Research Isn’t Sexy… But You Need It Anyway!

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For some time now Steven Anderson and I have been reflecting on our own learning and professional development practices, looking for gaps in instruction and aiming to improve our craft. One of our longest conversations has been around research. In the work we do, we are constantly reading and attempting to understand the research behind the popular instructional movements of today. What we find is that much of the educational research available today isn’t used, isn’t cited, and really isn’t sexy.

Take, for instance, literacy instruction.

While trying to capture the success in student achievement scores in literacy from the research and studies done in the 1980s to the early 2000s the RTI (Response To Intervention) process and framework were created (Vellutino et al.). RTI was developed to help schools replicate the gains witnessed in this research. Today, RTI has morphed into MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Support) but very few districts have seen the increase in student-achievement that was initially experienced.

What happened?

While the RTI framework was adopted and utilized throughout the nation, the actual reading strategies and interventions used to achieve this growth were left behind. Implementing only half of the research (RTI Framework) while substituting different interventions and reading strategies have produced only limited results, leaving many administrators, teachers, and students frustrated. We know what works in literacy, and there is research behind it (most reading research is in the Psychology field) but still fail to dig into it, much less use it. (Kilpatrick)

Education research is vast. It spans disciplines, instruction, leadership, and many other components that contribute to a school. The problem has become that research has been co-opted by publishers, organizations, and individuals to sell one-size-fits-all quick fixes, programs and books. Many will ignore the fundamental findings of the research and insert their own ideas and practices that help these packages fly off the shelf.

With the abundance of research available, why do very few practitioners use it? What barriers exist that slow the transfer into the classroom? And what can be done to support administrators and practitioners in their quest of research-based methods?

We believe that there are 5 Main Barriers that exist which impacts how or if educators use research. While there could certainly be more added to this list, we feel these were the top 5 Problem Areas.

  1. Access and Abundance – Digging deep into research is typically done during college. Free access to databases, extensive libraries, experts for days. But upon graduation access is limited and met with the dreaded paywalls when locating many peer-reviewed articles, journals, and research. On top of limited access, the abundance of research out there is overwhelming. A simple search on Google Scholar with the keywords “Struggling Readers” lists 500,000 results. It is no wonder educators do not know where to begin when sifting through the research.

  2. Lack of Research in PD – There is no doubt the access to professional development is more abundant now than ever before. But that comes at a risk for individual educators and district leadership. We want to provide and participate in high-quality learning, however, much isn’t grounded in any realistic or research-based practices but instead, they are the ideas that someone read about or heard about or tweeted about. Anyone today can learn about innovation, makerspaces, augmented reality, really any instructional practice, create a slide deck and share it with the world. Instructional practices that impact student learning are based in more than tweets and blog posts. As learners and leaders, we have to model and understand where these ideas are coming from and are they based in sound research.

  3. Time – Time is a commonly mentioned barrier for educators. From new initiatives, faculty meetings, lesson planning, and connecting with students; time to do everything well is a deterrent for many educators when it comes to research.

  4. Research is Written For Researchers – Most research is written for other researchers, not necessarily the practitioners in the field. With this in mind, it is no wonder that many educators find it inaccessible because of the jargon used by a specific group of professionals. This jargon is filled with technical terminology that is understood as both a literal and figurative level by the group but leaves the rest of us guessing. (Education Jargon Generator)

  5. Distrust and Disconnect Between Theory and Practice – First, disconnect. There often times is a gap between theory and reality when reading research done by professionals in the same discipline but with little to no educational background. Ideas, studies, and strategies are examined with a skeptical lens and doubt is raised when research seems isolated or without consideration of the whole child or educator demands. What many educators do not realize is the disconnect within education research itself. With no agreed upon definition of research-based, no common training methods for preservice educators, and both qualitative and quantitative inquiries producing complementary but still fragmented results, the disconnect, cognitive bias, and skepticism of authority is not only confusing but creates a sense of distrust among the education community. Educators are more apt to believe other teachers implementing a program or using a specific framework over the years of research with statistics and data.  (D.W. Miller)

Items To Consider

  • Comparing Sources: One source isn’t gospel. Do your homework. Be open to opposing ideas. Don’t be married to an idea because you agree. If the research isn’t there, it’s not there. Be a critical discerner of information and ask lots of questions when you participate in professional development or are in a presentation. Ask where the research is and investigate yourself. Can you draw the same conclusions? Compile a list, according to your discipline, of leading theorists in the field to cross-check what you hear and read.

  • Research-Based Is A Convoluted Term: When designing activities that include techniques or strategies that have been research-proven, you can then call it “researched-based”. Since there are varying degrees of improvement (statistically significant yes, but how much) and are there approaches that work better and have a higher effect size, it is important to have a basic understanding of the research. If there isn’t any then that doesn’t mean you can’t use it. It just means you have to be more skeptical of the results, long-term.

  • Be A Researcher: No, this doesn’t mean you need to know about standard deviations or methodologies. What it means is be a student of your students. Gather data and examine what’s happening with student learning. What does the data show? Are the practices you are using improving student understanding? Are the results what you expected? What went wrong (or right!)? Be a reflective educator.

  • Always Remember To Keep Students First: Even research can get it wrong. You know your students. Always do what is best for them, even when that means going against what others say.

Resource/Reading List:

5 Practices to Stop Using NOW!

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I can’t think of one educator I have met throughout the years that has not had the best interests of kids in the forefront of their mind. Teaching is more than a job, it’s a passion, and teachers put in countless hours refining their craft. I, too, spend much time between the pages of research on best practices in literacy, supporting educators, and administrators who are involved in making decisions for their districts. In a recent post, I shared classroom practices that boost student achievement based off of the work from Hattie, Fisher, & Frey. In this post, I plan to use the same references and share 5 practices that are commonplace but hold no statistical data to support their impact on achievement. In fact, many of these practices actually hurt kids more than help them and should be stopped!

Stop These 5 Practices Now!

  1. Ability Grouping – A common practice that has no evidence to support use is ability grouping. When students are grouped and one teacher gets the lowest performing students, another gets the gifted students, and so on, there is no positive impact on student achievement (even with the highest group the effect size is minimal). In fact, ability grouping tracks students and limits their potential. Ability grouping also continues to place low expectations on the students who struggle keeping them at a disadvantage and increasing the gap. It also affects self-esteem and socially isolates kids. ***Ability grouping is NOT Needs-based instruction with flexible grouping. This flexible and often short grouping of students is valuable and supports student-centered teaching.
  2. Matching Learning Styles with Instruction – Another common practice that has no evidence to support it is matching your instruction to a perceived learning style of a student. While it is important to note that everyone has preferences on how they access and exchange information based on content, surroundings, etc. it is also important to understand that these preferences can and should change. To match one’s instruction based on learning style of a student is limiting and labels students. Acknowledge that there are learning differences and focus efforts on multiple practices that ensure all students learning at high levels.  
  3. Test Prep – The problem with teaching to the test is that it is usually done in isolation and has insufficient research to prove positive effect size on student learning. Taking time to teach students the format of the test is short and appropriate, isolating and teaching test-taking skills is a waste of time and energy. Instead, weave the skills necessary to think critically, comprehend and construct knowledge, and make a claim with sufficient evidence within the units you teach. Embed these essential skills as part of every lesson, project, or inquiry so that when the test is in front of them students are actually being tested on what they were taught instead of teaching to the test.    
  4. Homework – Hattie’s research supports the current debate on homework that has been popping up on multiple platforms. Homework has little to no effect on student achievement. Elementary students who were assigned homework showed the smallest effect size with a steady increase in effect size in middle school and high school. When students are emerging readers, writers, and learners as they are in elementary school, homework that is assigned as more practice on a skill they are just starting to learn often ends with frustration and struggle. Furthermore, in the upper grades, more homework is often not the answer for raising student achievement. “ Do not ask them (students) to create a school at home where many students need adult expertise; while nearly all parents want to help their students, some do not know how. Many parents can be poor teachers of schoolwork!” (Fisher, Frey, & Hattie).
  5. Retention  – Finally, grade-level retention is often based on poor literacy skills. Hattie found in his meta-analyses is that not only does this practice have no evidence to support it, the effect size is actually showing us that it is having the reverse effect and is harming kids. Retention often involves a student repeating the grade with the same instruction, curriculum, and support – why would we expect a change in student learning? Retention is damaging to the whole child and often leads to labeling, low self-esteem, and little to no increase in student achievement. Instead, focus should be on instruction and the RTI process to meet all student needs. Teaching is the greatest job in the world. The opportunity to impact a young life makes the pressures and demands worthwhile. And while no educator sets out to harm a child’s learning by poor practice, it is every professional’s job to understand where to focus their energy and use practices that will positively affect the students in their classrooms!

3 Alternatives for Generating Citations

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Just as one should always backup their pictures, documents, and videos in multiple places; so should educators always have a backup for their favorite digital resources, tools, and apps. In the blink of an eye, something that was accessible yesterday could vanish into the digital abyss just as the recent deletion of the Research Tool in Google Docs. Educators and students had grown accustomed to the search and citation options available with the “Research Tool” and many are now scrambling for alternatives…

Here are 3 Citation Generating Alternatives to Consider:

 

  1. logo-easybib-cheggEasyBib – A free citation generator that is available online, as an app, extension, and as a Google Doc Add-On. EasyBib is also offering a free EasyBibEdu account for all educators for the 2016-17 school year. Not only can you generate citations using MLA, APA, and Chicago styles, with EasyBib, you can also create notecards, outlines, and avoid plagiarism and check the reliability of websites.

 

  1.  citation-machine-logoCitation MachineA free tool that helps “students and research professionals properly credit the information that they use. Its primary goal is to make it so easy for student researchers to cite their information sources, that there is virtually no reason not to.” It allows users to choose from 4 styles – MLA, APA, Chicago, and Tribune. It is a web resource that is simple to use.

 

  1.  refme-logoRefMe – Also a free web tool that allows users to create citations and manage them by scanning the barcode. Choose from over 7,000 styles to fit requirements. RefMe also allows you to share your list of citations with others making it perfect for collaboration and group work. RefMe is a web resource and also an app. Cut and paste citations into documents or download the entire bibliography.

 

No one is happy when a widely used digital tool suddenly disappears.

As educators, we need to model to our students how to readjust and seek alternatives. And remember, most digital tools have feedback options so users can share their likes or needs with the creators. You can find Google’s feedback form here. Help to improve Google’s products for all user, let them know your thoughts.