If a tree falls in the forest…


“…once upon a time, researchers simply published their research in professional journals – and there it stayed.  However, my colleagues and I learned things we thought people needed to know.”

The quote above from an EdWeek commentary is Carol Dweck’s explanation for why she published her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Likewise, as researchers, analysts, or psychometricians, the reason we do what we do goes beyond the results of the particular study, model, or test that we are designing and implementing. There is a higher level purpose for each of our endeavors – to learn things that people need to know. In the field of education, the goal is most often to provide information that will result in better schools, more effective instruction, or improved student learning.  Further, even those outcomes may simply be intermediate goals intended to support the broader goals of producing well-rounded, productive citizens, prepared to create a safe and secure world.

Sure, there may be some who conduct research for more pedestrian reasons such as to make a living, get tenure, or to be able to take a company-paid trip to Kansas in the middle of October.  There are probably even extreme cases like the Big Bang Theory’s Barry Kripke who provided this explanation for his interest in string theory:

I’m a string pragmatist.  I say I’m going to prove something that cannot be proved.  I apply for grant money and then spend it on liquor and broads.

Today, however, we focus on the noble and self-actualized researchers who want their work to make a difference.  If the goal is to make a difference, how is that accomplished?

Think globally, act locally

Much of educational research seems to be inspired by the adage “Think globally, act locally.”  The researcher considers the large problems of the field, but studies are designed to improve conditions or outcomes in a limited context, perhaps even within a single classroom, school, or district. Even if a particular study or body of work sits in a journal, the researchers have made a difference in their own little corner of the world. Satisfying careers can be built making a difference one school at a time.

A ripple in the pond

Other times, educational research and researchers are like a ripple in the pond.  One study begets another study or one researcher begets generations of new researchers.   Over time, hundreds of schools, thousands of teachers, and tens of thousands of students may be influenced by work that began with a single researcher, a single grant, or a single study.  That is certainly a desirable outcome, and researchers who accomplish this level of influence in their career are regarded as highly successful.

Thinking bigger

Ultimately, however, as individuals and as a field we need to think bigger.  There is research on virtually every aspect of education imaginable.  There is research on educational research as well as research on conducting research on research.  Each year, thousands of those educational research studies are deemed worthy to be presented at national and regional conferences.  A subset of those studies make their way into peer-reviewed professional journals.  There they sit, waiting to be cited in the literature reviews of next year’s round of research studies.

As individuals, researchers need to ask how is the answer to this research question going to make a difference.  Arriving at an answer to that question, they need to ask how the results will be applied or disseminated to actually make a difference.  As a field, the community of educational researchers has to ask what mechanisms are in place to judge the impact of particular research findings on education.  If particular practices are determined to be impactful, what resources and conditions are needed to implement those findings – including identifying the resources needed to monitor the fidelity of implementation?  Also, what resources and methods are needed to disseminate the findings and related information to policymakers, practitioners, and the public?  These are key components that need to be part of the educational research process.

Conducting research that is never shared or presenting research findings that are impossible (or even very impractical) to act upon is not really making a difference.

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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