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Research School Network: Ask The Expert – Dr Brian Marsh


Ask The Expert – Dr Brian Marsh

by Durrington Research School
on the

Brian MarshName: Dr Brian Marsh

Role: Principal Lecturer Science Education – University of Brighton

What does evidence informed practice mean to you?

Over the past 20 years or so teachers have been increasingly subject to national frameworks and performativity cultures. This has led, in some cases, to a straightjacket approach to teaching where outcomes in terms of examinations dominate thinking. A consequence of this is that aspects of practice have been promoted which are not beneficial to learning. Evidence informed practice is an approach which critically questions our practice and sets it against a backdrop of peer-reviewed research which has been undertaken about aspects of practice.

Why do you think it is so important to embrace evidence informed practice?

I talk about evidence informed practice rather than evidence based practice because evidence informed practice allows for teacher professional decisions and appropriate moral choices to be made with the research evidence. It is important to embrace this simply because it leads to a better learning experience and outcomes for the students we teach. They are going to experience teaching which will provide greater opportunities for deeper understanding. Although I have steered away from performance evidence informed teaching should offer greater opportunities for student success.

Which piece/​s of research has had most impact on you?

I’ve chosen a subject specific piece of research rather than something more general. From the mid-1980’s to the present day questions have been raised about the nature and role of practical work in teaching science. A key piece of research was that undertaken by Ian Abrahams and Robin Millar where they unpick the disconnect between the beliefs of most science teachers and the real impact on student learning – Abrahams, I. & Millar, R. (2008) Does practical work really work? A study of the effectiveness of practical work as a teaching and learning method in school science. International Journal of Science Education. 30, 14, 1945 – 1969.

Can you explain why and how you have used this research?

The why’ question is straightforward. Throughout my career the prevailing view amongst fellow teachers has been to unquestioningly argue that practical work is at the heart of science teaching – indeed Henry (1975) argued that it was something of a heresy to question the importance of laboratory work in science courses. However there was little critical appraisal of its benefits. As a Chemistry teacher, Head of Science and now involved in training science teachers I want to ask the questions around the learning benefits for students and therefore critically think about our practice. The how’ at this point in time is through getting trainee science teachers to evaluate the body of research evidence regarding the nature and role of practical work in learning and so help them shape the way they plan their lessons.

What difference has this made?

On a personal level it was shaping the way I introduced practical work. Having recognised that explanatory ideas don’t emerge from observation I planned practical work around a framework of previously established ideas and scaffolded those ideas through the practical work. On a teaching level it is through shaping the ways trainee science teachers think about undertaking effective practical work and so help them plan to use practical work effectively

What would you say are the key take-aways’ for teachers, from this piece of research?

  • All the teachers involved in this research planned their practical work around science content i.e. there was an expectation that students would learn theoretical ideas through practical activities. There was virtually no planning about how students might learn
  • Many teachers appear to hold an inductive, discovery’ based view of learning through practical work
  • There is little evidence that explanatory ideas emerge from observation
  • Practical work does help students develop links between observation and ideas … but the ideas need be, what Joan Solomon (1999) describes, as being in-play’ during the practical work and not introduced afterwards
  • Students need a scaffold’ to see phenomena in the same scientific’ way that we as teachers do
  • Practical work needs planning for in such a way that links observable phenomena with key concepts and content

What advice would you give to teachers who are interested in becoming more evidence informed’?

Keep a critical perspective. Becoming more evidence informed’ can be overwhelming due to the amount of emerging material. My advice would be:

  • Selectively and reflectively read … books that synthesise research and show how it applies in practice e.g. Making Every Lesson Count (Allison & Tharby), The Learning Rainforest (Sherrington) & What Does This Look Like in the Classroom? (Hendrick & MacPherson)
  • Keep up to date with your subject – read your subject association journals
  • Apply some of the principles into your practice … but don’t try everything at once
  • There are other things such as teacher blogs and conferences … but don’t get overwhelmed.

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