Mike Bell taught science in a state secondary school and then ran the Evidence-Based Teachers Network (EBTN). He has run successful training courses on evidence-based methods in dozens of UK schools and Further Education colleges. [Bio taken from the book]. You can follow Mike on Twitter: @EvidenceTeach
What is your teaching background?
I was teaching science in an ordinary secondary school here in the UK. I was a mature entrant to the teaching profession and had been used to running my own business, so always wanted to know not only what we were doing, but also why we were doing them.
I had an existing friendship with Prof Michael Shayer and Denise Ginsburg who were involved with a large-scale educational research in ‘cognitive acceleration’. They wanted to find ways to help students understand the more difficult, abstract parts of the curriculum.
From them I learned about control trails, effect sizes and some of the other components of a research project which were needed to give reliable results. Also that there were sometimes cognitive reasons that the student did not understand what I was teaching. It wasn’t simply that they were not listening or not trying.
This led me to be more interested to find out what other high-quality evidence was available in education. I found it odd that my fellow science teachers did not seem to apply the scientific method to deciding whether a particular policy or teaching method would be effective.
My breakthrough came in finding Geoff Petty’s book ‘Evidence Based Teaching’ (1). Here was what I was looking for. He had used Marzano’s ‘Classroom Instruction that Works’ and Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning’ lists (and some other sources) to create a teacher’s handbook. I got in contact with Geoff, met up with him and attended one of his teacher-training sessions. I was hooked.
Geoff’s book was so successful that in 2010, he had so many requests for training sessions, that he passed some over to me. It was a fast learning curve.
How did you get involved with the Evidence-Based Teacher Network (EBTN)?
There was a lot of enthusiasm at the training sessions from teachers, but we knew that, within a few weeks, most of the material from the sessions would be forgotten as teachers have busy jobs and are often not given the chance to practice the methods. I started putting a sheet out at the end of the session for people to sign up for a regular newsletter. I soon had 400. I created the EBTN website around 2012 and included a sign-up form for the newsletter and promoted it with email shots to UK schools. It reached 7500 at one point. We sent out a mailing twice a term with short items (with links for more information) about effective methods to try and myths and ineffective methods to avoid. We ran a training sessions in UK further Education colleges and schools. As the funding for education got tighter and tighter, the number of training sessions slowed.
You have a new book, “The Fundamentals of Teaching” (2). Can you give us a short summary?
In the training sessions we used evidence from different research-reviews. However, I realised that this created some confusion: which list should we use? Which method should I choose to focus on?
When we compared the lists from Hattie, Marzano and the UK EEF (Education Endowment Foundation) we found that, although the lists looked different, the same methods were appearing. By cross-referencing, we came up with a shorter ‘common ground’ list.
We were then presented with the problem of how to present the list. Should we simply list it in order of effectiveness? We chose to list them in the order a teacher may use them when teaching a topic. From this we ended up with a five-step process: Prior Knowledge, Presentation, Challenge, Feedback and Repetition.
We then looked at two major research-reviews from educational psychology, Rosenshine’s Principles (3) and one from the National Center for Education Research (4). To our surprise we found that nearly all the elements in these lists were already on our ‘common ground’ list. This gave us confidence that there really is a consensus emerging in education among those who look at evidence.
In parallel I had become interested in the neuroscience of learning and became convinced that any understanding of the learning process had to have neuroscience foundations. It seems unlikely that we could have a general understanding of how memories are formed in the classroom without understanding, in broad terms, how memories are formed in the brain. This turned out to be an area of controversy – some eminent educationalists claiming that neuroscience could never tell us how to teach.
However, I realised that it is possible to use neuroscience to explain why a method is effective without falling into that trap. We cannot get away from the limits to working memory or the need for spaced repetition to secure long-term memories, for example.
What kinds of evidence did you base your five-step model on?
So the book is based on three types of evidence: research from classroom experiments and cognitive psychology both explained with educational neuroscience. This amounts to a general theory of learning as we can use it to explain how learning happens, why some students struggle, how to improve the learning of almost any student, why the effective methods work and what to avoid. It can therefore show us how best to allocate resources of time and money in a school or college to maximise learning.
The five-step model has several benefits. It can simply be a way to arrange the effective methods to help a teacher decide which one to try. However, it also shows that it is not so much the individual methods which are important, but that we give the students the chance to be taken through this learning cycle. From the brain’s perspective, the five-steps are not just a helpful teacher-guide, that are a description of the process by which long-term memories are formed in the brain.
I hope teachers will find the book useful.. During our training sessions teachers often told me: “Now I know why it works I’m much more likely to try it.”