Professional Learning

Trends in Research-Based Practice: Report from the AERA Conference

To know is not enough

April 26, 2012

"To know is not enough" was the theme of this year's American Educational Research Association conference. Over 13,000 researchers from over 60 countries met in Vancouver, Canada to present papers and posters in over 2,400 sessions.

One session that hit squarely upon the conference theme was sponsored by the Department of Education's Doing What Works Initiative (DWW). Four Implementation awards were given to nonprofit organizations and institutions of higher education to work closely with teachers and administrators in implementing research-based practices in real world classrooms. At Los Angeles Unified School District, 40 kindergarten teachers in 36 elementary schools participated in six months of professional development and coaching to enhance their use of Dialogic Reading (DR) with dual-language learners. Teachers who received professional development were more likely to use Dialogic Reading practices, and the OPAL tool proved helpful in observing and coaching teachers. A second group of researchers facilitated "Rapid-Inquiry Cycles" focused on "quick wins" at five underperforming public schools in Oregon. In the Rapid Inquiry Cycle, teachers and district leaders met regularly to define an issue that is highly relevant to the school, and then formed a reading and discussion group to strategize, implement, test and refine a solution to the issue.

Leadership and Art

Across the Doing What Works projects, teachers indicated a strong desire to improve their practice, and found the videos on the DWW website to be helpful in implementing research-based strategies. Another theme across the four projects was that support from district leaders was critical to success. Without "buy-in" from district leaders, teachers would not have time to meet or resources to engage in professional development, nor would there be an explicit agenda that helped to focus everyone's collective energy on the particular issues most critical to improving the local school context. Equally important for the success of the professional development projects was that researchers listened to teachers' existing knowledge in order to build upon what the teachers were already doing, and to engage them in developing more effective solutions to the most pressing issues at the school.

Numerous sessions at AERA converged upon the importance of arts in bringing joy to learning, and the need for arts to be integrated into core curriculum. Several presentations provided evidence that culturally relevant art projects can help to engage and empower students of color, and bicultural and bilingual youth. The famous doll-selection experiment, (e.g. replicated by CNN), has demonstrated how racialized attitudes can undermine the self-confidence of students of color. A study by NaJuana Prudencia Lee (University of Georgia) found that emotionally engaging art projects reduced pre-service education students' racialized attitudes, increased their self-expression, and helped them to better understand students from diverse backgrounds. Another study by Masakazu Mitsumura (Arizona State University) showed how drama helped to engage English Language Learners in telling their stories, developing their confidence and public speaking abilities, and helping all students to better understand the experiences of English Language Learners. English Language Learners are twice as likely to not complete high school (Garcia, Kleifgen, Falchi, 2008); and to begin to understand the challenges they face, one presenter asked that we try sitting in a foreign language classroom for an hour. The principal of ARISE High School in Oakland shared poems, songs and visual art demonstrating how art engages students in dealing with the crime that surrounds them, healing their community from the inside out, developing leadership skills, and thinking beyond the classroom. Richard Siegesmund (Northern Illinois University) emphasized understanding one's cultural identity through the lens of art history, and challenged teachers to ask whether they create "joyful lessons."

Scientific Literacy

Many sessions touched upon the importance of STEM learning for sustaining a productive future economy. The rise of STEM-focused schools was noted for successfully creating coherent ecologies of science learning that promote students' emerging identities as scientists. The National Research Council reported on what we know about STEM learning to date, and emphasized not killing students' natural curiosity with tedious math and science exercises, but rather, integrating science with other subjects as much as possible and as early as possible, citing Odyssey of the Mind as a great resource for teachers.

Researchers also emphasized the importance of scientific literacy for informed democracy. For example, they asked why it is that 84% of scientists agree that global warming is occurring, but only 56% of U.S. citizens think there is solid evidence to support such a claim (Pew Research Center, 2009). One experiment by Johanna Maier and Tobias Richter (University of Kassel) tested how best to encourage students to learn opposing sides of an issue when one side ran counter to students' pre-existing beliefs. Sixty-eight high-school students read four texts presenting opposing sides of an issue (i.e. vaccinations, global-warming), by learning one side at a time or by alternating between the opposing texts. The experiment found that students were significantly more likely to learn information that ran counter to their pre-existing beliefs when the opposing sides were presented in an alternating fashion. The research session on developing scientific literacy emphasized helping students to understand the role that uncertainty plays in science by teaching science as a process rather than simply as knowledge, and by teaching the meaning of "theory" in contexts such as "the theory of evolution," where it refers to an accepted explanation of a scientific phenomenon with substantial supporting evidence.

At several sessions, the same quote appeared: "Never underestimate the power of a few committed people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." Also resounding throughout several sessions was the theme of district leadership in providing the time, resources, and agenda-setting necessary to support those efforts. Hopefully, the conference helped everyone in getting on the same page, as we press toward action.

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