Let's Think Together

If you’re anything like me, lots of different influences inform how you design learning opportunities and respond in the moment—including people you meet on the page, down the hall, and in your classroom. I need as much support as I can get, because no matter how much we hear that “all the research shows” this or that, real classrooms are hardly sure-answer territory. For every guidepost that helps us, there’s another question just around the bend:

  • How to fan those first sparks of open-ended inquiry among students who’ve come to believe it’s all about right answers?
  • How to adapt our approaches to fit the collective personalities of whole classes while also addressing individual needs?
  • How to foster and sustain engagement?
  • How to prepare young people for ever-changing 21st Century literacies?

Just to be clear: While I’m complaining about grandiose claims made in the name of research, I’ve spent a professional lifetime loving research itself. If it weren’t for the published studies of the past decades, we’d be deprived of so many understandings—of the nature of reading comprehension, for instance, or of what makes classroom discourse memorably meaningful, or of the writing process as inextricably woven into where we want to belong and what we hope to accomplish.

It’s just that it’s silly to imagine any of this telling us exactly what to do or somehow leaving us with less to wonder about. When people wield the notion of “research” as a de-professionalizing hammer, they’re missing the spirit of day-to-day classroom life, and of inquiry, too.  Sure, we gather important ideas and understandings from research—but how we take these up can vary from hour to hour, student by student, and, often, generative new questions arise in the process.

Maybe our commonsense assumptions are challenged. Maybe a particular student’s learning seems to contradict large-scale findings.  Maybe our best efforts are falling flat. One thing is sure: if we’re committed to our own growth and to serving students more effectively, we need to talk.

I like to think of the research-practice relationship as an ongoing and rather noisy conversation that encompasses lots of different voices. We need one another in all our spirited diversity, because the challenges before us are so big, dynamically changing, and critical. Sure, there’s a time and a place for like-mindedness, for shutting out the itchy wondering and celebrating all we’re doing well. But sooner or later, we need people who see differently, who have something new to add, an unfamiliar angle of vision that moves us to reconsider old ways. We need this because we’re teachers, and teachers tend to be intellectually generous people who don’t shy away from big challenges.

Along the way, we don’t so much receive understandings as construct them—by paying attention, by reading, by talking, and by studying together the close-at-hand evidence that Eileen Murphy Buckley calls “small data.”

Imagine a world where teachers’ systematic attention to students’ learning is placed in dialog with larger-scale studies. What might teachers and researchers learn by thinking together and what implications for practice and policy might ensue? I’m excited to see how the structures provided by  NCLE are evolving in this direction. Here are some examples: