The Joys (and Stresses) of Teacher/Neuroscientist Collaboration

In an ideal world, teachers and researchers collaborate to bring out the best in each other.

So, I might invite Pooja Agarwal to study retrieval practice in my 10th grade English classroom.

My students and I benefit because we learn more about this great study technique.

Dr. Agarwal’s research benefits because she sees how the theory of the technique functions in the real messy world of schools.

What’s not to like?

Theory, Meet Reality

Of course, our world rarely lives up to that ideal. Teacher/researcher collaboration creates all sorts of challenges.

We speak very different languages.

We operate within very different time frames.

At times, we highlight very different values.

All these differences can make communication, progress, and success difficult to achieve.

Today’s Example

Over at the Blog on Learning Development, Meeri Kim has recently written about a collaboration between neuroscientists and Head Start teachers. More precisely, she interviewed two of the scientists in the program.

The result: a refreshingly frank description of the benefits and stresses of this collaboration.

For instance: the curriculum that the scientists created improved social skills and selective attention, while reducing problem behaviors. What teacher wouldn’t like those results?

As researcher Lauren Vega O’Neil noted:

A lot of the activities were packaged as fun games. The teachers loved having these ready-made activities that would help them long-term in the classroom.

And yet, this collaboration included confusions and stresses as well.

I worked mostly with teachers in classrooms during the study, and many of them jumped on board right away. But there was some pushback, particularly since some teachers saw this as yet another curriculum that they were being asked to implement. […] So they just saw our training program as something else that was being asked of them.


Researcher Eric Pakulak has some surprisingly direct advice for colleagues who want to do classroom research:

Unfortunately, it seems to be all too common that researchers come in and don’t listen as much as they should to educators, thinking that it should be all about neuroscience, and only using education to implement what they know, as opposed to something more bi-directional.

Instead, we need to work together and really understand the ways that the experience of teachers and administrators can inform our work.

I agree with this advice wholeheartedly.

And, I likewise think that teachers can do more to understand the pressures on researchers.

For instance: research works by isolating variables.

Classroom researchers might have very particular scheduling needs. They can be certain that retrieval practice produces a benefit only if nothing else in the class was different. So, they might have to insist we schedule quizzes at a very specific point in the class — even if that schedule is highly inconvenient for us.

The more that teachers understand these research requirements, the more effectively we can create classroom research paradigms that both help our individual students learn and help researchers discover enduring truths about learning.

tags: category: L&B Blog

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