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Thompson: What Happens When Research Gets To The Schoolhouse

Jack Schneider begins his excellent From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse with the observation that academic research usually has a short-lived impact on the classroom. No matter how brilliant the scholar, research findings are "like names written on a steam-covered window, they fade from view."

From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse takes a "glass half-full" approach. It acknowledges that the "avalanche of disparate research" on education has usually not been intended for use by classroom educators." But, "Some of it is."

Schneider does not despair. He provides hope that, someday, we can create a "research-to-practice superhighway (rather than relying on a series of detours and back alleys)" in seeking the path toward school improvement. Probably the best we can do today is carve out a "research-to-practice pathway."

The education historian describes four successes in implementing ideas from the Ivory Tower, Benjamin  Bloom's Taxonomy, Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences, William Kirkpatrick's The Project Method, and Direct Instruction.  These three progressive concepts, and the final behaviorist approach, took root in public school classrooms, even though they did so "without altering the nature of the teaching profession." In contrast to similar concepts that failed to influence schooling, these successes shared four characteristics: Perceived Significance and Philosophical Compatibility with teachers' world views, Occupational Realism and Transportability to actual classrooms.

These concepts may not have transformed instruction, but they show that teachers can, and will, change and become active agents in their professional development. Moreover, they stand as a reminder that teachers can be as willing to be challenged by new ideas as other professionals.

From the Ivory Tower to the School House is timely because:

The notion that schools are stuck in the past, resistant to change, and inept at innovation is a powerful validation for such an aggressive reform movement initiated by outsiders in a top-down fashion. Such efforts invariably fail, provide the basis for further indictments of the schools, and lead inexorably to more policy churn. These repeated assaults on public schools, whatever their intended consequences, also result in serious collateral damage.

So Schneider wants research to be used in ways that are "more than fiddling around the margins of K-12 education." But, unlike contemporary accountability hawks, he understands what too many scholars and policy-makers have not grasped - the reality of the classroom is far messier than what top-down reformers could imagine. In an effort to break out of the "blame game," he has identified a key to the reason why scholarship hasn't been very effective in improving schools. The problem is that "those with the least capacity to critically consume research have the greatest power to implement it."

Schneider begins by correcting some of the invective that has been hurled against scholars. Some reformers have dismissed academics as preoccupied with theory and philosophy, not real schools. For every AERA special interest group that deals with "Foucault and Contemporary Theory in Education," however, there is another on classroom management.

Schneider is too polite to then note the utter disconnect from reality of so many reform think tanks that rely on Big Data and algorithms. Foucault could have not been more reality-challenged than today's reformers who insisted that their not-ready-for-prime-time hypotheses must hurriedly become enshrined in law.

Schneider astutely concludes, "if research is going to be put in the classroom, it must be easy to add on to existing practice." Policy-makers must respect teachers, and speak with a straightforward and collegial language, or they will continue to get "change without improvement." And, they must be much more modest when trying to scale up their new policies. Committing the ultimate reform heresy, Schneider concludes, "We don't need schools to improve overnight, most don't need dramatic improvement." But, we must move together "Slowly, perhaps. But together." -JT (@drjohnthompson)


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