Leading Together / The Role of Research in Raising Professional Practice - ASCD
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May 1, 2021

Leading Together / The Role of Research in Raising Professional Practice

To elevate equity, we must keep a finger on the pulse of the latest advances in the field.

Professional Learning
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I live near Harvard's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments in Boston. Free and open to the public, this museum displays an array of curious instruments, shocking stories, and photos that are truly awesome in the original sense of the word. It's hard to imagine it was once "best practice" to X-ray children's feet to size them for shoes. And I'm glad to know that electric shock therapy is no longer administered for gout. When I wander through the museum, I often wonder: How do we, in education, develop—and evolve—our understandings about standards of care?

In medicine, new diagnostic tools, vaccine treatments, and surgical procedures may be invented in, say, Boston, Cleveland, or Los Angeles and within a short time they become the standard of care throughout most of the country. In education, however, as new tools and approaches are developed and found to be effective, they become the standard of care in some parts of the country, but not all. And the schools they do not reach are not random; they can be predicted by zip code.

If we're truly interested in equity, we should be sure the decisions we make for all our students are informed by the latest advances in pedagogy, the science of learning, and other relevant fields. We should be sure to cultivate an expectation of research-informed practice.

Creating Space for Conversation

Teaching has a vast and complex professional knowledge base that is informed by both research and practice. Teachers acquire a base of knowledge through teacher preparation programs, professional learning experiences, and their own investigations. This is specialized knowledge that is not easily acquired or widely held beyond those in the profession. The existence of this knowledge base is one of the salient features of our work that defines teaching as a profession.

Unfortunately, however, the process of developing, testing, and growing the knowledge base in education is painstakingly slow. It emerges over time through professional dialogue about research and practice, but we have insufficient routines for dialogue across schools and with researchers, and when we do, certain voices are routinely left out.

In some districts, educators are not included in the professional conversation at all. Such districts have not, for example, budgeted for professional conferences, maintained liaisons to professional associations, invested in cross-district learning networks, allocated money and time for study groups, or partnered with universities for professional learning. Effective educators recognize that there is always something we don't know we don't know. Connecting in these ways is essential to giving ourselves the best chance possible of making strong decisions for students.

To be sure, much of what we think we know deserves to be debated. New ideas about education and the processes of teaching and learning today often arise from or are propagated by professional associations, education publishers, education research clearinghouses, or other education partners that might offer singular perspectives or share resources with an agenda. In the long run, these efforts may be rebalanced by today's nascent efforts to diversify the voices and approaches that weigh in, but in the short-term, we need to engage in dialogue to critically consider what we know that can help our students now.

Principals and teacher leaders don't need to wait for systemic changes before ensuring students in their school are receiving instruction informed by the latest advances in the professional knowledge base. Start with your school's own priorities, identify a range of resources for these priorities, and regularly engage educators in critical dialogue with them.

Identify and share articles, books, and other tools. You might start with education research clearinghouses that describe standards for research quality and share research that meets those standards, such as the U.S. Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) or Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Program. Some states even have their own, such as Ohio's Evidence-Based Clearinghouse.

You might investigate the websites of professional associations, such as ASCD, where you can explore Educational Leadership issues, a broad collection of books, and timely online content. In addition, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has Standards for Accomplished Teaching in 25 developmental levels and/or subject areas, while other associations may be rich sources of information in specific areas: See, for example, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, International Literacy Association, TESOL International Association, National Association of Special Education Teachers, and Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance). A search in Google Scholar or within the catalogues of relevant publishers of education materials can also be fruitful. Be sure to share resources from multiple perspectives (e.g., role, race, and region) and in multiple modes (e.g., print, podcasts, and videos).

Engage in dialogue. Pasting links to resources in your weekly memo is a nice start, but it won't engage faculty in the rich dialogue that leads them to compare and contrast ideas, develop shared language, and evolve to develop a common understanding. Build time into staff meetings, PD sessions, and common planning time for reading with teacher-led book talks, study groups, or text-based discussion protocols like "The Final Word," "The Four As," or others shared by the School Reform Initiative. Invite educators to collaborate in articulating important implications and proposing strategies they want to test in practice.

Avoiding "Malpractice"

It was once thought that bloodletting could cure disease. Since then, a consensus of research and practice has led to replacing bloodletting with more effective approaches (that actually work). In fact, bloodletting would today be considered malpractice.

How many of our schools are still using outdated practices? To be sure, when we see practices labeled as "effective," we must raise questions—effective for whom, under what conditions, and in what context? But if promising, evidence-based new approaches that have a chance of helping your students were available, how would your school know about them?

If we don't create norms and opportunities in our schools for routinely identifying, testing, and integrating new advances into our practice, how can we be sure we are not engaging in malpractice?

Editor's note: This column is adapted from Jill Harrison Berg's forthcoming ASCD book, a guide for teacher leaders facilitating inquiry-based professional learning.

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