Notes on the Research-Practice Gap

Last Updated: 8/11/20

Why doesn't research have a bigger impact on education, in particular on teaching? Here's a simplified-but-true take on why good research often doesn't impact teaching:

Let's expand a bit on each of these points.

Teachers don't care about evidence because we have other ways of deciding what works. We have classrooms where we can try ideas out on our own, and no matter how strong the evidence is, we ultimately have to see if it works when we try it out in the class.

Of course, it's true that teachers sometimes do "care" about evidence, but it's usually as a way to feel confirmed in our practices or because we feel a need to defend our practice to others. (Sometimes administrators or districts will require that teachers justify their choices with research evidence, which is a waste. Most of the time research has little directly to say. Organizations need to grow up and make decisions on their own!)

Research often doesn't look like good teaching either because it occurs in a very different setting (it lacks 'ecological validity') or because the materials or ideas are just poorly designed or conceived. Frequently I look at a paper and roll my eyes when I see the materials that they have used in the study. Often they are extremely unfriendly to kids.

Teachers in general care about a lot more than just subject-area learning. This is something that researchers are growing better at studying, and it's now relatively standard to read papers that measure affective variables relating to things like self-efficacy or engagement along with learning. (There are also increasingly solid ways of measuring things like conceptual understanding of a topic, but that's a different story.)

Here is a list of things that many (most?) teachers might care about besides academic learning when evaluating a new idea:

Different teachers may weigh these factors differently, but it's rare to find a teacher who only cares about one of these things, or who truly never experiences tensions between various goals.

(I sometimes wonder if schools/teachers who are truly "innovative" are often just willing or able to avoid some of these tensions for some time, e.g. schools that are willing to prioritize learning at the expense of enjoyment, or the teacher who for some reason is immune from admin pressure able to do the interesting project thing.)

Teaching is in fact extremely hetereogenous and teachers wonder whether the ideas of research (or of anyone else) will apply to them in their setting. This could be because the research was conducted in e.g. a large suburban, wealthy, well-behaved, spacious high school classroom with flexible standards and you teach in a claustrophobic middle school classroom where students struggle and there is a real need to focus on skills. But even large studies that draw on many different types of classrooms usually only produce average effects that a teacher may legitimately wonder whether they are exempt from. Good research looks to expose hidden variables that explain why things work in one setting but not another, but it's not always possible.

So, what does all this entail?

I think the last three factors could all be improved if research was done closer to teaching. This can be done by bringing teachers into the project as designers, or it can be done as full-on collaborations with schools and districts in Research-Practitioner Partnerships. In those partnerships researchers essentially develop a researchable question with practitioners (usually admin or policy people) and then pilot it, revise, collect data, deploy, etc.

But the first thing -- the thing about teachers not caring about evidence -- I think is worth mulling over some more.

I'm not saying that research shouldn't be focused on evidence. Clearly it needs to be otherwise chaos will reign. But on the practitioner side, chaos is already in charge. The actual strength of evidence has very little to do with whether the researcher idea catches on.

Ideas will catch on or not depending on their appeal to teachers and so on, but strong ideas with solid evidence often get lost because they are in tension with other things (e.g. ease of use) or the materials in the studies were weak.

You can't just assume that strong evidence will lead to adoption.

There is somehow a need for people who can speak the langauge of evidence and of the classroom to engage on this. They need to decide if these ideas with all their evidence really can overcome all those other obstacles. In those cases there may need to be significant chewing over the ideas, and maybe the research ideas change somewhat in the process. But this is a process that can rescue strongly evidenced ideas from the rescue bin. An interesting thing about this is it could put classroom knowledge on equal footing with evidence so that there's a possibility of real conversation. Which feels tough to me, but valuable.

Some further reading that I like on these themes:

David Labaree's Peculiar Problems of Preparing Educational Researchers" is very good. Below are some quotes I like, but the whole thing is worth reading.

However, the differences in the worldview between teachers and researchers are not the kinds of academic dualisms that simply disappear under close analysis, nor can they be brought together just by trying to make teachers more research oriented and researchers more teacher oriented. Instead, these cultural differences arise from irreducible differences in the work roles occupied by teachers and researchers.

Closely related to the normative and personal quality of teaching as a practice is its emphasis on the particular. As every good teacher knows, you can’t teach effectively unless you take into account the special learning needs of individual students. The general rule of teaching is that general rules don’t help very much. The exception is the norm, because every case is different.

For teachers, then, education always comes down to cases. But for educational scholars, the emphasis is on the development of generalities that hold across cases. They usually aim to theorize. This means developing ideas about the way education works that apply to more than one student or classroom or school.

This is the professional function that educational scholarship can serve: to develop research findings – concepts, generalizations, theories – that make sense of educational processes across contexts and offer them to teachers and other practitioners. The idea is not to pretend to make claims about teaching and learning that are universal in a literal sense, but instead to provide a theoretical mirror, which teachers can hold up to their own problems of practice in order to see the ways that their problems are both similar to and different from those facing teachers in other settings. In this sense, then, theory allows teachers access to a community of practice that is otherwise often denied them by the tyranny of the self-contained classroom.