Category Archives: Research Insights

The complexity of memory

As deeply committed as we are to curiosity here at McREL, we recognize that in the absence of knowledge, curiosity wouldn’t do anybody much good. That’s why we’ve also been doing some digging into the nature of memory, hoping to guide teachers toward practices that maximize the acquisition and retention of knowledge.

As explored more deeply in our recent white paper, Student Learning That Works: How Brain Science Informs a Student Learning Model, the human brain works quite hard to help us filter out and forget extraneous information. This probably made good sense in the hunt-or-be-hunted days, but in the information age, forgetting is not a recipe for success.

Fortunately, once teachers know the stages of memory—and what happens between them—they can use some clever workarounds to help students strengthen recall. Essentially, we need to trick our brains into forgetting to forget.

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Curious minds are inquiring: How does curiosity add to McREL’s body of work?

Have you noticed the word “curiosity” appearing in the titles of more and more McREL publications, resources, and services? We have a good reason for that. We’ve been excited to share our Curiosity Works™ approach to school improvement and innovation with teachers and school leaders, many of whom are already familiar with our other bodies of research-based knowledge, such as Classroom Instruction That Works® and Balanced Leadership®. Some of these educators have asked if Curiosity Works supplants these resources. It doesn’t. To the contrary, Curiosity Works brings a new degree of focus, and perhaps some new vocabulary, to McREL’s existing resources that are still as relevant and effective as ever.

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A brief introduction to curiosity

What makes you, or your students, curious about a particular topic?

And have you ever been curious about curiosity itself? What is it, exactly? What triggers it? How can we best use curiosity in teaching and learning? Can it be encouraged (or discouraged), harnessed, and strengthened (or weakened)?

These questions, and more, have captured our interest here at McREL, and have driven us to review research studies and academic publications, and talk with educators in the U.S., Australia, and elsewhere about the use of curiosity in instructional planning and delivery, and its effects on students and adult learners. We’ve been so intrigued by what we’ve learned that, in addition to incorporating our findings into our peer-to-peer coaching work with educators, we’ve written several books recently about the power of curiosity, including Curiosity Works, Unstuck, and, due out in September, Out of Curiosity: Restoring the Power of Hungry Minds for Better Schools, Workplaces, and Lives.

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School culture: Secret sauce or missing ingredient?

Frustratingly for practitioners, research often tell us what a phenomenon is, but not why it came to be that way. And that can strand us without an answer to the most important question: How should we manipulate inputs to achieve the outputs we desire?

So it is with school culture. In his column for the March edition of ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine, McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin recounts how a conversation with a principal caused him to reexamine his long-held stance that school culture is the “secret sauce” of high-performing schools. The problem for that principal, Bryan writes, was the difficulty of teasing apart correlation from causation. Does a strong, healthy school culture cause high performance? Or might it be the other way around?

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The measurement gap: Advocating for a new generation of assessments

By now it’s a commonplace observation that academic success alone isn’t generally adequate to ensure success in college and career. Without minimizing the importance of academic skills, it’s also important to recognize that personality traits like intrinsic motivation, persistence, resilience, and curiosity play a huge role in how far students ultimately advance. Yet, because academic skills are relatively easy to test for, that’s what schools keep measuring—and thus what society seems to keep valuing, potentially depriving students of meaningful growth and learning opportunities.

McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin uses his Research Matters column in ASCD’s February 2018 Educational Leadership magazine to advocate for expanding student assessments to develop a fuller understanding of the causes of success.

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“Specials” may help traumatized students succeed in academics

Some of the best-known therapeutic techniques for people suffering the after-effects of trauma include art therapy, music therapy, and exercise. Sound familiar? These also happen to be the “specials” that we sometimes think of as distinct from academics. However, for traumatized students who have trouble concentrating, they could hold the key to accessing learning throughout the school day, McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin proposes in the December 2017 issue of Educational Leadership magazine.

Goodwin recalls that it’s been 20 years since the director of a popular weight-loss program revolutionized our understanding of the long-lasting impact of emotional trauma by observing that nearly half his patients had experienced such difficulties in childhood as being abused, witnessing domestic violence, or having an incarcerated parent. Perhaps these “adverse childhood experiences” contributed to their overeating—and other risky behaviors—as adults.

Brain research has supported this proposition, uncovering brain abnormalities that would make it hard to regulate emotion and concentration—and thus make it hard to learn—in people suffering from chronic stress or post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Can compassion cure indifference?

Research suggests that the level of incivility in the U.S. is rising. As we publicly battle out our issues in every arena—on our roads, in schools, on social media, in the check-out lane—we’re exhausting our collective ability to empathize with each other. In his latest column in ASCD’s Educational Leadership, McREL’s CEO and president Bryan Goodwin looks at the research and wonders why the shift away from empathy began, and how, as educators, we might help reverse this trend.

Empathy is feeling with another; compassion is feeling for another. Either would lead us to behave ethically toward the people around us. But, to social scientists and brain researchers, they differ in a crucial way: Compassion can be taught and better sustained than empathy.

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Supporting student creativity, perseverance, and risk-taking (the good kind)—(Infographic)

When I was five, I saw my sisters riding their bikes and thought it looked fun, so I decided I would learn, too. I got on a bike, toppled over, and skinned my knee. My grandpa, who was watching nearby, helped me up, gave me a little hug with some advice on how to keep my balance, and told me I needed to try again. I got back on, determined to conquer the bike, and started pedaling. I could hear my grandpa behind me, encouraging me and telling me to keep pedaling.

Eventually, with my grandpa’s encouragement, I learned to ride a bike. Without that support, I may have given up, feeling defeated and a bit wounded. Students can feel the same way in the classroom when they don’t feel supported, encouraged, and safe.

Being supportive is one of three key characteristics of effective teachers, along with being intentional and being demanding, that are discussed in McREL’s The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching. Being supportive means that a teacher interacts with students and encourages growth in a trusting, nurturing environment.

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The power of parental expectations is expressed in everyday messages

The importance of parent involvement may be obvious. How schools should harness it remains a bit of a mystery.

In his September Research Matters column for ASCD’s Educational Leadership, McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin observes that research shows home environment heavily influences student achievement.

But what about home environment and parental involvement has the most influence? Nagging kids to do homework? Showing an interest in school? Getting involved with extracurricular activities?

These tactics may be good for parent-child relationships, but none of them makes much difference in student achievement, Goodwin writes. The unsettling consequence? “[M]any schools’ parent involvement efforts may miss the mark.” These include such commonplace requests as checking homework or attending school events.

The thing about home that does have the power to boost achievement, Goodwin stresses, is “parental communication of high expectations.” Such expectations may be transmitted quietly, but they work—perhaps because young people internalize them and convert them into their own expectations for themselves.

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Teachers in Triad Teams: Three is not a crowd

Intense focus on accountability and teacher effectiveness in recent years has expanded the thinking around instructional coaching. While instructional coaching occurs at nearly every school, the purpose of coaching and the formats used vary widely among schools. It’s not surprising that such variety exists given that, while research suggests coaching supports the success of improvement initiatives (Hubbard, Mehan, & Stein, 2006; Stein & D’Amico, 2002), little evidence exists that explains how it happens.

What we do know, from researchers like Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers (2002), is that the most effective professional learning for teachers includes a combination of different types of learning opportunities: introduction of research and theory; demonstration of new practices; opportunities to apply new knowledge through deliberate practice; and instructional coaching that includes ongoing, descriptive feedback. Of these, Joyce and Showers found coaching was the one learning opportunity that had to be present for teachers to translate new knowledge and skills into their practice.

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