Friday, November 16, 2012

Why education research should matter to educational practice

Geek Manifesto (by Mark Henderson)
Science journalist Mark Henderson's book "The Geek Manifesto - Why science matters" illustrates the importance of science for all aspects of society.

Chapter 7 refers to the connection between science and education. Here is a quick summary of the main points:
-Currently, schools do not pay enough attention to findings from science (e.g. brain research, cognitive science, or education research). Additionally, schools don't apply scientific methods themselves by systematically implementing promising changes in quasi-experimental setups.
Some positive examples:
-brain research suggested that teenagers brains (different from younger children or adults) work better later in the morning [Most schools still operate on the industrial-age model that treats early rising as a virtue]. A UK school who pushed the first lessons for teenagers back by an hour documented great improvement in attendance and test performance (The principal also noted that other factors might have contributed to these improvements).
-Research suggests that the ability for delayed reward and self-control (findings from the famous marshmallow experiments) are major predictors of success in life (along with IQ and socio-economic background). Role-playing exercises, martial arts, or yoga could help students learn accept delayed gratification.
-Research suggests that boys and girls learn differently, especially around puberty. Education could use these findings to create different tasks for boys and girls.

Henderson suggests that education research, similar to medical research, should implement exhaustive randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Currently, school reforms are often policy-driven (or driven by for-profit companies who are pushing their educational products) instead of evidence-driven. School reforms could use RCTs by gradually rolling out new initiatives in randomly chosen schools. Only after results from these first schools show positive effects will an initiative be implemented system-wide. Later adopters can serve as a control group for study.
In the medical profession, many doctors are also researchers. As practitioner-researchers they are in the best position to evaluate new methods or suggest new ideas based on their experience. It is not necessary that all teachers become action researchers, but that they are familiar with research methodologies, interested in participating in studies, and receptive to using findings of research in their practice. Teachers should be expected to keep up with recent developments and discuss them with their peers. Schools could set up "journal clubs" in which current scientific findings relevant to education can be discussed. Teachers need accessible academic literature to keep them informed of current findings.

School science often focuses on the product of science ("facts") but not on how these findings came to be (the process of science). Understanding the nature of science should become an central focus of the science curriculum to foster students' approaching problems in a scientific way, appreciate scientific findings in the media and being able to critically evaluate them (e.g. "correlation does not equal causation"). As Carl Sagan said in Demon-Haunted World: "If we teach only the findings and products of science - no matter how useful and inspiring they may be - without communicating its critical method, how can the average person possibly distinguish science from pseudoscience?". Science education should give students the mental tools to distinguish science (e.g. theory of evolution) from non-scientific views (e.g. intelligente design and creationism). Learning about philosophy of science requires teachers who have strong disciplinary knowledge and received appropriate training in philosophy of science.
Learning science requires time. K-12 education should extend the amount of time students learn about science. Additionally, students need early career advice to see the relevance of science for future jobs. School science should have strong connections to current scientific research, e.g. through field trips to laboratories, inviting scientists as guest speakers, connect to scientists as mentors for science projects, participate in citizen science projects.

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