How Do People Learn About Research?
Imagine a teacher with a couple of autistic students in her class for the first time. She struggles to reach and work with these students but feels quite unsuccessful. At the suggestion of her special education colleagues, she enrolls in a professional development event that discusses concrete classroom strategies grounded in solid research. These practices work well and make a dramatic difference, not only for the autistic students but also in the way the class as a whole operates.
In fact, this is not an imaginary story; it happened to one of us (co-author Cooper) a few years ago, and it illustrates the potential and challenges in connecting research with daily practice in schools.
We know that educators are interested in research findings and value the potential contribution research can make to their work. We also know that there is reliable research-based knowledge about good practice in an increasing number of areas of education. Yet, as outlined in a previous “At Issue”, the connections between research and practice in education are not as strong as they might be. Educators are busy people; teaching is demanding and tiring work. It is not reasonable to expect them to search out original research – which is, in any case, often not readily accessible and written for specialists rather than for practitioners – let alone to wade through dozens or even hundreds of studies on similar topics to determine what the cumulative state of knowledge might be.
So how do educators learn about interesting and relevant research findings? It turns out that in teaching, as in most other professions, that learning happens largely through third party processes, or what we call “mediation”. Three kinds of mediation are especially important.
Professional development, mentioned in the scenario at the start of this article, is one main way that research reaches teachers. Educators rightly expect that those who provide professional development should be familiar with and making use of the best available research. Many well-known speakers on education are actually engaged to a large extent in trying to bring research – their own and others – to bear on education practice and policy.
Professional organizations and publications are another source of research knowledge. When school districts, teacher organizations, or subject associations promote well-grounded research through their meetings, newsletters, publications, and resource materials, they make an important contribution to helping teachers know more about how research can inform their work.
Another set of organizations is outside the school system itself and is deliberately engaged in research dissemination. Some of those organizations, such as the Canadian Education Association (CEA), have a genuine desire to promote informed debate and practice. Individual faculty members and their universities may also be active in trying to share research knowledge. Other organizations, such as lobby groups or political parties, have particular interests they want to advance and use research to promote their ideas. Even with a starting bias, those political efforts are often important to the public debate and so do have an effect on what teachers know and believe.
All this means that at any given moment there are many ideas about education competing for public and professional attention. Some of these will be well-grounded in research whereas others will be primarily the result of ci starting positions, using research only where it supports that position, or may even be sales pitches for a particular program or service that someone wants schools to buy. The result can be confusion; who should we believe when very different positions all claim to be based on research? The task is even more challenging because when there is divergence in ideas, educators – like everyone else – tend to give greater weight to their experience than to research – even though we have much historical evidence that experience can also be quite misleading.
Weighing the evidence is a difficult challenge in all fields. Schools do not have the time or capacity to sort through the various claims and come to an independent conclusion on their validity. That is why it is important to have independent organizations, such as CEA, that are focused on helping all parties use evidence wisely and effectively. Fortunately, various organizations around the world are involved in similar efforts to share research findings in an impartial way with educators. For example the EPPI-Centre in England (https://eppi.ioe.ac.uk/cms/) produces very careful syntheses of research on various topics. Other organizations with similar approaches include CUREE in England (www.curee-paccts.com) and the international Campbell Collaboration (www.campbellcollaboration.org). Some universities operate research centres that do similar work. So increasing resources are available to help educators sort through the claims and counter claims of research, and there are grounds for optimism that the links between research and practice will get stronger.