OUP felt that the word gap resulted in weaker comprehension skills and slower than expected progress in reading and writing. Secondary school teachers overwhelmingly stated that a low vocabulary affects a child’s progress through secondary school across a wide range of subjects. The vast majority of those surveyed (86% of primary teachers and 80% of secondary teachers) responded that they thought it was very or extremely challenging for pupils with a limited vocabulary to read national test papers. Consequently, 82% primary teachers and 79% of secondary teachers noted that these pupils are likely to get worse results in national tests.

And also:

Self esteem, behaviour and a child’s ability to make friends were all felt to be negatively affected by low levels of vocabulary.

A third report isn’t actually a report but Daniel Willingham who is making a plea about what teacher trainees should learn about educational psychology.  You can check:

This abstract from the article in Mind, Brain, Education summarizes the main idea:

Although most teacher education programs include instruction in the basic science of psychology, practicing teachers report that this preparation has low utility. Researchers have considered what sort of information from psychology about children’s thinking, emotion, and motivation would be useful for teachers’ practice. Here, I take a different tack. I begin by considering three varieties of statements in basic science: empirical observations, theoretical statements, and epistemic assumptions. I suggest that the first of these can support classroom application, but the latter two cannot. I use that conclusion as a starting point for considering the instruction of prospective teachers in psychology.

I for myself am not that sure if I agree with Daniel on this line of thinking, but I do think it’s an important debate to have and therefor well worth the read.

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Believe the scientist or not, it also depends on the quality of the audio

It seems a detail, and actually it is. But the devil is in the details in this case for sure as this new study shows that when people listen to recordings of a scientist presenting their work, the quality of audio has a significant impact on whether people believed what they were hearing. Even worse: this was regardless of who the researcher was or what they were talking about. Blimey!

Little extra information not mentioned in both the press release nor in the abstract:

  • For experiment 1: ninety-seven Amazon Mechanical Turk workers listened and responded to both segments.
  • For experiment 2: Ninety-nine Amazon Mechanical Turk workers listened and responded to both radio segments.

From the press release:

Dr Newman, of the ANU Research School of Psychology, said the results showed when it comes to communicating science, style can triumph over substance.

“When people are assessing the credibility of information, most of the time people are making a judgement based on how something feels,” Dr Newman said.”Our results showed that when the sound quality was poor, the participants thought the researcher wasn’t as intelligent, they didn’t like them as much and found their research less important.”

The study used experiments where people viewed video clips of scientists speaking at conferences. One group of participants heard the recordings in clear high-quality audio, while the other group heard the same recordings with poor-quality audio.

Participants were then asked to evaluate the researchers and their work. Those who listened to the poorer quality audio consistently evaluated the scientists as less intelligent and their research as less important.

In a second experiment, researchers upped the ante and conducted the same experiment using renowned scientists discussing their work on the well-known US Science Friday radio program. This time the recordings included audio of the scientists being introduced with their qualifications and institutional affiliations.”It made no difference,” she said.”As soon as we reduced the audio quality, all of a sudden the scientists and their research lost credibility.”

As with the first experiments, participants thought the research was worse, the scientists were less competent and they also reported finding their work less interesting.

Dr Newman said in a time when genuine science is struggling to be heard above fake news and alternate facts, researchers need to consider not only the content of their messages, but features of the delivery.

“Another recent study showed false information travels six times faster than real information on Twitter,” she said.”Our results show that it’s not just about who you are and what you are saying, it’s about how your work is presented.”

A research paper for the study has been published in the journals Science Communication.

Abstract of the study:

Increasingly, scientific communications are recorded and made available online. While researchers carefully draft the words they use, the quality of the recording is at the mercy of technical staff. Does it make a difference? We presented identical conference talks (Experiment 1) and radio interviews from NPR’s Science Friday (Experiment 2) in high or low audio quality and asked people to evaluate the researcher and the research they presented. Despite identical content, people evaluated the research and researcher less favorably when the audio quality was low, suggesting that audio quality can influence impressions of science.

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A report of the OECD with a plea for more pedagogy in thinking about education, great but…

There is a new report by the OECD called Teachers as Designers of Learning Environments: the Importance of Innovative Pedagogies, and a Teaching In Focus summary that can be read here.

The bottom line is the following:

Identifying clusters of innovative pedagogies is the first step in developing a broad international consensus of pedagogy across the teaching profession. Such a framework needs to start with the argument that teachers are high-level professionals whose professionalism revolves around collaborative pedagogical expertise. To call for a pedagogical framework is to recognise the key role of pedagogy, not to ask policies to dictate the best teaching methods. It is a matter of widening the skills of teachers to promote more interactive, horizontal and caring relationships with students. In focusing on the role of teachers as creative professionals, a framework for pedagogies calls for a form of teaching that retains a deliberate form of lesson planning that promotes student centredness and active participation.

Finally, by starting to think about the relationships of teaching and learning around natural learning inclinations, such as play, creativity, collaboration, and inquiry, the clusters of innovative pedagogies consciously promote the engagement of learners and match the fundamentals of learning to improve the professional competences of teachers.

I know there is often a confusion between didactics and pedagogy, something the authors of the report also are a bit blurry about, but in this report there is another mistake being made imho. This report is not a plea for more pedagogy in education – which I think would have been correct – but for more of a certain vision of pedagogy in education. If you read the recent work by Biesta or Furedi, one could think that present discussion in thinking about pedagogy are already a bit further than the Rousseau-influence one still can taste in this report (I wrote an academic paper on this new line of thinking, but sadly enough I wrote it in Dutch). Recently Simons and Masschelein wrote a book (again in Dutch, I did try to convince my publisher to translate the book into English) in which they looked at what student- or pupil-centered actually means and they end up with much more questions.

But there is more. Again in my personal opinion, I do think that pedagogy and pedagogical innovations shouldn’t be blind for insights from didactical – evidence-informed – and cognitive psychological or epistemological research – the distinction between primary and secondary learning processes – , or even research by the OECD themselves showing that inquiry based learning does have issues.

I know there seems to be a polarization – again – in thinking about education, but everybody who thinks that it is centered around two poles, is making a mistake. E.g. an author such as Biesta has questioned both PISA and the OECD as evidence-based education that has been adapted by people who are at least regarded by some as more conservative. I do think there is an interesting but broad field of thinking about education, and while I’m certainly pro evidence-informed, I also see the need for relationship and subscribe the importance of thinking about the why of education.  That’s why I do think this report is too one-dimensional in its approach. Btw, I also read the working paper related to this report and blimey couldn’t find a Hattie, Biesta, or other Furedis being mentioned at all. They do refer to a lot of work on ICT in education.

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Are multi-age classes a bad idea for our youngest children?

My wife discussed this new study past weekend with me and it’s quite fascinating. To be clear: the title of this post is something the researchers Ansari and Pianta published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly don’t actually state in their paper, but based on their research it is a question one could ask.

What is their research in brief:

  • This study examined heterogeneity in treatment effects of a coaching intervention.
  • We focus on the classroom age diversity as a potential moderator of treatment.
  • Coaching effects for children were greatest in classrooms with less age diversity.
  • The intervention had no benefits for children in classrooms with greater age diversity.
  • These differences were attributed largely to the role of classroom instructional quality.

So: coaching teachers to have better results worked, unless there was classroom age diversity? To be clear: this doesn’t say as such that multi-age groups in preschool are a bad idea as such. The study discusses a specific coaching intervention MyTeachingPartner and noticed that the effects of this intervention differed based on the differences in the age-composition of classes. And even if you look a bit closer there are is still one positive effect noticeable for the language (more specific the vocabulary) of four-year olds if they are in the same group as five-year olds, but this seems to be an exception to the rule that on average multi-age groups less good. The only way it can be compensated seems to be when the teachers are well-trained. I wrote compensated, not to have a positive effect. So, to conclude, read this excerpt from the conclusion:

Regardless of the underlying reasons for the lack of MTP impacts for children in age-diverse settings, these aforementioned findings are particularly important in light of emerging studies done in preschool programs that serve children of different ages, which have documented only small associations between classroom quality and children’s school success (e.g., Keys et al., 2013; McCoy et al., 2015; Weiland et al., 2013). That is, one potential explanation for the smaller than expected benefits of classroom quality in the existing literature is the age composition of classrooms, which requires continued empirical attention given the rising number of 3-year-olds attending preschool programs across the country. When taken together, what these results suggest is that PD interventions, including the MTP program, should put greater effort in recognizing the challenges that come with teaching in classrooms with greater age diversity. Considering that the majority of schoolteachers feel ill prepared to provide children with differentiated instruction (Manship, Farber, Smith, & Drummond, 2016), one potential target is helping teachers provide children with learning opportunities that match their needs, interests, and mode of learning. An important first step, however, is developing the tools necessary to measure these practices (for further discussion, see: Burchinal, 2017).

Abstract of the study:

Heterogeneity in treatment effects of MyTeachingPartner (MTP), a professional development coaching intervention focused on improving teacher–student interactions, was examined for 1407 4-year-old preschoolers who were enrolled in classrooms that served children between the ages of 3 and 5. On average, there were no consistent impacts of MTP coaching on children’s school performance, but there was evidence of moderation in treatment effects as a function of classroom age diversity, defined as the proportion of children who were not 4 years of age. MTP coaching improved children’s expressive vocabulary, literacy skills, and inhibitory control in classrooms that served primarily 4-year-olds and were less age diverse. These effects were in large part due to MTP causing improvements in teachers’ instructional support that in turn was more predictive of children’s skills in less age-diverse classrooms. Results also indicated that the nature of age diversity did not matter; a greater number of 3- or 5-year-old classmates equally reduced the benefits of the MTP intervention for 4-year-olds. The sole exception occurred for receptive vocabulary, in which case, MTP was most effective in classrooms with a larger number of older (but not younger) children. Taken together, these results suggest that under the right circumstances, the benefits of professional development that improve early childhood educators’ teaching practices can also translate into benefits for students.


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Looking at the research on screen time (Best Evidence in Brief)

There is a new Best Evidence in Brief and this time I’m picking this study from their overview:

Courtney Nugent and Lauren Supplee from Child Trends have released a research brief on five ways screen time can benefit children and families. The brief looks at guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and links to multiple sources of research on the topic, such as journal articles in the International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction and Infant and Child Development.
The five recommendations are as follows:
  • Certain kinds of digital tools can support family interactions. For example, using video chat (Skype, Facetime, etc.) allows family members to connect with one another when in-person interactions may not be possible.
  • It’s important to support children’s healthy development through co-viewing and co-playing. For example, it is important that parents answer and ask questions about the material they are co-viewing, point out important concepts, and blend the content they are viewing together into their daily lives and routines.
  • Parents can choose high-quality digital content for their child’s viewing. The brief notes that websites like Common Sense Media, PBS Kids, and Sesame Workshop can help parents decide which apps and programs are best for their children.
  • Like physical tools, digital tools can promote school readiness. According to the brief,research suggests that preschoolers can learn best from well-designed e-books with limited distracting features (such as games and sounds), and when parents’ questions focus on the stories themselves rather than the features of the electronic medium (such as pushing buttons).
  • Digital tools can support parent and child togetherness. For example, technology can elicit exciting topics for conversation and encourage family members to spend time with one another.

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Is there really a system 1 and a system 2 in our mind?

A lot of people have read the book by Kahneman Thinking fast and slow, which actually refers to the two thought-systems we as people would have one that is thinking slow, more rationally and one thinking faster, more emotionally driven.

But is this true. A new paper by Melnikoff and Bargh that I found via a tweet by Neuroskeptic collected arguments to say no. Or wait, it’s not really saying it isn’t so, the authors rather try to explain that it ain’t that simple.

I’ll share with you this part of their conclusion which makes it more clear:

We suspect that the response of many researchers when they hear ‘there are not two types of processes’ will be to dismiss the claim out of hand. ‘Of course there are two types of processes. There are unconscious automatic ones, and there are conscious deliberate ones.’ However, we are asking the reader to check their work before accepting the intuitive answer.

Consider this analogy: we say that there are two types of cars, convertibles and hard-tops. No debate there. But now we say: there are two types of cars, automatic and manual transmission. Yes, those are certainly two different types of cars. And still further: there are two types of cars, gasoline and electric motors. Or: foreign and domestic. The point is that all of these are different types of cars. But we all know that there are not just two types of cars overall: convertibles that all have manual transmission, gasoline engines, and are manufactured overseas; and hard-tops that all have automatic transmission, electric engines, and are made in our own country. All around us we see counterexamples, automobiles that are some other combination of these basic features.

So, the issue is not whether mental processes differ on various dimensions – they certainly do. The issue, we argue, is that the degree of alignment between the various dimensions has not been tested. Furthermore, as outlined above, entire swaths of psychological phenomena are characterized by misalignments of these dimensions. Perhaps more troubling, the underlying dimensions themselves lack internal consistency – a problem that, if irremediable, is absolutely fatal to the dual-process typology.

It is time that we as a field come to terms with these issues. With institutions like the World Bank and Institute of Medicine now endorsing our highly speculative and frequently misleading typology, we cannot afford to wait. Luckily, the solution is straightforward: researchers should rigorously explore each feature of a given process one by one, without making assumptions or drawing conclusions about other features that are not being studied. For too long the dual-process typology has obscured the rich diversity of the human mind. Let us embrace that diversity instead.

Abstract of the paper:

It is often said that there are two types of psychological processes: one that is intentional, controllable, conscious, and inefficient, and another that is unintentional, uncontrollable, unconscious, and efficient. Yet, there have been persistent and increasing objections to this widely influential dual-process typology. Critics point out that the ‘two types’ framework lacks empirical support, contradicts well-established findings, and is internally incoherent. Moreover, the untested and untenable assumption that psychological phenomena can be partitioned into two types, we argue, has the consequence of systematically thwarting scientific progress. It is time that we as a field come to terms with these issues. In short, the dual-process typology is a convenient and seductive myth, and we think cognitive science can do better.


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A new study on learning styles and guess what?

It’s not really the test that Pashler et al suggested, but still. Well, just read the abstract:

The concept and existence of learning styles has been fraught with controversy, and recent studies have thrown their existence into doubt. Yet, many students still hold to the conventional wisdom that learning styles are legitimate, and may adapt their outside of class study strategies to match these learning styles. Thus, this study aims to assess if undergraduate anatomy students are more likely to utilize study strategies that align with their hypothetical learning styles (using the VARK analysis from Fleming and Mills, 1992, Improve Acad. 11:137–155) and, if so, does this alignment correlate with their outcome in an anatomy course. Relatedly, this study examines whether students’ VARK learning styles are correlated with course outcomes regardless of the students’ study strategies, and whether any study strategies are correlated with course outcomes, regardless of student‐specific VARK results. A total of 426 anatomy students from the 2015 and 2016 Fall semesters completed a study strategies survey and an online VARK questionnaire. Results demonstrated that most students did not report study strategies that correlated with their VARK assessment, and that student performance in anatomy was not correlated with their score in any VARK categories. Rather, some specific study strategies (irrespective of VARK results), such as use of the virtual microscope, were found to be positively correlated with final class grade. However, the alignment of these study strategies with VARK results had no correlation with anatomy course outcomes. Thus, this research provides further evidence that the conventional wisdom about learning styles should be rejected by educators and students alike.

Oh, the title of the study by Polly R. Husmann and Valerie Dean O’Loughlin: Another nail in the coffin for learning styles? Disparities among undergraduate anatomy students’ study strategies, class performance, and reported VARK learning styles


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