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C'est la Z

Research Vs Practice

I've been seeing a lot of tweets recently about "the research" - how PD should present how to teach and cite "the research," how research defines the best practices teachers should use, and on and on.

As readers know, this is not something I subscribe to.

What got me this time was a specific tweet on the PD thing and how it's critically important to show the research to "prove" the effectiveness of whatever is being pitched. Sorry, no.

Let's look at two scenarios.

Scenario 1:

You get a PD either from a researcher telling you how to teach based on their research or, as would be more common, from an administrator or private consultant or contractor who read some researcher's work.

The presenter tells you about the practice and how the research said it was the one true way.

Scenario 2:

You get a PD from an actual teacher. They tell you what they tried, how it went, and a robust discussion ensues between the presenter and audience on how the practice might or might not work with the audience's students.

I'm taking scenario 2 any day of the week.

There is and can be good education research and it can have tremendous value but the truth is, education research has pretty poor overall reputation and as far as I can tell, it's largely deserved. Over my career, I've been told how to teach multiple times based on the research only to hear a few years later that it was wrong and there's another one true way.

Ed research, as far as I can tell is rarely if ever reproduced and hardly ever accounts for the many, MANY variables that can change outcomes.

I'll talk about the good side of Ed Research down below but first an example.

I've spoken to ed researchers over the years and told them a story of my classes and how my first period CS class always under-performed as compared to my later classes. Not by a lot but it was consistent. The response was always the same - "that class starts at 8:00am, right? That's way too early - that's the difference." Sounds good and truth be told, I agree that 8:00am is too early but that wasn't the factor. My first period was weaker because math team ran at the same time. My other CS classes always had a math team ace or two pulling up the average. Once I took them out of the mix, the variance was gone.

There are so many subtle and not so subtle factors that can affect a class that it's impossible for "the research" to cover it all. Sure, you can account for a few, particularly big and obvious ones but there are so many more. Was the class before or after lunch or gym? What about on the sunny side of the building getting the greenhouse affect in the mid afternoon? What about just certain mixes of students. The variables are endless.

Rather than telling us teachers how to teach based on "the research" I'd much rather hear from, and/or talk to teachers about things they've tried. What worked for them and what didn't. Why, at least from their perspective. Then I can pick and chose and try for myself. While I've gotten some good ideas from research papers, the amount is pretty meager compared to what I've learned from other teachers.

All this said, I do think that there can be good and great research and that good research is important.

Even if you don't account for all the variables, researchers are documenting practices and this is importance. I've learned much more from teachers than from ed researchers about teaching but what I've learned from teachers is ephemeral. It's not recorded for all time. The research can document these practices. We just have to take a stronger line as a community in saying that "this is what we tried, here are some of the variables, and here is what happened. It might work for you or it might not, it's not the one true way."

Another side where ed research can have a major positive impact is that when researchers work with teachers they can develop practices and tools together that directly help teachers. A great example of this is what Mark Guzdial is doing with his teaspoon languages.

So anyway, after seeing all those tweets I felt I had to vent. I know this is not a popular view in some of my circles but that's okay, contrary voices are important as well and as the designated old CS Ed Curmudgeon I'm always happy to take that role :-).

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