researchED Conferences Link Teachers And Cognitive Science

What teachers learn during their training often conflicts with what scientists have discovered about how learning works. But conferences around the world are bringing teachers and education researchers together—including a recent one in Frederick (yes, Frederick), Maryland.

For almost ten years now, a UK-based organization called researchED has been facilitating these low-budget but high-powered events, with presenters ranging from world-renowned cognitive scientists to classroom teachers. Multiple conferences are held each year in the UK, along with events—this fall alone—in Australia, Canada, and Chile.

About five years ago, the movement came to the United States. Past events have been held in Washington, DC, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But researchED hasn’t caught on here the way it has in the UK, where the conferences often have waiting lists—and where, in contrast to the US, the government is solidly behind the movement to ground education in cognitive science. I’ve attended two of the previous US conferences, and while there was excitement among attendees, there weren’t as many of them as one might have hoped.

So I’ll confess that when I heard researchED was coming back this year with a conference in Frederick—a lovely town but one that is not exactly on the beaten path—I was worried. Would anyone show up?

A well-attended and fast-paced event

My worries were unfounded. The event, on October 22, drew over 350 people, and the atmosphere was electric. (The cheeky Twitter hashtag was #researchFRED.) Attendees came from across the US and from as far away as Belgium (educational scientist Pedro de Bruyckere) and Scotland (Tom Bennett, the former teacher who founded researchED and is now Behavior Advisor to the UK Department for Education). As at previous events, there was a lot of delighted squealing as people re-encountered old friends or came face-to-face with experts they had admired from afar.

Why Frederick? The event, which relies on volunteer labor to keep costs low (registration for the day, including lunch, was only $45) was sponsored by Frederick County Public Schools. The school district is implementing instructional approaches grounded in neuroscience, a movement known as Mind Brain Education Science, or MBE, so the conference was a natural fit. And the district did a terrific job of organizing a complex event.

A day at researchED is fast-paced. In Frederick, there was a keynote, five breakout sessions, and two conference-wide panel discussions, all limited to 40 minutes each. For each breakout slot, there were nine simultaneous offerings, with topics ranging from whether podcasts can bridge the gap between research and practice to how physical activity affects children’s brains. The biggest problem for attendees was deciding which session to go to (especially if, like me, you yourself were presenting during two of the slots).

What makes a researchED event so valuable for teachers is that, for most, the information they gain about how to teach effectively is nothing like what they were told in college or graduate school. During their training, most prospective teachers learn that it’s best to be a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage”—that students learn best when they’re in charge of their own learning as much as possible. Prospective teachers are advised not to waste time on ensuring students acquire factual information because things like “critical thinking skills” are more important. After all, they’re told, if kids don’t know a fact, they can always Google it.

At a researchED event, in contrast, teachers will hear about the voluminous research showing that when learners are new to a topic, explicit instruction—teacher-led, but with plenty of interaction between the teacher and students—works far better than student-directed inquiry or discovery. They’ll learn that having factual information about a topic stored in long-term memory is actually what enables people to think critically about it.

This process of unlearning can be painful. During a breakout I attended—de Bruyckere’s session on “Almost Everything You Need to Know About Psychology”—one teacher was audibly dismayed to hear that the work of Jean Piaget, an icon of the education school curriculum, had been largely superseded by more recent research.

But it’s important. At another session I went to, cognitive psychologist Shana Carpenter explained how after-class quizzing can significantly boost student learning through a process known as retrieval practice. Her students at Iowa State grumbled at first about having to take the quizzes, she said, but in the end saw their value.

There are a couple of frustrating things about attending a researchED conference, aside from having to choose between sessions. One is simply knowing that this information has been withheld from teachers during their training, and that it’s usually absent from the “professional development” they get on the job. There are complicated reasons for that situation, and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

Events like the one in Frederick, well-attended as it was, can help only a few hundred teachers unlearn what they were taught to believe. But imagine if all three million teachers in the US had routinely learned about things like retrieval and spaced practice during their training—and if standard curriculum materials embraced them. Teaching might become a less challenging job, and untold numbers of students might find it easier to learn.

Science won’t help if you’re not teaching anything substantive

Another frustration, at least for me, is that much of what was being said about practices grounded in cognitive science, valuable as it was, overlooked a huge problem at the elementary level: the absence of any substantive content aside from math. The only other thing that most elementary schools, and some middle schools, even try to teach is reading. And most of the time spent on that is devoted to supposed reading comprehension skills like “finding the main idea.”

The assumption is that if kids master the skills, they’ll be able to use them to learn content—in history, science, and the like—later on. But that’s not how reading comprehension works. Research has found it’s more dependent on knowledge, either of the topic or of academic vocabulary and syntax in general, than on abstract skill. (The time spent teaching kids how to decipher words is often wasted as well—again, because of deficiencies in teacher training and curriculum materials.)

So an elementary teacher whose school is using a literacy curriculum focused on comprehension skills might come away from a researchED conference thinking she could use retrieval practice and other techniques to help her students become better all-around comprehenders.

But there’s nothing of substance for her to use those techniques on. If she quizzes her kids about, say, “determining author’s purpose”—a commonly taught comprehension skill—it’s not going to boost their learning. And when they get to upper grade levels, those students who haven’t been able to acquire the knowledge of history and science assumed by the curriculum will be at a serious disadvantage.

I’d love to see more acknowledgement of that problem at a future US researchED conference—if there is one. A note at the back of this year’s program lists a “researchED Brain Trust” that has “envisioned a sustainable researchED model for the United States and is excited to help the next group get their event off the ground.”

Any takers? If someone out there is interested, you can contact researchED through their website,, or me through mine,