Over the past century, the focus of education has changed from building students’ literacy and numeracy skills to preparing them to find and evaluate information, express themselves clearly, and think critically and collaboratively to solve complex problems. So how do we make sure that educational practice reflects this shift?
Given the expanding expectations of the education system, the rapid pace at which information is generated, and the realities of the job market, educational practice must reflect what science says about how people learn and in which environments they learn best, so many more students can get over the higher bar that’s been set.
This may seem obvious – we can best teach students by understanding how they learn and applying that understanding to teaching. But despite recent demands for evidence- and research-based tools and curricula, much of the science about how people learn does not influence teaching practice or reach entrepreneurs and developers of learning tools.
As such, educators, researchers, and developers are missing opportunities and insights that can not only improve the quality of their work, but student outcomes. Here are three steps we can take to make sure research is being put to work in schools.
One of the key reasons for the gap between the learning science and practice is that research is not published in a manner that is readily accessible to the broader education community. The media and other organizations, such as Education Week and KQED Mind/shift, do communicate promising research findings to the public and translate these findings into actionable information for practitioners..
Communication between researchers and educators allows teacher perspectives to help learning scientists develop more relevant research questions.
But media outlets are not always reliable messengers and communicating research this way creates a one-way conversation. Because researchers also benefit from improved understanding of the teaching practice, two-way communication between these groups allows teachers’ perspectives and expertise to help learning scientists develop more relevant research questions.
Another significant obstacle in applying research findings to practice: what is shown to improve learning outcomes in controlled research environments does not always “work” in real-world settings. Performing very controlled experiments allows researchers to isolate one aspect of learning or cognition, or the effect of a certain intervention. This is very useful for scientists, but not particularly helpful for practitioners, who are left to determine how to implement research findings in complex and highly variable classrooms.
For example, simply knowing about the spacing effect – the well-documented finding, first described by psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885, that long-term retention is improved when learning events occur over time – only goes so far. It doesn’t tell an educator how long each lesson should last, how much time to allow between lessons, or how to use the concept with curriculum that is often organized to teach one topic at a time.
Educators need support to try learning science principles in their schools, and the skills to determine whether changes or applications are successful.
Ideally, there would be a professional niche to fill this gap, translating scientific findings into practical and effective teaching and learning practices. To date, this task has primarily fallen onto already overloaded practitioners. (In contrast to the medical field, where clinicians are not expected to read through countless journal articles in order to make informed treatment decisions).
To overcome this challenge, teachers and curriculum directors need support and resources to find and evaluate learning science principles to try out in their schools, and the skills necessary to determine whether changes or applications are successful. Further, an online community of practitioners and researchers would help educators document these important processes, and get valuable feedback from learning science experts.
The increased use of technology in schools creates both new challenges and opportunities for connecting research and practice. Only a percentage of products that claim to be “research-based” go beyond paying lip service to learning science and actually apply scientific understanding of learning and cognition in meaningful ways. This means it’s even more crucial to support practitioners in evaluating evidence. Additionally, developers must embrace their role in bringing scientific understanding of learning into the classroom through digital tools. In a much-hyped education technology market, efficacy, not marketing, should drive decisions.
Technology can also help researchers more easily perform studies in both formal and informal real-world settings. Data generated in online environments allow scientists to observe and analyze the learning process in new ways, and to better understand learning differences between individuals. With the rapid pace of ed-tech development, studies that evaluate digital learning tools should be published quickly and, taking advantage of the distribution power of the Internet, disseminated widely in order to be relevant.
Despite the challenges, individuals, organizations, and companies are working to improve teaching and learning through research.
Enthusiastic practitioners seek out research and apply the findings to solve challenges they face in their classrooms. Developers use findings from cognitive science and learning analytics to create personalized learning opportunities that engage and motivate kids. Researchers continue to uncover new information about the mind, brain, and the design of learning environments, and are beginning to identify promising techniques for improving student learning.
In a much-hyped education technology market, efficacy, not marketing, should drive decisions.
These individuals must come together and share best practices and expertise, so we can build a richer knowledge base on teaching and learning, unlock the potential of technology, and put this knowledge to work to improve education.