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The Great Divide

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From time to time, Nancy Powell looks for research that she can use in the mathematics and computer courses she teaches at Bloomington (Ill.) High School. Sometimes, she finds ideas that are worth trying. And sometimes, she looks at what she finds and wonders where it came from.

Powell's experience is not unusual. Educators complain that researchers often ask the wrong questions, produce studies that are of little practical use, and write articles so full of jargon that they are barely comprehensible to non-researchers. Powell, in fact, may be more charitable toward research in her field than most; many of her colleagues, she says, do not bother reading the journals at all.

Why should research on the classroom strike the very people who spend most of their time there as irrelevant? In the world of education research, that has been a perennial question. Forty years ago, leading educators writing in the journals of the day bemoaned the gap between research and practice.

But as Harvard University education professor Carol Weiss suggests, 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 that recent findings in the field of mathematics education undergird the new national standards for that subject developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. And similar findings--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 mathematics textbooks.

"When people talk about putting research into practice,'' Weiss says, "they expect it to happen overnight, and it doesn't. 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 this field 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,'' Joe Wyatt, chancellor of Vanderbilt University, writes in The Washington Post. "Education research fails that test.''

Part of the problem, says A. Michael Huberman, is that teachers and researchers inhabit two different worlds. 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 usher research findings into the classroom is "like trying to join two planets.''

"If I'm a teacher,'' he says, "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 PA 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.''

Researchers, too, are products of their environments. They advance their careers by publishing articles in journals that are read by only a small community of researchers and academics. Translating their findings for a wider audience offers them little in the way of a professional payoff. Moreover, grants to support education research often include little or no funds for disseminating the results.

A number of observers suggest that classroom teachers and the public want more from education research than it can provide. The popular assumption is that researchers conduct studies, their findings are translated into products or programs for use in the schools, and education is improved. But, in practice, the process is slower--and messier--than that. Research-based conclusions on what works in the classroom come from a number of fields, including psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Moreover, education research involves people--not just individuals but entire classrooms of human beings--who are engaged in the joint enterprise of building knowledge.

"People do not willingly fit themselves neatly into laboratory conditions of rigidly controlled discrete groups,'' observes Patricia Albjerg Graham, president of the Spencer Foundation, which underwrites a number of education studies.

Further, conclusions that once seemed definitive 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,'' explains Ronald Brandt, executive editor of Educational Leadership, a journal that tries to bridge the research-practice gap. For that reason, Brandt says it is increasingly hard to cajole researchers into writing definitive articles on "what research says'' about particular issues. "When you come right down to it,'' he says, "we really don't know very much from research.''

That is frustrating for many practitioners. Nancy Powell, for example, turned to research journals when she began teaching computers in 1981. The subject matter was new to her, and, although she was already a veteran teacher by then, she was looking for ideas on how to teach it. She found little. "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 coming up with a dynamic lesson plan?''

Some teachers may be asking too much of research findings. John Zeuli, a researcher with the National Center for Research on Teacher Learning at Michigan State University, studied 13 teachers and their responses to several journal articles and research reports. He found that teachers who wanted the 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 the authors gave in support of those ideas.

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

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

Despite the research-practice gap, many educational innovations are readily embraced by schools and educators. Some even become fads. And a few of those changes come with very little research to suggest that they will improve student learning.

A case in point is the issue of smaller class sizes.

Eddy VanMeter, chairman of the American Educational Research Association's division on research utilization, says: "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. 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 is in part because "some things just have an easier intuitive appeal,'' says Sharon Robinson, assistant secretary of the U.S. Education Department's office of educational research and improvement. "Very often, research findings challenge our sense of logic. That is because our sense of logic is sometimes rooted in principles that are counter-productive.''

Michigan State University researcher Deborah Loewenberg Ball also points out that innovations that are fun for teachers are more likely to be used in the classroom.

She notes that the mathematics standards, for example, encourage elementary teachers to both use manipulatives and have students discuss their mathematical thinking out loud. When she visits classrooms, however, she sees many teachers using plastic cubes, counting bears, and other "hands-on'' activities to teach mathematics. But she does not hear much math talk from students. This, she asserts, is because teachers find it much harder to incorporate that kind of discussion into their teaching.

Ball is among a new breed of researchers whose work comes directly from the classroom. She is a former full-time teacher who until recently taught math each day to a group of Michigan 5th graders. Her research has grown out of that experience.

But many teachers do not want to assume the role of researcher. In an article in the fall 1993 issue of Teachers College Record, three researchers described a project in which teachers consistently turned down overtures from researchers to conduct their own classroom studies. The central aim of the project was to study the ways in which moral concerns permeate school life. Eighteen teachers did agree to meet with the researchers every Wednesday for open-ended discussion and dinner. And while the teachers declined to take on research duties themselves, their attitude about the study changed over time.

"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 Hansen, and Philip 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 to bridging the research-practice gap may be simply to increase and enhance the kind of collaboration that now takes place between college professors and classroom teachers.

Such contact may even have the power to change research outcomes, according to Harvard's Huberman. As part of his ongoing effort to study researchers' 'life cycles,' he is approaching the research-practice gap from two angles. 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 has 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.''

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

For their part, researchers 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 office of research and improvement spends only 5.5 percent of its budget for basic research, while 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. Moreover, critics over the years have complained that the studies that are funded are vulnerable to partisan or ideological manipulation.

Legislation signed into law earlier this year 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 OERI into topic-centered institutes, much like NIH, 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 the fall of 1995 at the earliest.

Meanwhile, many teachers have all but given up on looking to research for practical advice. Powell says she turns to the professional journals now only when she is writing papers for graduate study or for the national professional network to which she belongs. "Then I go out and find research to back up what I'm saying,'' the teacher says.

Powell tends to stick to professional magazines and articles that are "written from a teacher's point of view.''

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

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