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The Study of Learning

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From time to time, Nancy Powell will look for research she can use in the high school mathematics and computer courses she teaches in Bloomington, Ill. Sometimes, she finds ideas worth trying.

And, sometimes, she looks at what she finds and says, "I wonder where it comes from."

Powell's experiences are not unusual. Educators complain that researchers are too often asking the wrong questions, producing studies of little practical use, and writing articles so full of jargon as to make them barely comprehensible to non-researchers.

Powell, in fact, may be more charitable toward academic studies than most. She says many of her colleagues tell her they don't even bother to read research journals at all.

"Researchers start from a different place and serve a different public than do practitioners," writes Ann Cook, another practitioner critical of education research. "The ideas and questions that inform their work are often irrelevant--if not downright bewildering--to those who work in schools or send their children there," adds Cook, who is the co-director of the Urban Academy, an alternative public high school in New York.

So why should research on the classroom strike the very people who spend most of their time there as irrelevant? That has been a perennial question. As far back as 40 years ago, leading educators writing in the journals of the day bemoaned the gap between research and practice.

But, as Carol H. Weiss, a professor at Harvard's graduate school of education, points out, some of that gap is more perception than reality. "A lot of research does get used," says Weiss, who has studied the use of research in several fields. She points out, for example, that recent findings in the field of mathematics education undergird the national standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. And the same findings--studies that show, for example, that young children's computational errors are not the result of random blunders but systematic errors--are making their way into teachers' editions of new math textbooks.

"When people talk about putting research into practice, they expect it to happen overnight, and it doesn't," Weiss says. "It makes good sense for teachers not to jump at the results of one study."

No one denies, however, that such a gap does exist in education. And a fair number of critics contend that the chasm is greater in education than in other disciplines, such as medicine and business.

"A fair litmus test for research performed in professional schools is that it must be meaningful to the profession's practitioners," one such critic, Vanderbilt University Chancellor Joe B. Wyatt, writes. "Education research fails that test."

Separate Worlds

Part of the problem, A. Michael Huberman says, is that teachers and researchers inhabit two different universes.

Huberman, a visiting professor at Harvard and a research scientist at the federally funded Northeast Regional Lab, has studied the "life cycles" of both teachers and researchers. He says helping move research from the university or laboratory to the classroom is "like trying to join two planets."

"If I'm a teacher and I've got 25 kids and I'm in an elementary school and six kids are hard to handle and one student is deaf and the manual's not working and I've got the kids working in groups but I can't keep the groups on task and somebody's making an announcement on the P.A. system, that's not really an environment that's conducive to reading somebody else's reflections on one aspect of what I do all day," he says.

Researchers, on the other hand, are also "prisoners of their environments," Huberman says. They can advance their careers by publishing articles in journals that only a small community of researchers and academics understand. But translating their findings for a wider audience--and putting them into practice--offers researchers little in the way of a professional payoff. Moreover, Huberman adds, grants made to support education research often set aside little or no funds for disseminating the results.

Other experts charge that practitioners and the public want more from education research than it can provide. The popular assumption is that there is a clear and logical progression from research to practice. Researchers conduct studies, their findings get translated into products or programs for classroom use, and education improves.

But, in practice, the process is much slower, murkier, and messier. Research-based conclusions on "what works" in the classroom come from the gradual accretion of knowledge from a variety of fields, including psychology, sociology, and anthropology.

What's more, education research involves people--not just individuals but whole classrooms of human beings--who are engaged in the joint enterprise of building knowledge. Patricia Albjerg Graham, the president of the Spencer Foundation, which funds a number of education studies, writes in the foundation's annual report: "People do not willingly fit themselves neatly into laboratory conditions of rigidly controlled discrete groups."

Cook of New York's Urban Academy points to another problem: Much of what now constitutes education research is just plain bad. She says researchers "come in with an agenda designed to answer a particular question, and they don't necessarily frame the question correctly, and they don't necessarily understand the context."

"It's not a sinister thing," she adds. "It's just naïveté."

Practical Considerations

To complicate matters further, research conclusions that seemed definitive at one moment in history can change over time.

"I think we're beginning to understand that, while research sheds light on issues, it is very often not a final light," says Ronald Brandt, the executive editor of Educational Leadership, a journal whose mission in part is to bridge the research-practice gap. For that reason, Brandt says he finds it increasingly hard to cajole researchers to write definitive articles on "what research says" about particular issues. "When you come right down to it," he concludes, "we really don't know very much from research."

That realization adds to teachers' frustrations all the more. Powell, for example, looked to research journals when she began teaching computer courses in 1981. She was already a veteran teacher, but the subject matter was new to her, and she was looking for ideas on how to teach it. She didn't find any.

"It's really hard to decide how much time you should spend getting classroom lessons ready and how much time you should spend reading," she says. "Is it worth four hours and not finding anything, or should you spend that four hours and really come up with a dynamic lesson plan?"

But how teachers view research--and what they want from it--is key for another reason. It may affect how they understand it. John S. Zeuli, a researcher with the National Center for Research on Teacher Learning at Michigan State University, studied 13 teachers and their reactions to three articles on research projects and two specific research findings.

He found that teachers who wanted studies to tell them what to do in the classroom had the most trouble understanding what they had read. They could not identify the authors' main ideas or the evidence given in support of those ideas.

"These teachers were like consumers interested in making decisions about what goods to procure without understanding further why the decision was warranted," Zeuli writes in a paper on his study.

In comparison, teachers who looked to research more broadly as a way to inform--but not dictate--their practice were better able to make sense of what they had read.

Classroom Appeal

Yet, schools and educators do readily embrace a handful of educational innovations. Some even achieve fad status. And a few of those changes come with very little research to suggest that they will improve student learning. Two cases in point: school-based management and smaller class sizes.

"I think the accumulating body of information on class size indicates clearly that once you get down to 15 students to one teacher, then you're beginning to have an impact," says Eddy Van Meter, the education professor who serves as chairman of the American Educational Research Association's division on research utilization. "But if you ask teachers working in the trenches, 'If you reduce the class from 25 to 21, will that make a difference?' they will say yes."

That happens in part because "some things just have an easier intuitive appeal," says Sharon P. Robinson, the assistant secretary of the U.S. Education Department's office of educational research and improvement. "Very often, research findings challenge our sense of logic," she says. "That is because our sense of logic is sometimes rooted in principles that are counterproductive."

But studies have also shown that many teachers have to see for themselves that something works before they try it. That means seeing a colleague whom they respect succeed with that particular strategy.

Michigan State University researcher Deborah Loewenberg Ball also points out that innovations that are fun for teachers are more likely to find their way into the classroom.

She notes that the mathematics standards, for example, encourage elementary math teachers to use manipulatives and to have students discuss their mathematical thinking out loud. When Ball visits classrooms, she does in fact see lots of teachers using plastic cubes, counting bears, and other hands-on activities to teach mathematics. But she doesn't hear much math talk from students--in part because teachers find it much harder to incorporate into their teaching.

Ball is among a more recent breed of researchers whose work comes directly from the classroom. A former full-time teacher, she continued to teach math daily to a group of Michigan 5th graders up until last year. Her research has grown out of those experiences.

"The research I wanted to do I felt had to be done by teaching myself," she says."I also felt researchers didn't really know how to talk to kids like I did as a teacher."

Experts and educators agree that research approaches like Ball's are a promising way to close the gap between the ivory tower and the classroom. But they also caution that it is not a panacea.

"Some people think it's good simply because it's done by teachers," Ball says. "But that's just as much of a crock as anything else."

Critical Resistance

However, some teachers may not want to be forced into the role of researchers. Writing last fall in Teachers College Record, for example, three researchers described a three-year project in which teachers consistently turned down overtures from researchers to conduct their own studies.

The central aim of the project was to study the ways in which moral concerns permeate school life. As part of that effort, the researchers met every Wednesday for collegial, open-ended discussions and dinner with 18 teachers.

Although the teachers declined to take on research duties, they did over time change their minds about the study itself. "The teacher who had worried about researchers 'not getting the story straight' said she now understood that an understanding an observer had of her classroom could be different without being wrong," wrote the authors, Robert Boostrom, David T. Hansen, and Philip W. Jackson. "And the teacher who had most angrily complained about not having been consulted in the writing of papers volunteered that she no longer needed to be consulted because she trusted the researchers and accepted what they would write."

The key, then, may be simply increasing and enhancing the kind of collaboration that now takes place between education researchers and practitioners. That kind of contact could even alter research outcomes, according to Harvard's Huberman.

As part of his ongoing effort to study researchers' life cycles, Huberman is approaching the research-practice gap from two sides. First, he has asked 12 researchers to keep journals in which they reflect on their careers, noting any influences on their work. He is also studying the evolution of a particular research effort--a method of teaching mathematics known as "cognitively guided instruction"--as it moves from the laboratory to the classroom.

Thus far, he says, he's found that, "If, as a researcher, you get shaken enough by people who've been in the environment you're studying for 20 years and they aren't fools, this tends to affect the way you construe the problem."

For their part, researchers also invariably point out that, relative to other fields, education research is woefully underfunded--a situation that affects the quality of the results.

The U.S. Education Department's research office, for example, only spends 5.5 percent of its budget for basic research. In comparison, 56 percent of the budget for the National Institutes of Health is allocated for that purpose, according to a 1992 National Academy of Sciences report.

And over the years, critics have complained that the studies that are funded are vulnerable to partisan or ideological manipulation.

Legislation signed into law earlier this year, however, is designed to change that perception. The goal of the Educational Research, Development, Dissemination, and Improvement Act of 1994 is to make the office more "consumer driven." It calls for reorganizing the O.E.R.I. into topic-centered institutes--much like the N.I.H. is configured--and for working in closer collaboration with teachers, principals, researchers, and other stakeholders in setting a research agenda.

But the revamped system is not scheduled to be in place until next year.

In the meantime, teachers like Powell may have all but given up on looking to research for practical advice. Powell says she turns to the professional journals now only when she's writing papers for graduate study or for the national professional organization she belongs to.

"Then I go out and find research to back up what I'm saying," she says. For the most part, though, she sticks to professional magazines and articles "written from a teacher's point of view."

"Sometimes," she says, "that's more helpful than the research stuff."

Further information on this topic is available from:

  • Atkinson, R. & J., Gregg B. (1992). Research and education reform: roles for the office of educational research and improvement. Committee on the Federal Role in Educational Research. National Research Council. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  • Casanova, U. (1994). A conversation with the assistant secretary for O.E.R.I. Educational Researcher, 23(6), 22-28.
  • Jackson, P. (1990). The functions of educational research. Educational Researcher, 19(7), 3-9.
  • Zeuli, J.S. (1992). How do teachers understand research when they read it? Research Report 92-6. The National Center for Research on Teacher Learning, Michigan State University.
  • Zeuli, J.S. & Tiezzi, L.J. (1993). Creating contexts to change teachers' beliefs about the influence of research. Research Report 93-1. National Center for Research on Teacher Learning, Michigan State University.

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