Research and practice again

Another provocative blog post by Larry Cuban, on the use of evidence in educational decision-making (here).  Cuban discusses a Canadian study of how research does or does not influence educational policy making.  The results are not surprising:

The fact is that beliefs, opinions, and politics matter more in making policy decisions than applying research findings to schools and classrooms.

Cuban  also makes the important point that this is not just a problem in education.  It is pervasive:

Making policy in systems of criminal justice, environmental improvement–think climate change–and health improvement and clinical medicine–think of TV ads for drugs–are subject to similar political factors and personal beliefs rather than what research has found. Calls for more collaboration between university researchers and policymakers have also been heard and ignored for decades. Critics have pointed out many times that the academic culture and its rewards overlap little with the world that decision-makers face every week.

What an odd society ours is!  In most areas of endeavor, it is not hard to find quite contradictory “tides” of opinion flowing at the same time.  To the point of “research and practice,” the colliding streams include the respect for expertise, on the one hand, and the disdain for its (sometimes real) distance from the “real world” of practice.  I am reminded of Charles Taylor’s discussion in A Secular Age of the rise of “the disciplinary society,” as the Enlightenment and modernity took shape.  “Discipline” in both its senses (control, training) is  a powerful instrument for social betterment, and at the same time a force for alienation — town and gown, for instance, research and practice, theory and practice.  Across these divides, communication is difficult, and comprehension as well.

Not a new issue:  A century ago, Dewey diagnosed it as a central ailment in philosophy, education, social development, and others have sounded the alarm or lamented the “class distinctions” ever since.  Many interesting cases can be found in which bridges are built, and there is for a time, in a place or two, a real “learning society.”  Goertz et al. (2013) (here and in the MSPnet library ) provide an interesting examination of the mechanisms by which 3 different state agencies  drew research into their policy-making.  Four points are worth noting, from their conclusion:

  1. Purposeful action by the working team.

Contrary to a uni-dimensional model of knowledge utilization, where research users are viewed as passive recipients of published research, research use was a multi-dimensional process in our sites.

2. Social knowledge-seeking and design of use:

Incorporating research into policy and practice was often a social process, where SEA staff worked with each other, practitioners, and external partners to make sense of research and adapt it to their local context.

3. Brokers — people who themselves were bridges, and who (I would suggest) had pioneered the necessary reconstruction of knowledge and practice — played a nutritive role:

key brokers of research inside and outside the SEAs facilitated the research search and incorporation process.

4. Research was employed to refine and realize a vision:

Decision-makers were more likely to seek and use research designed for use than published academic studies to guide their actions.They also understood that research, particularly from recognizable and trusted sources, lent credibility to their efforts and motivated practitioners

I think this last point is one that bears repeating.  Too often, people talk about their decisions being “data driven,” or “evidence based,” with the implication that “research tells us X, so should do X.”  But people in groups do not formulate sophisticated purposes without a rationale, a theoretical framework (though often poorly articulated or inchoate). We know from research on “social cognition” that these frameworks are strong enough to affect how we perceive data — or even whether we perceive the evidence before us.

Russell Johnson, a life-long peace activist, used to take any invitation he was offered to give talks to community, school, and church groups.  He used the same title for all his talks: “The final consequences of first principles.”  It was conveniently vague, of course, but it also made a serious point:  In order to act, individually or as a group, in a coherent and effective way, against inevitable countervailing forces (internal and external), you have to formulate your vision, and shape the means and tools to that end.  “Data” emerge from “information” by the presence of a theory, an aim, a search image.

About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember some one saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colors. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service! (Charles Darwin to Henry Fawcett, Sept 18, 1861)

Social cognition:  how important it is, to take the time to examine not just our principles and vision, but also to ask:  Do we have the mechanisms we need to formulate, debate, refine, and challenge our purposes and ends, as well as the means we may use to bring them about?

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