Ignoring Education Research & History

Whether it’s lack of awareness, deliberate avoidance, or ignorance on the matter, there is a mainstream disconnect between the societal notion of education and the expansive field of education research.   In education, innovators and disruptors consistently reinvent the wheel, hyping revolutionary ideas that are often unaware of existing research, replications of prior models, or proud of their ignorance of history of the field’s theory and pedagogy.

I’ve discussed this before in relation to Sal Khan and Khan Academy; Khan’s somewhat autobiography One World Schoolhouse celebrates the lack of educational research behind Khan and his academy (both directly in the text as well as through a brief bibliography).  The attitude behind celebrating an ignorance of educational research purports a belief (and, in the media, a narrative) that not only is education broken due to the status quo of (bureaucracy, unions, outdated institutional governance, etc.), but the solutions are simple and evident outside of the bloated institution.  When such a narrative gains acceptance in the media (see recent education sections in Forbes and the Wall Street Journal), the attitude becomes inherent in the discussion, becoming fact despite its illogical nature.  Media and cultural scholars such as Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard have documented the disconnect between media reality and scholarly reality as well as the evolution of multiple realities, but most people aren’t reading McLuhan and Baudrillard.  If they are reading something, it’s more likely it will be in Forbes or the Wall Street Journal rather than in a compilation of cultural studies literature.

M. Night Shyamalan proposed his own educational fixes in a recent Wall Street Journal article, and it follows this same model:  education is broken, it needs disruption and innovation, and Shyamalan did his own research to figure out why the problem exists (note:  the article does not state why Shyamalan did his own research; based on its tenor, however, I assume it is because he either didn’t know prior research existed or was not impressed by prior research).  His ideas (fire the worst teachers, make principals focus on learning, provide more feedback to teachers, stretch the school day and build smaller schools) aren’t revolutionary, nor is the idea to do them all at once.  And in practice, the ideas have seen mixed results, and the mixed results are likely not due to the initiatives being put in place piece-meal.  For example, if you remove the principal from administrative duties and make the position a teacher-centric one (something I imagine many teachers and principals alike would at first glance support), you must hire more administrators to do the administration, positions that are not low pay-grade and cannot be filled by recent college graduates.  This movement follows a trend in higher education where administrative positions have risen dramatically while teaching positions have remained relatively stagnant…and again, administrators are hired at a pay grade higher than teachers.  That money must come from somewhere, and school budgets are not growing, but shrinking.  Where?  Shyamalan noted in his research that class size does not matter…so we can remove more teachers to pay for the new administrators.  However, there is significant research debunking Shyamalan’s claim that class size does not matter.  So while Shyamalan’s efforts are well-intentioned (and I truly believe this to be the case), its effect on existing media narrative and potential political decision will likely not fix the problem, and perhaps exacerbate it by once again ignoring existing research.

It is not just people outside the walls of education who are unaware of the field’s history or pedagogy.  Last year I noted an example where Dr. Mark Sample looked at scaffolding and split the word to define some as obstructive, and that positive scaffolding could even be called descaffolding.  The crux of Dr. Sample’s argument was strong, but scaffolding as an educational term has its roots drawn in the theories of Leo Vygotsky and Albert Bandura, and is an important aspect of modern learning theories such as constructivism and activity theory, theories in congruence with Dr. Sample’s argument.  Despite the strength of the presumption, by alienating scaffolding as a reference term in education, those who read the blog without the ed theory background will do like Sample does and equate scaffolding to bad, even though the theory behind the blog is that scaffolding is good.

More recently, Dr. Scott Newstok wrote an article for Inside Higher Ed that calls for close learning in a world of MOOCs.  Dr. Newstok argues for the importance of community and culture in education, and sees the role of the bricks and mortar space as vital to the argument.  The cautionary aspect of Dr. Newstok’s plea is important (let’s not all jump on the MOOC bandwagon when its pedagogy is as-yet undefined and suspect), but his term close learning already has a defining term in education circles:  the community of practice.  Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger used the theories of Vygotsky and Piaget to envision the importance of shared experience, mentorship, communication and community in the learning process.  It’s everything Dr. Newstok asks for in his article, except it’s 25 years old and research around it has shown the power that communities of practice can have not only in face-to-face settings, but online as well as blended (the original notion developed 20 years ago, not the marketing notion sent out in the back-to-school EdTech emails  last week).

I’ve corresponded briefly with Drs. Sample and Newstok, and it’s commendable that both care passionately about education and want to help make it better.  And I don’t  blame them for not being aware of educational theorists like Vygotsky or Wenger.  Despite our insistence that education is vital, educators have done a poor job of establishing its history and pinpointing the important touchstones in the theory of the field (I know Rutherford’s Gold Foil experiment, but prior to my education studies I would have imagined Piaget as much a swank French restaurant as he would be an educational/psychology pioneer).  Educators must join this debate and remind the pundits and professors of the history and theory of the field, or progress will only exist in dusty journals and education will remain in a broken cycle, the wheel constantly reinvented.

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