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C'est la Z

How my views on education research were shaped

After reading a couple of comments on my last post where I talked a bit about practitioners vs researchers I thought I'd expand and expound a bit.

While there are education researchers that I very much respect, overall, I'm skeptical of education research. Note that I'm not talking specifically about CS Ed research but rather education research in general.

Let's go back to the beginning. I entered teaching from industry. Goldman Sachs to be specific. I started in a shortage area - math and barely had the credentials to do so. The transcript evaluator at the DOE counted my Algorithms and Numerical Methods courses as Math courses to get me over the credit hump.

I had zero ed courses under my belt and was thrown into the fire. Fortunately, I landed in a school, Seward Park High School, with a very supportive faculty. I wouldn't have survived my first year without Mike G, Bruce B, Jonathan G, and many others.

Then, I had to start taking education credits to make my license permanent. Some classes were taught by professors some by adjuncts. The adjuncts were invariably experienced teachers and the professors were research faculty. In many classes, I had to read the latest research.

I found that what "the research" told us to do was contrary to what some of the best teachers did in practice. I kept hearing about the "right" way to teach but it frequently didn't jive with reality. When the true way worked, circumstances were right and the technique aligned with the teacher's natural tendencies. When it didn't, why not? Many reasons.

  • lack of prep time.
  • too many students (per class, per day, per term)
  • different populations than the one researched
  • factors the researcher didn't include (and there are tons of them)
  • teachers with different personalities and skill sets

and each of the above points opens up to scores of specifics.

This theme continued throughout my career. I'd ask teachers in other subject areas about the current state of the art research. What was the current trends in their fields. Generally the best teachers would summarize what was going on and then either say that it didn't work for them or that if it did, they didn't take it seriously because in five or ten years "the research" would tell them to do something different and then they would all of a sudden be bad teachers.

This was another point. The right way to do it has changed over and over during my career.

Then there's the reproducibility problem. Apparently it's pretty bad in education research. I mentioned in my earlier post that when a researched does it once on a small group it's research but when a teacher did it over and over it's an anecdote.

When I was young I would listen to a master teacher tell me about how he set up some experience - the one I'm remembering now is an experiential / discovery lesson on triangle geometry. He'd talk about all the hard work that went into prepping his class for this type of lesson as well as the prep time for the lesson itself. He told me how he did it four years ago and it was great but then the year after it fell flat and how he changed it for the next year. How it worked in third period but not seventh and why he thought it played out the way it did. That's a lot more reproduction than most 'research' actually gets and this is what a master teacher does all the time.

Finally, I got tired of hearing how to do it by people who don't actually have to. If you're going to talk the talk, you should walk the walk. As a side, this problem is really bad with "thought leaders."

All this sounds like I'm really down on education research or at least the overarching system. I probably am but there are many education researchers doing great work and I respect them immensely.

They know they don't have a magic bullet:

This is what I tried with this population at this time and this is what happened. You might want to try it or a variation on it.

That's a far cry from "here's how to teach"

The researchers who acknowledge that their experience as college researchers or even teaching faculty are different from a k12 teacher and that no matter how hard they try to work out all the variables they can only ever account for a tiny fraction of them.

The key is that they're adding another drop into the bucket of knowledge. Over time it adds up. I have great respect for everyone doing this.

These researchers have to keep prodding us teachers to re-evaluate our practice and then either take or incorporate the research or reject it after determining if it would be good or not for our population. At the same time, it's up to practitioners to keep pushing back against magic bullet research and the one true way.

We all have a role to play in this game.

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