Monday, 21 July 2008

Researching at the right level

Clive Shepherd's post on brain based learning led me indirectly to Professor Daniel Willingham's Brain-based learning: fad or breakthrough? I thought this was a brilliant little video which neatly articulated something I have been thinking about for a couple of years. His point is that the results of brain science are at a different level to actual practice in the classroom and that it is very hard to link results at one level to practice at another. I may know how the hippocampus works in incredible detail, but it is very hard to relate that to a lesson plan, not impossible but extremely hard. I absolutely buy that for brain science but I would extend to a lot of cognitive psychology.

Take, for example, the research on giving feedback as summarised in this excellent report from Will Thalheimer. It refers to several studies which purport to illustrate that negative feedback for learners (correcting errors) is more important than positive feedback (pointing out successes). This is typically proven by providing learners with a limited, constrained, task such as reading a passage and then being presented with multiple choice questions about the content. The learners are split into groups and given types of feedback and then retested. My response to research of this nature is "so what?". It is not just that the task is not realistic – that is the inevitable result of trying to produce quantitative repeatable results in psychology. But it is at the wrong level. In a real learning situation there are so many other things going on that this kind of result is irrelevant. Learners need both negative and positive feedback. Learners have to know if they have made and error, and what that error is, or they will continue to make the error. But they also need the confidence and motivation that comes from recognising their success. In a real context it is daft to ask if one is more important than the other. It depends so much on the situation. Is it a difficult but motivating subject matter or trivial and potentially boring? How is the feedback being given? It can take so many forms: a teacher marking a piece of work, a "well done" to an answer in class, a solution to a problem in a piece of e-learning, an experiment that succeeds or fails.