Hey, Researchers and Policymakers: Pay Attention to the Questions Teachers Ask

Mike Goldstein recently asked the simple question: “Why aren’t teachers clamoring for published research?”

His answer was hardly simple.

“One reason is that researchers generally examine the wrong dependent variable. Researchers care about next August (when test scores come in, because they can show achievement gains). Teachers care about that, too, but they care more about solving today’s problems….

A second issue is that researchers don’t worry about teacher time. Education researchers often put forward strategies that make teachers’ lives harder, not easier. Have you ever tried to “differentiate instruction”? When policy experts give a lecture or speak publicly, do they create five different iterations for their varied audience? Probably not.

The return on investment for teacher time and the opportunity cost of spending it one way rather than another is rarely taken into account. In what other, valuable ways could teachers be spending the time taken up with building “differentiation” into a lesson plan? They could phone parents, tutor kids after school, grade papers, or analyze data. Much research implies that teachers should spend more time doing X while not indicating where they should spend less time.

Teachers don’t trust research, and understandably so. There’s a lot of shoddy research that supports fads. Experienced teachers remember that “this year’s method” directly contradicts the approach from three years ago. So they’d rather go it alone. Newer teachers pick up on the skepticism about research from the veterans.”

Goldstein then lays out what questions teachers committed to their practice and the art and science of teaching want answered:

1. How to be more efficient. Many teachers want to work less without being neglectful. Or they’d like to free up time to invest in new priorities.

2. How to manage the classroom so kids behave better, thus lowering the “misbehavior tax” on learning. If a middle school teacher can “reset” the class only 3 times per period, instead of 5, that’s probably 1,440 fewer times per year that he has to deal with misbehavior. (By “reset,” I mean when a teacher says something like, “Guys, come on. I need your eyes on me. I need you to settle down. Joey, that means you. I’m going to wait until I have everyone’s eyes.”)

3. How to motivate and generate student effort, especially, how to “flip” kids who arrive having not worked hard in previous classes or years. This includes both getting kids to exert effort during class and getting them to work hard at home.

4. How to get kids to remember material that they seemingly once knew. Cognitive science has moved the ball forward here; now we need applied experiments with teachers.

5. How to best explain particular ideas and concepts. Each year, tens of thousands of math teachers try to get kids to understand the notion that division by zero does not exist.”

While there are a few researchers who ask such practical questions (and keep in mind that buried in those questions are  theoretical issues), most educational researchers, given the world they live in, ask different questions. An example of that are the hundreds of research studies on the effectiveness of laptops, curricular software, and online instruction that seldom attract teacher interest but appeal to policymakers who ask similar questions.

Consider the questions teachers ask when school boards and administrators buy and deploy the latest new technology:

*How much time and energy will I have to invest to learn the new devices and accompanying software?

* What evidence is there that these new devices and software will help my students do activities and tasks to meet district standards and score better on tests than what I already do without these devices and software?

*Will there be on-site professional and technical assistance in integrating new software and hardware and when glitches occur—and they will occur—will help be immediately available?

Teachers seldom get answers to these questions.

If researchers ask different questions than teachers, so do policymakers when considering policies aimed at classroom improvement of teaching and learning.

* Will the new policy cost more, less, or the same as the existing policy?

* Will new policy be more, less, or the same in effectively achieving instructional and curricular objectives than existing policy?

* What incentives and sanctions do I have to reward and penalize those principals and teachers charged to implement the new policies?

* How do I and district administrators promote the new policy to the instructional staff and community?

Teachers, researchers, and policymakers inhabit different worlds. The values each prizes, the incentives they respond to, and their daily work situations differ. Consequently, what each considers important in their respective world prompts the questions they ask. But if a teacher is the most important in-school factor influencing learning, should not teacher questions get respectful attention and action from researchers and policymakers?

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9 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, school leaders, technology use

9 responses to “Hey, Researchers and Policymakers: Pay Attention to the Questions Teachers Ask

  1. Bob Calder

    I like research. Well designed, double blind, peer reviewed research. Excuses are often based on sympathy for human subjects or lack of “time”. Yet year after year, we spend millions on implementing plans that cannot ever bear fruit.

    Teachers are like hospital employees that are told that they must cure cancer with diet and by poking needles into patients.

    Education reformers play the part of Steve Jobs, believing that we are surrounded by phantom poisons and a miasma of evil that can be washed away by distilled water with an abundance of positive ions.

  2. “But if a teacher is the most important in-school factor influencing learning, should not teacher questions get respectful attention and action from researchers and policymakers?”

    I don’t know what the profile demographics are for researchers and policy makers, but I wonder what % of them consists of individuals with a background as teachers. The reason why I’m wondering that is because I’m guessing that some researchers and policymakers have some background as teachers. To what extent? I have no idea. But, I would guess that researchers and policymakers such as those would pose questions and attempt to provide answers that would be most relevant to a teacher’s perspective.

    Anyone have an idea as to the number of researchers and policymakers with a background as teachers in any grade between K to 12?

    • larrycuban

      Autif,
      Most of the top tier of current federal policymakers in the U.S. Department of Education have had little to no teaching experience. Most foundation executives who distribute funds to educational ventures have little to no experience in the classroom. Few members of the U.S. Congress and state legislatures have teaching experience. I do know that former teachers have been and are legislators in Colorado, California, Rhode Island, and Minnesota. I would guess that other teachers have served in many other state legislatures.Also most state departments of education are staffed with former teachers and principals but, of course, those folks are not policymakers. Nearly all superintendents have been teachers at some point in their careers. Also keep in mind, that many Teach For America folks who completed their two years (and many who have continued to teach) have moved up the ranks and become principals, district administrators, and superintendents. Some have become state legislators and many have become researchers. However, keep in mind that just because someone was a teacher and becomes a policymaker, their views of what is best for teachers will vary along the conservative to liberal spectrum of school reform. As for researchers, I do not know the percentage who have been teachers, Autif. I personally know many who have taught. Perhaps, others may have some percentages or know more than what I offered here–or perhaps disagree.

  3. Steve Davis

    Even though many researchers claim that academia has cracked the nut of how to teach effectively, contradictory conclusions about the fundamentals of instruction abound. I asked a researcher affiliated with a well respected bay area research university what he thought about the merits of ability grouping within individual classrooms (homogenous vs heterogeneous). He responded that there were merits to both sides of the debate and that he could likely find research to support either view. He concluded by saying that as a classroom teacher, I was probably in a better position to judge for myself what works best and what doesn’t. While I appreciate the validation of my professional judgement, it leaves me groping in the dark for answers to fundamental questions. In the end, the ultimate problem may not be that there’s conflicting research but the fact that there aren’t one-size-fits-all solutions or answers to many of the best questions we ask.

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  5. There is plenty of research put out by a lot of companies, and the organizations and individuals who conducted the research are certainly well credentialed. Still, I’ve never seen research that indicated that a company’s solution didn’t work.

    So I, too, have some skepticism about the value of research.

  6. I once suggested that our school district try to get involved in research initiatives so that we could do some “research-based” teaching that didn’t require us to buy a specific product from a specific publisher. I was told that companies and universities doing research need much bigger pools than our little district. ha ha ha ha ha.

    I’m with mweisburgh in my skepticism. I would like to see much more focus on classroom action research and research conducted within school districts to indicate “what works” in a given place. Of course, that takes time and money and maybe even school librarians to help out. Foolish me.

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