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The 10 Most Significant Education Studies of 2022 | Edutopia


This past year didn’t feel normal, exactly, but compared with the last few trips around the sun, well—it sufficed. In 2021, when we sat down to write our annual edition of the research highlights, we were in the throes of postpandemic recovery and wrote about the impact of a grueling year in which burnout and issues of mental and physical health affected educators everywhere.

We found evidence that sheds new light on the misunderstood power of brain breaks, took a close look at research that finds a surprising—even counterintuitive—rationale for teachers to focus on relationships, and located both the humor and the merit in asking kids to slither like a snake as they learn about the “sss” sound of the letter S.

Observers sometimes assume that teachers who radiate empathy, kindness, and openness are “soft” and can be taken advantage of by students. But new research shows that when you signal that you care about kids, they’re willing to go the extra mile—giving you the flexibility to assign more challenging school work.

The researchers determined that “learner-generated highlighting” tended to improve retention of material, but not comprehension. When students were taught proper highlighting techniques by teachers, however—for example, how to distinguish main ideas from supporting ideas—they dramatically improved their academic performance. Crucially, “when highlighting is used in conjunction with another learning strategy” like “graphic organizers or post-questions,” its effectiveness soars, the researchers said.

The need for explicit teaching may be linked to changing reading habits as students graduate from stories and fables to expository texts, which require them to navigate unfamiliar text formats, the researchers note. To bring kids up to speed, show them “examples of appropriate and inappropriate highlighting,” teach them to “highlight content relatively sparingly,” and provide examples of follow-on tactics like summarizing their insights to drive deeper comprehension.

When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act called for greater inclusion—mandating that students with disabilities receive support in the “least restrictive environment”—one goal was to ensure that educational accommodations didn’t interfere with the students’ social and emotional development in classrooms full of their peers. The law also confronted age-old prejudices and established a binding legal obligation in favor of inclusion.

Now a new large-scale study appears to put the matter beyond dispute. When researchers tracked nearly 24,000 adolescents who qualified for special education, they discovered that spending a majority of the day—at least 80 percent—in general education classes improved reading scores by a whopping 24 points and math scores by 18 points, compared with scores of their more isolated peers with similar disabilities.

Representational drawings, such as a simple diagram of a cell, may help students remember factual information, the researchers explain, but they “lack features to make generalizations or inferences based on that information.” Organizational drawings that link concepts with arrows, annotations, and other relational markings give students a clearer sense of the big picture, allow them to visualize how ideas are connected, and provide a method for spotting obvious gaps in their understanding. On tests of higher-order thinking, fifth graders who made organizational drawings outperformed their peers who tried representational drawings by 300 percent.

A study published in February this year argues for minimalism. Researchers tracked the on-task behavior of K–2 students and concluded that visually ”streamlined” classrooms produced more focused students than “decorated” ones. During short read-alouds about topics like rainbows and plate tectonics, for example, young kids in classrooms free of “charts, posters, and manipulatives” were paying attention at significantly higher rates.

Classroom decoration can alter academic trajectories, the research suggests, but the task shouldn’t stress teachers out. The rules appear to be relatively straightforward: Hang academically relevant, supportive work on the walls, and avoid the extremes—working within the broad constraints suggested by common sense and moderation.

Teachers of young students can have a “learning goal” in mind, but true play-based learning should incorporate wonder and exploration, be child-led when possible, and give students “freedom and choice over their actions and play behavior,” the researchers assert. Interrupt the flow of learning only when necessary: gently nudge students who might find activities too hard or too easy, for example. The playful approach improved early math and task-switching skills, compared with more traditional tactics that emphasize the explicit acquisition of skills, researchers concluded.

To get it right, focus on relationships and ask questions that prompt wonder. “Rich, open-ended conversation is critical,” Christakis told Edutopia in a 2019 interview, and children need time ”to converse with each other playfully, to tell a rambling story to an adult, to listen to high-quality literature and ask meaningful questions.”

A new study suggests that sound-letter pairs are learned much more effectively when whole-body movements are integrated into lessons. Five- and 6-year-olds in the study spent eight weeks practicing movements for each letter of the alphabet, slithering like a snake as they hissed the sibilant “sss” sound, for example. The researchers found that whole-body movement improved students’ ability to recall letter-sound pairings and doubled their ability to recognize hard-to-learn sounds—such as the difference between the sounds that c makes in cat and sauce—when compared with students who simply wrote and spoke letter-sound pairings at their desks.

When teaching students foundational concepts, a video lesson equipped with a simple pause button, for example, may allow students to reset cognitively as they reach their attentional limits, a 2022 study concluded. Pause buttons, like rewind buttons, are also crucial for learners who encounter “complex learning materials,” have “low prior knowledge,” or exhibit “low working memory capacities.”

In the review, researchers explain that students who prefer techniques like reading and rereading material in intense cram sessions are bound to fail. Instead, students should think of learning as a kind of “fitness routine” during which they practice recalling the material from memory and space out their learning sessions over time. Teaching kids to self-quiz or summarize from memory—and then try it again—is the crucial first step in disabusing students of their “false beliefs about learning.”

The effect sizes are hard to ignore. In a 2015 study, for example, third-grade students who studied a lesson about the sun and then reread the same material scored 53 percent on a follow-up test, the equivalent of a failing grade, while their peers who studied it once and then answered practice questions breezed by with an 87 percent score. And in a 2021 study, middle school students who solved a dozen math problems spread out across three weeks scored 21 percentage points higher on a follow-up math test than students who solved all 12 problems on the same day.

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