The principal calls for the faculty members’ attention at the meeting. “Once again, we have underperformed on the state test,” he says, as teachers nod gravely. “Our students’ reading scores are terrible and the state might take over the school. So, we’ve invested the money we were going to use to update technology on a brand new reading intervention—no evidence yet on whether it’s effective. Forget everything we were doing before; It didn’t work, so we’re starting fresh. We roll out the program tomorrow, but won’t have training until the summer. Good luck!”
The reality in many schools is creeping ever closer to this hyperbolic anecdote. School administrators’ “fix it” solutions are often vastly different from what researchers have found to improve students’ skills. Despite a plethora of studies to determine effective instruction, many important studies never actually influence what occurs in the classroom. The road from research to practice should be a relatively straightforward one. Instead, it remains muddled, leaving schools scrambling for Band-Aid solutions and teachers struggling with conflicting information on best practices.
Teachers are pulled in many different directions and stretched too thinly. Something has to give, even for the most devoted. Lesson planning, grading, parent conferences, plus our personal lives and responsibilities leave little wiggle room in our schedules for much else.
When I was a high school English teacher, I prided myself on my work ethic. But I was too bogged down to, let’s say, pick up The Handbook of Reading Research and read the information-rich but dense 30-page research articles on best practices. Instead, my approach to instruction was based on what I learned in college, professional development, and trial and error. I was a good teacher, but I could have been better.
However, after beginning my doctorate in educational leadership with a specialization in literacy, I was forced to read those long, complicated articles. I was astounded by how much I didn’t already know. I was on the front line; why hadn’t anyone told me about, for example, Self-Regulated Strategy Development, which I now use as the backbone of my instruction? Why was all of this research being conducted if it wasn’t disseminated to the people who could use it the most: teachers? Research should inform what’s actually happening in the classroom to make maximum use of what’s being discovered.
While there’s a great need to bridge the gap at the system level, it’s possible to bring more evidence-based practice into your classroom:
1. Find an area to improve in your teaching and read up on what researchers have discovered.
I was astounded by how much I didn't already know.
While there’s never enough time, there is some. If you don’t want to consume precious free moments by curling up with a research essay, do the next best thing: Read user-friendly articles about what researchers have uncovered. A wide variety of publications provide short overviews on current research and make suggestions about implementing these ideas. For example, in addition to Education Week, Edutopia, American Educator, NEA.org, and Educational Leadership offer short, relatively jargon-free essays on diverse educational topics.
If, for instance, you want to learn about the best ways to model writing in the classroom, Google it. Just make sure to check the reference list for peer-reviewed journal articles to guarantee that your writers have done their homework on best practices.
Researchers jump through tons of hoops to uncover the most effective instructional methods, including completing a literature review of previous research, procuring IRB (internal review board) approval to ensure protection of the research subjects, conducting the intervention, analyzing the data, drawing conclusions, and wading through the sluggish swamp of the publication process. There’s no shame in letting the writers of the more reader-friendly articles synthesize this information, breaking it down into easily digestible chunks that we can use in our classrooms.
2. Investigate your current practices through an action research project.
Why do you teach a unit the way you do? Does it actually benefit student learning? If pressed, would you be able to prove that the instruction was effective?
I recall attending a professional-development session run by a well-meaning colleague with an interesting idea on writing timed essays. He bubbled with enthusiasm about this process’s effectiveness. Without meaning to be a Debbie Downer, I asked him, “How do you know it works? Is it research-based? Did you see any pre- to post-intervention improvement?”
He couldn’t answer.
It seemed fun and may very well have been effective, but he had no justification. He had tried it one time with a class and said the students liked it. But liking something doesn’t prove they’re learning something.
After starting my journey toward evidence-based teaching, I became more discerning on my practices. It doesn’t mean that what we’re doing is bad just because a researcher didn’t try our approach. But teachers can be researchers, ourselves.
Action research, whether individual or collaborative, can be an effective way to investigate whether or not an approach works. In general, action research involves testing hypotheses using different types of student data. In her 2012 Education Week Teacher essay, Wendi Pillars describes the action research she conducted in her classroom and offers helpful tips. Edutopia has also published a series of posts about a large-scale action research project, Knowledge in Action Research.
It doesn’t have to be so grandiose, though; it can be as simple as tweaking how to handle homework and comparing students’ grades before and after the change to see whether or not the new way is better. Action research offers the chance to test the integrity of an instructional approach.
The disconnect between research and practice needs to be repaired. School administrators should encourage teachers to review and share research-based practices by allocating time during professional development and offering incentives for participation. With the additional support of a data or instructional coach, educators will feel more motivated and confident in utilizing such methods. When teachers implement research-based best practices and investigate their own instruction, the potential for student achievement will increase.