Education research should respect the experts: teachers

Academics’ complaints that their theories have been ‘misinterpreted’ fail to recognise the crucial role teachers must play in putting them to the test, says Jared Cooney Horvath
20th March 2020, 12:04am
Education Research Ivory Tower

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Education research should respect the experts: teachers

https://www.tes.com/magazine/teaching-learning/general/education-research-should-respect-experts-teachers

In a feature for Tes last year (“Emergent complexity…or why lab-based education research tells only half the story”, 14 June), I outlined the process of “prescriptive translation”. Specifically, we learned that laboratory data can’t directly drive teacher practice. Rather, if we hope to uncover the practical utility of theories, academic research must first be redefined, adapted and tested by teachers within their unique contexts.

A recent Tes Podagogy podcast highlighted this issue. Talking to Tes commissioning editor Jon Severs, Professor John Hattie (doubtless spurred by increasing foment and accruing evidence that many academic theories don’t impact student learning) vehemently stated that his visible learning work and the work of other researchers has been misinterpreted by teachers.

This stance is problematic. To argue that “misinterpretation” is the reason why academic theories aren’t impacting real-world practice is only to argue that data from one level of organisation (heavily controlled laboratories) should be directly applicable within another level of organisation (in this case, naturalistic social classrooms).

A far more accurate (and honest) argument would be to say that researchers and academics by and large misrepresent their theories and the extent to which each might meaningfully be employed within education.

Don’t get me wrong: there are certainly examples of research being grossly misinterpreted. However, within the realm of education, academic researchers seem only too happy to offer up sweeping claims and practical advice without encouraging prescriptive translation.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Professor Carol Dweck’s mindset theory (which Hattie singled out as “dramatically misinterpreted”). Here are a few quotes from Dweck herself: mindset “has profound effects on student…learning and school achievement”; mindset “can matter even more than cognitive factors for students’ academic performance”; mindsets “play a key role in math and science achievement”; If we “changed student mindsets we could boost their achievement”; and “emphasis on growth not only increases intellectual achievement but can also advance conflict resolution…in the Middle East [eg, between Israelis and Palestinians]”.

It is hard to maintain that a theory has been misinterpreted when the developer herself purports that it can boost academic achievement, is more important than cognitive factors for learning and can (presumably) foster world peace.

Recently, Dweck and Hattie have pivoted their messaging towards “the complexity of implementation”. But this is simply an acknowledgement that applying an academic theory outside the lab requires redefining, adapting and testing on the ground. In other words, “complexity of implementation” occurs when researchers ignore “prescriptive translation” - a process best undertaken by relevant experts (ie, teachers).

I’m certain that researchers and teachers can work together to do incredible things, but I’m also certain that when researchers claim they’ve been misinterpreted, this belittles the relationship and serves only to maintain an ivory-tower mentality. By all means, freely discuss theories - but it’s best to abstain from making practical suggestions or arguments about impact until the work of prescriptive translation has been completed.

Jared Cooney Horvath is a neuroscientist, educator and author, and is director of the Science of Learning Group. He is an honorary research fellow at St Vincent’s Hospital and the Melbourne Graduate School of Education

This article originally appeared in the 20 March 2020 issue under the headline “Ivory-tower mentality belittles the experts in the classroom”

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