On the Need for a Bridge Between Academia and Practice

This image is borrowed from this site — not sure who to credit!: http://www.bj.org/learning/gesher-a-bridge-to-jewish-engagement/

I recently attended an in-service day for all teachers and staff in my district. These in-service days are always fascinating opportunities to get a sense of the pulse and tenor of the whole district. This year, we have used a workshop-type approach, which has provided us with a far greater diversity of offerings, but also a wide range in terms of quality of offerings. (Isn’t this is always the case, though?)

During this particular in-service day, I was reminded once again about the huge gaps that exist between the research being done by academics in the field of education and those educators who are working with kids day in and day out.

It was a session that was introducing a new book study that some staff in the district will be undertaking that my activated my concerns about this well-known and huge chasm between the academy and schools. The subject of this book study is going to be poverty — which is a noble and worth topic to pursue, particularly given the daily realities that exist in the communities that my school district serves.

The book that we will be reading is one that seems to be highly regarded among practitioners, but which I have heard extensive concerns about from two different professors during my time in graduate school. (I guess it wouldn’t hurt to reveal the title of this book — it’s Eric Jensen’s Teaching with Poverty in Mind.) The basis of the criticism that I heard from these professors, one of whom is a neuroscientist, was that the claims made in the book about brain research are taken a bit too far in terms of their implications for practice. Essentially, the book cites numerous studies about the brain — it is, in fact, very well-researched. However, these professors raised concerns because one, it seems like some of the research is stretched in a correlation must mean causation way, and two, because the work revolves around a deficit-based approach to poverty — where these students must be “fixed” due to deficiencies that they possess. Moreover, in a video that we watched about the book, results were promised in “weeks, not months or years.” Such claims to rapid change always raise a red flag for me.

I’ll leave the discussion of the actual book here, because I am not an expert on the subject matter and haven’t read the book myself for a few years and extolling the virtues or shortcomings of this book is not what I want to get at in this post. Rather, I want to discuss how slim the offerings can be for educator-friendly resources that bridge the gap between research studies and classroom practice.

One clear place that could serve as a resource for teachers are academic research journals. While there are a plethora of education journals filled with valuable research, the articles published in these journals rarely make it into the hands of teachers. Access to these journals can be expensive and the language and style of academic articles can make reading them quite uninteresting. What there is a strong need for is people who take the findings of these tremendously useful and interesting research studies and translate them into more succinct and clear bulletins that would be digestible for busy practitioners.

There are authors who do nobly attempt to bridge this gap between the ivory tower and the schoolhouse, but too often, claims are made that something is “research-based” that are really based on stretching the research in a direction that the authors of the study may or may not have intended. And the reason why is clear — what use is the research if we can’t make use of it in some way?

Yet, I believe there needs to be more of an effort to put conflicting views and studies in dialogue with one another.  Too rarely, authors of books ignore or only briefly mention conflicting findings or views that run counter to the one being pitched and presented. This becomes a problem when there are only so many books that attempt to translate research into practice for teachers — these books are skewed and then teachers, with a limited time for reading, do not encounter the whole range of thoughts, opinions, and research on a topic. (This is obviously not just a problem in education!)

Of course, some of the problem also lies with teachers and the education profession in general. Book studies like those done in my district are rare, I think, and in them, teachers are often encouraged to take these books as “the word,” to trust the authors as “experts,” and to assume that what these books say could and/or would work in their classrooms. Additionally, as mentioned before, access to the high-quality research coming from academics is too challenging to obtain and because of its abstract style may seem to be not for teachers. Moreover, because teachers are not often treated as professionals, they are often forced to read certain books, rather than encouraged to choose their own or to seek out books that stand in opposition to one another.

In sum, I think there is a great need for more efforts to bridge that huge gap between the work of the academics and the classroom practice of teachers. Teacher-researchers could be a powerful resource in this area, in addition to those people endowed with the access to academic publications and the ability to skillfully present these findings in an objective, fair, and reasonable way that does more than offer the “latest research-based” panacea to teacher’s problems. In a field where it seems like you can find a research study to back up almost any claim you want to make, it is essential that practitioners have access to as many views as possible and are given opportunities to draw their own conclusions and make their own connections between research and their practice.

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