Thursday, October 1, 2009

Just Follow the Research

Following the research has always been a hobby of mine.  No, perhaps "passion" is more correct than "hobby."  No, perhaps "obsession" is closer to the real truth.  It's silly, I've reasoned, to not look to research when the past 50-75 years have seen so much educational research.  Tools and techniques have been refined to the point that it seems we should know everything there is to know about learners.  Human motivation is powered by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.  This supports the idea that commonalities of behavior should and do exist.  The nature vs. nurture debate suggests that although we share some common traits, our early experience with the world has a significant leverage, moving us to be unique and always unlike our peers.

The book I'm currently reading, Einstein Never Used Flash Cards,  describes how "leaps of faith" have been made from research.  At the very least, these misinterpretations of research represent a detour from successfully guiding young people to a productive adulthood.  One of the best known of these research-based "urban legends" is the notion that playing classical music will make for a brighter child.  It was reported that research done on human subjects asking subjects to listen to classical music, Mozart, I believe, led to improved mental functioning on a set of lab tasks.  Researchers took this specific result and generalized it to offer the idea that classical music improved brain functioning.  People and businesses with a stake in that idea, grasped it and touted the idea as fact.  Recorded classical music was sold as a brain builder for young children, even for the unborn!  Businesses were told to play classical music to boost creativity and production.  Later research challenged the earlier boosterish love affair with classical music.  True, classical music seemed to have a slight short-time positive effect on  people's ability to complete a manual task, but that effect seemed to last no longer than a quarter-hour.  There was no reason to suspect ANY long-term effect on the brain.

It never makes sense to violate our sense of our own experience because an interpretation of a piece of research conflicts with your fundamental sense of what's right.  Think of  The Emperor's New Clothes.  It also serves no child well to reject a premise because it conflicts with a popularly held belief.  This means that when we read research, we have to embrace it with our whole brain, asking how it fits with our experiential data and where it conflicts.  This is to say that, when it comes to people, a piece of research is neither "wrong" or "right."  More appropriately, it fits or does not fit with our working "theories" of educational practice.

It seems to me that research is like a pattern.  One looks at the actions of real people - children in this case - and then see if action matches proposition or not.  If it does, perhaps we know something more about the way children act and why they do what they do.  If the actions and theory don't fit well together, then, without immediately asserting that the theory is faulty, it's enough to say, "It doesn't apply here."  Then, if one would like, one can attempt to reconcile the factual differences which make for a poor fit between theory and the real world.

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