Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Why We Need ‘Translational’ Research

By Mary Brabeck — May 20, 2008 6 min read

Since it now appears that the federal Higher Education Act will finally be reauthorized, it will soon be time to examine the reauthorization of the Institute of Education Sciences. Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, who has transformed this grantmaking office of the U.S. Department of Education during his tenure as its first director, is resigning this year, and the future direction of the agency remains uncertain. In what direction should it move next? What type of research should educators and policymakers hope will be given priority in a post-Whitehurst Institute of Education Sciences?

Those of us who conduct educational research have a new paradigm to guide our work, if we choose to use it. Like other research initiatives, such as evidence-based practice, this model finds its genesis in the medical sciences, and is coined “translational research.” What is it, and what does it potentially offer education?

In medicine, translational research is often identified as “bench to bedside” work. It recognizes the gap between basic research in the lab and the practice of medicine that can make a difference in health outcomes. The goal of translational research is to give practitioners the latest information from basic-research labs in usable form. The idea is to produce better medications, improve diagnostic and treatment strategies, and enhance health through the application of information from basic science research. In education, not unlike medicine, vital knowledge too often remains with the researchers and is unavailable to the professionals who are in positions to help children and youths—that is, the teachers. We have a similar “clinical lab to classroom” gap.

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Consider the learning sciences. Research on how diverse children learn at varying ages and stages, and the implications of how they learn for teaching, should be central to what teachers know and what they learn to do in the classroom. But most basic research on learning is being conducted by neuroscientists who are located in medical schools, and by cognitive- and learning-science faculty members who reside in colleges of arts and sciences. Most of these scientists are ignorant of the work of their applied-research colleagues in the departments and schools of education. Those applied colleagues, in turn, in the education foundation areas of psychology, sociology, and economics, too often regard with disdain the teacher education professors who work with aspiring teachers.

Of course, many of the teacher education faculty members are epistemologically at odds with the researchers, basic or applied, who conduct empirical, quantitative studies. And to complete the circle that maintains the stalemate, those who do not believe that research findings based on inferential statistics have any relevance for children, youths, and aspiring teachers will only encounter impatience and dismissal from empirical researchers. Yet these groups, distrustful of one other, will have to build better working relationships to successfully meet the challenge of improving student learning. If the IES of the future were to adopt a model that funds translational research, such relationships might be fostered.

The National Institutes of Health has made this kind of research a priority. By 2012, the NIH expects to have 60 centers of translational research supported by a budget of $500 million a year. Twenty-four such centers have already received funding from the Clinical and Translational Science Awards program, and other universities and medical schools are gearing up to compete for the remaining funds. Likewise, the United Kingdom has invested £450 million over five years to establish translational-research centers. There are now two journals devoted to this emerging field, Translational Medicine and the Journal of Translational Medicine. In short, research agendas in health are being shaped to answer questions that start out as basic science and end up as clinical practice. And this new emphasis on translational research has pushed medical schools into collaborations with science faculties in colleges of arts and sciences, and with other professions such as nursing, allied health services, education, social work, and public health.

A new agenda for the Institute of Education Sciences could envision a similar approach to cooperation and collaboration in education research. Grants to basic researchers in cognition and neuroscience could include an “outreach” component, much like what is done with research in the STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—fields. Grants to neuroscientists might require them to work with teachers and schools as they conduct their basic research. Social scientists might be encouraged to apply the findings from basic research to the contexts where students learn: the home, the neighborhood, and the classroom. And teacher-educators could be encouraged to translate the findings from applied psychologists and neuroscientists into ways aspiring teachers should teach children and youths. The goal should be to distill basic research findings for teachers, who are, in a sense, analogous to primary physicians. Grants might also encourage teacher-educators to experimentally examine whether changes in teacher practices have a positive impact on student learning, and to track the results over time.

There is no doubt, as we consider international test-score comparisons, the stagnation in U.S. graduation rates, and the intransigence of achievement gaps between groups of our students, that we have a lot of work ahead of us. Teachers need to have usable knowledge about how children learn and how to teach them better. The federal government and higher education need to apply the same urgency of concern to this area that they do to making basic science research available to health practitioners. What can we do?

University presidents and provosts can help. They have encouraged interdisciplinary work to address the many health issues our society faces. They have devoted research provosts’ time, the bully pulpit, and the university reward system to the development of better practices in medicine. They might do the same for research on teaching and K-12 learning.

Grantmakers can help. The NIH is requiring that multidisciplinary teams be involved in the development of proposals for the coveted Clinical and Translational Science Awards and other programs. A similar program might be developed within education.

In education, not unlike medicine, vital knowledge too often remains with the researchers and is unavailable to the professionals who are in positions to help children and youths—that is, the teachers.

The faculties of research universities can help. Direct conversations between basic and applied researchers have the potential to change some of the questions basic researchers ask. Basic researchers, in turn, might come to understand the complexity of schools and the situational demands that affect student learning. Synapses and school budgets are both important in student learning. Conversations with teacher-educators, and a visit to the schools where they work, would encourage applied researchers to test the predictions from basic research in the context of the real conditions teachers face. Teacher-educators will need to develop the tools to be conversant with new statistical and measurement methodologies that can be helpful in establishing useful practices for teachers to promote learning. And all will need to keep the focus on the practices in teaching that affect learning outcomes.

Finally, the public can help. People must accept the fact that changing education outcomes is a complex and lengthy process. There is no quick fix, and no single superstudy will answer any of the questions we need to answer.

If we can get all that help, and a research budget closer in scale to the NIH’s budget to identify better health outcomes, we have a chance to bridge the “clinic to classroom” gap in education research.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 21, 2008 edition of Education Week as Why We Need ‘Translational’ Research

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