By JACK SCHNEIDER
Here is the good news for educational researchers: Somewhere in America, K-12 teachers are talking about scholarship. They’re participating in a PD day or attending a regional conference. Perhaps they’re reading on their own — before the day begins, during a prep period, or after school. Maybe they’re meeting in grade-level teams or gathering in their departments.
But, whatever the details, scholars can rest assured that ideas are coursing through schools and classrooms. It’s happening at this very moment.
Yet the research they’re reading isn’t yours.
For many scholars, this will be a matter of little concern. They want to affect change through policy rather than through what teachers know and do. Or they’re interested in research for the sake of research, regardless of its impact.
But, for others, this is a source of deep frustration; it drives them to denial.
To be clear: This is not a taunt. My name isn’t being bandied about in the teachers’ lounge either. But some names are. And it isn’t because they do better research. Rather, it’s because they cracked the code for reaching practitioners.
A few years ago, I set out to decipher that code. And, in the course of my research, I found that crossover ideas — those pieces of scholarship recognized by working educators — share a set of core characteristics that bridge the ivory tower and the schoolhouse. Independent of the idea’s scholarly merit, those characteristics compensate for the absence of a research-to-practice pipeline. In other words, they are what distinguish a blockbuster like multiple intelligences from a relative unknown like the (very similar) triarchic theory.
So what characteristics does a scholarly idea need to make the long leap into practice?
- Research has to be visible to practitioners — appearing as a significant contribution worth taking note of.
- Research has to be compatible with teacher beliefs and concerns — squaring with their priorities and the way they see the world.
- Research has to be occupationally realistic, functioning as what David Tyack and Larry Cuban called an “add on” to existing practice.
- Research has to be transportable — traveling easily by word-of-mouth, PowerPoint slides, curriculum frameworks, and the like.
None of these characteristics should be particularly surprising. Each serves as a kind of crutch, compensating for weak linkages between the ivory tower and the schoolhouse. What is surprising, however, is that so few research ideas possess any, never mind all four, of these characteristics. Go ahead, open the latest issue of AERJ or Educational Researcher and run through the following four questions:
1. Would a teacher view this research as groundbreaking or relevant?
2. Would a teacher see the author as an enlightened ally?
3. Would a teacher be able to use any of this knowledge tomorrow?
4. Would a teacher be able to describe this to a colleague at lunch?
My guess is that you have a single answer for all four questions: No.
The ideas that have made it into practice haven’t done so because they are inherently superior. In fact, ideas like MI theory or Bloom’s taxonomy or Project-based learning — all well-known by K-12 teachers — can be criticized with regard to their scholarly precision. Unlike most other ideas, however, these concepts had perceived significance, philosophical compatibility, occupational realism, and transportability.
Will working to endow our research with these characteristics take work?
It will mean learning how to write in new venues for new audiences. It will entail more engagement with teachers and attentiveness to their perspectives. It will require the construction of practice-ready tools. And it will involve a level of simplification that will sometimes be impossible.
But the upside is relevance.
And for those of us who look up from our computer screens and wonder why we’re doing all this work, that’s a big upside. It’s good news, indeed.