Educational Research

Table of Contents


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The Research on Life-Changing Teaching

What really moves the needle for educators and, by extension, their students?

Being an effective teacher is about more than just improving test scores—it’s also about making a difference in students’ lives. When Edutopia asked their readers to describe the traits of a life-changing teacher, they said that great teachers make their students feel safe and loved, possess a contagious passion for learning, believe their students can succeed—and always know when to be tough to help students reach their full potential.

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But does the research agree? What are the fundamental levers that teachers can pull to refine their practices, improve their craft, and make a significant—or even life-altering—contribution to the lives of their students?

Edutopia reviewed nearly two dozen studies in compiling this piece—and here are the key findings. Read the entire article

1. Always Be Collecting (Targeted) Feedback

2. Attend to Relationships (and Classroom Culture)

3. Don't Give an Inch on Standards

4. Make Your Classroom Management 'Invisible'

5. Humanize Your Teaching

6. Check Your Biases

7. Authenticity + Passion = Success!

8. Close the Book on the Day

Also, learn how the eight teaching practices directly align with high quality PBL and project-based teaching. (Article by John Larmer of PBL Works)

Source: Edutopia


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Effective Teacher Professional Development

In 2017 the Learning Policy Institute put out a comprehensive report on Effective Teacher Professional Development, written by Linda Darling-Hammond, Maria E. Hyler, and Madelyn Gardner, with assistance from Danny Espinoza.

After reading the report it comes down to two things that hold back most professional learning experiences:

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Reason #1: A lot of professional learning is "sit and get".

The report is clear. This does not usually work, unless it is to kick off follow-up active PD sessions.

In the report they identify seven factors of effective PD. Five out of the first six are specifically about active and hands on learning.

Using the methodology detailed in Appendix A, we identify seven characteristics of effective PD. Specifically, we find that it:

1. Is content focused

2. Incorporates active learning utilizing adult learning theory (can't do this in sit and get)

3. Supports collaboration, typically in job-embedded contexts (can't do this in sit and get)

4. Uses models and modeling of effective practice (can't do this in sit and get)

5. Provides coaching and expert support (can't do this in sit and get)

6. Offers opportunities for feedback and reflection (can't do this in sit and get)

We see that each characteristic is slightly different, but almost all of them cannot be successful in a "sit and get" type of learning environment. This is why the most effective PD is often an "Earn to Learn" session where both the facilitator and the learner are working to create authentic meaning out of the experience.

Reason #2: A lot of professional learning is "one and done"

The seventh characteristic of effective PD is "sustained duration". This means it cannot be a single session on a single topic. When we do this there is no research to support it being effective in any way, and is often a waste of time.

If you are leading professional learning, try to filter the experiences and sessions between these two reasons and see how it stacks up.

If you have to do a sit and get session, follow it up with a hands on experience like a design sprint, rapid prototyping session, or empathy mapping experience.

Then follow up and continue the focus of your professional learning for a sustained duration to make it effective.

Source: Learning Policy Institute & A.J. Juliani Blog


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The Principles of Learning

These are the first two posts in a “Principles of Learning” series written by A.J. Juliani. Each post will cover one of the 10 different principles that come directly from research and instructional practices and help all of us learn. This series is not about students. It is about all learners. Colleagues, employees, coaches, leaders, parents, teens and yes kids, can all benefit from applying the principles to craft meaningful and worthwhile learning experiences.

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What we’ve seen in the past couple of years specifically, is that the public often has misconstrued ideas on what it means to learn, and how we (as humans) can learn best. This series will hopefully shed some light, in a non-academic way, on principles that form the foundation of engaging and empowering experiences that foster deep learning.

Post #1: The Principles of Learning: It All Starts with Attention

Post #2: The Principles of Learning: Context Is Integral to Learning

Source: A.J. Juliani Blog


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When researchers at the Fordham Institute asked parents to rank phrases associated with social and emotional learning, nothing seemed to add up. The term “social-emotional learning” was very unpopular; parents wanted to steer their kids clear of it.

But when the researchers added a simple clause, forming a new phrase —”social-emotional & academic learning”— the program shot all the way up to No. 2 in the rankings.... What gives?

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Parents were picking up subtle cues in the list of SEL-related terms that irked or worried them, the researchers suggest. Phrases like “soft skills” and “growth mindset” felt “nebulous” and devoid of academic content. For some, the language felt suspiciously like “code for liberal indoctrination.”

But the study suggests that parents might need the simplest of reassurances to break through the political noise. Removing the jargon, focusing on productive phrases like “life skills,” and relentlessly connecting SEL to academic progress puts parents at ease—and seems to save social and emotional learning in the process.

Source: Edupedia


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How to Get Students to Ask Good Questions, and Drive Deeper Learning

It won’t come as a huge surprise to educators: Sometimes good questions are more productive than right answers.

That was the conclusion of a 2020 study, too. Students who studied a topic and then composed their own questions scored 14 percentage points higher on a test than students who used passive strategies like studying their notes and rereading materials. Creating questions, the researchers found, not only encouraged students to think more deeply about the topic but also strengthened their ability to remember the material.

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Quality matters, and you can move kids from simple yes/no questions to more penetrating inquiry by guiding them toward questions that start with “explain,” or that use “how” and “why” framing. Alternatively, you can use class time to identify the characteristics of higher-order questions—those that require analysis or synthesis, for example—then collect student questions and discuss them as a group.

Source: Edutopia & Wiley Online Library


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We Drastically Underestimate the Importance of Brain Breaks

When it comes to optimizing learning, we don’t value breaks enough, neuroscientists suggest in a new study. It was discovered that after learning new information, our brains continue to whir, using cognitive downtime as a virtual staging ground to process, organize, and integrate learned information. The key, lies in neural replay, the “temporally compressed reactivation of neural activity patterns representing behavioral sequences during rest.” In other words, after practicing a skill, our brains rapidly cycle through the experience, compressing and imprinting the material to optimize storage and recall.

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Practice makes perfect. To become ambidextrous in basketball, dribble with your left hand, switch to your right, and repeat the process again and again. Likewise, to solve differential equations in math, pile them up and work your way through them diligently.

According to one popular school of thought, it’s this active, repeated manipulation of material that lays the neural foundations for skill development. All too often, time away from the basketball court—or the math books—is seen as a break in the learning process, a way to cool off, reenergize, and then return to the vital work of actual practice.

But for Leonardo Cohen, a neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health and the senior author of a June 2021 study published in the journal Cell, the idea that breaks are a cooling-off period is a misconception.

Source: Edutopia


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​The Future of Educational Leadership: Five Signposts

The intention of this paper is to reflect on the nature of the leadership required at a most pivotal time in human history: an era of existential threat through climate crisis; the perils of pandemics; violent conflict; declining democracy; and widening divides – set against the immense possibilities becoming available. The purpose in this paper is to indicate the direction such leadership should take. The paper offers five ‘signposts’ to that direction.

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The Five Signposts

  • Lead the creation of a New Education Narrative

  • Lead within ecosystems

  • Lead for equity

  • Lead for innovation

  • Lead for futures literacy

Leaders in the future need to be advocates for inclusion and diversity, for racial equality; fiercely anti-racist and anti-sexist; agents of change, activists intervening to attack institutional barriers to equity and achieve the power shifts that are necessary to produce justice for all. In the everyday running of schools, the very essence of the culture and ensuing policies and practice needs an equity lens.

Source: Association of Independent Schools of South Australia


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Index For Inclusion: Developing Learning and Participation in Schools

The Index is a resource to support the inclusive development of schools. It is a comprehensive document that can help everyone to find their own next steps in developing their setting. The materials are designed to build on the wealth of knowledge and experience that people have about their practice. They challenge and support the development of any school, however 'inclusive' it is thought to be currently.

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Inclusion is often associated with students who have impairments or students seen as 'having special educational needs'. However, in the Index, inclusion is about the education of all children and young people. Read the entire document here.

Source: Published by the Center for Studies on Inclusive Education (CSIE)


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Immigrant students are sometimes portrayed as a costly expense to the education system, but new research is systematically dismantling that myth.

In a 2021 study, researchers analyzed over 1.3 million academic and birth records for students in Florida communities and concluded that the presence of immigrant students actually has “a positive effect on the academic achievement of U.S.-born students,” raising test scores as the size of the immigrant school population increases. The benefits were especially powerful for low-income students.

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While immigrants initially “face challenges in assimilation that may require additional school resources,” the researchers concluded, hard work and resilience may allow them to excel and thus “positively affect exposed U.S.-born students’ attitudes and behavior.” But according to teacher Larry Ferlazzo, the improvements might stem from the fact that having English language learners in classes improves pedagogy, pushing teachers to consider “issues like prior knowledge, scaffolding, and maximizing accessibility.”

Source: Edupedia


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Affirming Identity in Multilingual Classrooms

By welcoming a student's home language into the classroom, schools actively engage English language learners in literacy.

In How People Learn, Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) synthesized research regarding the optimal conditions that foster learning; a follow-up volume edited by Donovan and Bransford (2005) examines the application of these learning principles to teaching history, mathematics, and science.

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Bransford and colleagues emphasize the following three conditions for effective learning: engaging prior understandings and background knowledge, integrating factual knowledge with conceptual frameworks by encouraging deep understanding, and supporting students in taking active control over the learning process.

Any instructional intervention that claims scientific credibility should reflect these principles, which are particularly important when it comes to English language learners. Prior knowledge refers not only to information or skills previously acquired in formal instruction but also to the totality of the experiences that have shaped the learner's identity and cognitive functioning. In classrooms with students from linguistically diverse backgrounds, instruction should explicitly activate this knowledge.

Source: ASCD Website - September 1, 2005


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It’s time to rethink our definition of what a “good school” is, researchers assert in a study published in late 2020.⁣ That’s because typical measures of school quality like test scores often provide an incomplete and misleading picture, the researchers found.

The study looked at over 150,000 ninth-grade students who attended Chicago public schools and concluded that emphasizing the social and emotional dimensions of learning—relationship-building, a sense of belonging, and resilience, for example—improves high school graduation and college matriculation rates for both high- and low-income students, beating out schools that focus primarily on improving test scores.⁣

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“Schools that promote socio-emotional development actually have a really big positive impact on kids,” said lead researcher C. Kirabo Jackson in an interview with Edutopia. “And these impacts are particularly large for vulnerable student populations who don’t tend to do very well in the education system.”

The findings reinforce the importance of a holistic approach to measuring student progress and are a reminder that schools—and teachers—can influence students in ways that are difficult to measure, and may only materialize well into the future.⁣

Source: Edupedia


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New Studies Link the Arts to Crucial Cognitive Skills

New research reveals that the arts may prime our neural circuitry for a broad range of activities, boosting crucial cognitive and social skills like spoken and written language, focus, self-control, and empathy. In a 2016 study, for example, T. Christina Zhao and Patricia Kuhl demonstrated that babies exposed to simple melodies in a social setting developed a greater sensitivity to the rhythms of spoken language. More surprisingly, they noted, the processing of music was traced not just to the auditory cortex of the infants, but to the prefrontal cortex as well—the seat of higher-order cognitive faculties like attention and self-regulation.

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“We can see that the babies who have been through the music experience have greater abilities to...hold attention when that’s important, and to switch attention when it’s appropriate to switch,” Kuhl explained in a TED talk. “In other words, music is affecting executive function.”

A 2019 study reached similar conclusions with professional musicians, finding that “executive attention is more efficient in musicians than non-musicians,” and improves as musical training progresses.

Source: Edupedia


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A future for the World's Children? A WHO–UNICEF–Lancet Commission Report

Despite dramatic improvements in survival, nutrition, and education over recent decades, today’s children face an uncertain future. Climate change, ecological degradation, migrating populations, conflict, pervasive inequalities, and predatory commercial practices threaten the health and future of children in every country. In 2015, the world’s countries agreed on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), yet nearly 5 years later, few countries have recorded much progress towards achieving them.

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The Lancet Commission presents the case for placing children, aged 0–18 years, at the centre of the SDGs: at the heart of the concept of sustainability and our shared human endeavour. Governments must harness coalitions across sectors to overcome ecological and commercial pressures to ensure children receive their rights and entitlements now and a liveable planet in the years to come.

February 2020


Source: ReseachGate Website


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The Power of Play-Based Learning

By Andrew Boryga | Edutopia | August 5, 2022.

New research shows play-based learning can be more effective than direct instruction at improving outcomes for early learners—particularly in the development of mathematical and spatial skills.

The mere presence of the word play in the teaching method known as play-based learning can alarm some parents of early childhood learners. Students, even our youngest students, should be “playing” at home. They come to school to learn, they might say.

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That distinction—between “learning” and “play”—is a false one, according to early childhood educator and author Erika Christakis. Although kindergarten and elementary classrooms often devalue it in favor of direct instruction or seat time, play is the “defining feature” of all mammalian development, and its “signature” is apparent in the bodies and lives of little kids who experience it: “Their life expectancies are longer and their social-emotional capabilities are more robust when they have a chance to learn through play and deep relationships, and when their developing brains are given the chance to grow in a nurturing, language-rich, and relatively unhurried environment,” Christakis told Edutopia in a 2019 interview.

Children aren’t miniature adults. Nonetheless, a bias toward adult perspectives of childhood, with its attendant schedules and routines, has gradually exerted a stranglehold on our educational system, Christakis continues, trapping young kids in educational spaces that too often feel dreary, joyless, and alienating. “The notion that there is something of value in being a little kid—with little kid desires and, above all, needs—seems to have fallen out of favor.”

Breaking the Cycle

Despite the clear benefits of play, setting aside the time for even the youngest students can seem out of step with the academic demands of the school day. Early childhood teachers are pressured to meet strict seat-time guidelines in their classrooms, and they often feel that direct instruction is the best method to achieve the many curricular objectives that parents, principals, and other leaders expect.

According to a new study, there’s a middle path. A group of researchers from the University of Cambridge analyzed decades of research on “guided play”—more commonly called play-based learning—and concluded that it can have a “greater positive effect” on the acquisition of skills like math, shape knowledge, and task switching than more traditional approaches that prioritize seat time and explicit instruction.

“In redefining play as a spectrum with varying degrees of child autonomy and adult guidance, guided play has been situated as a ‘middle-ground’ between free play and direct instruction,” the researchers concluded. The learning is inherently rich and meaningful because “play naturally cultivates their enjoyment, motivation, and agency; while the inclusion of guidance by a supportive adult extends the scope for learning beyond what the child might achieve on their own.”

Incorporating key elements of play—like wonder, exploration, and student agency—into loosely structured lessons that are gently supported by teachers provides an “optimal” approach for students, according to the researchers. For Christakis, this means that play-based learning experiences should provide students with a “steady diet of free, unstructured time and access to open-ended materials” that allow them to engage in “rambling” storytelling and provide plenty of time to just “mess around and make their own rules.”

Play, with an Objective in Mind

In a successful play-based learning class, teachers often have a clear “learning goal” behind the play they let students engage in ahead of time, according to the Cambridge study. A teacher should keep this goal in mind during the play and subtly guide the child toward the goal.

Don’t pull the strings too tight: According to primary teacher Maggie Sabin, teachers shouldn’t necessarily expect students to produce specific outputs. For example, to teach students how colors can be mixed to form new colors, you might avoid giving students instructions to mix specific colors and instead model one example and then allow them to make their own combinations. “Be well prepared and intentional in planning, but allow for flexibility and inspiration,” writes Sabin.

One way to make sure that students are playing with purpose is to structure your classroom with deliberate spaces or centers containing materials, games, or objects intentionally chosen for students to engage with and make sense of.

An area in Sabin’s classroom, for example, contains a “tinker tray” of items that might seem random but are related to lessons or units she is using direct instruction to guide students through. During a unit on nature and natural materials, for example, the tray is stocked with items like pebbles, leaves, or sticks that students can both practice naming and manipulating. The materials can also be used to practice early math skills through the course of play by simply asking students how many pebbles they have or how many pebbles they have left after giving some to a friend.

Providing Choice and Agency

Effective play-based learning should be child-led when possible and give students “freedom and choice over their actions and play behavior,” the researchers assert. However, their findings suggest that the level of autonomy being given to students in play-based learning scenarios is often less than the amount needed to “cultivate children’s agency, motivation, and curiosity.”

To foster that agency, San Jose Unified School District kindergarten teacher Jessica Arrow often starts the day by allowing students 30 to 45 minutes of “choice time” to explore various spaces in the classroom—a block center, math center, science center, art center, book nook, or dramatic play corner.

The items they encounter are related to previous lessons and the interests her students have expressed. For example, after reading the children’s book Miss Maple’s Seeds, Arrow said, her students became fascinated by the author’s process of creating the book from her imagination. As a result, Arrow’s art center included materials for students to create stories of their own and to practice speaking, listening, and writing standards in the process.

Arrow writes that their bookmaking interests eventually carried over into other areas of learning. For example, one student created a number book. After Arrow shared it with the class, number books became popular, and her students were referencing number grids and creating their own number books that helped them count and identify large numbers in the process.

“Once my students had experienced play-based learning, they were more focused, motivated, and purposeful,” writes Arrow. “Most important, they were happier. Bringing play-based learning to my classroom created balance, deepened our learning, and defined our classroom community as a place where we could learn and grow together.”

When to Step In

As children play, teachers should be observing closely to gather insights about the way students are learning and use open-ended questions, hints, and prompts to gently nudge students and encourage deeper thinking. You might step in “when a child appears to find an activity too difficult or too easy” so that you “can help them learn beyond what might be possible in independent play,” the researchers say.

For example, when children are playing with blocks, open-ended questions can be posed to encourage problem-solving, prediction, and hypothesizing, according to veteran teacher and curriculum manager for Edmentum Winnie O’Leary. A teacher can bring awareness to math standards by asking students low-stakes questions such as “I wonder how tall this tower can get?” or “I wonder how many blocks you need to make that tower as tall as your friend’s?”

Simple questions can also encourage practice recalling information and identifying shapes, objects, or colors, according to O’Leary. During a game of Go Fish, for example, you can ask, “Hey, who had the number 4 in the last round?” Or during a game of Uno you might ask, “Hmm, what color card do you need to add to the center deck?” Games involving strategy—like checkers or tic-tac-toe—are great to get students thinking critically about their objectives and how to adjust them based on what is happening during the game. Try questions like “I wonder what move you could have made to win?”

Use these strategies wisely, though, the researchers caution. In the end, hints and questions should not feel like directives.

Christakis agrees, telling Edutopia that she often coaches teachers to stay away from “checking questions” such as “What color is the apple?” or “What are you drawing?” Instead, she says, teachers should ask questions like “Tell me about your drawing.”

“The open-ended response really opens up a huge space for spontaneous and deep learning,” Christakis says.


Source: Edutopia


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Nine Principles of Ideal Learning - Early Years

Drawing from the strength of world-renowned early childhood approaches including Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Friends Center for Children, Tools of the Mind, Bank Street College of Education, and Waldorf, these nine principles outline core concepts that create ideal learning environments for young children across settings. They allow for multiple approaches, models, and traditions, and take into account the varied contexts within which early educators and care providers work. Several essential beliefs weave throughout, including a commitment to play, relationship-based interactions, an ecologically-focused, child-centered perspective; equity; and a strength-based and inquiry-based approach with children, adults and families. Together, they balance principles of attachment and independence that are meaningful for young children’s development.

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Children Are Born Learning, Exploring and Growing

How children develop depends on us. We know that during the first few years of life, more than 1 million neural connections are formed every second. Young children develop through rich, daily interactions with nurturing caregivers and educators, building brains and shaping physical, socioemotional and cognitive development for life. These early years represent a unique, flexible period of human development and a finite window for high-impact investment.

Early learning environments shape children’s present and future through mechanisms scientists continue to discover — from statistical learning to nervous system attunement to epigenetics. Because children are born learning, any environment can become an ideal learning environment — whether at home, in family- or center-based child care, or at school. While every child should have access to ideal learning environments from birth, far too many do not. With growing public investment, we now have the opportunity to create equitable ideal learning environments serving children, families and educators in any setting.

Additional Resources


Source: Trust For Learning


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Some of the most popular and well-regarded children’s books—Caldecott and Newbery honorees among them—persistently depict Black, Asian, and Hispanic characters with lighter skin, according to new research.

Using artificial intelligence, researchers combed through 1,130 children’s books written in the last century, comparing two sets of diverse children’s books—one a collection of popular books that garnered major literary awards, the other favored by identity-based awards. The software analyzed data on skin tone, race, age, and gender.

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Among the findings: While more characters with darker skin color begin to appear over time, the most popular books—those most frequently checked out of libraries and lining classroom bookshelves—continue to depict people of color in lighter skin tones. More insidiously, when adult characters are “moral or upstanding,” their skin color tends to appear lighter, the study’s lead author, Anjali Aduki, told The 74, with some books converting “Martin Luther King Jr.’s chocolate complexion to a light brown or beige.” Female characters, meanwhile, are often seen but not heard.

Cultural representations are a reflection of our values, the researchers conclude: “Inequality in representation, therefore, constitutes an explicit statement of inequality of value.”

Source: Edupedia


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Many classrooms today still look like they did 100 years ago, when students were preparing for factory jobs. But the world’s moved on: Modern careers demand a more sophisticated set of skills—collaboration, advanced problem-solving, and creativity, for example—and those can be difficult to teach in classrooms that rarely give students the time and space to develop those competencies.

Project-based learning (PBL) would seem like an ideal solution. But critics say PBL places too much responsibility on novice learners, ignoring the evidence about the effectiveness of direct instruction and ultimately undermining subject fluency.

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Advocates counter that student-centered learning and direct instruction can and should coexist in classrooms.

Now two new large-scale studies—encompassing over 6,000 students in 114 diverse schools across the nation—provide evidence that a well-structured, project-based approach boosts learning for a wide range of students.

In the studies, which were funded by Lucas Education Research, a sister division of Edutopia, elementary and high school students engaged in challenging projects that had them designing water systems for local farms or creating toys using simple household objects to learn about gravity, friction, and force. Subsequent testing revealed notable learning gains—well above those experienced by students in traditional classrooms—and those gains seemed to raise all boats, persisting across socioeconomic class, race, and reading levels.

Source: Edupedia


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This article by A.J. Juliani is for those that need more resources about inquiry-driven education, and for those trying to get research to back them up when bringing it to a leader, school board, parent committee, or even colleagues.

The article sheds some light on the research behind choice, and more broadly, inquiry-driven education. Juliani says it’s easy for him to praise Genius Hour because he's done it in the classroom, and seen many other teachers do it successfully with their students. However, he also understands that if you have not had that experience, it may be difficult to justify.

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The article is separated into four sections:

  1. How choice, PBL, and inquiry-driven learning increases student engagement and achievement

  2. Success-stories from fellow teachers using the choice and inquiry-driven learning model

  3. How choice, PBL, and inquiry-driven learning is connected to the common core standards

  4. Related books, whitepapers, and research linked to choice and inquiry-driven education

Also read: PBL vs Doing The Same Thing: The Research Is Clear by A. J. Juliani

Source: A. J. Juliani


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Timed Tests Are a Habit We Can’t Seem to Quit

Timed tests are entrenched in the school system, but they aren’t a fair or accurate reflection of students’ mastery and content knowledge, a 2020 review of dozens of studies concludes. They provoke anxiety and exclude far too many kids—including students with disabilities, English language learners, and those who simply need more time (and that’s most of us).

“Speed and intelligence are not very highly correlated,” the researchers note, echoing a plea voiced by educators and researchers for decades. The answer is refreshingly simple: “The best way to improve a time-limited test’s reliability is simply to remove its time limits.”

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Doing so improves the validity of tests - probably because with more time students can read instructions more closely, check their work, and keep their anxiety under control. “As instructors, we are not assessed by how speedily we can demonstrate our mastery,” the researchers conclude. “Why then do we continue to administer time- limited exams, which are less valid, less reliable, less inclusive, and less equitable?”

Source: Edutopia