Response: Why Don’t Teachers Engage With Research?

Gary Davies wrote a piece titled “Why Don’t Teachers Engage With Research?” I read it, and I found it interesting, though I disagreed with much of it.

Joe asked me to say more. Here’s the more, Joe.

There is a lot that Gary says in this piece that I agree with. He notes that research in education is not written by or for teachers. That is true and important. Can you imagine a world where classroom teachers collaborated with researchers on joint publications? Forgetting for a moment everything else that would have to change (including the sort of research being done) that would just be a great thing for the profession(s).

I also agree with Gary’s call for open access to studies. This seems like something that just has to change.

Gary is a physicist who is moving towards the classroom. I think this is fantastic. My understanding is that he’s not in a k-12 classroom yet. Gary’s premise is that his expertise on physics research gives him perspective on educational research. I would suggest, though, that in some ways this might lead him astray in this piece. Gary points out convincingly that research in education does not resemble research in physics. He concludes that this is a problem, that education should be more like physics.

I think there are good reasons for why research in education doesn’t look like research in physics. Consider Gary’s first point:

Go and look at any field that is heavily evidence based and relies on research and you will find something striking: the people who do the research are the people who use the research.

Now, I just don’t think this is true. If it were true, though, I don’t see why we would saddle teachers with the responsibility to perform research. There is a striking difference between teaching and physicisting: teaching requires a great deal of relational expertise. You need to know how to navigate these kids in this school with this material. It’s surprisingly difficult to share this knowledge. In physicisting, the work is already abstract and ready to be shared.

A more apt analogy would be if we imagined that physicists were expected not just to publish research on physics but to publish on the act of having a successful science career. What if we wanted every physicist to be doing excellent science? What are the practices that lead to successful science? What sort of graduate education eventually yields the best scientific work?

These are questions that are more like what we deal with in education. Being good at grappling with these questions is quite different from doing good science in your area of expertise!

As Gary goes on, he doubles down on the idea that research on teaching ought to resemble research on physics.

What’s the average length of a research paper in education? I don’t know the answer but I have read many that are 30 pages or more. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one with fewer than 5 pages. In physics, we typically publish papers 4-10 pages long.

But why should we expect papers to be short? “A paper is an announcement of a discovery or new piece of knowledge. The goal is to explain the significance of your discovery and back it up with evidence as quickly as possible.”

OK, well the obvious answer would be that in research on education it is significantly more difficult to do these things. Teaching is supremely messy, and it has only been an object of research for about one hundred years. The problems with educational research are numerous. To start, different people have different understandings of the outcomes of education. (That’s true even if you limit yourself to the research that assumes we can measure these outcomes by giving kids a test.)

What counts as evidence in teaching? This is also more complex. Different schools exist. There is a need to carefully explain their assumptions and techniques, and this takes longer to do.

In short, your typical education research paper is more complicated than a …

I hope nobody wants to tell me that a typical education research paper is more complicated or sophisticated than a typical physics paper. So if physicists can do it, why can’t education researchers?

Well ok then.

Education research papers tend to also be very boring and full of jargon.

Says you!

Jargon serves only as a barrier-to-entry for those who are not on the “inside” of your little crowd. Many fields do this on purpose (some parts of philosophy, for example) so that only the indoctrinated read the papers, lest their entire field be found out as a con.

Umm well this is getting pretty conjectural for my tastes. The possibility that it’s just harder to express true things in education vs. physics doesn’t seem to be considered.

I really wonder what Gary would think about psychological research in general. Those studies are likewise long, likewise “jargon”-ized. For good reason. It’s hard to talk about human beings. It takes time and care to say the thing that you want to say. And an important part of the work of psychology and educational research is identifying new concepts (jargon) that might provide explanatory power.

Though I have an easy time agreeing with this:

They tend to be boring partly because of their length and partly because no effort has been made into crafting a succinct, well-written, memorable message for the paper. It’s not uncommon for me to get 10 pages into an education research paper and think: Why have they done this? What’s the point in this paper? What are they trying to tell me?

It seems crazy to me that we’ve created a research system that prioritizes the creation of knowledge over its dissemination. We aren’t trying to figure all these things out to put ’em in a jar!

Much of the most interesting and informative educational research is highly quantitative.

And much of the rest of it is qualitative! You need both. Everyone knows this. Different methods are appropriate for different research needs. Psychologists know this. Education researchers know this. It’s like saying consonants are the most informative letters.

How can we fix it? This is the really depressing part, because I can’t really see how things are going to change.

I like Jack Schneider’s ideas. I like Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships. I hold out some hope that online communities can help researchers and teachers come together.

At the end of his piece, Gary suggests that teachers could have a role as writers who review research. I think this is a great idea! I do think that if we can find ways to create a community of teacher-writers that could do a great deal to help us make intellectual progress. How to do that is its own puzzle, though.

Anyway, I’ve said enough. Gary — are you out there? — I’d love to continue the conversation some time. I’m no expert on anything, but the above is my take.


5 thoughts on “Response: Why Don’t Teachers Engage With Research?

  1. I like the idea of teachers getting involved in research, but we’re increasingly overloaded just doing our jobs. And that’s getting worse, not better.


  2. I have to agree with Corey here. The teachers I work with are doing all they can just to keep their heads above water. The last thing on their minds is reading or conducting research. But maybe that’s as it should be. Teachers have enough to worry about managing the many needs, emotional and academic, of their students and organizing their classrooms into environments that are conducive to learning. They need to be sure that best practices, as identified by research, are already baked into their curriculum. Physicians prescribe medications that have already been researched, and they have to be confident that the research is sound, but that doesn’t mean they’ve conducted the research themselves.
    I’ll admit that in my 20+ years as a classroom teacher I’ve harbored very ambivalent feelings about research and researchers, driven by an “us against them” mentality. I’ve often thought, mostly but not altogether facetiously, that if all those researchers, who know so much about teaching, actually got into classrooms and taught, then many of our education problems would be solved. Only recently have I dipped my toe into the research world (as a consumer, not a producer) and that’s only because I’m no longer a classroom teacher and my responsibilities as a coach and specialist have left me with the time and energy to do so. And also because you, Michael, have set a wonderful example as a teacher who is curious enough about what he’s doing to dig beneath the surface of things.


    1. The teachers I work with are doing all they can just to keep their heads above water. The last thing on their minds is reading or conducting research. But maybe that’s as it should be.

      I agree! It is exactly as it should be.

      The percent of teachers who are able and eager to read research should be about the same as the percent of baseball fans who can tell you the difference between UZR and DRS. Proportionally, we’re probably talking the subset of pop music fans who read and write cultural criticism in the evenings. This is not everyone, this is not no one. This is the perfect situation.

      We live in a culture where a lot of people believe that if something’s worth doing, you should be making a buck from it. Resist that urge! Reading and writing about teaching as a teacher is worth doing because it’s interesting, fun, and important.



  3. As a person who conducted research during my undergraduate years, I’ve felt starved for research and articles at times in my first two years of my teaching. I wanted to read up on different aspects of teaching and research, but access is an issue (Where do I look? Where can I read quality articles for free?). Another issue is time. Gary’s comment about length addresses a major reason why classroom teachers probably avoid reading research or conducting it (it takes a long time!). Shorter, focused articles are a step in the right direction. Something else I wonder about is whether engagement with research would increase if teachers were involved in less empirical research models (lesson studies, etc.). At the end of the day, I think a major problem is a teacher’s schedule on a typical day isn’t designed with research in mind and an education researcher’s schedule on a typical day isn’t designed with teaching in mind. Until both these disparities are addressed, teacher engagement with research will be a problem.


    1. Another issue is time.

      For sure! But literally doing anything takes time. If we’re saying that we teachers don’t have time to read research (which is true) then we’re really saying that other things are more important for our kids and our practice than reading research…

      …which is true.


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