May 2020 Research Round-up

Research highlights in learning and education from around the world

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Local context matters for education interventions

Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are considered the “gold standard” in evidence-based education. In this paper, however, Kathryn Joyce and Nancy Cartwright argue that RCTs are only of limited use in the educational context.

The authors point out that successful RCTs only demonstrate that an intervention worked under specific circumstances, i.e. the conditions under which the trial occurred. RCTs don’t show that the intervention will be generally effective across schools, and more importantly for educators, they don’t show that it will work in the unique context of their own classroom or school. Far more so than for medicine, in which RCTs are widely used, educational interventions are sensitive to the local context – economic, social, cultural and material factors. The authors stress that more research is needed on which factors can predict success at the local level.

Joyce and Cartwright (2020) Bridging the gap between research and practice: predicting what will work locally. American Educational Research Journal 57(3): 1045-1082 DOI:

Translating evidence into practice

Turning research evidence into effective classroom practice is a challenge. This study addressed the research-practice divide by having teachers design and deliver education interventions through randomized controlled trials (RCTs). This level of practitioner involvement in experimental design is unusual for education, but common in clinical trials of medicines or new surgical approaches; critically, it meant the RCTs were specific to the context of the teachers’ classrooms.

A meta-analysis showed that the teacher-led RCTs were effective in improving learning outcomes, leading the authors to conclude that such an approach can help build up the much needed, context-specific knowledge of what works in learning, for whom, and under what conditions. As such they recommend that more teachers are trained in how to design and conduct controlled experiments like RCTs.

Churches et al. (2020) Translating laboratory evidence into classroom practice with teacher-led randomized controlled trials – a perspective and meta-analysis. Mind, Brain and Education DOI:

An Alzheimer’s protein enables memory stabilization

Our memories are not fixed – each time we recall them, they can be modified, updated or forgotten. Some memories, however, are strong enough to avoid being disrupted. What gives these memories their strength?

In this study, researchers pinpoint amyloid beta (Aβ) – a protein heavily implicated in Alzheimer’s disease – as key to ensuring memory stability. When a strong (but not weak) memory is formed, the level of (non-pathogenic) Aβ increases. If production of Aβ is prevented during learning, that memory becomes unstable – later reactivation of the memory makes it prone to disruption. The authors therefore show that by stabilizing memories, the non-pathological form of Aβ has an important physiological function.

Finnie and Nader (2020) Amyloid beta secreted during consolidation prevents memory malleability. Current Biology 30(10): P1934-1940.E4 DOI:

Links between socioeconomic status, genetics, and education

Our genetic makeup and socioeconomic status (SES) affect how long we spend in formal schooling. They are also associated with the structure of our brain and our cognitive performance. Because genetics and SES are linked to each other, this study looked to disentangle how the two factors correlate with brain development and cognition.

Using structural MRI to track brain development and structure over adolescence, and working memory tasks to measure cognition, the authors found that SES and genetics were differentially linked to brain development. Whereas SES differences – particularly parental education levels – correlated with global brain features, the education-related genetic factors they measured were region-specific, localized to an area important for working memory and non-verbal cognition. The authors conclude that SES has wide-ranging, rather than specific, influences on brain development and cognition.

Judd et al. (2020) Cognitive and brain development is independently influenced by socioeconomic status and polygenic scores for educational attainment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI:

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Alan Woodruff

Community Editor, Queensland Brain Institute

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