Thursday, September 28, 2017

Knowledge, Belief, and the Professional Educator

I imagine that most of those who read this blog accept climate change and the human impact on climate change as settled science. We've seen the evidence; we've heard from the experts and we have reached an informed conclusion. This is a good thing and one that most Americans not in the White House or in denial for economic and political reasons also accept. It is not a matter of believing or disbelieving climate science; it is a matter of rigorous academic inquiry.

Now I would ask all teachers and teacher leaders to apply the same academic rigor to instructional practice. That is we must make our instructional decisions on what we know works - based on research.

Unfortunately as I have talked to teachers over the years about instructional practice, I have heard a lot of faith-based language.
  • "I don't believe in homework."
  • "I believe in phonics."
  • "I don't believe in teaching to the test."
  • "I believe in independent reading."
  • "I believe in using round robin and popcorn reading."
For about 2,000 years doctors "believed" that blood-letting was an effective treatment for a wide variety of ailments. Today, I would bet if you encountered a doctor who recommended blood-letting for your flu symptoms, you would run, not walk, out the office door screaming. Science, and mounting numbers of dead patients, caught up with blood-letting. So, as professionals, we need to hold ourselves to the same standards. We need to follow the science and stop talking about our beliefs and start talking about the scientific research behind our instructional decision making. 

Now I know applying the rules of scientific inquiry to education is more difficult and more elusive than the study of climate. Climate exists in the physical world, education in the human world. Working with the mind is messier than working with weather patterns. And yes, teaching is as much art as it is science. Still, decisions on instruction must be rooted in what we can show works. Unless we can show, through documentation of the research, that what we are doing does indeed work, we stand vulnerable to the charge of educational malpractice.

So, instead of saying, "I don't believe in giving homework", we need to make a statement like this. "Research has shown that homework has little or no impact on learning in the elementary grades, so I chose not to assign it to my third graders." This statement, by the way, is true. The most comprehensive research study on homework, conducted by Harris Cooper of Duke University, found just that. You can read my fuller discussion about homework here. The reason we continue to see elementary school children burdened with homework is because teachers "believe" in it, not because it has any academic value.

Often times, however, the science gives us conflicting messages and makes sticking to the science and what we know difficult. For example, we know through numerous studies that the more time children spend reading the better they get at reading. Teachers aware of this will work to make sure to provide time for engaged, independent reading in the classroom. But what if you would also like to have the students read at home? Is this homework? Will it be effective? We might decide to work with parents to provide a family time for reading at home. Our statement then is not, "I believe that reading in the home is important", but rather, "The research indicates that when children have access to reading material in the home, when reading is valued by the adults in the home, and when time is set aside for reading, children will improve their overall reading ability." We would then need to work with parents to make "family literacy" not homework, but a natural part of what happens in the home.

Teachers, though, must be skilled and skeptical consumers of research. Sometimes what is presented to us as research is really propaganda. It is always a good idea to follow the money when presented with "research" demonstrating that a program is effective. Ask the questions, Who stands to benefit financially from this research? What is this research trying to sell? Was this research published in a peer reviewed journal? If someone is citing you research to support a reading program she is selling, be very, very skeptical.

Sometimes the "research" is driven by a political agenda. A prime example of this was the National Reading Panel (NRP) that came out with the Reading First initiative under the George W. Bush administration. The leaders of NRP, including the chair, Reid Lyon, had a bias toward a systematic phonics approach to reading instruction, so that unsurprisingly, the final NRP report argued for the primacy of phonics in early literacy instruction. Eight years later, follow-up research found that indeed, thanks to Reading First, kids were better at phonics. Unfortunately, the same kids were no better at understanding what they read, which after all is what reading is about.

The NRP fell into the trap of valuing one type of research, what they called empirical, over other types of research including, especially, correlational and ethnographic that would have given them a fuller picture of effective practice. Phonics instruction, and other bits and pieces approaches to literacy tend to lend themselves to empirical study, while other effective practices, like independent reading, are more readily studied through correlational studies or ethnographies. While empirical studies are generally the "gold standard" in research, they are not the only standard and much can be learned from other rigorous types of research.

All this can leave the poor classroom teacher frustrated and confused. What to do if our goal is to truly use well-researched instructional strategies in our teaching? For me the answer lies in two places. First, what does the preponderance of reliable research evidence show to be effective practice? Second, what do I observe in my classroom, over-time and through documentation, seems to be working?

So when I read the following in a respected publication, an article written by respected researchers that "the research base supports the notion that the reading curriculum should incorporate time and opportunities for students to engage in independent reading" (Gambrell, et al, 2011), I am prone to include independent reading in my instructional practice. If  over-time in my classroom, the practice does not seem to be working, I need to take a close look at how I have implemented the practice, find out what successful programs are doing that I am not and make adjustments.

There may even be times when well-researched practices that have shown to be effective with other students prove to be ineffective with the students I am working with. When this happens, and when I have done all I can to be sure I am employing the practice as effectively as possible, I may have to drop a practice as not effective with this particular group of students (or possibly with this particular teacher).

The point is, finally, that as a professional educator, I must make decisions based on the preponderance of the science and in line with the evidence I see before me and keep reading and keep adjusting and keep employing my best professional judgement. That is the essence of being a professional. And that is something we can all believe in.