Teaching Opinion

Response: Applying Research Findings to the Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 08, 2012 9 min read
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J. Casey Hurley asked:

What does it look like to apply research findings to classroom practice?

Theoretical responses, (“It would look like this. . .”) do not count. I am looking for actual descriptions of what teachers did to apply specific findings in their classrooms.

I would welcome responses from researchers and teachers.

As I wrote last week, there is often a disconnect between education research and classroom application, and it appears that researchers, as well as teachers, know it. Education Week writer Sarah Sparks writes a blog here about ed research, and has shared reflections like these from researchers:

Educators and policy makers frequently argue that a study intended to answer a problem from the field becomes obsolete by the time it is released, or that its resulting intervention doesn’t work when translated to real classrooms.

“It’s not enough
to know” how a school or community can improve,[researcher Linda T.] Smith said, echoing the theme of the conference, “if you just annoy everybody.”

But many educators have been successful in applying helpful research findings, and two of them, Bryan Goodwin and Marissa Rasavong, share their experiences in this column today.

I’ve had another question related to education research on my mind for awhile, and thought I might “piggyback” it on this post. I’ve sometimes wondered what education research can be considered “universal” in nature, and what research should be applied only to particular groups and/or situations. My question is restated more completely later in this post, and Dr. Tammy Heflebower, Vice-President of the Marzano Research Laboratory, answers it. Dr. Robert Marzano contributed to her response.

You might also be interested in Several Ways To Tell The Difference Between Good & Bad Education Research, a previous post in this blog, and The Best Resources For Understanding How To Interpret Education Research.

I’d also like to share my thoughts on the the question.

I’m a voracious reader of research and have often written here about how I apply it in classroom management and instruction. In fact, I compile an annual list of published studies that I think are most helpful to teachers in the classroom. At the same time, I am aware of its limitations, and try to treat my students as unique individuals. Just as I am data-informed and not data-driven, I look at research the same way. For example, though I am a strong proponent and practitioner of developing intrinsic motivation, which almost all research supports, I have also on occasion offered extrinsic motivators for students who needed it to get started on the road to success -- but always with an “exit strategy” in place.

I also believe that there is some research that suggests classroom practices that might succeed in narrow goals, but lose sight of the basic values of education. One example that would fit in this category would be the recently well-publicized “loss aversion” study showing that student test scores would increase by giving small children money and trophies but telling them they would be taken away (and actually taking them away) if they did not do well on their tests.

To paraphrase an old expression, I’d suggest that education research has its place, but also has to be kept in its place....

Response From Bryan Goodwin

Bryan Goodwin recently wrote Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success also writes the “Research Says” column in Educational Leadership:

Applying research on student motivation to teacher talk

“You’re a smart kid. You should apply yourself more.”

I imagine a lot of teachers have said something like this to a student or two. In my case, it was a student whom we’ll call Jerry. His quick answers and keen insights told me he was capable of doing better. But my pep talks never did much good. The more I goaded, it seemed, the less he tried.

Years later, while digging into research on student motivation, I realized where I had gone wrong. By telling Jerry he was smart, I had reinforced what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset"---a belief that “smarts” is something you’re born with, not cultivated through effort. And by guilt tripping him, insisting he should work more, I had probably crimped Jerry’s sense of self-determination, which researcher Edward Deci says is key to intrinsic motivation (no one likes being told what they should do).

Here’s what I know now, that I wish I had known then, about teacher talk in the classroom.

If I could do it over again with the benefit of hindsight, I’d tell Jerry something like this: “You’ve got a lot of potential. Right now, it’s going to waste. I’d like to help you unleash it, but that’s up to you.”

Response From Marissa Rasavong

Marissa Rasavong is currently the project facilitator of state-funded pre-kindergarten in the Clark County School District of Nevada. Marissa previously taught kindergarten and Title I pre-kindergarten at Robert Lake Elementary in Las Vegas. She is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network:

For early childhood educators, especially those of us who teach in public schools, research is just as much about gaining respect for our practice as it is about reliability and validity. All too often we hear from colleagues and parents, “All they do is play.” While that may be true in some classrooms, those of us who adhere to the science of child development know how applying research can make play an asset to learning.

Early Childhood educators use research in two main areas of their practice:

To set the stage. Since young children spend a large amount of their learning time engaged in play, the environment becomes critical to promoting higher levels of student achievement. Every plant in the room, every rounded corner on a shelf, and every art medium have purpose in the room because research-based rating systems clearly define how each material leads to higher student achievement. I refer to a series of environmental rating systems (ITERS/ECERS/SACERS) to define which activities, interactions, materials and practices are proven to produce positive student outcomes. In math centers, for instance, I know that 3-5 types of developmentally appropriate manipulatives for classifying and sorting objects will provide an environment conducive to student learning.

To engage. The difference between play and purposeful play marks the distinction between daycare and preschool. Facilitating play that promotes learning is a complex equation involving interactions and questioning, appropriate materials and background knowledge. Educators who use research-based practices effectively facilitate the learning experience so that teaching and play flow seamlessly. Research conducted by ECERS specifies that such interactions must use actual events and experiences as a basis for concept development (ie: one to one correspondence taught while students set the table for the appropriate number of chairs at snack time) and concepts introduced in response to children’s interests rather than teacher chosen concepts.

Response From Dr. Tammy Heflebower

Dr. Tammy Heflebower is Vice-President of the Marzano Research Laboratory. Dr. Robert Marzano contributed to her response:

Your initial question was something like: I have been told by some that research done in the field of education may not be applicable to different sub-groups, such as English language learners, students with special needs, and the like. Are there certain learning strategies that are universal in nature and can be applied across the spectrum, or must every instructional strategy be tried-out with every sub-group before it can be declared effective for that sub-group?

As we all realize, research can sometimes be difficult to find regarding specific subgroups, although it certainly exists. It has been well-documented that a teacher’s skills and knowledge are the most important variables in the classroom (Darling-Hammond, 1997). Stated differently, that what a teacher does in the classroom has a direct effect on student achievement (Nye, Konstantopoulos, & Hedges, 2004). Other research from the National Center for Education Statistics also shares that when teachers have strong academic skills students learn more (Mayer, Mullens, & Moore, 2000).

Referencing Dale’s “Cone of Experience”, we recognize that the more active we make learning the better for students classified as ELL or needing special services. For example, when students participate in discussions or actually do the real-world experience, retention can be upwards of 50-100% than that of simply being expected to read or look at pictures of the learning (10-30%.) One example might be the work regarding establishing what is essential to learn and the proficiency scales that detail what that looks and sounds like along the progression is important not only for general education, but especially for those in subgroups like English language learners and special education. These specific elements assist with outlining what is essential for the content areas, but also for providing more specific feedback--all well-researched strategies.

Although settings for which some of the research may or may not be experimental studies, generalizations from such information is that subjects were often from various experiential backgrounds, socio-economic status, and abilities. Although research never professes to be the only way to do something, research generalizations can be as important to helping subgroups as not.

Additionally, action research studies are conducted on-sites with real classrooms filled with student differences, and show many strong achievement improvements from teachers trying and implementing strategies. Schon (1987) argued that “reflection-in-action” (reflection in the midst of an action) is an important way for teachers to increase their skills, as is “reflection-on-action” (looking back after the fact) to see that strategies assist students--specifically students in NCLB sub-populations. In fact, Ericsson and his colleagues (1993) discuss the power of deliberate practice. The goal is not to avoid thinking about a skill or process, rather to strive to achieve mastery at higher levels of performance. This empirical evidence is important as teachers work to improve their practices to in-turn improve student achievement for all students

Thanks to Bryan, Marissa, and Tammy for taking the time to contribute their responses!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.