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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

The Past and Future of Education Research

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 01, 2022 11 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What do you think have been the most important education research findings from the past 10 years, and what areas are you hoping researchers focus on in the next 10 years?

In Part One, Beth M. Miller, Ph.D., and Jana Echevarria, Ph.D., shared their reflections.

Today, Bryan Goodwin and Meg Riordan, Ph.D., wrap up this series.

Student Motivation

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International. He is the author of Building a Curious School and the author or co-author of many other works on teaching and learning:

More than a quarter century ago, Alfie Kohn wrote an enlightening book that still sits on my bookshelf, well worn, dog-eared, and underlined. His book cum-manifesto, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, argues that how we seek to motivate students is all wrong. Sadly, little has changed in the intervening years, so Kohn’s central thesis still rings as true today as it did back then. In a nutshell, it’s this: Instead of tapping into students’ natural curiosity or innate desire to learn, we use external rewards and consequences (e.g., grades, class rankings, fear of failure) to goad them into learning.

Yes, those things work, but only in a limited way. As reported in a seminal meta-analysis of research comparing the effects extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation, carrots-and-sticks approaches tend to have diminishing returns; to achieve the same results, we must ratchet up rewards and punishments. Meanwhile, the cumulative effective of all those external motivators is decreased desire to learn.

Why does this matter? Well, as it turns out, student motivation is one of the most highly correlated factors related to student success—with an even higher effect size than teacher quality, according to John Hattie’s synthesis of hundreds of meta-analyses.

Fortunately, over the past decade, a number of researchers have pointed to a better way forward—one that taps into students’ intrinsic motivation and what we might think of an as espresso shot of motivation to learn: curiosity. A researcher at Williams College, Susan Engle, has conducted numerous experiments demonstrating the power of student curiosity in the classroom—as well as ways in which teachers inadvertently quash curiosity often in response to external pressures to cover content and prepare students for standardized assessments. She published her findings six years ago in a brilliant book, The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood.

Over the past 10 years, education researchers have published hundreds of studies that not only show how effective teaching practices support curiosity but also demonstrate the power of student curiosity to boost mathematics achievement, reading comprehension, interest in social justice, concern for others, and creativity—to name but a few topics.

At the same time, over the past decade, neuroscience has provided compelling glimpses of what happens inside our brains when we’re curious. For example, recent lab experiments have found that:

  • Curiosity supports enhanced memory. When we enter learning in a state of curiosity, we’re more likely to retain what we’ve learned—even incidental learning that wasn’t the original focus of our learning. In short, curiosity appears to prime the brain for learning.
  • Curiosity makes learning enjoyable. Brain-imaging studies reveal that curiosity-provoked learning—for example, getting an answer to a perplexing question—activates the region of our brains responsible for releasing dopamine—the so-called “reward molecule” that floods our brains when we eat a piece of chocolate cake or win a prize. In short, we enjoy learning things we’re curious about.
  • Curiosity helps us to focus our attention on learning. Studies tracking people’s eye movements find they are more apt to focus their attention for longer periods of time when they experience high levels of curiosity. In addition, brain-imaging studies find that curiosity triggers the regions of our brains responsible for attention and cognitive control. In short, curiosity helps us to pay attention to our learning.

In the next 10 years, I hope to see researchers increasingly turning their attention to identifying classroom and school practices that support student curiosity and documenting the benefits for helping students develop personal curiosity (something researchers call trait curiosity).

Along those lines, I’d love to hear from you if you’ve been having success unleashing curiosity in your school or classroom or are interested in studying the power of curiosity in your own classrooms or schools. After all, if we could get this right—truly unleashing curiosity in students—wouldn’t everything else we’re trying to accomplish in schools get easier and more joyful?



Meg Riordan, Ph.D., is the chief learning officer at The Possible Zone, an out-of-school program that collaborates with youth to build entrepreneurial skills and mindsets and provides pathways to careers and long-term economic prosperity. She has been in the field of education for over 25 years as a middle and high school teacher, school coach, college professor, regional director of NYC Outward Bound Schools, and director of external research with EL Education:

Does the phrase, “education research” spark joy and ignite passionate commentary about using data to drive change? Does it prompt exasperation about the gap between research and practice? Though responses vary, education research nonetheless yields insights that support practice and positively impact students’ learning.

The past decade has elevated meaningful findings that deserve attention and transfer to the classroom. In particular, I highlight three: 1) Relationships play a powerful role in learning and development; 2) Project-based learning is an evidence-based approach that creates conditions that accelerate learning; and 3) Systemic inequities contribute to and sustain education and career disparities.

The Power of Relationships

Research on developmental relationships offers insights and tools for educators. Simply, relationships are pivotal, yet 1 in 5 youth report that they lack even one strong relationship. The Search Institute’s research indicates that young people who experience strong developmental relationships demonstrate positive development in: personal responsibility, academic motivation, and social-emotional growth. Emerging from the institute’sr research is a framework that asserts: Relationships are bidirectional; are part of an ecosystem in youths’ lives; and, are rooted in an asset-based approach.

This is corroborated by Pam Cantor, M.D., of Turnaround for Children, whose research indicates that “the human relationship is the most powerful buffer we have against the effects of stress.” At The Possible Zone, a youth entrepreneurship and work-based learning program with a mission to advance economic equity, this framework informs program design and professional learning; the five elements of Express Care, Challenge Growth, Provide Support, Share Power, and Expand Possibilities guide educators in fostering individual, student-to-student, and community relationships. This research confirms what we know intuitively—that connections matter and that ongoing professional learning is needed to bridge research to practice.

The Impact of Project-Based Learning

Two new gold-standard studies illuminate the power that project-based learning (PBL) can have on students’ engagement and achievement. Particularly compelling is that the findings indicate that PBL improves outcomes for all learners across economic, racial, grade-level groups, and content areas.

What does this mean for educators, schools, and programs? PBL embraces instruction that identifies a question, engages learners in sustained inquiry, promotes feedback and critique that yields revisions, connects with an authentic audience, and produces a product with real-world application. Educators can design learning that incorporates these elements, creating meaningful experiences for all. Resources include the University of Pennsylvania’s research-based book steeped in findings from their Project-based Learning Certificate Program and PBL Works library of resources and tools to transfer PBL strategies to practice. Starting small is a start and one that helps students to thrive.

The Lasting Influence of Inequalities

Another important area of research points to how acutely Zip codes matter in accessing learning opportunities. We understand how deeply poverty and segregation impact students and communities-- most often communities of color. Sean Reardon, the director of the Educational Opportunity Project at Yale University, studies racial, socioeconomic, and gender disparities in academic performance and educational attainment. His work confirms that poverty rates and racial segregation between schools predict achievement gaps: Across the country, Black students score nearly two grade levels lower than white students.

This research highlights the need for high-quality teaching at underresourced schools (since teachers matterin increasing students’ achievement) and the need to address concentrated poverty by expanding access to health care, raising the minimum wage, reforming the criminal-justice system, and investing in affordable child care and paid sick leave. When policies meet basic needs and offer an economic safety net, vulnerable populations can experience increased learning, career opportunities, and economic mobility.

Looking Ahead: The next decade of education research

Though I could have included other significant education research, looking ahead offers future opportunities. What am I hoping researchers focus on in the next decade? My wish list:

  • How post-high school career pathways contribute to long-term economic mobility: Discrepancies in educational attainment and income levels that contribute to an increasing economic divide. Some colleges provide lower SES students with opportunities for high mobility, but most do not. Research on programs that support high school graduates to prepare for, access, and thrive in careers that promote economic mobility can offer viable postsecondary pathways for youth.
  • How ecosystems of community, industry, and schools/programs can effectively support learners: The phrase, “it takes a village to raise a child,” means an entire community contributes to interacting with youth in a supportive environment to help them thrive. I am interested in research that studies the impact on young people’s development of skills, social capital, and economic equity when ecosystems of communities, industry, and schools collaborate to elevate the capacity of young people, particularly youth of color and from underresourced communities.
  • Teacher professional learning that is intersectional and grounded in equity: We know that teachers impact students’ learning more than any aspect of schooling; yet, many teacher education programs still don’t equip teachers to teach for equity and deeper learning. With young people’s futures at stake, I am interested in large-scale research (through traditional or nontraditional pathways) on professional learning that is grounded in principles of equity, culturally responsive teaching, and intersectionality and how it translates to students’ learning outcomes.
  • Universal design and accessibility: A designer colleague states, “Design the right thing before designing the thing right.” When designing learning spaces, are we designing the right thing, ensuring they are accessible, equitable, flexible, and welcoming for all stakeholders? Studies indicate a connection between architectural design, environments, and cognitive, socio-emotional, and physiological responses. Early research around flexible learning is promising, and more essential now, since COVID-19 reminds us that spaces and how people interact in them matter.

Most importantly, I hope future education research deeply involves and supports practitioners in the field, helping teachers implement strategies grounded in evidence that support all learners, especially our most underserved.


Thanks to Bryan and Meg for contributing their thoughts.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 10 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

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.


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