New research on technology integration in the classroom

Dr Jennifer Morrison and colleagues from the Center for Research and Reform in Education (CRRE) are evaluating a technology-integration initiative for Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland, US, called Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (S.T.A.T.). The initiative began in the 2014-15 school year with 10 pilot elementary (primary) schools and has since expanded to all elementary schools, middle schools and selected high schools. CRRE is conducting a mixed-methods evaluation of the initiative, including classroom observations, interviews, focus groups, surveys and an examination of pupil achievement data. The evaluation is taking place over five years.

CRRE recently completed the third year of the evaluation, and results revealed continuing changes in teacher practice, perceptions of increased pupil engagement and positive trends in achievement for pupils in grades 3 to 5 (Years 4 to 6).

In a previous edition of Best Evidence in Brief, we reported on a review of the research literature on the infusion of technology into the school curriculum, also completed by CRRE. Multiple studies in that review reported higher engagement of pupils with their coursework when involved in one-to-one laptop programmes, which produced two key benefits: a development of a deeper level of understanding and an increase in pupil achievement. However, our researchers pointed out that, “Just as buying a professional-looking mixer will not make you a better cook, technology alone will not make pupil learning better. If the teacher, though, introduces new methods of teaching requiring different uses of a computer rather than to simply present information, then we are likely to see an improvement in learning”.

Source: Students and teachers accessing tomorrow – year three evaluation report (September 2017), Center for Research and Reform in Education

Project-based learning

A working paper from MDRC builds on and updates a literature review of project-based learning (PBL) published in 2000. Focused primarily on articles and studies that have emerged in the last 17 years, the working paper discusses the principles of PBL, how PBL has been used in K–12 (Year 1–13) settings, the challenges teachers face in implementing it, how school and local factors influence its implementation and what is known about its effectiveness in improving learning outcomes.

The report suggests that the evidence for PBL’s effectiveness in improving pupil outcomes is “promising, but not proven”.  The biggest challenge to evaluating the effectiveness of PBL, the researchers suggest, is a lack of consensus about the design of PBL and how it fits in with other teaching methods. Some studies have found positive effects associated with the use of PBL. However, without a clear vision of what a PBL approach should look like, it is difficult for teachers and schools to assess the quality of their own implementation and know how to improve their approach. They also suggest that PBL implementation is particularly challenging because it changes pupil–teacher interactions and requires a shift from teacher-directed to pupil-directed inquiry and requires non-traditional methods of assessment.

The paper concludes with recommendations for advancing the PBL research literature in ways that will improve PBL knowledge and practice.

Source: Project-Based Learning: a literature review (October 2017), A MDRC Working Paper

Poor literacy skills hold poorer pupils back in science

A report, published by the Education Endowment Foundation and the Royal Society, has reviewed existing studies to identify interventions and teaching approaches that have a positive impact on pupil learning in science, particularly for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The researchers from the University of Oxford analysed data in the National Pupil Database in England to measure the extent of the gap in the performance between economically disadvantaged pupils and pupils from higher socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds on national science tests. This analysis confirmed that disadvantaged pupils (pupils who have been entitled to free school meals at least once in the last six years) had much lower scores and made poorer progress in science, at every stage of their school career, than pupils from higher SES backgrounds. The gap, they suggest, first becomes apparent at Key Stage 1 (ages 5–7) and only gets wider throughout primary and secondary school. The gap for science is as wide as it is in English and maths, and grows particularly strongly between the ages of 5–7 and 11–16.

The study also found that the strongest factor affecting pupils’ science scores was how well they understood written texts. According to the report, poor literacy skills affect how well a pupil is able to understand scientific vocabulary and to prepare scientific reports. This suggests that strategies to boost disadvantaged pupils’ reading comprehension could have a positive impact on their achievement in science too. The authors write: “In correlational studies of science learning, the strongest and most consistent predictor of pupils’ scientific attainment has undoubtedly been how literate they are”. They add that there is a “strong relationship” between pupils’ socioeconomic status and their literacy.

A study, which we covered in a previous edition of Best Evidence in Brief, found a similar relationship between literacy and science achievement gaps for pupils in US elementary and middle schools.

Source: Review of SES and science learning in formal educational settings: A report prepared for the EEF and the Royal Society (September 2017), Education Endowment Foundation and Royal Society

What difference does it make?

We regularly quote effect sizes in Best Evidence in Brief as a measure of the impact of an intervention or approach. But what is the impact of a normal school year on children, and how much of that impact is due to the school? A study by Hans Lutyen and colleagues, published in School Effectiveness and School Improvement, attempts to find out.

The study analysed 3,500 pupils from 20 mostly independent (private) English primary schools on four different learning outcomes. These measures, part of the Interactive Computer Adaptive System (InCAS), were reading, general maths, mental arithmetic and developed ability, the last of which measures items such as vocabulary and non-verbal pattern recognition.

Children were measured on these outcomes from Years 1 to 6. Using a regression-discontinuity approach that exploited the discontinuity between the youngest pupils in one year and the oldest pupils in the year below, the researchers were able to identify the overall progress of the children, and the extent to which this was a result of the impact of the school.

The results showed a declining impact of a school year as children got older. The effect size of Year 1 ranged from +1.18 for mental arithmetic to +0.8 for general maths. By Year 6, effect sizes varied from +0.88 for general maths to +0.49 for reading and developed ability.

The effect of schooling itself accounted for an average of between 23.5% and 43.4% of this impact across the four measures. Put another way, the effect size of schooling in Year 1 ranged from +0.55 for reading to +0.31 for developed ability. By Year 6, effect sizes had fallen to between +0.27 for general maths and +0.08 for reading and developed ability.

The researchers suggest that, when setting benchmarks for educational interventions, it is not only important to consider the phase of the educational career, but also the specific measure.

Source: The contribution of schooling to learning gains of pupils in Years 1 to 6 (February 2017), School Effectiveness and School Improvement

Impact of secondary school mindfulness programmes

Catherine Johnson and colleagues carried out a randomised controlled evaluation of a secondary school mindfulness programme (called “.b mindfulness” for “Stop, Breathe and Be!”) to measure impact on self-reported measures of anxiety, depression, weight/shape concerns, well-being and mindfulness.

Five hundred and fifty-five pupils in four secondary schools in South Australia participated (mean age = 13.44 years). Pupils were assigned using a cluster (class-based) randomised controlled design to one of three conditions: the nine-week mindfulness curriculum, the nine-week mindfulness curriculum with parental involvement, or a control (business-as-usual) curriculum.

The evaluation found no differences between the mindfulness groups with or without parental involvement and the control group at post-intervention or at the six- and twelve-month follow-up. The researchers conclude that further research is required to identify the optimal age, content, and length of programmes delivering mindfulness to teenagers.

Source: A randomized controlled evaluation of a secondary school mindfulness program for early adolescents: Do we have the recipe right yet? (September 2017), Behaviour Research and Therapy, Vol 99

Children with reading difficulties may have undiagnosed hearing problems

A report published by the Nuffield Foundation, which compared a group of children with dyslexia to children with a history of repeated ear infections (otitis media with effusion, OME) to see if there were any similarities in their phonological and literacy difficulties, has found that their difficulties may be due in part to undiagnosed hearing problems.

Julia Carroll and Helen Breadmore compared a group of 36 children with dyslexia to 29 children with OME, and also to control groups of typically developing children of the same age and groups of younger children at the same reading level. This made a total sample size of 195 children, ages 8 to 10, from 20 schools in the UK. All of the children completed a series of tests to establish their reading and writing skills and also their phonological skills (ability to manipulate speech sounds) and morphological skills (knowledge of grammatical word structure). Eighteen months later, the children’s reading, spelling and phonological awareness was re-tested, and a hearing screening conducted.

The results showed that the children with dyslexia had different patterns of literacy difficulties than children with OME, although there were some overlaps. The children with dyslexia showed difficulties with both phonological and morphological skills, whereas children with OME had difficulties only on phonological tasks. Both dyslexic children and children with OME had lower levels of reading than the age-matched control children.

The results from the hearing screening eighteen months later found that 9 of the 36 children with dyslexia had mild or moderate hearing impairments, of which their parents and teachers were unaware. The researchers suggest, therefore, that children with reading difficulties should be screened for hearing problems so that they are able to receive more structured support that could help them improve their literacy skills.

Source: Morphological processing in children with phonological difficulties (October 2017), Coventry University and University of Warwick Briefing Paper for The Nuffield Foundation