Research and practice 1: Chronic condition

Are you a “consumer” of educational research? Does it change your practice? Or do you trust your “wisdom of practice” and look for research that explains and validates it? Is there enough research out there for you? In the next few posts, I will be exploring some angles on education research, prompted by the announcement by Linda Darling-Hammond of a brand-new institution dedicated to policy-relevant ed research (see below).

Lagemann called educational research “an elusive science. ” It is, by now, past trite to point out that much of what is trumpeted as “research” about education is advocacy (thinly disguised, or deeply camouflaged), as in the numerous think-tank studies pumped out to tell us that charter schools are the future of education, that we should accept no excuses for underperforming students in poverty-stricken areas, that our national prosperity and national defense are threatened because our students’ test scores do not perform at the top of international comparisons….you can make your own list.

On the other hand, it’s also true that it’s very easy to look at the landscape of educational research, and see widespread chaos and triviality. So it’s reasonable to hope that some smart people can help us sift wheat from chaff, and then we can use the good stuff to– do what? Well, change the world, somehow;  like conservation biology, education research is largely mission-driven. Some focuses on policy and the big factors that frame educational enterprises;  some focuses on various aspects of learning and teaching, in order to make these go better.  Like conservation biology, education research takes place in an atmosphere of urgency (think of Wells’s mot that civilization more and more is becoming a race between education and catastrophe”) , and alas deals with matters of astonishing complexity.

There is clearly enough of a disconnect between research about education, and what is actually seen in educational settings, to warrant the investment of considerable talent and treasure to understand the gap and find ways to bridge it.  I assume  that the MSP community is a reasonable sample of educators (practicing different educational arts or crafts, hopefully in beautiful synergy), and I always wonder [a] what research gets used in and around the MSPs, and by what pathways, and [b] what research MSP people long for.

How about this?  Linda Darling-Hammond, whose work I always value, recently announced a new effort, the Learning Policy Institute.   The problem that the institute will address is stated thus:

There are many outstanding scholars who are doing important research about what works in our schools, and many outstanding practitioners demonstrating what can be done. But too often, the knowledge from both research and the wisdom of practice is left on the shelf or isolated in a few innovative schools. And when policy decisions are made, they’re often disconnected from research-based evidence and from the real-world experiences of educators, students and families.

The Institute aims to connect relevant constituencies in relating to ed research:

we are eager to learn with and from others in the education arena and other fields of work, within the U.S. and globally, as well as from data-driven research. We believe that cross-cutting, transpartisan conversations – informed by what many people know about good practice – will help us find solutions to difficult problems. Therefore, we will join with others to organize convenings and forums where together we can develop pragmatic, evidence-based solutions that can address the complex realities facing public schools and their communities.

This seems laudable.  The Institute must be offering something of significant import, because it rated a long article in Science magazine  (here), which also includes a Q&A with Darling-Hammond.

It is not fair, probably, to react to this news with the comment that the landscape is littered with institutes and projects whose mission might have been stated in exactly these terms (I intend to discuss some of these in coming weeks).  When an excellent team of experienced and committed scholars and activists takes on such a huge challenge, the imperative must have been strong, and they (knowing the landscape of their work very well) must feel that there is a real opportunity to make a difference.  I hope that’s true, and that they have found a way to make progress — or even that their efforts will, combined with those of others, add up to truly alter policy to better support a humane climate for authentic education as experienced by actual children and teachers.

Educational researchers truly appear as the children of Sisyphus, sometimes, alas.  Here is Darling-Hammond in her interview in Science, being asked the big question:

Q: What’s the biggest question that needs to be answered and translated into policy?

A: The very biggest I see is that, with the explosion of knowledge and global interactions, you can’t just tell kids, “Here are the facts that you’ll need to know.” The NGSS [Next Generation Science Standards] is a good example. Our scientific knowledge is expanding so rapidly, you don’t want to have kids just memorize a bunch of facts that will soon be out of date. You have to change how you teach, so that kids can learn how to be empirical, and look at the evidence with strong methodological tools. They need to acquire and find knowledge and make sense of it themselves, along with learning the content that exists. That’s a radically different kind of teaching than what most schools now offer.

It’s true.  This is an insight that John Dewey enunciated a long time ago (try 1910, in “Science as subject matter and as method,”), when it was dawning on people (or at least on JD) that the world was globalizing, that knowledge was expanding, that peoples were on the move around the world, and thanks to shifts in economic policy and dominant corporate practices wealth was increasingly ill-distributed.   What will this institute need to do, to overcome the barriers that have continually marginalized this insight for more than a century?  Which constituencies have not been part of the conversation?  What magnitude of effort will be sufficient to make the change?  Or do we continue with a “mole in the ground” strategy that seeks incremental changes on the ground, and hopes they’ll add up to revolution ?

How goes the revolution where you are?  What can Darling-Hammond’s team, or her allies on the field, do for you?  What have they done for you?



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