The number of educators who work in pre-K-12 schools who read research articles is infinitesimal. The number of educators who read books about education, or journals aimed at a practitioner audience is much larger. Even among this audience, they subject what they read to a credibility test based on their own experience of what makes sense, what is likely to work, and what is simply not reasonable. The prevailing attitude is that they read to keep up, to know what is current; and at the same time, while they are reading they are gauging the plausibility of what the author has to say. If they come to the conclusion that the author “has no idea what schools are really like” or is (the worst insult) “clueless”, then they pay no more mind.
There does not appear to be much doubt that there is a gap between research in education and the practice of educators. This topic has, in fact, been the subject of many books and articles. There is also widespread consensus, at least among educators, as to why this divide exists. Here is a summary, taken from my own experience but also including what others have written about the topic.
They don’t have time
Occasionally I read our local newspaper online, and an article about education, particularly when it comes to contract negotiations and ipso facto, money, is liable to spawn a colony of comments about how much teachers get paid considering how much time they get off in the summer. I would like to see students in school for more days during the year, and I would also like to see teachers be paid more, but both of those opinions are beside the point that during the school year, teachers are pressed for time.
When I first considered moving into a job that was not a classroom teacher, the position I was contemplating was grant-funded, and therefore I faced the prospect of giving up my contract with my school district and the security that represented. I remember going for a walk with my husband and our dogs and trying to lay out the pros and cons for him. All he would say was, “yes, but will you have to grade?”. I don’t think it was until that walk that I fully understood the extent to which being a classroom teacher consumed my life outside school, and I would freely admit that all the jobs I have held since leaving the classroom have all been easier than being a classroom teacher.
Nobody should be surprised that, given the myriad demands on their time, educators do not make reading research a priority. As a principal once said to me, “I’m too busy doing it to read about it.”
There is too much research to keep track of
Even if teachers did have time to read the technical literature, how would they decide what to read? Mountains of articles are published every month. The American Educational Research Association alone publishes three journals, and then there are the more specialized publications in literacy, mathematics, and so on. The Social Science Citation Index (SSCI) catalogues over 150 education journals. A hundred and fifty! You couldn’t possibly keep track of all those, even if that was your full time job.
Researchers in academic positions have the luxury of a considerable amount of specialization; a historian will have a specialty like the Civil War or Ancient Egypt, and a geographer may be an expert on arctic biomes or how tragedy affects a place. The same is true in education, where a researcher in mathematics education probably knows only a limited amount about second language acquisition. A fourth grade teacher, on the other hand, has to know something about everything.
The problem of volume leads teachers to a couple of practical solutions. First, there are publications that feature articles similar to news stories: they are current, they focus on personal experience, and they are written for a general audience. Educational Leadership is a great example of this kind of publication, and with a circulation of over 150,000 (not to mention those copies that are passed from teacher to administrator to teacher, or read by many teachers in the teachers’ lounge), it is obviously a very important source of information for educators. Second, there are books that take a very practical approach to making research accessible to educators; for example, (Hattie, 2009; Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001). These researchers have perfected the art of the meta-analysis: taking vast numbers of research studies and drawing conclusions about what each individual mote of research contributes to what we know about good practice.
Previous experience with the uselessness of research and theory
When I talk to principals about what they are looking for in terms of instructional practices when they visit classrooms, and how they know what to look for, they almost invariably cite their own experiences as teachers and as children as the reason. Equally, they are apt to talk about the lack of utility of teacher training and principal preparation programs as being overly focused on theory and insufficiently practical. One principal described his teacher training as being like learning to swim by being told what the back stroke is and when you would use it, without ever getting into the pool. Then when he got a job teaching in inner city Chicago, he jumped into the pool and, in his words, sank like a stone.
I know from personal experience that some teacher training programs are better than others at weaving together research and practice, for I have gone through student teaching twice. I imagine having readers whose first thought is that I flunked out the first time, but happily, this was not the case. In fact, when I moved to the USA, my teaching license from England did not transfer, as I had had too little classroom experience as a full-time teacher. I recall that I needed two years of experience, and I had only one. I was required, therefore, to take certain classes and to repeat student teaching.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, my first teacher training experience was in a program that had been explicitly and thoughtfully designed to encourage reflective practice in its participants. It was a rather odd experience to read about my experience in quite clinical terms in a book about reflective practice a quarter century later (McIntyre, 1993). In contrast, my second teacher training experience was perfectly traditional: theory followed by application. That methodology was behind the times 25 years ago, yet is still the experience of many aspiring teachers.
The fact that educators do not associate research with practice is not the fault of the researchers. Nevertheless, the lack of connection seems to have made them think of research as existing almost in opposition to practice, and this of course is unfortunate for the profession as a whole.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: Routledge.
Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
McIntyre, D. (1993). Theory, theorizing and reflection in intial teacher education. In J. Calderhead & P. Gates (Eds.), Conceptualizing reflection in teacher development. London: The Falmer Press.