Three Questions Education Research Should Answer

Putting research into the hands of teachers is not very difficult in Ontario. The professional development opportunities for teachers and the body of research in education grow every day. Research is most often presented to teachers with the hope that it will influence and inform their teaching. But how much of that research actually influences teachers’ practices as opposed to getting trapped in the back of reference binders? I suspect neither the researcher nor the teacher would be satisfied with the answer.

If new research findings are to influence classroom activities, it must be distinguished from established practices and navigate the pre-existing demands on teachers’ time. Teachers are busy. The time spent teaching in class is only one of many responsibilities and activities that go on behind the scenes. In setting up their classrooms and planning their materials, teachers have already made decisions about activities and approaches. Consider how answers to the following three questions could help research be more influential.

1) How is it better for students?

This first question is not whether the practices promoted by research are good for students but whether they are better for students. This is an important distinction and is the difference between a teacher tuning-in to the research or tuning-out. Teachers have already developed their plans and organized their activities in the light of good theories and research that were shared in their University courses and continuing professional development. If research findings can only speak to a practice being good for students it will likely be discounted. There may be circumstances where it is important to trade one good practice for another, however, there is a good chance it will appear to be an arbitrary decision. Given the choice, which would you choose: continue with the current good practice or change to a new practice which is also considered good but will require an update of plans, schedules and materials? By answering the question of good instead of the question of better you now have the job of explaining the research to an audience that has no inherent motivation to pay attention.

2) How is it better for teachers?

Another way to ask this question is “What is in it for me?” This is not a glib or crass question. It goes straight to the heart of motivating teachers. Where the first question appeals to teachers’ desire to help their students be successful, this second question provides an incentive that motivates teachers when they find change intimidating or overwhelming. Will the new activities or methods improve classroom dynamics? Will it reduce the amount of paperwork? Will it improve communication and constructively engage parents? Teachers should not have to imagine what the benefits might be; it should be shared with them clearly and concisely.

3) What should I do?

Answering this question should result in a list of actions or approaches that teachers can take back to their classrooms and try. It is important that the list include items that can be used immediately because the more obstacles that stand between a person and the activity (additional training, special resources, supervisory approval etc.) the less likely people will implement and adapt practices. Answering this question provides the quick win that turns good will and intent into actions.

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