There is much debate about whether teaching is an art or a science. Certainly there is an art to great teaching; but it is clear that, like basic biological principles inform medicine, scientific understanding of how people learn can inform education. In an ideal world, teachers or curriculum developers would have the time to read academic journals on topics such as cognitive science and development, know exactly how to adjust their practice based on what they learn, and see improvements in students’ learning as a result.
It’s, of course, not that easy. Research studies are typically performed in very controlled settings. They rarely provide specific direction to educators in real-world classrooms with students of varying interests, motivation levels, and cognitive abilities.
Given this complexity, teachers must be empowered to test out research-backed principles, record what happens, and determine what works. In other words, they must be given the supports and flexibility to be scientists in their own classrooms. What role can school leaders and educational researchers play in this process?
Evaluating evidence and research findings is challenging, particularly in education technology where many digital learning tools are marketed as evidence-based or research-based. Ideally, there would be a trusted third party reviewer to evaluate these claims. Without one, practitioners must be provided with the skills necessary to differentiate evidence from proof. Doing so will require educators to think beyond their own experience and overcome confirmations bias — the tendency to seek information that confirms our own hypothesis.
Complicating matters, researchers are very careful not to overstate the implications of their findings while those marketing ed-tech products confidently present research findings as proof their tool can improve student outcomes across a broad range of learning environments. This has led to the development of many common education myths. For example, countless assessments, guidebooks and professional development workshops are built around the concept that students are auditory, visual or kinesthetic learners (called learning styles). While individual do learn differently, there currently is no scientific evidence to support the learning styles view.
There have been some attempts to support inundated practitioners in deciphering good research and evidence from bad. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham offers four steps for evaluating evidence, and psychology teacher Nick Rose explains six good habits to develop when evaluating a scientific claim. Still more efforts are needed to help practitioners judge the quality of the research and evidence, which will require increased interaction between learning scientists and educators.
Identifying high-quality, trustworthy research is only the first step to improving teaching and learning through implementation of learning science findings. Even the best educational research and evidence-based tools are not applicable to all schools and classrooms. Quality research findings can guide decision making, but educators play a critical role in translating findings to their own unique learning environment.
For example, there is ample evidence that students who have a growth mindset – meaning they believe intelligence can be developed through hard work and dedication – are more motivated and achieve higher grades. There are games, curricula, and entire professional development programs aimed at helping teachers foster a growth mindset in students. But for teachers to really determine if these interventions work for their students, they must evaluate the effect of teaching growth mindset on student motivation, engagement, and achievement.
Education researchers should support teachers in this process, and in doing so, can begin to ask better and more relevant questions. As a first step, scientists need to come to consensus on the key research-backed principles on learning and start a two-way dialogue with educators on how best to use these guidelines to support students.
Teachers are busy. It’s not reasonable to solely assign educators the complex tasks of translating research to the classroom, measuring how changes affect student learning, and forming conclusions about whether it improved their practice.
For this reason, every school needs a “research champion” to sort through the scientific literature, support research partnerships with universities, run experiments to address key practitioner needs, and help teachers perform action research studies in their classrooms.
In 1930, former Dean of the School of Education at New York University wrote in an article published in The Journal of Educational Research: “Research service should be maintained for every school system, regardless of its size. Scientific study is necessary everywhere in present-day education.” While this is not a new idea, it is more important than ever given the rapid pace of change in education, and the opportunities afforded by technology.
Researchers embedded within schools, working closely with teachers, can ensure that research studies align with schools’ goals, simultaneously building the skills educators need to become scientists in their classrooms.
Teachers, we want to hear how you evaluate evidence in the classroom. Tell us in the comments below!