Graduate School of Education and Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
As I read and reread your letter and pondered the questions posed, I felt increasingly inadequate to respond. First, I have limited knowledge of how most particular lines of research have developed and how, specifically, they have affected policy and practice over time. Furthermore, what I do know tends to dishearten me. I’ll give two examples, each illustrating a different dimension of my disheartenment.
Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences was exciting when it first appeared—I recall my own excitement in reading Frames of Mind—and seemed to have such promise to alter our thinking about ability. Then Gardner and others took the logical step of applying the theory to curriculum, and, no doubt, some good things came of the application. But, over the years, I’ve also seen troubling results: teachers defining kids in unitary and reductive ways: “He’s a kinesthetic learner,” “She learns socially.” These characterizations sometimes morph uncomfortably with preexisting stereotypes: as in the labeling I’ve heard more than a few times of Black boys as “kinesthetic learners.” What all this illustrates, and what so often happens, is the tendency to reduce, simplify, and one-dimensionalize research findings that in the original may be interesting, fruitful, promising. Pushing further, this tendency, I think, reveals a cultural characteristic to streamline, craft a technique, and implement it. This tendency is in our cultural bones, and I worry about it especially in the current climate that seeks evermore to define education as a science, and to produce precise interventions, and measure outcomes with mathematical precision. So let’s call this first strand of my disillusionment the tendency toward reductionism.
The second strand, not unrelated to the first, is the tendency toward the binary, and typically it’s a polemical binary. There are many examples: phonics vs. whole language, writing process vs. product, the math wars, etc. There are two clear problems here:
The separating into polar opposites elements of complex cognitive/ linguistic processes. (Another kind of reductionism.) And,
The pitched ideological battles that quickly arise around these binaries which, as we’ve seen, can rocket out of professional circles and onto the national stage.
I’ve been thinking a lot—and writing a little—about these characteristics for a while, so maybe I’m dwelling on them, but I do think that they are part of the dynamic of influence (or “misinfluence”) that you folks should factor into your investigation.
Let me say something else. Though I certainly don’t want to deny that some good research has made its way into policy and practice, has contributed to a particular piece of legislation or fostered a promising pedagogical approach, I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with the attempt to define educational research as a scientific enterprise with the attendant language of impact and outcomes, rigor and precision. My discomfort comes from the way these concepts get defined, especially now. I want to be clear here: I deeply value research that is carefully thought out, that is rigorously designed and implemented, that has a kind of aesthetic quality to the framing of its problem and the phrasing of its questions. I value work that is elegantly rendered, in words and/or formulas. And, of course, I want it to be pertinent, relevant, to connect to some important theme in education and/or the broader society. I want it to have impact. But the impact I’m after is different from the way I hear the term used so often these days. The notion of “impact” I hear tends to be narrow, pseudoscientific, and plays into those troubling cultural characteristics I mentioned at the beginning of this letter.
My definition of impact would be closer to the phrasing you use at the top of page 2 of your letter: “changing a conceptual paradigm, which stimulates discussion about a particular issue.” Paradigm shift might be too grand a thing to hope for, but I think that what I’m after, in a word, is the engendering of thoughtfulness or a reflective cast of mind. What kind of research leads policy makers or practitioners—or other researchers, for God’s sake—to become more thoughtful. To consider an issue from several points of view. To distrust single-shot solutions. To avoid the binaries. To seek disconfirming evidence. To stand back occasionally and wonder if they’ve been taking the wrong approach with a kid or a policy. To look at a problem, an event, a phenomenon holistically, with nuance. As I traveled around the county watching good teachers for Possible Lives (which Spencer had a part in), I was struck by the strategic use of the many different pedagogical resources these teachers possessed, even those deeply committed to a particular teaching philosophy or method. So the whole language advocate knew when to slip quickly into phonics instruction; the math constructivist provided drill when a kid seemed to need it or when the rural local community wanted their children to be able to quickly calculate in their heads for chores on the farm or ranch. These teachers did have techniques and methods, tons of them, and the techniques were drawn from research gleaned via journals or workshops, or drawn from experience or lore. But it was the strategic use of a range of interventions that marked their competence. It was these teachers’ orientation to teaching—their understanding of learning, their perception of children—that mattered as much as their methods and techniques. Both are necessary. Does the current emphasis on “impact” and “outcomes” foster what I’m describing?
My other worry about the questions you raise is this, and it has to do with what happens to research not only as it makes its way to teachers, but as it moves into the policy arena and public-political sphere.
Again, the assumption and desire in education research—especially today—is that findings, if valid and clear and rational, will have an impact on practice. But, in addition to the distorting tendencies I already mentioned (reductionism and the binary impulse), we’ve seen again and again that educational research enters into a complex social-political world; a rhetorical universe, not a scientific-rational one. This is true for any research—engineering to biomedical—but, I think, is more pronounced for education. This phenomenon, familiar to us all, complicates the hell out of the notion of “impact.”
So where does all this lead for Spencer?
I would like to see the Foundation resist (or at least qualify) a too-neat model of impact, to resist the rational research-policy model that infuses so much edu-talk and that is especially cranked-up today.
I have two suggestions:
Foster a discussion of “impact” that warns of the twin tendencies toward reductionism and binary thinking. Such discussion would be framed within a larger discussion of the richness and complexity of teaching and learning. This discussion should be aimed at teacher education institutions as well as at policy makers and the public. When the discussion involves research findings that have promise to affect practice or policy, always frame it such that the bigger lesson about cognition/language/instruction is emphasized as well. “We found x to be helpful in enabling children to _____, and it reminds us of how (fill in general principle here). We must be cautious, therefore, not to reduce x to simply (fill in reductive possibility here).” This formula is clunky and simplified, but you get the idea.
As to how to foster such discussion, I would like to see the Foundation give serious thought to this issue of communicating findings. I am not just asking for a rehash of the old theory-practice divide, but for a deeper recognition of the cultural realities that affect the use of research, and thus affect impact. Spencer could turn some of its scholarly attention—perhaps enlisting experts in communication and media—to the understanding of “impact” as a rhetorical and sociological phenomenon.
This point brings me to my second, related, suggestion. Why do certain things catch on with the media? When you have good research, how do you get the media to pay attention to it? To have a prayer of answering questions like these, we have to admit that educational researchers and foundations don’t live in a scientific-rational public universe, but a rhetorical one. Maybe the Spencer Foundation needs to put effort into becoming more media savvy and to think of smart public ways to not only announce promising research but to spark the kinds of broad public conversation about teaching and learning that I discussed earlier. Would public forums do it? Would fostering a more strategic and targeted relationship with the press do it? Would workshops for faculty on writing for broader audiences do it? Would strategic, bipartisan relationships with policy makers do it? I don’t know, but all this is worth thinking about.
If the previous paragraph takes the Spencer Foundation too far afield from its role as a philanthropy and too much toward an advocacy organization, then let me at least close with a renewed pitch for a widespread discussion among educators (especially including teacher educators) of this business of “impact,” a discussion of what it really ought to mean, and a discussion of the cultural trends that can easily lead toward reductionism.