My Personal Rules For Reading Research

  1. I am an amateur reader of research, and that’s not the same as being a bad expert. These days, I think being an amateur presents its own special set of challenges. I’m not heir to any sort of research tradition, and there’s a lot of training that I lack. So there are distinctive challenges, but I like these challenges. I might be an amateur, but I hope someday to be expert at my amateurism. And this expertise, for what it’s worth, is entirely personal. Any “rules” are just patterns that I’ve noticed in my own inclinations. I’m sure there are better ways to go about all this.
  2. Never tell other people they should read more research. I love reading research, because I learn a lot from it. (I also have this sort of unhealthy need to not leave things that I don’t understand on the table.) I see reading research as a kind of conversation with thoughtful people, who are trying to really nail down an aspect of teaching. It’s a blast. But I don’t spend enough time thinking of awesome review games for my kids to play in class. There are lots of things that can make one’s classroom teaching better, and I can’t think of any good reason to privilege reading research above anything else.
  3. Usually, there’s a way to get past paywalls. This is an art unto itself. Searching the title of the paper with “.pdf” in the search often works. Besides, a paper rarely comes from nowhere. If I can’t find what I want, there’s often a dissertation, presentation or related article that I can find. Plus, the public library. And there’s always begging people to send you stuff. So paywalls aren’t really an issue, I find.
  4. Don’t worry about “keeping up.” I can’t, it’s not like things change that fast, I don’t need to be on top of things, and there’s an inexhaustible amount of material from the past for me to catch up on.
  5. I currently lack the capacity to critically evaluate the methods used in a study. This is an important thing for me to keep in mind. It’s one of these humility/chutzpah double-combos that this amateurism is all about, for me. Since I can’t really dismiss anyone’s work on the merits, I end up giving the methodological benefit of the doubt to pretty much everyone. I have a very hard time closing the door on any sort of study — I don’t feel competent to. This feeds into some of my natural inclinations to try to find common-ground between seemingly conflicting positions.
  6. I want to better understand methodological issues. Ever so slowly, I’m making progress. Sloooooooooooowly.
  7. Don’t read research looking for evidence, read it for perspectives. I find it helpful to read a research paper as the work of a single individual colleague. (Even when there are joint authors or whatever.) This is a single individual who had certain experiences, has a certain view of the world, and wants to tell me something that they think is true, and why. This often keeps me from dismissing papers that seem off-base to me. It also keeps me from feeling bludgeoned by research that doesn’t fit what I know. Humility/Chutzpah.
  8. Don’t read single, isolated studies unless it’s part of a larger research project.  I don’t trust myself to understand what’s going on in a single study. I completely lack the context to critically evaluate a piece of research unless I make an effort to get to know the neighborhood. Practically, this means that I don’t read a ton of research, but I read in fairly focused ways. Read a lot about feedback, and eventually you get to know a few of the major results, the history, highly-cited papers, some of the constraints, the interpretive issues, etc. It’s so much fun for me to build this network. This is always more meaningful for me than just diving into whatever link someone happens to be trumpeting. Once I started diving deeply into little sub-literatures of educational research, everything got better for me.
  9. “Is teaching an art or a science?” is a very confused question. There is a body of knowledge called “Physics.” It is a science. There is a profession called “Physicists” who “do Physics.” Being a scientist is an art — there is no recipe for coming up with wildly inventive theories or experiments. Teaching, then, is obviously an art. The only relevant question is whether the body of knowledge surrounding teaching should be considered a science or not. I don’t think this is an interesting question, but there is obviously a mix of contestable and incontestable facts that make up this body of knowledge.
  10. Never cite research as evidence to another teacherSince teaching is an art, educational research has an awful reputation, and since I mostly read research to change my perspective (rather than collating evidence), there seems to me little point in trying to use a citation to support my views. It’s not like anything I could cite would be anything like the final word, as far as teaching goes. When I know that a body of research disagrees with someone, I find it a helpful exercise to think of ways to get at this disagreement through only discussing our teaching experiences.

I think there’s something here for everybody to hate, and every time I’ve talked about research in the past I’ve embarrassed myself. Still, I think this is a fairly accurate picture of how I go about things these days. I’m eager to know how the other amateurs out there think about this.

2 thoughts on “My Personal Rules For Reading Research

  1. This is a really great reflection on a topic not often discussed by teachers. Your guideline of “getting to know the neighbourhood” instead of reading single, isolated studies particularly resonated with me, because the latter is something I’m often guilty of. It’s a good reminder to focus academic reading by exploring the web of ideas surrounding a topic to get a more nuanced understanding of it, rather than cherry-picking topics from across the board – i.e., choose depth over breadth. (Which is what I often preach when it comes to teaching, anyway…)

    I also thought it was interesting that you argue to “never cite research as evidence to another teacher”. I’m not sure I would agree with “never”, but I think that it’s a reasonable guideline in the general sense. In my experience, I have indeed found that many teachers have the impression that researchers are so removed from the classroom that they couldn’t possibly understand its complexities (and perhaps there’s a case to be made there, to some extent). So I think you’re right – whenever possible, it may be best to base your views on lived experiences when it comes to discussing them with other teachers.

    But I do still believe that teachers, like all professionals, have a responsibility to keep up with developments in their field – and therefore that we shouldn’t neglect reading research simply because of the fact that no method will apply in each and every situation (that’s where teacher discretion comes in).


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