George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Making Sense Out of Educational Research

September 10, 2013
Image credit: Veer

Welcome back to school. I hope everyone had a fulfilling summer and is ready to greet our new school year and eager students for the beginning of what will be the best year of teaching in our lives so far. I spent part of the summer writing a new short-form book for ASCD (in production, due for release in January). Working on this project raised several questions for me that I think make great topics for postings. One issue in particular kept popping in my head as I researched topics in the new book: does educational research really matter?

In my graduate motivation course, I frequently ask students to recall a course they took at any time in their lives, a course they thought they would hate but, by the end of the course, loved. One student invariably says, "Educational research." Most of the other students laugh and say, "I thought I would hate it, but hated it even more by the end." When asked what made the course lovable, the student who mentioned educational research always says, "The teacher made it relevant." My conclusion is that educational research is not very relevant to most teachers, but when it is relevant, it really matters. The obvious questions are, "When is this research relevant?" and "How can we use it to be more relevant?"

Four Problems with Research

The first problem with research is how to understand what the numbers mean and how to interpret them. Everyone has heard the jokes about how silly the numbers can be without understanding the context. "On average, humans have less than two legs," or "If you put one leg in a bucket of boiling hot water and the other in ice cold water, on average your temperature is normal." Educators don't have the luxury of time or resources to interpret sets of numbers in a way that might change teaching behaviors.

The second problem with research is that it often reveals facts, not truth. It is easy to assume that these are the same, but they are not. The fact is that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, but the truth is that the sun never rises or sets. How many mystery stories are built on the concept of a suspect either getting off or being convicted because of a different way that facts reveal different truths? In addition, facts change. We have taught that there are nine planets in the solar system, but that is not the truth. We really don't know how many there are, as research has shown a range of 8-12 depending on definitions of what a planet is. Caffeine has been identified as causing cancer, reducing cancer and having no effect on cancer in just the last 15 years. How often do schools identify themselves themselves as using "researched-based" programs by using facts rather than the truth?

The third problem is bias. When research is used to prove a theory that the researchers believe is true, it is not hard to find facts supporting that theory. Research has proven that cigarettes are a health product, that Ritalin is the best remedy for ADHD, and a host of other conclusions that favored an agenda. It is more important to look at the preponderance of evidence than at any single study.

The fourth problem is that research can tell the truth and still lead to a false action based on that truth. It cannot tell us what to do, but is often used in that way. I have two very painful knees. Research proves beyond any doubt that amputating my legs would stop my knee pain, but obviously that is not the correct treatment.

Relevance and Inspiration

All of these problems with the relevancy of research have led us to make unwise decisions, disconnected from what is the best way to teach children. We have misused research and ended up with high-stakes testing, the Common Core curriculum, using rewards as motivators, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Research is like a camera taking a snapshot. The eye sees so much more than the limited view that a camera provides, even with great photographs. Clearly, we have misused educational research, but I keep thinking of that one student who ended up loving it because the teacher made it relevant. Given all of its inherent dangers, I believe that teachers and administrators can use research in a different way -- the way we use great photography. Research offers us the opportunity for inspiration.

It is not often that research and inspiration are associated with one another, but I think they are connected. Educational research can make us question whether what we are doing in the classroom makes sense. It cannot tell us what to do, but it can make us reexamine our current practices. It can lead us to investigate an issue further and discover something new, something we haven't thought of before. Research can also affect our macro view of what education is supposed to do. It can inspire us to discover new possibilities, open our minds to new ways of thinking -- and be highly relevant to our professional lives.

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