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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Are You Blithely Unaware of How Educational Research Impacts You?

By Peter DeWitt — June 10, 2018 6 min read
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In education, like other professions, there is always a healthy discussion about the difference between teachers and leaders who look at education as a profession, and those who look at it as a job. It doesn’t necessarily mean one group is more successful than another, but it does usually mean that those who look at it as a profession may do more reading of educational material or actively engage in professional learning and development.

For those who engage in more academic reading, they understand the sheer amount of research and researchers out there in the world. We know that there are many researchers and university professors who are researching what works or doesn’t work in education. Clicking on one link brings us down the rabbit hole to many other pieces of research. We often can get lost in citations alone.

When we do a Google search on educational research, we come across millions of hits...some of which is high quality research, and others are one person’s interpretation of someone else’s educational research. We are familiar with names like Dewey, Dweck, Gardner, Guskey, Tomlinson, Goddard and Goddard, and Hattie because those names, and their research, has floated to the top and have had a profound impact on what we do. Other names are less familiar to us because they get lost in the noise of what is popular.

And that begins why there is a disconnect between research and practice.

How Can You Be Blithely Unaware...
Not everyone, however, cares about educational research, and that even goes for those who work in education. For example, a few months ago I was working with a large group of principals, and I asked how many heard of John Hattie. The name reference was important because it was central to the collaborative leadership work I was engaging in with the leaders. Only about 10% of the 150 leaders raised their hands. No doubt, some may have left remembering Hattie’s name while others had no clue who John was, nor did they know what he had researched.

That happens a lot, and it usually means that I have to give the Cliff Notes version of the research. It also means that there was a gap in the communication that went out regarding why people needed to come to the session, and what they needed to know before they came. And perhaps it’s because Hattie’s research impacts me daily, I was a bit surprised that so many had no idea who he was.

Later in the month, I was out to dinner with a friend who is a teacher and we were talking about research and practice. At one point, she smiled and said, “I have no idea who these people are that you are talking about.” My intention was to not be a name dropper, but my life is highly impacted by these researchers because of this blog. my job as a writer or consultant. Her life is not...or so you may think.


Well, it has a lot to do with Devil Wears Prada. Yes, the 2006 movie with Ann Hathaway, Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt.

If you’ve ever watched the movie, you know that Ann Hathaway plays Andrea. Andrea is a very non-fashion forward young woman who gets a job working for Runway Magazine. She was desperate for a job because she was living in NYC and wanted to further her career as a writer, but needed to pay the bills as well. She didn’t know anything about fashion, but it was either take a job at Runway or Auto Universe. She chose Runway.

For Andrea, working at Runway was a job and not a profession. But, it was her hope to begin writing at some point. In the movie, Runway is led by the highly intense, very powerful Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep). To say she is a tough boss would be an understatement.

On her first day of work, Andrea walks into a meeting wearing her old blue cable-knit sweater where Streep and her fashion profession-minded team are putting together outfits (do they still call it that?) for the next issue of the magazine. They have most of the ensemble together and find that they need a belt to complete the look. One of the fashion consultants walks up with two belts that look exactly the same (to Andrea), and remarks how tough the choice would be to pick the right one because they look so different (to the rest of the people in the room).

At that moment, Andrea laughs a bit because she, like most of us viewers, thinks the belts look exactly the same. And, it’s at that moment that Miranda schools her on how Andrea believes she is anti-fashion because she chooses to wear an old cable-knit sweater in silent protest to where she works at a fashion magazine, and yet Miranda reminds her that Andrea’s outfit that day was a direct result of the people standing in that room who are the epitome of fashion.

In fact she says that Andrea no doubt thought she was avoiding fashion when she “dug into the bargain bin at some random Casual Corner, and she was blithely unaware that the sweater she was wearing was a direct result of the people in the room (watch Fandango clip here).”

Like Andrea walking in Runway each day, there are leaders and teachers who walk into school blissfully unaware of what can help them improve. And sadly, most of you reading this are not one of them.

A Balance Between Research and Practice
There are teachers and leaders who believe that researchers have little to do with their classroom practice, but the reality is that what researchers do has a direct effect on everything that happens in the classroom. We may think that we work in silent protest to research but the reality is that it all trickles down into our little casual corner called our classrooms and schools. And we should stop being blithely unaware of it all.

When we are implementing a new initiative in our schools, we talk about our center-based learning, literacy circles, and engage in classroom discussion or lecture. Additionally, we use acronyms like PLC’s, ILT’s (instructional leadership teams) and RTI, but many times those carrying out the work don’t necessarily know the research behind each one of those acronyms. We never take the time to look at the research as much as we drop the acronyms and implement the practices according to our understanding in the classroom.

In the End
Too many people enter into teaching blithely unaware because they view teaching as a job and not a profession. Others work hard every day with students, and then find themselves engaging in professional learning and development that they have to fund themselves. And in both cases, the principal doesn’t understand the research either, so they name drop or drop the acronyms, and move on about their day providing little feedback to either party.

Teaching and leading are about building trust, creating relationships with students, and understanding the impact of our credibility as a teacher or leader (Read here about teacher credibility). After that, teaching and leadership is about understanding our practices and ways to foster classroom climates where students feel they can take a risk and ask questions.

We take these steps to building trust, creating relationships, and engaging in highly effective classroom practices by focusing on one area as often as we can, and reading the research behind each one. It’s time for each one of us to take our profession seriously, and that means we have to stop being blithely unaware of the research that is meant to support us.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017), and Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.