Has experimental research offended educators somehow?

by Mr. Sheehy

Sometimes I like to take comments I’ve made on a discussion board for graduate school and post them to my blog. It’s a way of preserving the thinking I’ve done, since I will lose access to it as soon as the semester ends and WebCT leaves me on the wrong side of the security wall. I wanted to do it again here, because this week in one class we have been discussing experimental research in education, and our professor posed the question, “Why do you think experimental studies are so unpopular among educational researchers?”

I find the question intriguing, especially as I encounter a dearth of good research on the use of my favorite tools of technology – wikis and blogs. Initially, I couldn’t really make any solid guesses on the topic. Even our book didn’t state a solid reason why so much as describe that the bias against it/distrust of it seemed to exist. Judging from comments from individuals in my class, I suppose teachers are often bent against an experimental situation in their classrooms, where one set of students gets the “better” treatment while another does not. I don’t find that objection convincing, however, because if it’s being researched, one does not actually know what treatment is better yet.

Additionally, few things could be worse than the poetry project I assigned to my juniors a couple weeks ago. That thing was a complete disaster and I think I maybe saw a handful of students regress. Someone should have tested their reading skills at the end of the unit to make sure they hadn’t all returned to 4th grade reading levels. In this sense, go ahead and experiment on my students – they’ve already hit the bottom.

The reality is, I “experiment” on my students all the time, and to put some sort of true experimental design on it where I could actually read some kind of valuable and trustworthy result from it would be a vast improvement from the hunches I get.

I think a lot of times the unfortunate difference between teachers that grow better with time is they have better “hunches” than other teachers – they have a hunch about whether something they did worked or not. If teachers could rely on actual experimental data instead of hunches, I wonder how many could increase the rate at which they improve.

Returning to the question of why experimental studies appear to be unpopular among educators, one reason might be that education as an industry seems to pay little attention and give little respect to well designed research. Researcher A might spend a good part of the year conducting some true experimentation; meanwhile, “Researcher” B swoops in with a new program that cites a couple theorists and popular assumptions, and he gets equal or more attention for his ideas. I couldn’t name a colleague who had read research in the last year, apart from maybe a couple who have taken a graduate class. In that sense, no one is listening to the researcher, leaving no payoff. As a contrast, of course, the medical field has true experimentation, but that might at least be in part because doctors are likely to ignore people peddling ideas that are not based in solid experimental research.

Consider my situation: I am a practicing professional in the education industry, and as soon as I finish graduate school, I will have no broad and easy access to peer-reviewed research in my field (sorry bloggers, you have insight, but you don’t count, here). I asked a professor for suggestions about what to do about this after I complete my program, and she suggested finding a journal or two that I particularly liked and joining/subscribing. That’s hardly an adequate approach for our field, I would claim.

In response to my suggestion about making research available to teachers, one of my colleagues agreed but mentioned that even if it were made available, teachers have no time to read it, and the likelihood of adding the reading of research to the task of items to-do seemed slim. She suggested that schools might use some of their in-service time for teachers’ perusal of research, which I think isn’t a bad idea if you could work out the logistics.

Those are valid points, but while I agree that the crunch for time exists and I think the idea of using in-service time is interesting, I am too pessimistic to think we as teachers will receive anything different than the lot we currently hold. Knowing that, I take a harder line concerning what a teacher should do. The reality of teaching is that if a teacher lets it, the job will always suck up all the time available. I can always teach that unit a little better if I spend a little more time on it . . . and eventually there is no more time. I see so many English teachers, to give a specific example, who trim away their days writing comments on kids’ papers, and if they chose to, they could spend a month grading one set of essays or batch of stories . . . but at some point something’s “got to give,” and the professional has to make a decision about what.

In some ways, I suppose I sound harsh, but I grew up watching my mother drag around one of those mega-sized L.L. Bean tote bags full of student papers – every night she’d lug it home, and after she’d spend the weekend working to the bottom, it would fill right back up again. I have vowed not to do that, even if it means I am that much less of a teacher than she is.

Having said this, I think if research were at least accessible, some teachers (and I don’t for a moment think it would be any more than that) might set aside a little bit of time each week to read some research. Maybe it would be at the cost of a few comments on an essay, but I know I personally would be willing to make that trade, because I’m convinced that the reading of the research (good research, of course) would improve my teaching more than another hour jotting a few more comments on essays.