Educational researchers have debated among themselves for decades the degree to which past and current studies have had an impact upon how teachers have taught and students have learned. Such debates over research findings reshaping practical work have not occurred among physicians or engineers, for example. Those who work daily with patients can see how research studies and clinical trials have influenced their diagnoses and treatments of illness. Research results have also had profound effects on how engineers solve problems and make new products. So what is it about educational research and the practical art and science of teaching that seemingly makes it impervious to the plentiful studies completed by researchers?
Many scholars have investigated the answer to the question and have come up with very different answers. Educational psychologist Robert Travers, for example, studied the past century of research and practice and with great certainty entitled his book: How Research Has Changed American Schools (1973). Yet his earlier and contemporary fellow psychologists (e.g., E. L. Thorndike, W.W. Charters, Julian Stanley), as Mary Kennedy points out, expressed deep disappointment of how little research had affected schools and classroom practice. Historian Carl Kaestle’s “The Awful Reputation of Educational Research” is another chord in that melody. This back-and-forth over the value of educational research to working teachers continues today. When it comes to teachers over the past generation, however, it presents a puzzle.
Over half of U.S. public school teachers have master’s degrees. Many courses that these teachers took to earn their degrees in disciplines or in education included reading and analyzing research studies. And many of these teachers wrote a master’s thesis or research papers to complete the requirements for the degree. For those teachers without an advanced degree, most have been exposed to recent research in their discipline or educational specialty through professional development workshops, media articles, or may have even participated in classroom research projects. So most teachers have been either consumers or creators (or both) of research.
But that familiarity with research seldom stills the frequent and intense rhetoric from policymakers, researchers, administrators, and lay reformers who ask teachers to use “evidence-based practice” identified in research studies. They want teachers to incorporate results of scientific studies into their lessons on fractions and decimals, phonics, photosynthesis, and the causes of the Civil War.
Yet in light of so many teachers exposed to research in their graduate programs, an expanding empirical base for effective programs, and a large population of teachers familiar with the ins-and-outs of research, so little of that knowledge has filtered into classroom practice. Decade after decade, critics have characterized teacher use of research as sparse.
This marginal use of research by classroom teachers, however, has not occurred for lack of trying. State, federal, and private efforts over decades have spread the results of research studies to teachers. Consider, for example, the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) that began in 1966. It contains over a million documents most of which are studies freely available to anyone. The National Diffusion Network (NDN) disseminated research on programs that worked in classrooms between 1974-1995. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) started its Educational Research and Dissemination program for classroom teachers in 1981.
Here, then, is a puzzle. Highly educated teachers familiar with research joined to mighty efforts to change that situation over decades, and yet the bulk of the nation’s teacher corps seemingly ignore scholarship easily accessible to them.
There are reasons galore for why this puzzle exists. For some critics of academic research, the primary reason is that most studies answer questions teachers seldom ask. So many studies are largely irrelevant to those issues that bite at teachers daily. Other critics see the reason located in teachers themselves who are so immersed in a culture of practice where experience and stories carry far more weight than findings from scientific studies. And then there are those who point to the age-graded school and the structural constraints (e.g., tight schedules that leave little time for teachers to meet and discuss instructional issues, number of students taught) that fix teachers’ attention on daily logistics rather than applying results of scientific studies. Age-graded schools are largely inhospitable places to apply research. Whatever the reasons, most teachers, critics say, ignore the fruits of research studies that could be used to enhance both teaching and student learning. Instead most teachers rely on experience-based practice, that is, the authority that comes from their knowledge and skills gained through prior experience and the wisdom of respected colleagues.
The situation, however, is not as grim as critics would have it. Those familiar with the history of teaching know that certain ideas baked in academia, have, indeed, been sold and adopted by teachers and put into practice in their classrooms. From teaching young children to read to the National Writing Project to Success for All, instances of academic research sorted and installed into teachers’ repertoires shreds the claim that educational research has no influence on practice. And that fact is an important clue to unraveling the conundrum.
Consider the work of Jack Schneider, a historian of education who wrote From the Ivory Tower to the School House (2014). In this book*, he does what gifted songwriters do: create a new melody or rearrange a familiar one, add fresh lyrics and end up enthralling listeners. He does so by artfully building an original interpretation about teacher use of research. His “song” will surprise teacher educators, policymakers, researchers, and lay reformers baffled over the puzzle of teachers knowledgeable about research yet seldom adopting scientific findings to improve their classroom practice.
The central question that drives the book is straightforward: what explains that some scholarly ideas, and not others, appeared in classrooms practices? He answers that question by examining Bloom’s Taxonomy, Multiple Intelligences, The Project Method, and Direct Instruction, concepts stamped made-in-academia. Schneider travels back and forth in time from a century ago to the recent past to identify the features of those ideas that made them accessible and useful to teachers in their daily work. Four factors distinguish those research findings that enter classrooms: teachers see the significance of the concept and studies for their students; the research findings accord with teachers’ beliefs and aspirations for their classrooms; the results of the research can be put into practice in their classrooms now not in the distant future–what Schneider calls “occupational realism”; finally, the new ideas harvested from research are “transportable,” they can be conveyed in plain language and the new structures called for are do-able within the confines of the classroom. In making the case for the essential features that he identifies, Schneider also recognizes that luck is an ingredient to the success story—being in the right place at the right time.
Not only does Schneider make the case for the key features of those four ideas that tie together their successful research-to-practice journey, he also takes four very similar research-driven concepts—The Affective Taxonomy, Triarchic Intelligence, Project-based Teaching, and Behavioral Analysis also baked in and sold from the ivory tower—that missed their way into classrooms. He shows that some features of research characterizing the successful transplanting of ideas and practices were missing-in-action in these comparable ventures.
The author also makes clear that the journey from robust research findings into teacher repertoires often get translated and adapted into versions that range from recognizable to distorted fun-house mirrors. Unintended consequences also flow from the zig-zag path that these ideas take from academia to the classroom.
So this is where I end up in the century-long debate over the influence of educational research on classroom practices. Yes, university-generated research has, indeed, influenced teaching practices to a degree but far from what has been promised or intended. Were reform-minded researchers and policymakers, however, to consider carefully teacher beliefs, aspirations, and questions, the conditions under which they work, and then join teachers to build cooperatively further knowledge and skills—then the chances of researchers’ answers to teacher questions might have an easier journey into classrooms.
*Full disclosure: I wrote the Foreword for Schneider’s book from which a few of the above paragraphs were taken.