New evidence that modelling bridges the theory-practice gap

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Date published 14 March 2023

Ambition's newest research shows a causal link between incorporating models into teacher training and improving teachers' use of evidence based practices. Our Research Scientist, Jen Curran, explains.

A learning walk

When I was teaching in a primary school, my senior leadership team and I planned a professional development session for our staff on retrieval practice. We needed to distil the key ideas from the research to make it manageable for our teachers, who had varying levels of prior knowledge.

“That was great, I can really see how it might work” – the words every teacher educator wants to hear at the end of some training. I could feel in the room that the session had gone well, the buzz of excited colleagues thinking about how they could apply what they had learnt in their lessons.

A few weeks later, on a learning walk, I spotted some retrieval. I could immediately see that the questions had been carefully selected to address pupils’ prior learning. But then: “Okay everyone, here are your questions. Look carefully at your knowledge organisers and take your time.” My heart sank. The pupils were clearly searching for the knowledge in their resources rather than recalling it.

In another classroom, I saw a colleague’s intentional pause after posing a question, allowing all pupils to attempt retrieval. So far, so good. But when a pupil responded with “I don’t know” the teacher bounced the question straight to another pupil. I didn’t see the partial hints to support retrieval that we covered in the session.

Despite the initial enthusiasm after training, something had failed to translate between the theory and the classroom practice.

I began to ponder how I could have designed the professional development to better support our staff, and whether I should have spent more time modelling retrieval. Maybe showing our teachers a closed book approach or how to go about using partial hints would have developed a clearer ‘mental image’ and helped translate the theory into practice?

Anecdotes like mine will be commonplace in schools everywhere. If you are responsible for teacher development, you will be used to making educated hunches to guide your decisions about professional development, where the evidence base occasionally leaves you wanting.

That’s why, at Ambition, we are curious about the value of models: because we want to help plug the gaps in the evidence on what works in professional development.

Our study

Surprisingly, there is currently no causal evidence on the whether modelling speeds up the learning process for teachers.

A recent systematic review found that two thirds of professional development programmes included models, but the other third did not. So who is right and who is wrong? Should professional development incorporate models?

Our new Research team set out to test how models can support early career teachers to develop evidence-based teaching practices. We worked with 89 primary-phase initial teacher trainees to develop their retrieval practice skills in a simulated classroom. All trainees read a summary of the evidence on how to use retrieval effectively and then led some retrieval practice in the simulator.

After their first attempt, we split the teachers into two groups. The first group had a chance to re-read the evidence summary. The second watched a video model exemplifying the good practice described in the evidence summary. Both groups then had a second go in the simulator.

We found that the teachers who viewed the video models did twice as well in their second simulator attempt as those who re-read the evidence summary. By contrast, those who simply re-read the evidence summary showed no measurable improvement.


So what?

These findings provide the first causal evidence that adding modelling to professional development helps to bridge the theory-practice gap. Teacher educators should seriously consider incorporating models into teacher training aimed at supporting teachers’ use of evidence-based practices.

In our research, we also evaluated the benefits of varying the design of models, for example by highlighting and explaining the ‘active ingredients’ of the teaching. We also looked at how modelling affected teachers’ confidence and their knowledge of the theory underpinning retrieval.

To learn more about these wider findings, read our non-technical summary or the full research report.

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Jen Curran
Research Scientist

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