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Making Sense Out of Educational Research

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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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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Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Facts, not truth. Exactly. And current facts, to boot. We must not persist with labeling kids with results from performances from Grade 4 for the remainder of their academic careers. The truth (not always revealed by the facts) is that students have potential that will blossom with appropriate stimulation and environment. (And I have facts to back that up!)

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Hi Dr Curwin,
Thanks for this thought provoking post. There's one point that I would add - teachers and researchers, in my experience, often see each other as enemies - or at least not as allies. Teachers can often disregard the findings of research in favour of what they think works best - or what they have always done. Researchers, on the other hand, consider teacher's opinions to be of little value. I should mention that I have a foot in both camps - I'm a teacher who is also completing a PhD in education. I think part of the solution to this problem is developing the teacher-researcher.

Dr. Allen Mendler's picture
Dr. Allen Mendler
Author, speaker, educator

Great piece Rick. Through the years, it has been maddening to watch some great programs that rely on a "preponderance of the evidence" get shot down or overlooked in favor of those that manipulate the numbers to support their bias. We must be very careful to avoid jumping aboard a new bandwagon simply because it touts itself as "research-based." As you correctly point out, there may be much more to the story than what meets the eye.

Erin Osborne's picture
Erin Osborne
Education writer

Great article. It's so important to remember all the factors that are at play in education research. In today's society people want information broken down into tiny, bite-sized pieces. This can't be done with most research without losing context or inserting bias. The more people that realize this the better!

Jennifer Gonzalez's picture
Jennifer Gonzalez
Blogger at Cult of Pedagogy

(in response to Keith's comment) Keith, having worked as an adjunct in a teacher-preparation program, I couldn't agree more. When we sent student teachers into the field and asked them to apply research-based practices, they were often met with intense resistance from their cooperating teachers. This often came from a place of defensiveness -- a feeling that the teachers' own practices were under attack.

By the same token, I saw little effort on the university's part to involve local practicing teachers in decision-making when it came to changes in the program or course requirements for new teachers. Where there could be a strong cooperative relationship, there is most often animosity and silence.

It doesn't have to be this way, but real change would require good leadership in both camps -- people with vision and the ability to break down people's defenses so we can learn from each other. This leadership wouldn't have to be top-down; it could come from a few teachers or university faculty with a clear mission and the right skill set to get the ball rolling.

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

One of the reasons why I love posting for Edutopia, beside wanting to change the world, is to read the comments and to start dialogue. I feel lucky at this stage of my career to still be able to generate people to think. So thank all of you who take the time to comment. Your thoughts matter. A side comment to Johnson. Yes, educational research is important, especially if a professor is seeking tenure. I find some studies fascinating and they inform my work. But they only help if we see that when done correctly, they produce facts in a frozen moment in time and that they help educators ask questions rather than prescribe answers.
I look forward to reading all your comments for all my posts and appreciate your contributions to making the lives of children even better.

Michael Bett's picture
Michael Bett
LearnLab Managing Director @ Carnegie Mellon

@Kieth Heggart. I couldn't agree more with your comments. At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh we have developed a new masters program to prepare a new generation of educators who will challenge the future of learning and re-examine the goals of education and assessment. Based on our research, we have developed a one-year Professional Masters in Educational Technology and Applied Learning Science (METALS) program. This one-year program teaches instructors how to use evidence-based research to make innovative change and become leaders in the educational technology revolution. If you want to learn more about the program we have developed, see

Lyn's picture
Principal at Roncalli STEM Academy

Dr. Curwin,
I was fortunate to have an impactful teacher when I was completing my student teaching in the Bay Area. While I now live in the world of data, as a principal attempting to restart a year four turnaround school, I remember how powerful a good teacher's modeling was in shaping my views and practice. I look at data, representing the results of what we do every day, but see between the numbers. I see those things that are not as easy to quantify; the things that create the possibility for research-based instructional strategies to be effective. The teacher who taught me to actually see when I am looking was you. Your mentorship has remained with me in every phase of my career. I send my thanks to you and to all true teachers who interpret the world through a human lens in ways that a computer never will.

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Thank you, Lyn, for your letter. It so good to know that I had such positive influence on you, and that influence is now spreading to your faculty and students.Teaching is a hidden harvest, our work takes fruition long after we are gone. I am fortunate to get a glimpse of that harvest from you. I wonder if you remember me saying that as a teacher, enlightenment comes with every step?
Have a joyful holiday,


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