"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Research on Education and Teachers

"Education research is a pejorative, not a compliment" are words from teacher-blogger Jose Vilson as he goes through a list: "Multiple intelligences. Learning styles. Workshop model. Differentiation. The new math / everyday math. Now? Systems in place. Common Core. Data-driven instruction". Vilson is elaborating further on an interview described in a New York Times' article, "Are ‘Learning Styles’ a Symptom of Education’s Ills?" The bottom line seems, in Vilson's opinion, is a huge disconnect between education research and teachers. I have likewise heard the remark from teachers that what is usually published in research journals rarely applies to what happens inside the classroom. Several years ago, another teacher-blogger, John Spencer, wrote this piece, "I Don't Believe in Research":

Above copied from John Spencer
Art by Matt Connors
Commenting on this post, psychology professor Daniel Willingham wrote, "Clear understanding of what science can and can't do is crucial, I agree. Where it's applicable, I think it can help, but when it can't it's just a distraction, or it's used as a rhetorical device." A disconnect between education research and teachers obviously precludes any understanding of what science can and cannot do. The question is why is there a gap in education between research and its practitioners. One can just imagine the disaster if this is likewise happening in medicine. If a physician's practice is not informed by research on medicine and human health, confidence in any health care is going to be severely compromised. Yet, in education, according to Vilson, researchers and teachers still need to "sit at the same tables".

It maybe worthwhile to trace back and find where the gap originates. Similar to physicians, teachers go through formal education. For a connection between research and practice to be made, it must begin with the training of the practitioners. What happens in higher education is ultimately responsible for the training of any professional. With this in mind, one possible root of the gap between research and practice becomes vividly visible.

In a paper published in The Journal of Educational Research, Sylvester-Dacy and coworkers point out that in major textbooks used in teacher education, only 18 percent are based on good evidence research.

This is quite a discouraging and disturbing picture. The other sources are usually books or position papers, secondary sources that often propagate what is popular, anecdotal or trendy, and not what is based on evidence. Teachers are receiving education in a manner not different from learning about global climate from the US Senate:

If teachers are not given the opportunity to read primary sources, if teachers are not introduced to research on education, then what reaches the minds of teachers are now shaped by what is popular and trendy. Without experience in critical reading of primary literature, teachers are not going to be able to understand what "science can and cannot do". Furthermore, myths on education continue to linger. Worse, teachers like Jose Vilson begin to lose faith in research. The following paragraph from Vilson should really make us pause on what we are currently doing in our schools:
"Every time an initiative comes out, we’re subjected to another professional development session where the person in front of us, administrator or book-hustler, stands in front of us, lauding the latest and greatest. We shift in our seats, prepared to get another set of gobbledygook splayed across our already bloodshot eyes. PowerPoint presentations with tiny letters and business clip art help make convincing arguments for why this specific pedagogical trick will work for our students this time for real, for real. Unconvinced of its efficacy, teachers hope this goes away, and, when it doesn’t the first few times, start to implement the language without trying it to fidelity."
Keeping current teachers tuned to good research is important. Achieving this is of course easier said than done. In the meantime, solutions at higher education are perhaps more within reach. Teacher education must be informed by primary research. One cannot expect teachers to help our children think critically if teachers themselves are not provided the opportunity to do so.

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