Problem #1: A Narrow Definition of Science
In my last post, I told the story of my children learning mathematical concepts through making music. It sounds insane. It sounds like hippie schools. I get it. However, we also play mental math games and use dominoes and skip count in order to learn patterns. I realize that it's unscientific. I can't "prove" to you that they're mastering math beyond simply asking them to perform mathematical computations and talk about mathematical concepts.
But that's my first issue with educational research. It begins with a bold assumption that teaching is not only a science, but it is a science in the realm of engineering and medicine. Often, the research is only valid if it begins at the highest, university level. This is often followed by anger and shaking of fists that teachers roll their eyes or complain of elitism at the claims "research-based" teaching.
So, back to the back yard. I know my children are learning, because I can ask them what they learned. I can watch their conceptual understanding increase in the moment. Call it formative assessment. Or call it "being a pretty geeky dad."
Is it research? Probably not. I doubt that any educational journal would want to publish the results of my three-child, multi-age study of water-based fractions and mental math games in the car. Is it science? In its purest form, yes. It is the art of observation. It is the testing of a hypothesis and drawing an honest conclusion.
I read the comments section again. I'm not sure about the "ample evidence" or "lack of ample evidence" suggesting that constructivism works. I read up on education theory. I have stacks of professional books that I underline and ear-mark. I enjoy educational journals enough to read them with a skeptical mindset.
I'm not anti-data. It's just that I value data enough to view the term "data-driven" with a critical eye. I've learned that research is like the Bible. People can use it to say anything they agree with ahead of time. Viewing research through some neutral, apolitical lens is disingenuous.
I want to know the bias of a source when I hear someone quote it. I want to know if the claim that ActivBoards will work in classrooms has anything to do with the money a researcher received from Promethean. I want to know the political, economic and social forces that went into an educational research project.
Problem #3: Context Matters
Children are humans and not variables in an experiment. I teach people with real stories that exist in a world outside of my classroom. There are so many layers to the classroom context that it can feel overwhelming at times.
I'm not suggesting that we ignore what works. I want to hear about research-based strategies. If someone has a strategy that works, I want to know not only the research involved, but the specific reason why the strategy works.
However, as amazing as research may be, I am still the ultimate expert on my classroom and my students. Call it narrow-minded. Call it parochial. However, if "data" is the bottom line, this process has been working pretty well for my students.
Where Does Research Belong?
I'm not against research. I actually think it has its place in schools. However, I think it is one of several factors that should inform classroom (along with a solid philosophy of education, shared values and a sense of context).
- Teachers need to have the time and the training to engage in their own research. When teachers mock research, they often do so because they don't get a chance to engage in research. I would love additional time to work on researching best practices.
- We need to be honest about the political and economic sources of research. We need to see that it is not something neutral that occurs in a political and social vacuum.
- Schools need to be research-informed rather than research-based. This is why ultimately, I will allow research to inform my approach to teaching. However, I will let the context, the relationships, the immediate environment around me, drive instruction.