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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Zen and the Art of Education Research

By Rick Hess — July 14, 2014 4 min read
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A few weeks back, Mike Petrilli and I hosted another convening of the AEI-Fordham Emerging Educational Policy Scholars (EEPS) program. The participants once again reminded me of what a dismal job even prestigious institutions do of preparing talented young scholars to consider the implications of their work, contribute to public debates, or simply find joy in what they do every day.

As far as I can tell, what higher ed does best when it comes to research preparation is take interested, interesting young scholars and teach them that their role is to single-mindedly churn out desiccated pap and place it in little-read journals. This is not a jeremiad against any particular research methodology or discipline. Rather, it’s an observation that most faculty with whom I interact regard their research agenda with the same enthusiasm one musters for attending their kid’s piano recital. They say the right things and they know it’s the right thing to do, but the dominant impression is of teeth gritted in duty. Over the past three or four decades, for a variety of reasons, healthy scholarly discipline has gotten lost amidst hyper-specialization, the reflexive tallies of refereed pubs, the chase for grants, and the desperate pursuit of tenure.

I can’t recall how many junior faculty have quietly told me that they’re stifled, disillusioned, and wondering what the point is. They’re interested in trying to inform parents, practitioners, or policymakers, but they don’t think they have the time. They tell me that they can’t squeeze that stuff into a schedule that consists of collecting data, so they can write it up, so they can submit it, so they can get it accepted by a journal, so they can list it on their CV. The thing is, that’s a miserable way to go through life. It makes projects mindless and tedious. And it dampens the caliber and clarity of thought while encouraging lazy writing and a quiet disdain for relevance or practical utility.

To all of this, my tenured friends smile at my naiveté and say, “Ah, but Rick, this is an apprenticeship. Once these young minds are tenured, then they’ll blossom.” To which I can only say, “Really? How’s that working out for you?” After all, few throw off the shackles once tenured. Instead, worried about being promoted to full professor in a timely fashion or about moving to a better place, they keep on churning. Eventually, they’re so mired in their routine, and their writing has been so bound for so long, that it’s amazing when anybody breaks free. (Now, there are some obvious exceptions. But there are a couple dozen, perhaps, in a field encompassing many thousands.)

The purpose of research is to inform. Severing the production of knowledge from interest in its use means that scholars lose a connection to something sacred and profound. This is the destructive duality of subject and object, of mind and matter, that Robert Pirsig so elegantly critiqued four decades ago in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig’s book was a meditation on how that duality leads us to lose attention to what we’re doing, an appreciation for quality, and our emotional connection to the world around us. Pirsig’s solution was not some grand call for social change or governmental action, but for individuals to rediscover that link by bridging that chasm.

I can’t think of any better advice than Pirsig’s for education researchers--who, if they choose to enjoy the view, have a front-row seat to the fiction that we can precisely delineate objective truth from subjective considerations. (Personally, I’ve no idea how one “objectively” decides whether a .1 standard deviation movement in reading scores is a convincing proxy for “better learning.” It seems to me that that’s inevitably a subjective call.) In any event, it’s not an either-or. Neither Pirsig nor I would tell researchers to do less research or to stop putting their skills to use. They should absolutely keep on keeping on. They should collect their data and write it up and publish. But they should do all this with more consistent and deliberate attention to why it matters and to sharing what’s important.

Practically speaking, this means that academics should regard journal publication as a way station in their research, rather than the endpoint. Once you’ve learned all this stuff, what do you have to share with the larger world? That’s not a question of trying to publish an abridged version of your pedantic prose, but of asking yourself, “What have I found that parents would care about? That teachers would care about? That district or state leaders would care about? And how do I write or create something that will help them easily make sense of what I’ve learned? And where do I publish or place that so that they’ve got a reasonable chance of seeing it?”

The funny thing is that this requires a pretty minimal time investment. If you’ve done all the academic reading, research, and writing, you’ve already done 90% of the work. Thinking anew at what you’ve got, asking what’s interesting and useful, and figuring out how to share it is usually just a matter of a few extra days at the end of a project that’s already consumed months. The investment is modest, but the payoff is potentially vast, even if it’s only in terms of bolstering your personal connection to your work. (Bonus scoring: Spend some time being really clear with folks about how sure you are that the outcomes you’re measuring actually measure what we care about, as opposed to just measuring the things we happen to be able to measure.)

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