Why don't teachers read research?
With less and less autonomy in what and how they teach, why should they?
Daniel Willingham is my favorite education researcher. Ok, he’s really a cognitive psychologist, but still: most of his books and articles focus on education.
Earlier this year he co-authored an article with David Daniel (a psychology professor at James Madison) that wonders why education research rarely translates into classroom practice. “Researchers are, in our experience, frustrated and saddened that teachers do not make greater use of research findings in their practices,” he concludes.
Most of the article—well-written as always—focuses on what researchers should do to make research more salient for teachers: things like using equivalence as “the dissemination criterion” and adjusting standards for publishing education research.
These are very technical decisions for researchers to consider. But I want to consider something more basic in his premise: are teachers really the audience for education research?
Willingham cites four reasons for why teachers mostly ignore education research: the research is too impractical, its context doesn’t match their own, it’s too challenging to implement, or they simply don’t read it. I’d offer a fifth: there’s no real reason for most teachers to read the latest research.
In our district, we’ve created new literacy units for all K-3 classrooms. The units were designed by a cohort of central office staff with support from some teachers. Much like line cooks at The Cheesecake Factory, the many thousands of K-3 teachers in our district are tasked with just cooking what’s in the curriculum recipe — not with understanding the culinary principles behind it.
What most people forget (or perhaps don’t realize) is that teachers have less and less domain over what and how they teach. They are increasing observed, monitored and mandated to use certain curriculum, specific tools, and instructional moves. Wondering why they’re not listening to the latest research is like asking a line cook at The Cheesecake Factory why they’re using gas burners despite research suggesting their toxicity. (Disclaimer: I cook with gas at home.)
A colleague who previously worked in Baltimore told me stories of central office administrators observing teachers to ensure complete fidelity with the district’s purchased literacy curriculum, Wit & Wisdom (which I think is quite a good foundation, but I’ll explore that in a future post). A highly-touted charter school network I once visited scripted nearly all of their lessons so that students in every school got almost the same exact lesson.
In my own school, we use a pre-packaged curriuclum to teach phonics and phonemic awareness (Fundations, it’s great). While it might be nice for teachers to read the latest research on which phonics program produces the best results, what would they do with that knowledge, given that they have little choice (despite my best efforts) in deciding which program to use?
Indeed, it’s the central office administrators in most districts who design programming for the thousands of classrooms they steward. The teachers simply implement the programs.
And it’s those central office administrators — the engineers designing the instructional and climate vehicles we sell at schools — who need to pay attention to the latest educational research. They need to understand which intervention is most likely to reduce suspensions, improve attendance, or improve literacy outcomes for K students.
It’s also the curriculum writers themselves. As Willingham rightly points out, the phrase “evidence-based intervention” has been applied to so many programs after No Child Left Behind that it’s almost meaningless. Still, curriculum publishers have a duty to ensure the structure and content of their programs reflects our latest understanding of how students learn to read or do math.
Let me be clear: a world in which practitioners were deeply engaged with the latest research would make for better teaching and more student achievement — just like we want our doctors, nutritionists, and exercise coaches to know the latest scientific research in their domain. I’m just not sure we (the collective of public education) pay teachers enough, provide them enough time, or value their autonomy enough to expect them to read the latest educational research.
Thanks for reading. Have a great week.