Why Don’t People Like Educational Research?

The E. Pauline Riall Lecture Series at Salisbury University brings outstanding national leaders in the field of education. This October, Salisbury welcomed remarks from Dr. Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia. To prepare for his talk, faculty joined students enrolled in our senior seminar course to read Dr. Willingham’s book Why Don’t Kids Like School? In his presentation, Dr. Willingham focused on another important question facing those interested in schooling, which I would paraphrase as “Why don’t people like educational research?”

The crux of Dr. Willingham’s argument was that research ought to follow a three-step pattern based on understanding or improving the world. In step 1 scientists identify a problem. In step 2 scientists conduct observations, experiments, and interventions. In step 3 scientists question whether their efforts from step 2 have alleviated the problem identified in step 1: Do we better understand the world?, or Is the world a better place? Dr. Willingham suggested that educational researchers face two key difficulties when implementing this process. Educators, he argued, rarely agree on how the world of education, teaching, or learning ought to look. Where doctors might agree on markers of good health, educators (and the general public) differ on the markers of good education.

Aligned with our confusion regarding outcomes, Dr. Willingham also suggested that educators face a challenge of diffuse information. There is no single body responsible for training teachers in the use of research, monitoring educational research, or working to disseminate research to teachers. While most fields do not put the onus of finding, validating, synthesizing, and applying research on individual practitioners, education asks just that of our classroom teachers. At the federal level, this same approach risks allowing faulty research or disputed markers to guide national policy decisions.

As a young researcher, I heard a call for greater clarity and rigor in my own work. As a member of Kappa Delta Pi and the public policy committee I heard a challenge for our organization to help address these issues. We maintain contact with roughly 40,000 committed and intelligent members representing every segment of the field. We already host many excellent, research-backed, field-tested, “best practice” resources. But surely we can offer more.

As Dr. Willingham ended his remarks, I was left with three questions for our members:

  1. What do you think the “world of education” ought to look like?
  2. (How) do you use research to work towards that vision?
  3. What role should KDP play in those efforts?

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