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School & District Management Opinion

The Quality and Qualities Of Educational Research

By Howard Gardner — September 04, 2002 9 min read
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Experts concur that American educational research is deficient.

In the early 1960s, the role of the federal government in education began its steady, if unspectacular, rise in size and importance. In the early 1980s, the indifferent quality of American schools came to the fore in the report A Nation at Risk. Now, at the start of the 21st century, a new theme—the quality of educational research—pervades discussions of education in America. The National Research Council has issued a widely reported essay on “Scientific Principles for Educational Research"; the influential educator Ellen Condliffe Lagemann has published her long-awaited critique An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research; and Congress has enacted legislation, the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, calling explicitly for scientifically based education research. Though the details of their analyses differ, these experts concur that American educational research is deficient—indeed, some imply that it bears the same tenuous relation to “real research” as “military justice” does to “real justice.” And at least on the political front, a solution seems clear: Educational research ought to take its model from medical research— specifically, the vaunted National Institutes of Health model. On this analysis (not one recommended by the aforementioned educational authorities), the more rapidly that we can institute randomized trials—the so-called “gold standard” of research involving human subjects—the sooner we will be able to make genuine progress in our understanding of schooling and education.

Perhaps—but perhaps not. Minds are not the same as bodies; schools are not the same as home or workplace; children cannot legitimately be assigned to or shuttled from one “condition” to another the way that agricultural seeds are planted or transplanted in different soils. It is appropriate to step back, to determine whether educational research is needed at all, whether it should be distinguished in any way from other scholarly research, what questions it might address, what are the principal ways in which it has worked thus far, and how it might proceed more effectively in the future.

If I had average means but flexibility in where I lived, I would send my infant to day care in France; my preschooler to the toddler centers in Reggio Emilia, Italy; my elementary school child to class in Japan; my high schooler to gymnasium in Germany or Hungary; and my 18-year-old to college or university in the United States. Living (as I have for decades) in Cambridge, Mass., and being fortunate enough to be able to afford quality local education, I would send my young child to one of the better public schools or Shady Hill School, my adolescent to Buckingham Browne and Nichols Secondary School, and—depending on his or her inclination—my college-age offspring to Harvard or MIT.

What is striking is that none of these good schools is based in any rigorous sense on educational research of the sort being called for by pundits. Rather, they are based on practices that have evolved over long periods of time. Often, these practices are finely honed by groups of teachers who have worked together for many years—trying out mini-experiments, reflecting on the results, critiquing one another, co-teaching, visiting other schools to observe, and the like. In the past—indeed, in the present—much of the best school practice has been based on such seat-of-the-pants observations, reflections, and informal experimentation. Perhaps we need to be doing more of this, rather than less; perhaps, in fact, research dollars might be better spent on setting up teacher study groups or mini-sabbaticals, rather than on NIH-style field-initiated or targeted-grant competitions.

Still, there is a place for more formal kinds of research, carried out by individuals who have been so trained. Certain questions are best answered by systematic study, rather than by anecdotes or impressions. Controversial issues like the optimal class size, the effects of tracking, the best way to introduce reading, the best method for improving comprehension of written materials, the immediate and long-term effects of charter or voucher schools, the consequences of bilingual vs. immersion programs—these and other issues need a more formal research design.

Note, however, three characteristics of such research. First of all, it is expensive and time-consuming to carry out. Second, it is very difficult to reach consensus. As any reader of the educational literature knows all too well, one can find experts on both sides of any of the aforementioned issues, each armed with his or her supporting data.

Third, and most painfully, even when consensus obtains on an issue, there is no guarantee that policymakers will take heed. As a cognitive psychologist, I know that children must construct knowledge for themselves; they cannot simply be “given” understanding of any important issue. This insight—shared by thousands of cognitive researchers all over the world—does not prevent legislators from calling time and again for “direct instruction” or drill-and- kill regimens. We may properly conclude that the results of educational research make their way only fitfully into classrooms: They are but one of numerous competing inputs.

As a longtime observer of the scene, I have identified two distinctive cohorts, which, as it happens, relate to the two principal organizations involved in educational research. For the purpose of contrast, let me caricature them slightly.

Founded in 1965, the National Academy of Education, or NAE, is a loosely knit set of approximately 120 scholars elected because of the judged quality of their research. Traditionally, the prototype for the NAE has been the scholar in a standard academic discipline whose work has had influence in educational circles. In many cases, the scholars themselves have not been in schools of education and have not thought of themselves primarily as educators. For example, psychologists Eleanor Gibson and Bärbel Inhelder, economist Gary Becker, sociologist James S. Coleman, and historian Bernard Bailyn have all been members of the academy. This association operates on the assumption that the best work is discipline-based; it is not particularly relevant whether the scholars are deeply knowledgeable about conditions “in the trenches.”

The much larger and more democratic American Educational Research Association, or AERA, consists of thousands of researchers, most of whom were trained and teach in schools of education. These individuals differ widely from one another in whether they have a disciplinary base, whether they value the disciplines, whether, indeed, they see the disciplines as obstacles. What links these individuals is a deep concern with the condition of children and schools— particularly (among American members) the conditions of disadvantaged youngsters in American public schools. Research is often evaluated in part in terms of whether it contributes to improving these conditions. If I may continue this caricature for a few more clauses, I would say that the prototypical NAE member is a discipline-based scholar from arts and sciences who happens to have wandered into an educational issue but may well wander out again. The prototypical AERA member is a researcher born and bred in education schools; his or her allegiance is more to problems and persons than to a discipline.

Naturally, one’s own analysis of and solution to the “education research” issue depends mightily on which cohort one values more highly. Were I appointed the czar of education research, I would call for three tried-and-true steps and one new one:

Recognize that much of the most valuable work in improving education has taken place in schools and systems that engage in reflective practice.

1. (Following teachers from Japan, Reggio Emilia, and other sites of exemplary practice) Recognize that much of the most valuable work in improving education has taken place in schools and systems that engage in reflective practice. Take serious steps to encourage such work and, when possible, support it by timely regulations and infusion of funds.

2. (Following the National Academy of Education model) Require that every researcher who wants to work in education have at least one disciplinary base. Such a disciplinary base requires familiarity with the chief approaches in the discipline; knowledge of major contributions; capacity to critique such literature; potential for contributing to scholarship. The discipline does not need to be a scientific one: Important contributions to education are made by humanists, philosophers, historians, and various breeds of social scientist.

3. (Following the American Educational Research Association model) Require that every researcher who wants to work in education become knowledgeable about two issues: First of all, the researcher must have direct knowledge of the educational system; such know-how is best acquired by spending time teaching or observing in schools or other precollegiate educational institutions. Second of all, the researcher must have direct knowledge of the various audiences for educational research. Unless there is familiarity with the audiences that can make use of educational research (teachers, administrators, policymakers, the general public), the chances that even good research will exert any effect are effectively nil.

Identification of relevant educational research by the proper constituents is necessary but, alas, it might not be sufficient. Hence, a new step is needed. In this respect, I have been much impressed by an organization called CIMIT, the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technologies. Affiliated with universities, hospitals, and research centers in the Boston area, the explicit goal of CIMIT is to create technological breakthroughs for which physicians are eager and to expedite the speed with which these innovations are placed in the hands of physicians who can use them.

Decades ago, the founder of CIMIT learned that even medical innovations that were universally hailed often took years—if not decades—before they could actually be used with patients on a widespread basis. And so, in 1994, a group of medical-science leaders decided to work with top-flight scientists and engineers and to devote their principal energies towards shortening the lead time from invention to use.

The crucial step in educational research will not occur simply because we have quality research along the lines I have specified. It will not occur simply because educational practitioners and consumers recognize the relevance of such research to their workaday concerns. Rather, it will occur only when the fruits of such research are readily available to any teacher or administrator who wants to put them to use.

Howard Gardner is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs professor of cognition and education at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, in Cambridge, Mass. He is a co-author of Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (Basic Books), which has just been issued in paperback.

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