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.

Draw a Scientist 2014

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One of the primary  goals that I have for my second graders in rural Maine is to become more aware of the world around them. As someone who is interested in social justice, I also aspire to have them recognize injustices and to envision a different world than the one that we currently inhabit.

I try to educate my second graders about stereotypes throughout the duration of the school year. The first lesson that I do on this topic coincides with our study of science beginning in earnest. Prior to beginning our first science project, I ask my students to pause and to picture what they think a scientist looks like and does in their heads. I then ask them to draw that image and collect and display their images in a “scientist gallery” for everyone to see.

Once the images are hanging, we have a discussion about what we notice about our images — how they are similar to and how they might be different from one another. This leads into a discussion about how the stereotyped image of a scientist — of a crazy-haired, older male chemist is, in fact, just one narrow version of what scientists actually do.

This is the second time that I’ve done this lesson and I was pleased when I saw that this year’s bunch had much less stereotyped versions of scientists, at least around gender. In a class with more boys than girls, there were 7 pictures featuring female scientists and 7 pictures with male scientists. This was significantly different than last year, when only my drawing and two others featured females, even in a class heavily dominated by girls.

In terms of what the scientists were doing, however, “potions” continues to rule the day. My students had 9 scientists using potions and 6 doing “something else,” with some of those something elses being awfully close to the lab scientist image. Hopefully we will expand on these notions of “what scientists do” by the end of the year.

I follow up this activity by reading aloud “Me…Jane” by Patrick McDonnell. The students are always captivated by this charming text and it really helps to affirm that stereotypes are narrow and often limit our thinking about what the possibilities are for ourselves and those around us.

Reading Update

I have been reading up a storm lately! Here are synopses of three books from my 2014 reading list that I’ve tackled in the last few weeks.


Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions 
(Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana)

This very accessible (and quick) read lays out the “Question Formulation Technique,” a process designed to get kids honing their critical thinking skills while laying the groundwork for the learning that they will pursue in relation to a particular topic. The authors suggest that rather than teachers wracking their brains to develop robust framing questions, students can be tasked with brainstorming these inquiries. The process is simple and I am looking forward to trying it out with my students this fall. I am particularly drawn to the steps of the process where students think about open versus closed questions and then have to prioritize questions. I am always interested in trying to teach critical thinking skills and this seems like a viable strategy for doing just that in a simple way that directly relates to and even drives the curriculum and content we’ll be exploring.

From the Dress-Up Corner to the Senior Prom (Jennifer Bryan)

I read several sections of this book during a course that I took on gender and sexuality and have been itching to read the rest for the better part of a year. This book ought to be required reading for all educators. Part informational guide to gender and sexuality and part handbook for addressing these topics in school settings with students of any age, this book is the best resource on gender and sexuality in education that I have seen. The book operates from the (I believe accurate) premise that gender and sexuality are always a part of the schooling experience, whether or not we choose to acknowledge this explicitly. It contains many practical examples for how to discuss these topics and how to best support all students as they work on the task of crafting this essential aspect of their identity. It left me with many great ideas to implement right away in my classroom.

There Are No Children Here (Alex Kotlowitz)

I could not put this book down this week. In my opinion, this book belongs right next to Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities on the shelf of books that all human beings should read. This book, written in the ’90s by Alex Kotlowitz (one of my favorite contributors to the wonderful podcast “This American Life”), chronicles the lives of two young boys growing up in a project in the inner city of Chicago. This book both enthralled and incensed me — at points I could not believe that what I was reading could possibly be true. I expect that things may have slightly improved since this book was written, but I am certain that many of the same issues unfortunately still exist. I became so attached to the characters in this book and I am eager to try to find out what happened to them after the story ended. You should absolutely read this book!

Reign of Error

I have always been an advocate for the power of public schools — it is why I chose to work at a small, rural public school and not a fancy private or charter school. I strongly believe that it is public schools that offer the best chance for cultivating and realizing a democratic society. Unfortunately, that narrative is not heard often enough in an education climate that seems obsessed with ranking and denigrating public schools while trumpeting the outstanding successes of a few charter schools. (Disclaimer: I actually do have experience in a charter school — I completed an internship at a charter school last year.) I adamantly believe that if we’d be willing or want some students to experience a particular type of instruction or program, then it ought to be something that we would be willing to give to all students.

Because I hold these views, reading Diane Ravitch’s new book Reign of Error left me vigorously nodding my head and finally seeing data and research to back up these views that I have always instinctively possessed. The work is insightful and timely and I hope that it will be widely read by those who advocate for the practices which this work vehemently condemns — practices that do not have the best interests of our children at heart.

The position that I most appreciated was her insistent assertion that schools serve the communities in which they are located and thus must reflect the wishes of that community, not of a talking head far removed from that local environment. Thus, in order for schools to change, the community ought to be the one to initiate that process, not simply decrees and legislation that does not take into account a specific context. This resonates so strongly with my experience in a district in the midst of a transition to a standards-based system of education — the community is currently not adequately informed, which is leading to distrust of the public schools and ensures that these changes will not be reinforced or celebrated by those in the community. While the hand of communication and input has been extended, there seems to be little take up — but the absence of response should not taken as acceptance and certainly not considered “dialogue.”

As I continue to struggle to build connections and relationships with parents and to counter anitsocial messages that some of my students are receiving at home, I am also reminded daily of another of Ravitch’s key claims — that the family and community contributes far more to student achievement than schools and teachers. In fact, the data that she cites suggests that school factors may only be responsible for about 1/3 of the discrepancies in achievement between students. This has been one of the hardest truths to stumble upon this year — that despite my efforts, there will always be significant factors beyond my and my students’ control that will aid or hinder their educational experience. Thus, I strongly agree with Ravitch’s assertion that schools cannot simply proceed as though poverty does not exist, but that approaches to improve the economic stability of families must work in tandem with efforts to improve our schools.

In sum, this book provides a timely critique of standardized tests, efforts to blame school failure on teachers, charter schools, and efforts to privatize education. Teachers looking to gain a sense of the current pulse of the education field ought to consider this work essential reading.