Research, Intuition, or Somewhere in Between

Consider a spectrum of educational practice.  Place controlled experiment on one end and intuitive classroom practice on the other end.  Do most educational researchers and classroom teachers reside at opposite ends of this spectrum, giving it a dumbbell appearance, or are educators liberally found all along the spectrum?  This question comes to me because I am reading the book Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones by Thomas Newkirk.  I just finished the first section (chapters 1 and 2), but the author has at this point set up a rigid dichotomy between educational research and actual classroom practice.  I would like to know if this dichotomy really exists.

Mr. Newkirk begins with a brief history of education to provide a context for the discussion.  He walks through the familiar notion that early twentieth century education evolved toward a factory model of efficiency.  Just as a reminder, this transformation in the history of U.S. education involved applying the “science” of the factory to the profession of teaching.  The factory model created a hierarchy of roles, with planners (the “scientists”) distinct from practitioners (the factory workers).  The efficiency fervor of the time sought to apply this model to education by creating a hierarchy of researchers separate from classroom teachers.

In the ideal factory model, educational researchers, who use controlled experiment to determine “gold seal” practices, provide teachers with plans that are coercively applied with rigid adherence to scripts.  The problem, the author argues, is that research results are abstract, and classroom practice is situational and too complex.  Furthermore, the author believes that educational reformers think of teachers as too independent, even willful and childish.  The intuition and situational experience of teachers is viewed by reformers as “luxuries we can no longer afford.”

Today, the factory model is outdated, but instead, education is compared to medicine.  The author states that reformers ask why education can’t be practiced like the “science” of medicine.  As with the factory model, researchers should be discovering the best practices, and teachers, like doctors, should be following a strict list of procedures for teaching, diagnosing problems, and assessing outcomes.  There is no room for teacher professionalism and intuition.  However, the author argues that not even experienced medical professionals — neither doctors nor nurses — really work in this manner, although novices must do so until they have gained a body of experience.

Now, in my field of physics education, Physics Education Research, or PER, is held in high esteem.  It appears to hold a holy status in the minds of some in academia, although I cannot say if PER is as highly regarded by high school teachers.  If the fervor with which some proclaim the value of “modeling instruction” is any indication, I would say that many high school teachers have also gotten PER religion.

On the other hand, the author seems to imply that successful classroom teachers, on the whole, are super-intuitive creatures who fly by the seat of their pants all day, ever attuned to the ebb and flow of the classroom and individual students, relying wholly on experience, and deeply distrustful of standard methods, “best practices,” and “gold seal lessons.”  He seems to think that teaching is all art and little to no science.  He gives a tiny space to the idea that research should inform classroom practice with trends and should “provide a conceptual language, which can help in the framing of instruction decisions,” but he appears to be headed toward telling teachers that their suspicions are right: you should reject educational reforms, reject the rigid practices of research, and go with your gut.  Sure, try some of the ideas that research gives you, but your intuition is your best ally and you knew all along what really works best.

But, I am wondering.  Is there really such a deep divide between educational research and classroom practice?  Are classroom teachers really giving only lip-service to the application of research-based methods?  Or, do educators exist all along the spectrum between abstract research and ad hoc, intuitive practice?

I think that I am a fairly reflective practitioner, and I value what educational research tells me.  I attempt to put “research-based” methods into practice, allowing for modifications that must be made to fit my classroom, my classes, and my students.  Isn’t this normal?

Or, then again, maybe I’m interpreting the author incorrectly.  I’ll let you know where the author goes from here.


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