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Bridging the Gap: Bringing the Science of Learning to Teacher Professional Learning

by Steve Saville and Rebecca Thomas

Nothing About Us Without Us

Currently, the future of teacher professional development appears to be centered on the Science of Learning. Educators, researchers, psychologists, and even artificial intelligence have made significant strides in understanding how learning happens. These insights are incredibly valuable, but they often fall short when applied to the diverse and complex realities of our classrooms. As we all know before any research actually enhances learning, it needs to be translated by teachers and filtered through the lived reality of the classroom.

Only teachers can do this. and only listening to teachers will achieve this.

The question then, is not whether the Science of Learning is right, wrong, common sense, or nonsense, the question is how do we empower teachers so that they can ‘own’ the research in a way that works for them and their context and therefore have a positive effect on the learning experiences of their students?

To put it succinctly, the Science of Learning way may give us the ‘Why’ and the ‘What' but only teachers can provide the 'How’. 

The question above highlights the need for a balance between scientific understanding and the art of teaching, recognising that effective education must adapt to the specific needs and environments of our learners.

The question then arises: how can science support teachers in facilitating learning within their unique country, demographic, cohort, and context?

Motivated by this inquiry and inspired by Derek Wenmoth’s recent post urging us to focus our energies on actionable solutions rather than insurmountable challenges, ELV began exploring the actions we can take to bridge this gap. We turned to LinkedIn and found Dr. Shaun Hawthorne's post titled "Applying the Science of Learning to Teacher Professional Development and Back Again: Lessons from 3 Country Contexts."

This report offered profound insights, resonating deeply with ELV's mission since its post-COVID inception; focussing on bridging the gap between research and classroom practice. ELV has always, and continues to, advocate for a bidirectional loop between research and practice.

The report acknowledges what lies beneath the surface; a gap in the science of learning research.

Part of the research compared intended learning goals across different ages and country contexts while also investigating the pedagogies supporting those goals. By trailing the same task across a broad range of countries it was able to monitor how the Science of Learning was implemented in different contexts. The researchers discovered that despite the variations in training, and politics across the three countries, it remained universal that teachers used autonomy to select important learning goals, determine their own teaching methods, and evaluate their success. This highlights that teaching as a craft is autonomous and flexible in its methodology, evaluation and judgment. While incorporating scientific and standardised elements, fundamentally teaching relies on individual choices, creative methods, and personal evaluations, aligning more with the nature of art than science.

The immediate relevance for us here in Aotearoa is that we score very highly in the some aspects of the PISA test results, that are so often used by some, to indicate how poorly we are performing.  We are, apparently, very good at developing curiosity and creativity within our students, so surely we should be harnessing this as one of the most important vehicles we have to make the Science of Learning real. Develop what we are good at to lift up what we need to improve. Enhance our ‘art’ as the vehicle to develop the ‘science’.

Another worthwhile factor in this study was a new discovery that the science of learning needs to explore further how humans make meaningful learning. Hirsh-Pasek, Zosh, and colleagues identified key approaches to support deep learning and retention: engagement, iteration, social interaction, meaningful content, and joy. Factors we need to be mindful of in our delivery of pedagogy and PLD moving forward.

What we also felt relevant for our unique circumstances here in Aotearoa was that the report emphasises the need for a deliberate attempt to be mindful of the cultural Science of Learning lens, emphasising the importance of Te Mātaiaho’s vision and a Tangata Tiriti perspective in examining educational outcomes in our context here.

A key takeaway from the report is the challenge of translating scientific findings and theories into practical applications for teachers. Context is crucial, and high-stakes testing and power structures often leave teachers vulnerable. For instance, Uganda’s use of guided play as a pedagogy in this report, amplified by the support by national standards in Uganda for guided play had an impact on the results of the study undertaken there; this contrasts with the focus on iterative experiences in classrooms in Bangladesh and Colombia. If we don’t ensure the knowledge of context that teachers have is not given  an equal seat at the table then there is a risk of the whole process becoming a unidirectional ‘doing to’ rather than a looped ’doing with’. We run the risk, once again, of the related PLD being one dimensional, superficial and rushed and therefore doomed to be misunderstood and haphazardly implemented.

The conclusion is clear: a one-size-fits-all approach to training or professional development won't meet educators' needs. Personalisation is essential, centering the experiences of teachers and students within the specific educational landscape of each country, including politics, bias, teacher shortages, inequality, workloads, access to PLD, and retention. The science of learning will only succeed in partnership with the lived realities of teachers.

Or to put it another way, ‘nothing about us without us.’

Too often, professional development is a one-way street where research findings are handed down to teachers without considering their real-world contexts. This typical approach is illustrated below ‘The Norm’.

The external force (PLD approach) applied to a school has a chance to be implemented or ignored at leadership level. If it is passed down the food chain and it isn't filtered in a context relevant to the individual user it doesn't have ownership and just gets buried. If it is filtered in a feedback loop and responsive to needs and individuals it can be empowering. 

What if the reason we aren't implementing research or making changes in our classrooms with fidelity isn't just about the leadership teams or the systems and structures within a school? 

What if the reason for disparity gaps not being closed isn't solely due to the relationship with our students? 

What if it's also about how professional learning is delivered and transmitted in the first place - the way the external force is applied?

Recent findings from these eight researchers across the globe, drawn from a range of countries that don't rely on Eurocentric philosophies, connected some important dots for us.

There's growing concern that not all science of learning philosophies align with indigenous and non-Eurocentric ways of learning. 

There’s a worry that applying some science of learning principles might conflict with our own curriculum's whakapapa. 

However, this recent research, spanning a broad range of countries, revealed a common denominator with our context here in New Zealand—a context that builds on our bicultural nation and resonates deeply with us:

''it is critical that educator voices are included so that these theories have real-world validity.''

ELV’s philosophy has always advocated for integrating teacher voices into the professional learning process. This approach requires time and courage, but ensures that professional learning is not only based on solid evidence, but also tailored to meet the specific needs of educators. This collaborative approach creates a positive feedback loop where teachers feel valued and engaged, fostering a culture of continuous improvement and joy in learning.

This is why we named our website "Engaging Learning Voices" back in 2021 (admittedly ELV does run off the tongue easier). At that period in time the pandemic taught us that for research to be impactful, it must be delivered with ako, a reciprocal process starting with teachers' experiences in partnership with the research.

Incorporating playful learning (care) and joy into the culture of teacher professional development isn't just a nice-to-have; this recent research now indicates its an essential component for success and deep learning. As educators, when we experience the joy of learning ourselves, we are better equipped to bring that joy into our classrooms.

While some in the educational contexts may use the science of learning to make their approaches more appealing, or to underscore and justify their position, this isn’t our aim here. We are merely highlighting a way forward for the educational community to remain hopeful. In the coming months, as we feel frustrated about the lack of control and voice over issues from Wellington, we should ask ourselves: what do we have control and power over?

We believe that by examining how professional learning is delivered, including how research is unpacked to match our reality and context, we can make our new understanding powerful for our learners and enable our educational community to thrive.

Our voices are our power.

And the silver lining in this darkness is that joy, fun, and play are key to making this change impactful. This is an excellent reason to be cheerful, don’t you think?

Moving Forward

Let’s build this bridge between research and practice.

We know professional learning will be integral to the changes ahead and will be provided by people from all walks of our educational landscape. ELV would like to offer educators the chance to connect with us during the next school holidays to attend a webinar on how we can make teacher professional learning more effective and share insights into applying the science of learning principles to our own professional development.

You can attend as a professional learning provider to ensure that whatever structured literacy or science of learning principles you share will have maximum impact. Or, you can attend as a school leader committed to empowering your teachers and middle leaders; making future staff meetings more engaging and fun, and embedding science of learning principles that empower and motivate your staff based on their realities.

There are 25 places available for this event. We look forward to a groundbreaking conversation soon.

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