'Education research transformed my teaching. Now it can do the same for yours.'

18th August 2016 at 21:50
education research, teachers, schools, professional development
Traditional training is failing to give teachers the skills they need, says research expert Eric Kalenze.

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When I took my first solo jump into educational research literature thirteen years ago I it was out of sheer—near-frantic, really—desperation.

My problem was this: I was teaching high school English, and I wasn’t getting enough of my kids to actually read the class material. As students’ reading of assigned texts was key to so much of the other stuff we’d get up to in English class I had to get better at motivating students toward completing assigned readings, period.

And though I’d been using the directions given to me by my pre-professional training, my teaching colleagues and my professional development, I still wasn’t getting my students to the intended destination. 

I had to start looking at entirely different directions and, as the sources I’d counted on to date were only offering more of the same ineffective things, I was going to have to find these different directions on my own.

Delving into the world of educational research soon gave me some different options to remotivate my students. 

  • One of the first stops in my research convinced me I should be very wary of motivating my students in any way that compromised the academic intensity of the assignment. In other words, making up for students’ preferences by assigning high-engagement/low-resistance titles or skipping reading altogether to watch film adaptations were both out if I was to do this right. 
  • When I turned my research attention to ways I could make rigorous texts and tasks more engaging to my students, I recognized (primarily through the work of E.D. Hirsch) that the disengagement I was observing might originate from background knowledge students simply don’t have. Accordingly, I designed background knowledge ‘scaffolds’ and placed them strategically through every work we studied.
  • Research of cognitive science introduced me to framing effects and their impacts on humans’ motivation and decision-making. I accordingly put more thought into how to frame content and lesson tasks—classroom policies, even—toward increasing students’ motivation. (For more on those efforts, see a post I did for the Learning Scientists blog earlier this year.)
  • Moved and justified by Cunningham and Stanovich’s work I created a flexible ‘choice’ space for students’ independent reading.

…And on and on. You get the idea. Really, the point here is that educational research, found independently, introduced me to more good ideas about what to use in my classroom than pretty much everything before it combined.

The kinds of things I learned in this initial foray rippled way beyond my classroom, too: some things I was doing were, for instance, later adapted for full-school implementation. Also, my continued research ultimately led me to write a book on ed practice and reform, and that book has allowed me to work with teachers and administrators around the US and beyond. In a future post, I’ll elaborate a bit on role research can play in creating educational leaders.

In light of how positively ed research has impacted my own practices and career, it’s alway disappointing to learn of findings like these, by the UK’s Education Endowment Fund, about lack of teacher engagement. The research that can change educators’ practice for the better—and override the useless junk educators so often get fed—is out there. Though I haven’t seen a similar study in the US, my field experience leads me to believe we’d see very similar results here.

The good news, though, is that researchED, a nonprofit organization based in the UK, exists expressly to reverse this reality among the world’s teachers. They carry out their six-pronged mission (explained more fully at researchED’s site) mainly through their one-day conferences, which bring teachers together to learn from and network with some of education research’s best thinkers.

Having been to a few of them (I’ve spoken at a couple, in fact), I can honestly say I’ve waited my whole professional life for a community like researchED. The grassroots, ‘classroom-up’ excitement they’ve created in Britain—and that has spread to Scandinavia, Australia, and elsewhere—is precisely what we need more of in American education.

This is why I’m thrilled they have an event scheduled in Washington, DC, for October 29, 2016. I’ve been able to assist with its organization, and with speakers like Dylan Wiliam, Tom Bennett, Annie Murphy Paul, IES Director Ruth Neild, Lisa Hansel, David Didau, and many, many others, it promises to be an amazing day of learning.

I’ll be writing more for TES between now and the conference to let you know more about it and to see if I can convince you to join us there. Whether you are desperately seeking new, sound answers or are a seasoned student of ed research, I’m sure you’ll find something to like there.

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


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