We don’t do a lot of cross posting here at Learning and the Brain. I believe this is the first time we’ve done so while I’ve been editor.
I think the initiative below is very exciting, and you — Learning and the Brain readers — are just the right audience to take advantage of it.
In this post, Ben Keep and Ulrich Boser of the Learning Agency Lab explain how we teachers can do valuable research in our own classrooms.
If that grabs your attention: read on!
New technologies can help educators become high-quality researchers.
When it comes to teaching, there are a million questions to ask about the nature of instruction.
What examples to use? What analogies to draw on? What sequences to teach new ideas? The people in the best position to both ask and answer these questions are often teachers.
Teacher-driven research isn’t new, but — at least in the U.S. — it’s relatively rare. Teaching loads are high and work hours are long, making teachers reluctant to lead education research projects, even when they want to. And, generally speaking, the U.S. school system is not set up to support teacher-driven research.
But in spite of the challenges, teachers want to engage in research. One survey found that over 90% of teachers wanted to influence the direction of research. And 59% wanted to participate in research themselves.
One way to engage is through action research, which certainly has its place in the field. And while the approach has clear benefits, it also has some limitations — like missing comparison groups.
A new kind of tool might help solve this problem. Over the next year, different learning platforms plan on offering tools to assist teachers in running their own research projects. Take ASSISTments ETRIALS Project. There’s already currently a small community of teachers who are performing independent classroom research on ASSISTments and that’s scheduled to expand.
RCE Coach also has plans to put out a version of their software this fall that will facilitate teacher use of the platform. They plan on fostering collaborations and providing workshops and other resources to support teacher research.
There’s also Carnegie Learning’s UpGrade platform. The company has plans to release an easy-to-use UI that lets teachers perform research on the platform. They’re particularly interested in testing whether letting students move ahead at their own pace benefits student outcomes.
These tools all help teachers run randomized controlled trials in their classrooms. That is, they help teachers to randomly assign students to different instructional conditions so that we can figure out which teaching approaches work best — and why.
Action Research Isn’t Action(able) Enough. Or why RCTs?
Current teacher-driven research efforts emphasize action research, which is an approach to deliberately reflecting on one’s own teaching practice with an aim to improve it. Under this model, teachers will often experiment with new teaching approaches, conduct interviews or surveys of students, and make detailed observations along the way. Often, the entire class makes a change, and the teacher reflects on whether the change was effective at improving learning outcomes.
This has led to a lot of fascinating work. But one of the limitations of action research is that, without a meaningful group comparison, it’s hard to know whether the proposed change made a difference.
Putting teachers in charge of running RCTs offers several intriguing benefits. First, teachers are likely to ask questions that researchers might not think of. The tests would also be in the context of a real classroom environment. And the results could be put into practice immediately.
Second, a wider group of teachers becoming involved with research might help bridge the research-practice divide. Teachers do not often learn about the science of learning during teacher training programs. Simultaneously, many teachers feel like existing education research is inaccessible, hard-to-understand, or simply not relevant.
Transparent randomly controlled trials would also give teachers the ability to hone their intuitions about instructional choices. By posting the study design before posting the results, teachers, researchers, and anyone else who was interested could make predictions about what’s likely to happen. This gives people the kind of practice they need to become expert forecasters.
Of course, the approach also comes with significant challenges. With average class sizes of around 25 students, a single class yields very small sample sizes for carrying out RCTs. Teachers also have varying experience with research methods. And it’s still unclear what platform features will best serve the teachers-as-researchers community, and which questions simply can’t be tested using learning platforms.
More Actionable ResearchRCTs In Action
Do students benefit from solving math problems with pencil and paper (as opposed to on a computer)?
Suppose we had a group of students perform a homework assignment where they solved problems with pencil and paper, while a comparable group of students solved the same homework problem on a computer (with no incentive to write it out). Would the first group learn more or less than the second?
A math teacher in Maine — Bill Hinkley — actually decided to test this very question, through an RCT. One group of students was encouraged to use paper and pencil, and had to turn in a piece of paper showing their work. The other group of students went through the homework problems as usual — through a computer screen. Both groups saw and submitted their answers through the same math platform: ASSISTments.
The result? Students who used paper and pencil outperformed those who didn’t by about 13 points. The difference was just shy of statistical significance, but suggestive given the small sample size (15 students in one condition, 12 in the other). Bill Hinkley plans to replicate and expand on the experiment in the near future.
Want To Join The RCT Teacher Research Community?
What would happen if we could scale up this style of research? There are 3.7 million teachers in the U.S. If just one percent of them started engaging in education research, there would be 37,000 teacher-researchers. The largest education research association, AERA, by comparison, has about 25,000 members.
Suppose each teacher-researcher only performed one experiment a year. That’s still 37,000 small experiments, run in realistic, noisy, classroom settings using rigorous research methods. Imagine what we might learn.
Interested in using RCTs in your classroom? Get in touch with us: Email Ulrich at [email protected]
We’re looking to build a community of teacher researchers who are doing this work in schools every day.