Perspectives on tomorrow's education research from teachers and researchers

Closing the gap between science and practice in education: From metaphorical bridges to concrete common ground
Matt Slocombe and Derek Bell

Much has been said about the gulf between research and practice in education. None more so than the gap between our understanding of learning from the cognitive sciences and the needs of teachers and policymakers in education. Discussion of the latter is often characterised through the evocation of fabled metaphorical bridges. Some say that we need to build bridges in order to span the research and practice divide. Others, taking a more critical view, describe the divide as a bridge too far and impossible to cross. Rather than attempting to span the gap with metaphorical bridges, we believe we should focus on building common ground – spaces where researchers and teachers can co-exist, work together and learn about each other’s expertise, goals and needs. The Learnus blog aims to contribute to building this common ground by providing a space where teachers and researchers can share their unique perspectives on learning, explore ideas, and generate potential solutions. In this introductory post, we describe the idea behind the blog and provide guidelines on how you can contribute.

Spend time speaking with teachers and cognitive scientists, and the depth of knowledge and expertise they bring to our understanding of learning quickly becomes apparent. Teachers have experience of guiding thousands of children through their educational journeys; years of building an implicit and explicit understanding of how learning takes place in the highly varied social dynamics of a school classroom. The richness and complexity of this knowledge is mostly off-limits to cognitive scientists who understand learning from a very different perspective – a perspective that focuses on understanding how the mechanisms of learning that form our minds work. Whilst cognitive science has made great strides forward in elucidating how these mechanisms work, it is an understanding that is all too often divorced from the complex dynamics of the classroom. And here lies the gap: on the one hand, teachers understand the broader picture of how learning happens in the social context, but less so the fine-grained cognitive mechanics. On the other hand, cognitive scientists understand the fine-grained mechanics, but less so the broader picture. What can we do to integrate these different perspectives on learning?

Many exciting initiatives are already working to develop links between basic science and educational practice, including research reviews, collaborative projects, conferences, and research schools. However, there is still much to do. If cognitive scientists could better understand what their perspective on learning looks in the classroom, more of their findings could usefully inform education. Equally, if teachers could share their questions and expertise about learning with researchers, the latter would produce research more relevant for education. By engaging in dialogue and working together, the two communities could provide evidence and insights that bring practical benefits to teachers and children.

To move forward in this view, we argue that several areas need to be developed further. Crucially, researchers and teachers need to better understand each other’s expertise and experience: What is important to education? What are researchers capable of discovering? What can we learn from each other’s perspectives? From these discussions, specific shared goals can be developed that orientate and guide collaborative initiatives. Perhaps most importantly, we need to build the infrastructure and projects that foster robust and sustainable interdisciplinary networks of research and practice. More than a bridge, this is a common ground where teachers and researchers work together to develop a shared understanding of learning for the benefit of education.

As a contribution to this endeavour, the Learnus Blog aims to facilitate interdisciplinary conversations and stimulate new ideas. We will be publishing blogs from both teachers and researchers, and we would like to hear your views and questions. From teachers, we want to know where you would like to see research taking place in education? What would you like to know more about or have more guidance on? What are the issues you face in the classroom? Do you have any ideas that need testing? From researchers, we want to know where you think the research is heading? What can we expect from science in the forthcoming years? How do you think it could link to educational practice? We will be publishing our first posts shortly. However, in the meantime, we invite you to consider how you would answer these questions.

Understanding how, when and where learning takes place is an extremely complex issue. It encompasses everything from the composition of our DNA, our neural processes, the environment we develop in, the social dynamics of the classroom, and the pedagogical practices that teachers and children engage in. To understanding learning from this holistic perspective – so that it has utility for education – requires open and extended dialogue between teachers and researchers. Dialogue that builds an understanding of each other’s unique expertise, goals, and needs – the necessary common ground for interdisciplinary research and practice to take place on.

Visit our contribute page here to find out more.


Matt Slocombe is a doctoral researcher at the Centre for Educational Neuroscience and former Design and Technology teacher. His research investigates the cognitive processes involved in reasoning and learning and the implications of this research for educational practice. He sits on the Learnus Council where he is involved in developing several projects aimed at facilitating dialogue and collaboration between researchers and teachers. You can keep up to date with Matt’s research via his website or on Twitter.

Derek Bell is a teacher, researcher and education advisor. He is currently the Director of Learnus and Visiting Senior Research Associate at the UCL Institute of Education. Prior to his role at Learnus, Derek taught in schools and universities before holding posts as the Vice Principal of Bishop Grosseteste University, the Chief Executive of the Association for Science Education and the Head of Education at the Wellcome Trust.

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Margaret J. Brown
August 18, 2020 at 08:26 pm

At least some children learn little or nothing from ‘being taught’,except
what their teacher is like; but they do learn from their peers - especially
perhaps what the peers think of the teaching/ and the things they are supposed
to be learning.
EG I suggest that if the other children (or their ‘friend’)
in the class respond well they might well accept it too - or at least take an
interest BUT what if the friend/s reject it ,for any number of reasons, so are
they likely to dismiss the item.
A great deal of what children remember of
effective ‘teaching’ when asked is, (it seems) that the material was introduced
by someone they liked or were liked by - (relationships) or that the material
being taught had an immediate connection with some current worry,/puzzle or
special interest for the learner. e.g. fear/ anxiety or to do with his/her
hobby, talent or family situation.
How fascinating it all is and how
impossible if dealing with such large and varied groups!.
Good luck with
your research. MJB.

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