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May 1, 2021

Let's Get Critical

Educators must develop a critical lens when translating research into classroom practice.

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Credit: June 2020

It's an hour after the end of the school day, and a 5th grade teacher scrolls through Google Scholar. She just attended a district-wide professional development session on the importance of using research-based interventions for social-emotional learning. None of the presenter's examples seemed relevant for her grade level, so she's searching for ideas. As she looks at the search results, most are paywalled and none seem to be written specifically for a classroom teacher. Frustrated, the teacher clicks over to Instagram, hoping to find a free download or activity from a fellow teacher instead. Like most teachers, she is curious and driven to improve her practice, but there are barriers that may block her professional learning.

Teachers are frequently told to use "research-based strategies." At the same time, they face unreasonable workloads, with inadequate time and resources to engage with the research and evaluate it themselves. In the same professional development workshops that elevate the importance of research, teachers are also told to focus on strategies, be efficient, and implement changes to their classrooms immediately. Spending time processing their learning or digging into theory is dismissed as impractical.

But the reality of education research is much more complex and nuanced than we would be led to believe by the buzzword quality of the term "research-based." For starters, research is conducted by researchers, who are people with varying identities and perspectives that impact every element of the research process. Research is also carried out by universities and other institutions, which, like all systems, are influenced by internal and external politics. And sometimes, research is funded by groups with a vested interest in the framing or outcomes of a study. All of this means that, as critically thinking educators who actively and skillfully analyze, interrogate, and reflect, we need to carefully consider what the advice to be "research-based" really means.

We (the authors) are both teachers by background who have delved deeper into research in recent years—Alex as an education author and Addison as a doctoral candidate. We wish that, when we were classroom teachers, we knew what we know now about how to critically read and use research in our teaching practice.

Let's look at three critical questions educators can ask when examining research, illustrated by examples of research studies from the field of trauma-informed education, an educational area in which the phrase "research-based" gets used frequently. This makes it a prime example for how educators can employ critical questioning.

Critical Question 1: Whose Voices Are Centered in the Research?

The field of academic research doesn't exist separately from the problems of our broader society, including systemic racism. It's essential to recognize when researchers reinforce problematic narratives through their work. If we are holding up "research-based" as the gold standard, we might, in some cases, actually be upholding white-dominated narratives.

Research snapshot: Urban education professor Adam Alvarez conducted a review of 20 years of research on trauma-informed education, focusing on the ways that race is (or is not) discussed in each article. He concluded, "Trauma may be one of the most unexplored racial equity issues in education" (2020, p. 31). In the research that Alvarez reviewed, researchers rarely included analysis of how structural racism shapes our understanding of trauma, its impacts, and possible interventions.

Practice problem: The white-centric body of research on trauma and education can contribute to deficit-based narratives about students of color and a narrow view of how schools should respond to trauma. If teachers are learning about trauma only from this body of research, we miss a big piece of the puzzle and may not be effectively serving our students of color. As social-emotional learning practitioner-scholar Dena Simmons (2020) wrote in this magazine, "Educators must confront racism and the resulting trauma from it. If not, we are not really doing equity work, and we are not really trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive" (p. 80).

Teacher takeaway: While there are scholars currently focusing on the interplay of racial identity, trauma, and education, the lag between conducting research and its publication means that these articles may not make it into the hands of teachers for some time.

In the meantime, Alvarez (2020) suggests using the following questions when conducting or reading research:

  • Does my/author's race influence my/author's interpretation of what trauma is?

  • Does my/author's race influence my/author's understanding of others' experiences with trauma?

  • Does my/author's research disrupt deficit racial narratives?

  • Does my/author's research account for racially oppressive systems, policies, and practices? (p. 28)

You can use similar questions for any area of content or practice relevant to your role. Ask critical questions not only about race but about disability and other identities that shape our experiences. For example, how might deficit-based racial narratives influence a researcher's findings about disparities in reading proficiency? How might you interpret a study differently if the author does not include students with disabilities in their research sample? It's essential to notice what's not present in the research as much as what is.

Critical Question 2: What's the Latest in the Conversation About This Research?

One common misconception teachers may have about "research-based" strategies is that research-based means "fully agreed upon" or universally decided. But academic research is more often a momentary snapshot of evolving ideas. At its best, academic research is a conversation among experts. Scholars use their work to build on that of others in their fields. They use citations as shout-outs to those they want to engage in discussion, or to argue with, expand upon, or refute an idea. When we put too much emphasis on single studies, we miss the nuance of the web of conversations.

Research snapshot: Many teachers have heard of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) epidemiological study from 1998, which demonstrated a connection between childhood trauma and adverse health outcomes later in life. Although the study isn't specific to education, it is cited in almost every book, article, and presentation on trauma-informed education. But there is a growing body of critique of the ACEs framework that educators may not be as aware of. For example, the CDC (2020) has updated the ACEs framework to include historical, generational, and cultural factors in understanding trauma. At the same time, in response to initiatives to screen children for ACEs, one of the lead researchers from the original study recently authored an article warning about the limitations and misuses of the ACEs list (Felitti et al., 1998). And education researchers like Alex Winninghoff (2020) have documented the ways that the ACEs framework can reinforce deficit views of marginalized children.

Practice problem: When teachers are only familiar with one central aspect of a research conversation, we can come to rely on outdated models of understanding. Teachers who have only heard of the original ACEs checklist, and not the critiques and updated models, may develop a false understanding of what "counts" as trauma, or even the very idea that trauma can be measured using a simplistic survey. This can harm students when teachers misuse ACEs data and use it to sort and label children (Venet, 2021). If we look at what else is being said in the larger conversation, we can develop a more nuanced understanding.

Teacher takeaway: When certain research-based findings are cited over and over again, take the time to seek out additional context and critique. If an administrator or a professional development facilitator cites decades-old research or emphasizes a single study, don't be afraid to seek out additional information by doing a quick Google Scholar search of terms or ask questions like:

  • What are the new findings in this area since that study was done?

  • What are the opposing viewpoints to this study?

  • Does this research reflect a general consensus in the field or an outlying view?

If you have time carved out for deeper investigation, like when you're enrolled in a graduate or continuing education course, you can go further: Use the research tools in Google Scholar or through your library to see what other articles cite a given paper, and skim titles and abstracts to see if those citations are building on or arguing with the initial research.

Critical Question 3: What Are Other Ways of Understanding the Problem?

Researchers often focus on specific explanations or areas of inquiry for a good reason: Their focus is a way of building expertise. But as consumers of academic research, we should intentionally seek out information from multiple perspectives and fields of study. For example, in the trauma-informed community, there is a heavy focus on brain science. It comes up constantly in texts, resources, and presentations. Educators share brain scans and diagrams while breaking down "the brain on trauma" (Sweeton, 2020). But like everything in research and practice, there is so much more to the story. When we only focus on one way of viewing an issue, it's hard to recognize that this view is not the only way to understand a problem or topic.

Research snapshot: In addition to reading about brain science, we can also understand the topic through other fields, including indigenous studies (see the work of Maria Yellowhorse Braveheart as an example), history, and sociology. One researcher who combines these perspectives is Chantel Crosby (née West), a social worker who has conducted many different types of trauma studies with students. Her team has also published ecological perspectives (Thomas, Crosby, & Vanderhaar, 2019) that analyze systems and organizations, which are core components of understanding the dimensions of trauma.

Practice problem: In trauma-informed education specifically, the narrow focus on brain science might lead teachers to believe that "brain-based strategies" are the only way to be trauma-informed. This could result in teachers implementing "trauma-informed mindfulness," for example, to calm the brain's trauma response while failing to take other factors like systemic racism, classroom power differentials, and trauma incurred from schooling itself. The problem is not our excitement about brain functioning or buffering the stress response, but our sole focus on using only brain science to inform our practice.

Teacher takeaway: After reading research, we should consider, What are other ways of understanding the problem? For example, instead of asking, How does trauma impact the brain—and what can teachers do about it?, you might ask, How does trauma impact communities—and what can teachers do about it? This reframed question will lead you outside the brain science silo and into a more nuanced understanding from fields like sociology.

When reading research articles, doing a couple of quick web searches can help you better understand the context:

  • Search the author's name. What academic department are they a part of? What are their other articles or books about? This information can help you understand if this is a long-time area of focus for this researcher or a departure from previous work.

  • Search the journal title. Who is the journal's main audience? For example, an article about child trauma may be printed in a medical journal, an education journal, or a sociology journal. The context of the journal may help you make sense of the recommendations and findings.

By reading and engaging with lots of different types of research, we can broaden our view and ultimately use that lens to inform our practice.

Asking the Questions

Despite the emphasis in education on being "research-based," academic research is not carved into stone tablets. Research is conducted by people, and people bring their experiences, perspectives, and biases into their work with them.

When you are asked to implement research-based practice, it is essential to do your own critical thinking. You can use the reflective questions and action items described here as a launching point for engaging with future research. When you center a variety of voices, stay updated on research conversations, and look for multiple ways to understand a problem, you develop a critical lens to translate research to practice.

If you are a school leader, help your teachers become critical consumers of research by giving them access, time, and professional support to dig deeper into research topics. Partner with local or university libraries to help teachers access research behind paywalls. Ask potential consultants or trainers to give context for any research findings in their area. And trust your teachers to make decisions based on balancing the research with their own professional expertise and knowledge of their students.

Research can be a powerful tool for transforming our teaching practice, but it's just one of many. Take "research-based" claims with a grain of salt and remember that teaching is an art as much as it is a science.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Is there a study or form of practice you've been using for a long time that you can review the research around for new findings or updates?

➛ How can you bring a more critical lens to the research you consult before translating it into practice?

References

Alvarez, A. (2020). Seeing race in the research on youth trauma and education: A critical review. Review of Educational Research, 90(5), 583–626.

Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., et al. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245–258.

National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention (CDC). (2020). About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Simmons, D. (2020). Healing Black students' pain. Educational Leadership, 78(2), 80–81.

Sweeton, J. (2020). This is your brain on trauma. [Blog post]. PESI.

Thomas, M. S., Crosby, S., & Vanderhaar, J. (2019). Trauma-informed practices in schools across two decades: An interdisciplinary review of research. Review of Research in Education, 43(1), 422–452.

Venet, A. S. (2021). Equity-centered trauma-informed education (1st ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Winninghoff, A. (2020). Trauma by numbers: Warnings against the use of ACE scores in trauma-informed schools. Occasional Paper Series, 2020(43), 4.

Alex Shevrin Venet is a community college teacher and professional development facilitator from Vermont. Her book, Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education, is forthcoming from W. W. Norton in May 2021.


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