Education Research Is Still Too Dense. We Need More Teacher-Researcher Partnerships.
In April of 2021, a simple Google search for “Online Teaching Tips” yields more than half a billion results. Half a billion resources offering tips, tricks, guidance and expertise to educators who are eager to meet their students’ needs amidst very demanding circumstances. And while today’s unprecedented levels of educational challenge may merit equally unprecedented levels of teacher support, it can be hard to know where to begin—or even who to trust, as education experts proliferate and teachers’ time remains scarce.
Though the sheer volume of educational advice-givers may be unique to this pandemic year, the scenario of educators needing to critically evaluate educational claims and pedagogy is nothing new. In fact, quite a few authors have tackled this subject directly. As David Laws points out in the foreword to “What Does This Look Like in the Classroom,” “...too much that happens in education is based on hunch, assumption and ideology.” In his 2012 book “When Can You Trust the Experts,” Dan Willingham’s main objective is to help everyday teachers (and administrators and family members) determine which new educational approaches are well-supported by research, and thus worthy of your time and money.
I have a personal interest in the brain and learning, and the field of neuroeducation is rife with extraordinary claims and questionable evidence. Andrew Watson provides excellent advice on avoiding so-called “Neuro-bunk” advice in “Won't Get Fooled Again” and offers an entire guidebook in his upcoming book “The Golidlocks Map.” Back in 2008, Dr. Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa published he dissertation, The Scientifically Substantiated Art of Teaching, after recognizing that concepts from “brain-based learning” were being applied indiscreetly to classroom teaching practices.
Many have spoken of the need for various “bridges” in educational research. Bridges linking theory to practice, lab to classroom, and perhaps the most problematic of all, transdisciplinary bridges allowing multiple fields of experts (education, psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience) to collaborate and communicate more effectively. With teachers. As in, the people who are actually tasked with actioning all of this advice!
Typically, teachers are tasked with doing much of the work around bringing research into their classrooms. But research can play an important role in this as well. The “outside-in” model of knowledge creation in teaching, where teachers are passive participants in studies and researchers exist outside of the everyday classroom, is no longer our best path forward. Educational research is often criticized for being too theoretical and lacking practical applications for most teachers, or perhaps the specific approaches that were so successful under research conditions then flop entirely in other contexts. Researchers isolate variables, while teachers combine ever-changing variables in dynamic, messy, human interaction with equal parts “science” and “art.”
We can do better. By inviting researchers to sit down with actual teachers to discuss real issues in real schools and co-create real solutions that we can adapt to a variety of circumstances.
But what do such partnerships actually look like? Ian Kelleher and Glenn Whitman’s 2018 article A Bridge No Longer Too Far, offers one case study, mapping out their journey of becoming a more research-informed school and offering a guide map for others to follow. Over time, their work has grown into a leading professional development and research hub, The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, fostering mutually beneficial partnerships between educators and researchers around the world. Some have even proposed a database that links researchers with schools in a “Craigslist” format, called UNIFIED, to move away from models where research is transmitted to and received by schools, and move toward something closer to mutually beneficial collaboration.
Fortunately, we now have strong examples of effective teacher-researcher partnerships, such as Patrice Bain and Pooja Argarwal, co-authors of “Powerful Teaching,” where the knowledge of both education and psychology are equally valued. Patrice shares the story of how her teaching was changed when two cognitive scientists asked to conduct research in her classroom, one of the first studies of its kind conducted in actual classrooms rather than in university labs.
Reflecting on her experience participating in that study, Patrice states, “In short, I began to understand why my students were learning (and if they weren’t, why not).” Her experience highlights at least two aspects of how effective teacher-researcher partnerships are mutually beneficial. One, researchers get better data. Two, teachers get an added dimension to their understanding of how their classrooms are (or are not) working. A third possible benefit is that we also create the opportunity for teachers to drive research. By grounding our research in real-life challenges in education, we are much more likely to create usable knowledge that will have a real impact on students. When teachers are included in every step of the research process, they can help to ensure that the findings are communicated in accessible, actionable language that isn’t relegated to obscure academic journals.
Making Room for Research
Some schools and districts are now fortunate enough to have roles like “Research Lead” or “Head of Research” to foster such partnerships. But what about the rest of us? Schools are busy dealing with budget cuts and financial uncertainty. Where is there room for research, or for teachers to have the time to evaluate the scientific merit of the approaches they are being asked to implement?
If you are reading this article, it is likely that you are already motivated to start making some changes. One first step might be to know who is already on your side. Get to know reputable organizations that are linking research to practice, such as Deans for Impact, The Learning Scientists, Student Experience Research Network and The Learning Agency Lab. Get comfortable with asking questions such as “What research are we drawing on here?” or “What evidence do we have that this would work in our setting?”
But the onus does not rest solely on educators. Researchers have equal responsibility to continue to narrow the gap by ensuring teachers are meaningfully included in their studies. Not simply as passive participants, but as valued contributors. Administrators also have a significant role to play in filtering the initiatives (and professional development) that get into their schools. Education experts and professional development gurus have a responsibility to be transparent about the evidence that does or does not support their claims. And teacher training programs can better equip teacher candidates to know the Science of Learning themselves, so they will be better able to ask “Given what I know about how learning happens, does this make sense?” when faced with new theories or approaches.
Right now the gap between what researchers know about learning and how classroom educators are applying this knowledge is still too large. Teachers don’t need millions of tips to improve their practice. They need to know the ones that work.