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Speaking Out: Meeting of the Minds

by Jerome Rekart
Principal, May/June 2012

At a recent conference, I chatted over breakfast with a fourth-grade teacher, who upon hearing that I had spoken about integrating neuroscience and education told me about how useful he and his colleagues found a commercial “brainbased” educational product. Aware of the lack of neuroscientific evidence to back up the brain-related claims made by the creators of this particular product, I asked what it was about the teaching aid that was so appealing. The teacher responded that it was great to see that brain research supported so much of what he intuitively knew to be true about learning. He added that it felt good knowing that he was using products that were “evidence-based.”

Unbeknownst to my breakfast companion, he touched upon the focus of my talk and our conversation was illustrative of one of the major obstacles to linking neuroscience or other scientific developments and education, namely how, and more importantly, where, educators obtain their information. The fact that a well-known educational product found its way into this educator’s classroom is not surprising. What is troubling, however, is the fact that the claims of “evidence” used to market such products are largely restricted to oversimplified assumptions regarding the way that the brain works and not actual demonstrations of the product in practice. It is rare to find evidence in support of most commercially marketed neuroeducational pedagogical aids in peer-reviewed scholarly journals—the “gold standard” that researchers use to judge the quality of data and evidence. If peer-reviewed articles were the primary source for educator information, spurious claims wouldn’t persist. However, because they do, one is left asking if educators aren’t consulting journals, where are they getting their information?

Information Sources

The results of a survey that I conducted recently with my colleague Naomi Schoenfeld indicate a clear disconnect between the beliefs and behaviors of educators when it comes to neuroinformation. When asked to rank the sources used most often to learn about education and the brain, certified teachers in New Hampshire indicated that books were most often used, with the Web coming in second place. This information was not surprising given the ease of obtaining information using the Web and the special level of esteem and trust that the educated public places in books. However, when also asked to rank the trustworthiness of information obtained from sources, though books were ranked third-most trustworthy (after scholarly journals [first] and professional magazines [second]; e.g. Principal ), the Web was only rated as being more trustworthy than three other sources and was even seen as having less accurate information than TV. So what is to be made of these results?

The obstacles to obtaining and using peer-reviewed research are manifold, including the fact that most teachers have limited, if any, access to scholarly journals, which are often written with an abundance of statistical and methodological jargon. Thus, it was not surprising that although scholarly journals were identified as presenting the most trustworthy information, they were only the seventh most used source.

Books enjoy a particular level of respect, and thus the information contained within published volumes is often treated as gospel. Although marvelous, cutting-edge information can be and is obtained from books, it is often difficult to identify the biases of the author(s), and balanced reporting of all of the facts is not de rigueur for all publishing houses. Furthermore, educators likely choose specific books based on favorable reviews from colleagues or catchy titles and pithy reviews on the back cover. In addition, people are drawn to information that reinforces what they already know to be true. Thus, it is likely that educators read books that confirm their beliefs about their own teaching and the students they serve.

The reliance on both suspect and potentially biased sources of information is likely a significant contributor to the persistence of misunderstandings about what research can and cannot provide for schools. Supplying educators with correct and current information is critical so that resources are properly allocated and so inaccurate information is not disseminated to students, parents, colleagues, and communities.

But today’s educator is maxed out. Balancing curricular and instructional demands with calls for greater accountability, worries about standardized test scores, and diminishing state and local budgets doesn’t leave much room for reviewing technical and admittedly sometimes plodding journal articles. So how can educators receive the best, most trusted information?

Integrated PLCs

Professional learning communities (PLCs) have shown promise in positively impacting student achievement while empowering K-12 educators by allowing them to craft and tailor ongoing professional development to meet their immediate needs. The solution proposed to the problem of sifting through scientific research fact and fiction is to invite professional researchers into PLCs. The formation of such integrated professional learning communities, or “iPLCs,” would solve the problem of identifying and locating credible sources. By building upon a structure with which most educators are already familiar, iPLCs can be easily implemented.

The key to the success of iPLCs is the collaborative use of the strengths of team members in the service of a common goal, a critical factor in traditional PLCs as well. Educators in iPLCs would be responsible for identification of the area requiring development as well as the overall goal of the community. The academic primarily would serve as an advisor who provides information by supplying (or pointing in the direction of) sources that meet the minimal criteria of empirical rigor, unbiased voice, and researcher acceptance. The educators within the iPLC then would read, discuss, and, if appropriate, implement strategies that arise from the information. If needed, the researchers and educators could then work collaboratively to determine whether the implementation of specific strategies was successful.

iPLCs would not become settings where academics dictate to educators what should or should not be read and implemented. A respect for the division of labor across domains of expertise must translate into action. For example, researchers would identify source material related to a phenomenon, which would be reviewed and discussed by educators. Researchers would then defer to the educators in discussions related to the implementation of laboratory- based findings in the variable-laden K-12 classroom environment.

Thus, with iPLCs in place, teachers and principals would be able to draw upon a foundation of sound, research-based knowledge when presented with marketing claims related to such subjects as linkages between neuroscience and education. Such communities would enhance educators’ understanding of the way things really work and all of the wonderful possibilities for education that have yet to be examined. 

Jerome L. Rekart is an associate professor of education and psychology at Rivier College in Nashua, New Hampshire.

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