Theory and practice: Making the connection.

This coming weekend, the graduate students of the Faculty of Education will be hosting the 13th Annual EGSS Conference aptly titled “Theory & Practice: A Symbiotic Relationship”. The hope is for the conference to be the stage of a discussion that allows researchers and practitioners in the field of education to better understand why, in fact, this relationship is perhaps less than symbiotic.

The profound disconnect between the state of knowledge in educational research departments and the state of teaching and learning practices at all level of education is not only a personal interjection, it is also the conclusion of scholar Eric. M. Anderman, who recently argued that many of the important principles identified by educational psychologists remain seemingly ignored by policy-makers and practitioners[1].

In 2014, one could hardly think of medical institutions that would not base their practice on sound theories and evidence. No one would put an Iron Ring on an engineer who chooses to disregard the latest results of physics research. While the times are overwhelmingly positivist, is education stuck in the Middle Ages?

One annoying truth about educational research, Berliner contends[2], is that it is a hard science. Not in the sense of the traditional dichotomization between hard and soft sciences, but in the sense that it’s a science that is hard to do, as most social sciences. The power of context, the ubiquity of interactions, the local conditions that limit generalization… Educational researchers work under conditions that physicists would find intolerable, argues Berliner.

The upshot is that results from educational research can look at little hard to swallow. John Hattie’s massive meta-analysis[3] – which synthesized more than 800 meta-analyses that cover more than 50,000 studies; let’s call it a mega-analysis – concludes that in fact, there are things we know do work, and things we know don’t work. But there is no simple solution, and the most crucial thing a teacher can do is to try to make the impact of their teaching on student learning visible, to self-reflect on their practice, and adjust accordingly. This is not an easy program. And it is why, when it comes to university teaching, services provided by bodies like McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services and the work of professionals like educational developers are vital to the health of the academic environment.

In the meantime, we need educational research to continue to nourish the frame of minds that shape our thinking about teaching and learning. Only scientific research – and its critique – can keep monolithic decision-making at bay and mature practices in sight. It is thus educational researchers’ duty to keep the air-ways open with policy-makers and practitioners.

One democratic and open response of the community for such a dialogue can be found in the form of blogs or micro-blogs interactively sharing information about educational research. One such effort is colleagues’, an interactive platform created by graduate students in McGill’s department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, presenting results from interesting research conducted by McGill researchers as well as members of its extended community, curated for a readership that is less familiar with research lingo, and more interested in its practical implications and applications.

The idea is that researchers’ duty is not only to disseminate research results to whom it may concern, but also by to pay attention to the voices of those who are most apt at making sense of the context, the interactions, the local conditions… Connections don’t happen on a one-way street.

[1] Anderman, E. M. (2011). Educational Psychology in the Twenty-First Century: Challenges for Our Community, Educational Psychologist, 46, 185-196.

[2] Berliner, D. C. (2002). Educational Research: The Hardest Science of All, Educational Researcher, 31, 18-20.

[3] Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning, Routledge: London.

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Education graduate student, passionate about learning, higher education, and chocolate, not always in that order.

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