Cancer Research and Educational Research

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I listen to audiobooks. I just don't seem to have time to read much anymore. Currently I am listening to Emperor of Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It is a great biography of cancer, but it is also a wonderful look into the scientific process and how we solve or address complex problems. One of the most powerful chords that the book struck with me was around how aggressively some researchers pursued cancer treatments independent of understanding how cancer worked. The reason this struck a chord is that it feels like a similar pattern has emerged in educational research where there is a confusion between evaluation (figuring out the efficacy of something) and research (trying to understand how and why it is or is not effective). 

I have seen this pattern in many aspects of the work I do. As a journal editor, I see manuscripts where teacher educators give their students some kind of pre/post measure to see if the methods class they teach changes their students [fill in blank here with something like knowledge or beliefs]. There is no consideration of why this might happen, it is not a theory driven inquiry based on what we know about learning, it is evaluation of a methods course. Not research and yet we get hundreds of these manuscripts a year.

As a new reader in research on learning spaces I have seen the same pattern. Spaces are evaluated for how they impact some factor (activity, engagement, talk, etc.) that the researcher implicitly, but rarely explicitly, links to learning. Again, there is little theory driving the inquiry, and never learning theory. This theory-free type of trial and error seems unlikely (as it was with cancer) to lead to productive advancements in our understanding of the interaction between learning and the spaces where learning happens.

Finally, I have seen the pattern in my work in innovative pedagogy with technologies like the iPad, where educational technologists rush to determine if the iPad transforms learning and teaching by putting lots of iPads in schools. There is no attempt to think about why an iPad might positively impact learning (other than the ever-present "engagement"). There is no theory of learning being tested. It is simply an intuition (which has proven consistently incorrect) that [insert new technology here] will transform education and to prove this we will measure something.

Trying to cure cancer by trial and error using different treatments led to little understanding, and some major misunderstandings about the nature of cancer, not to mention its impact on human health. We seem to make the same mistake when we confuse evaluating the efficacy of an educational intervention and investigating the nature of the process that explains why different interventions are likely to work or not. We have to stop doing educational work from intuition and determining success using superficial measures focused on efficacy and ignoring quality, models and mechanism. We must move to theory-driven research with a focus on how and why and not what or how much. Continuing down the "evaluation in a research disguise" path is likely to lead to some major misunderstandings about learning. And frankly, we can't afford any more of those.

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Professor McDonald -- what about the premise that I can use an iPad in grades K-2 to personalize the exercises, creating a differentiated learning experience (and increasing "engagement") for each student?

In kindergarten, for instance, I have students who are already reading and those who don't completely "know their letters." When I witnessed the iPad pilot in Easterly Parkway School, I saw that the students had a white piece of printer paper with 4-5 App icons on it. Next to the icon was a time in minutes. These plans were different for each (or maybe most) student. There were some kids tracing letters and there were others that were doing things like looking at a picture of a cat above a "C__T" and asked which letter goes there.

There were 3 adults in the class -- the teacher, a para, and a parent volunteer -- and each was walking around and spending time with each student. Sometimes you'd hear things like "skip this one and spend 5 more minutes on that one."

I was hoping someone was "writing this up."


It sounds like someone should be doing some research on that project, and my point is not that technology isn't engaging or that it isn't potentially powerful for helping students learn. Really what I am saying is that (1) starting with the technology has gotten us nothing but trouble in the sense that we spend lots of money without being clear about how we think the technology might help (beyond engagement) and (2) the attempts to study innovation in teaching, whether using technology or not, have not given us much insight into WHY technology might do more than engage students, mostly because a lot of the focus has been on "how much does it work?" questions rather than "why does it work?" questions. I think you are really making an argument here first and foremost for differentiated instruction, not for iPads. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.


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