The research-to-practice gap in education is especially important to digital instruction


by John Watson

Many educators and most researchers know that there’s a gap between research and practice in K-12 education. This gap is especially important regarding online courses, tools, and resources, because digital instructional practices are new and often considered to be unproven.

But relatively few people seem to understand the extent of the gap, why it is important, and what to do about it.

Three recent blog posts in Ed Week by Bob Pianta and Tara Hofkens provide an excellent overview of the issues.

First, they describe Why Education Research Isn't Improving Education Much. Their conclusion?  “Basic science”—defined as “research into fundamental problems and processes that are the province of that field—is lacking in education. Their analogy discusses how drugs related to cardiac health build on a foundation of understanding about how the heart works. Basic questions in education that have not been well explored include:

“What factors regulate children's attention in a classroom setting? What roles do the capabilities of peers play in advancing children's cognitive capabilities? What factors promote or inhibit teachers' responses to children's perceived misbehavior? What role do social and emotional experiences and affective processes play in fostering learning? What are the components of school climate that matter the most for different forms of student success?”

Because these basic questions have not been answered, they suggest, it is very hard to address research questions about issues such as specific teaching practices.

In the second post in the series, How to Better Connect Research With the People Who Use It, they suggest that:

“the unprecedented amount of money flowing to educational research (in the Bush-Obama years) yielded mixed results… Currently, education science capacity is centered primarily in academia and its adjacencies, with very little of the work ending up in the hands of educators in usable form.”

But the problem isn’t just in the institutions doing the education research. A key element is that there is little consensus regarding how or what to measure in education to evaluate outcomes:

“In nearly every other industry or sector in which we have witnessed notable advances in knowledge, tools, and performance, measurement of the core phenomena in that sector has been fundamental to progress. Measurement creates the common lens required for focusing attention and resources, and the common language needed for transmitting information across stakeholders and activity…Measurement creates the basis for moving from arguments and policies based on rhetoric and opinion to advancements based on evidence.”

But by contrast, in education:

“ask a researcher, parent, student, teacher, school leader, school board member, and chair of the state assembly committee on education to identify the indicators they use to know if a student has mastered algebra or has the social skills to perform well on teams. I suspect the result will be a hodge-podge of definitions, metrics, and terms not held in common across the stakeholders, most lacking a precise, observable anchor. This is a problem.”

Finally, they conclude that Researching 'What Works' in Education Isn't Working. Why? Because

“We know [little] about the role of local factors that shape effective instruction and learning. Unlike physiological processes that unfold similarly across contexts (from the lab to the real world), teaching and learning are embedded in local factors in an ontological way. Local culture; the climate and safety of neighborhoods and schools; parental involvement; education policies and resources (the number and types of schools in the system, feeder patterns, funding, etc.); school curriculum; instructional reforms; and teacher backgrounds are just some of the factors that may work together to determine how effective instruction and learning unfold in those settings…”

“Learning isn't something that educators do to children, and it's not something they can make happen or make children do. What educators can do is set up the conditions under which learning is likely to happen and use measures that accurately and robustly capture what was learned.”

These issues are likely to become even more important in the near future for two reasons. First, ESSA “emphasizes the use of evidence-based activities, strategies, and interventions,” as explained by guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education. Although it is unclear to what extent school district leaders are paying attention to that emphasis, we are seeing an increase in examples of districts requiring evidence as outlined by ESSA and related guidance.

Second, it appears likely that the U.S. economy is slowing, and if the economy slows significantly or dips into recession, education budgets are likely to suffer. If that scenario comes to pass (which is almost certainly a matter of “when” and not “if”), district leaders will have to be even more careful about purchases than they have been in the past few years. It is likely that they will seek a higher level of confidence in the return on investment of their technology purchases, some of which would be provided by the evidence that education research can offer, if researchers and educators were better connected.

Photo attribute: luckey_sun, “research” (CC BY-SA 2.0)