How to make education research work for you

'If you are new to education research, follow these tips to help you apply it to your classroom'

Eric Kalenze

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I’m an evangelist for teachers taking control of their own development by using education research.

But I know there’s a great distance between saying, ‘Reclaim your profession, educators!’ and actually doing it.

If becoming a better user of educational research were not so difficult or time-intensive, countless more practitioners would already have made it a habit by now. And, in turn, the myriad bad professional development courses, wasteful consultants, and misguided improvement initiatives would long ago have been sent into retreat.

So, as someone who has invested time in education research and seen first-hand how it can pay off, here is my quick starter kit of ideas for people who want to give it a try. My Starter Kit won’t make research work magically quick, but it should help you along your way.

1.        To Begin, Ask ONE Question

A simple point, but a very important one as you set out. For once you start looking around, your main issue will quickly escalate from ‘how do I find what I need?’ to ‘what in this overwhelming pile of information is most reliable and most useful?’

Beginning with a single focus for inquiry (‘What is the effect of Balanced Literacy programs on students’ reading outcomes in my state?’, for example, or ‘Is there evidence that 1-to-1 iPad initiatives have improved students’ learning in the metro districts that have implemented them?’) can provide an effective cordon around a much more workable space and keep distracting or erroneous information under control.

2.  Run, Don’t Walk, to the Cognitive Science

Many of the least-effective yet furthest-reaching approaches in education are based on ideals about how people learn best, not on the science of how people learn best.

The good news is that the past 3 to 4 decades of advances in cognitive science can give us much more reliable information about human learning, based on scientific trials.

To anyone starting out as a researcher, then, regardless of discipline or grade level, I’d heavily suggest getting up to speed with these concepts as quickly as possible. 

As far as matters to prioritize, I'd recommend starting with these three and learning all you can: (1) Long-accepted truths of instruction and learning (like learning styles, for example) that science have proven to be mythical, (2) The importance of background knowledge to all kinds of what we consider 'higher-order' thought, and (3) How learning improves through various forms of practice/repetition. 

These three will provide a lot of insight, I'm pretty sure, that your training programs and continuing professional development never would. I would recommend the following pieces of reading as starting points:

3. Plug In to Other Practitioner-Researchers

Back when I first jumped into the ed research stream 13-14 years ago, I basically had a couple books’ reference sections to guide me. The internet was humming, of course, but blogs weren’t much of a factor and Twitter hadn’t even been invented.

Today, one can get daily doses of fellow educator-researchers’ work from huge numbers of bloggers. There are links to lots of good ones on my blog A Total Ed Case if that is a helpful starting point.

Plus, a worldwide community of like-minded professionals can be found on Twitter, which is great at rapidly spreading useful research and resources. If you’ve put it off opening an account, at least do it for this. You won’t regret it.

If you’re not already, get plugged in to the incredible collaborative opportunities available through these outlets. See below for some suggested starting points, as where to start (and how to do so manageably) is probably the most difficult part.

I’m also involved in organizing a conference, ResearchED, to bring together fellow educators. My shameless plug is to encourage you to attend our next one on 29 October 2016 in Washington, DC. But if you can’t, follow us on Twitter or seek out other conferences near you to build your professional network.

4. Know How We Got Here

Though you may not feel education’s history applies very well to the day-to-day of your classroom, I’ve found immensely useful over my time in education—maybe because we’re so inclined to repeat our mistakes.

Plus, histories are rich with ‘gateways’ via their usually deep references and indices. From a purely strategic standpoint, taking some time as a researcher to know how we got here will pay off in big ways the further you go.

A couple of recommendations I’d make are Diane Ravitch’s Left Back and The Troubled Crusade. Even The Death and Life of the Great American School System, the book that bridged her move from reform champion to reform enemy, does a lot well to explain American Education in its post-NCLB Accountability Era.

Other titles I’d suggest include The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958, by Herbert Kliebard; Why Knowledge Matters, by E.D. Hirsch;Getting It Wrong from the Beginning, by Kieran Egan; and Ouroboros, an ebook by Greg Ashman.

Eric Kalenze is an educator and author based in Minnesota’s Twin Cities metro. For more information see his book Education is Upside-Down: Reframing Reform to Focus on the Right Problems or his blog A Total Ed Case, or follow him on Twitter @erickalenze

ResearchED is holding a conference at CHEC in Washington, DC, on 29 October, tickets for the conference are on sale now. Click here for more info on the conference program and tickets—and be in touch if you have any questions. 

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Eric Kalenze

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