Why The Best Source Of Education Research Is Your Classroom
by Terry Heick
Looking for the best source of education research?
The one with authentic data, practical studies, and a wealth of participants and possibilities?
How about your own classroom?
There is, increasingly, pressure to be research-based and data-based. Or ‘grounded in research’ and guided by ‘data-based decision-making.
On paper, neither of these admonishments are incorrect, but as I said in ‘It’s Not About The Thinking,’ the soundness of an idea depends on the quality of its effect.
‘I love the idea of mobile learning, so I attach positive feelings to it that can lead me to cognitive distortions downstream, where I oversimplify its function, or catastrophize our continued misunderstanding of its potential in education. I champion it, but the “it” (mobile learning, in this case) is merely an idea. The it + context is different. This is chemistry.
Think of it as pattern: Idea–>Integration–>Effect.
The idea alone is useful only as a matter of vision or artistry. As an academic or intellectual exercise. As a matter of playful dialogue or good old-fashioned bench racing.
The integration is a matter of design and engineering (designer and engineer being two minds of a teacher).
Ideas, integrations, and effects all matter, of course, but it’s all also recursive: One affects the other, the idea impacting the integration, the integration affecting the effect, the effect shining new light on the idea.’
There’s a lesson here for all of the data champions out there.
Administrators Giving Teachers Feedback On Lessons
Several years ago, I remember creating a unit and submitting it for ‘approval’ by administrators.
Again, that’s not a terrible idea–experienced administrators and informed district officials analyzing planned instruction, providing useful feedback, strengthening teaching practices and tightening workflow; teacher capacity is improved while leaders lead and students reap the benefits. In application, it was less effective–at least from my vantage point.
I’d submit a unit, be asked if I’d collaborated with other teachers on the creation of the unit, told where the unit failed to meet the ‘non-negotiable’ form (as opposed to content or quality), and, invariably, asked where the research was to support nearly every design-choice I’d made. It would look something like this:
Admin note in margin of unit: You’re using critical thinking stems to support a discussion. Where’s the education research to support this decision, and what data are you using to decide that critical thinking stems are the best choice? How recent is that data? Please get back to me by end-of-day with a response.
While–on paper–these questions were legitimate and entirely reasonable, the effect of those questions was problematic. I’d have to rush to either find research to support the ‘decisions’ and data to support the research and research that says the data was legit, and so on, or I could read education research and then identify ‘more suitable’ strategies and then shoe-horn them into the lesson because they were ‘research-based’ and the others were not. The lesson was already backward-planned from a topic and standard rather than the strategy to begin with. It all has to work together–the research, the topic, the standard, what strategies the students were accustomed to and which they weren’t, how long the lesson was, and so on.
So now, after much Sunday-night scrambling, I’d have ‘resubmit’ my plans. Not only was this an enormous amount of work for the administrator, but it’d often leave me up until late at night, or send me early to school the next day to revise my lessons (and then my unit because the lesson had changed).
And none of this did anything to improve the lives of students.
Research-Based Teaching Isn’t The Goal
The idea (of approving all lessons and units in realish-time) was fine; the effect was terrible. So, let’s back up to the idea research at large.
In short, while research helps us understand what works and what doesn’t and why, what it means to ‘work’ is vague and how well the results of that research apply to your classroom and the minds of students in it is, at best, uncertain. Using ideas for which there is data to suggest they might work makes more sense than the opposite, but implying data and research over people and effect is a kind of blindness inherent in business, industry, and recently, education, too.
There is significant transfer in the idea of being research-based. It is implied that since something ‘worked’ in the scope of a study or any aggregation of studies, it will ‘work’ for your students. That it will ‘transfer.’ Being research-based isn’t the goal, but a strategy to reach a goal. The goal has to be to change the lives of students and the health and membership of their communities. How was that study done, exactly? What about strategies that haven’t had peer-reviewed studies done on them? What about the relationship between a strategy and content and a child. Shouldn’t elegance and logic win here?
So, the whole point I guess is this: Research just means, in part, to verify something works under a kind of scrutiny. Data just means the quantification of something, presumably of some kind of quality.
So why can’t we use schools and classrooms as foundations to research? To test theories? To experiment and be playful and push boundaries? The transfer from a study in 2004 at some university about the quality of a specific reading strategy to your classroom is significant. So reduce that transfer. Take the ideas that pervade academic research and neurology and the work of Hattie and Marzano and Stiggins and so many others–take those ideas, then test them yourself.
(No, this is not–from what I’ve seen–what most ‘data teams’ do.)
The Best Source Of Data For Teaching Is Your Students
If your school and your classroom (and curriculum and assessment and all the other bits and pieces) are designed to function as research laboratories–and to produce laboratory-quality data–then everything changes from push to pull.
Research is, at best, predictive for future application. Put another way, research says ‘This worked this way, and should likely work in a similar way for you because we tested it.”
It’s merely predictive for quality. If you’re doing the research, there is less of a gap between here and there; there is no significant ‘prediction.’ There is no carrying the pale from the well to the table and back to the well again. You’re bringing the well to the table.
(Or the table becomes the well or the well becomes the table. It doesn’t matter.)
So then, the big idea is this: Teach like a parent–or at least like a human being, but plan like a researcher and reflect like one, too.
The best source for data is the students in front of you, because in the end, that’s the only data that matters.