Perspectives on tomorrow's education research from teachers and researchers

Educational Research: Learning from Life in Lockdown
Duncan Astle. Cognitive Neuroscientist

I am writing at my kitchen table, after months of ‘working from home’. As a researcher who studies cognitive and brain development in early-mid childhood, it has been a very strange time. Schools are still mostly shut. The home has become the classroom.

Not long after lockdown began researchers in my field started planning research projects. What is the impact of this unprecedented situation? What might it mean for children and their families? What are the immediate and long-term consequences for education and well-being?

These are all important questions. But initial enthusiasm has gradually become tempered by reality. Conducting research during lockdown is not easy. Just as schools are suspended, so are some aspects of University life. And conducting a large-scale research project from your kitchen table is no fun. Designing protocols, preparing tasks or questionnaires, obtaining ethical permissions, securing funding, liaising with schools, overcoming technical issues, dealing with queries from families… the list goes on. Moreover, will families really want to take part in research now? As parents juggle child-care, schooling, working from home, and other caring responsibilities, maybe now is the worst time for a research project

In addition to the practical constraints, there are scientific issues too. Without baseline data – i.e. data from before the pandemic – it is impossible to know whether anything you find is the result of the current situation. This is important. Also, who will take part in educational research during a pandemic? And will they be the most representative families? Probably not.

Under what circumstances should we engage in educational research during a pandemic?

Am I saying that we shouldn’t bother with educational research right now? Absolutely not. There are important questions to ask, and we need to address them. Instead I am suggesting there are some conditions we need to meet in terms of scientific quality and practical benefit. As researchers we must (albeit reluctantly) face the reality that now might not be the right time for our research study, unless we are confident that the results will be interpretable and useful to teachers and families.

But provided these conditions are met, there are some studies ideally placed to generate important data. Particularly those with existing cohorts that can be tracked over time, with baseline and follow-up data. There are teams of scientists who specialise in this kind of research – their expertise is greatly needed right now.

What questions should we be asking?

With limited resources available – including the precious time of participants – we should focus on the most relevant questions. I think we need to know which children will be most affected by the lockdown, and how long this impact is lasting. To my mind, this is probably the most practical research outcome for teachers. But we are not coming to this blind – there are some very obvious predictions we can make:

  1. Children from poorer households will fall further behind their peers, as a group. There are all sorts of caveats to this statement (e.g. definitions of ‘poverty’, moderating factors, problems with group comparisons etc.), but at a national level this is sadly a very robust phenomena. This so-called attainment gap will have widened during lockdown, especially as more affluent parents are often better equipped to mitigate the lack of face-to-face schooling. Free school meal (or pupil premium) status would be one way to identify these kids. But this was a very blunt measure before lockdown, and missed lots of children that need support; it will be even coarser after the economic shock of lockdown. So it would be great if the data collected during lockdown could help us identify who is likely to need more support. This isn’t a new issue – we have known about this effect for decades, and in my opinion, we haven’t done nearly enough to address it.
  2. Children with cognitive challenges will need more time to ‘find their groove’ when school reopens. For example, children who cannot hold as much information in working memory as their peers tend to be more sensitive to their learning environment. Skilled teachers carefully control working memory demands in class to mitigate this effect. My worry is that when school resumes there will be a ‘make up for lost time’ mentality, and that this will favour some children over others. Moreover, when school does restart there will be social distancing, altered timetables and other special circumstances, it is the children learning despite cognitive challenges that will be most affected. Some of these children will have a SEND label, but most won’t. It would be great if the data could tell us about the wellbeing and educational progress of these children, so we have accurate information about how they are reintegrating into school life.
  3. Anxiety levels will be high. This pandemic has been anxiety provoking for everyone. And with an historic backdrop of rising anxiety levels, my worry is that this could become a major predictor of how well children can adapt to a return to school. Furthermore, with social distancing and reduced opportunity for play, teachers may have fewer tools in their arsenal to support anxious children.

If researchers have data on these key groups of children before the pandemic, it would be great if they could follow them through the lockdown period and as they integrate back into school. Collecting quality data in these areas is not just important for understanding lockdown and recovery. We may unearth some unexpected findings, with long-lasting implications for education provision. Maybe there are cohorts of children who are thriving away from conventional schooling. What can we learn from their experience? Might there be some permanent changes to education that we want to make?

The right time for advocacy

In short, there definitely is a place for educational research during a pandemic and its aftermath. But it needs to be designed to support teachers and families address practical challenges, rather than just because there is an interesting opportunity. But for the rest of us, now is definitely the right time for advocacy. There are so many relevant insights from existing educational research, and it is critical that these make their way to charities, support groups, schools and ultimately policy makers.

Duncan is a Programme Leader at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge, where he leads the 4D Research Group. He is also a Fellow and Director of Studies at Robinson College. He is a developmental cognitive neuroscientist and his research uses multiple methods to explore how brain systems develop through childhood, in typically developing children, children with disorders of attention, children with genetic mutations, and children with problems in classroom learning. Duncan currently serves as the Chair of the Cambridge NIHR BioResource’s Scientific Advisory Board, an Editor at Cortex and the Journal of Neuropsychology, Chair of the University’s LGBT+ Staff network, and Council Member at Learnus.

For more information on Duncan’s research, please see his lab website here or follow him on Twitter.

Find out more about the aims of the Learnus blog here.

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