Both educators and researchers frequently lament the limited contribution that research makes to the understanding and improvement of teaching and learning. Vivian M.J. Robinson, University of Auckland, New Zealand, suggests that the reason for this may be the mismatch between educational research methods and classroom practice. She believes that educational practices must be understood as solutions to educational problems. Otherwise, even the best research may be ignored by educators.
Robinson states that researchers must understand that educational practices are the result of complex reasoning processes about how goals and values may be satisfied under particular contextual conditions. To change a practice, researchers must evaluate the reasoning that sustains it, rather than just analyze the practice out of context.
By understanding practices as practical solutions and identifying the processes that led to them, researchers can see how various factors or constraints shaped the reasoning and actions of the educators responsible for solving these problems.
Constraints are conditions that define what counts as an acceptable solution to a problem. Constraints include such things as values and beliefs, as well as available material resources. Often it is these constraint that prevent practices from being changed in response to new research. Constraints can also prevent practices that work well in one location from being adopted in others. It is not that the practice has not been proven effective; it is that other locations function under different constraints that the new practice may not adequately address.
The tracking question
School tracking is an example of a complex educational practice which research has convincingly demonstrated has significant detrimental effects (for low-track students). Yet schools have great difficulty eliminating it. Seventy years of research has resulted in reliable generalizations about the consequences of high- and low-track placement for academic achievement and life chances. These findings have demonstrated that tracking is both ineffective and unfair.
However, this criticism has had little impact because too little attention was given to understanding practitioners’ decisions to track and to developing effective alternatives. Robinson writes that researchers need to work with educators and parents to understand the reasoning that led to tracking. In a study of three demographically different high schools, researchers Oakes and Guiton obtained descriptions of schools’ curricula and placement practices and analyzed the records of students to determine the consequences of track placement on students’ school careers.
Their findings revealed that educators at these schools saw student abilities as diverse and fixed, and provided a curriculum that accommodated rather than altered assessed ability and interests. These researchers found that while students’ needs were usually assessed objectively, racial and social characteristics sometimes acted as surrogate indicators of ability. Also, when resources were limited, priority was given to providing for college-bound students.
While Oakes and Guiton’s research reveals some of the beliefs and practices that underlie tracking, Robinson believes that much more must be done to make practice more effective and equitable. The logic of popular beliefs about ability needs to be examined: Why, for example, do diverse abilities necessitate segregated classes? Do teachers have no experience of, or confidence in, their ability to teach mixed-ability groups? Practitioners’ explanations need to be examined: Do they reliably describe what actually occurs? For example, do students’ placements accurately match their abilities? If not, what factors beside objective assessment influence placement?
Educators may not be aware of all the factors that influence their practices. Once all the values, beliefs, goals, and practical limitations are identified, then researchers and educators can begin to evaluate if the practice is working as intended. If it isn’t, they can investigate what can be done to improve it.
Insights from formal theory or research studies can not be directly applied to practice, because practice is enmeshed in a web of constraints that usually prevent straightforward adjustment. Robinson’s view of educational practice as problem-solving gives researchers a way to join with practitioners to investigate how to weave new, effective practices into their specific contexts. Studies of sustained attempts to change educational practices by understanding the constraints in local contexts are needed.
“Methodology and the Research-Practice Gap” Educational Researcher, Volume 27, Number 1, February 1998 pp. 17-26.
Published in ERN April 1998 Volume 11 Number 4