The Place of Research in Practice by Kathryn M. Bateman

Last Tuesday, a friend e-mailed me about an article he had read.  He was concerned that his school had built their instruction around the concept of multiple intelligences. Howard Gardners theory of multiple intelligences claims that humans do not have only a cognitive intelligence, but have many types of intelligence, such as kinesthetic, intra or interpersonal, and musical intelligence, where no two individuals are “intelligent” in the same way.  Following Gardner’s theory, the school believed identifying the intelligences each student possessed, helped meet the needs of each individual student by addressing both their strengths and areas in need of improvement.  The article, calling them “learning styles” instead of multiple intelligences, stated that this was not a productive instructional method, and even suggested that multiple intelligences don’t exist. Panic ensued within my friend’s school community as they questioned their practical expertise– had they been teaching wrong all this time? Did they need to completely revamp their school model? This example brings to light a significant problem in education – the information disconnect between current research and current practice.

The backlash against multiple intelligences due to a perceived lack of evidence in the research literature (i.e. Klein, 2003; Waterhouse, 2006) was not new, but was to this crop of teachers. As a teacher, I had learned this through my sustained relationship with education faculty at a university.  However, these teachers did not have a similar relationship, even though they were located in a large metropolitan city with a number of well-known education programs.  These teachers saw their current practice working effectively in their classrooms – test scores were good, students were growing and happy at school.  The teachers were crafting their instructional practice on information given to them a number of years ago, but the newer information in the article had them questioning their lived experiences and effectiveness.  They now wondered, were better teaching methods than their current practices? I had two questions from this interaction.

  • Were these teachers’ concerns warranted? Did they need to completely revamp their teaching practices and school to eliminate the multiple intelligence focus?
  • As the locus of educational research, how can universities help inform teachers about innovations in educational research applicable to practice?

I realized that there were major stumbling blocks to teachers accessing current educational research.  Current and diverse research around multiple intelligences was not being used in this school, even though it was available in the education community. For teachers to use educational research in the classroom a few things must be considered: teachers’ access to research, their ability to identify and evaluate up-to-date, high-quality research, the goals of the classroom and school, and the context in which the research needs to be used.

Teachers often do not have access to sources presenting current information – journals and conferences are costly, and reading and attending them can be time consuming.  Administrative policies, non-instructional duties and personal responsibilities demand large quantities of time that leave teachers tired and with little time to grapple with the linguistic gymnastics in many academic publications.  Practitioner journals can transfer the academic literature into smaller chunks teachers can digest in shorter blocks of time, with action items they can try in their classroom with minor adjustments.  However, research takes time to disseminate from academia to practice.  As an example, the science education research community uses the term science literacy to talk about the knowledge and skills needed to engage with science as both citizens and scientists.  Literacy is used in this sense beyond reading and writing text to focus more on the scientific skills someone possesses and uses within and beyond school.  A few years ago, I conducted an analysis  of science literacy-centric publications (Bateman, 2015) and found that science literacy was a prevalent topic in prominent academic journals; however, practitioner journals were more often talking about science AND literacy, where language arts could push into science classes.   Rather than promoting science skills like developing investigations or using models, the practitioner journals were discussing how to use non-fiction text or incorporate more writing into science class.  The salient points of the academic literature did not yet exist in the sources designed for practitioners, making it challenging for teachers to access current, relevant research and innovation.

Where new information is made accessible to practicing teachers, the skillset necessary to engage with academic articles from a critical stance can be intimidating. Challenging literature claims is daunting even for junior faculty. Educational researchers, often faculty at universities, publish on topics in which they have assumed expertise.  Closer to home, administrators direct teachers to practices they have deemed worthy, and teachers take great risk in pushing back against these approved and sometimes required practices. Teachers will need to work on developing the ability to judge if an intervention tested on one population of students will work with the specific population of learners they are facing.

[T]eachers and administrators should work together to identify the specific needs and goals of their school community and the methods that allow them to reach their stated goals.

The skills to critically engage with research need to be developed with both in service and pre-service teachers.  Many schools host in-house professional development facilitated by other teachers or administrators who may still be developing proficiency in the concepts they are presenting.  Participating teachers need to be critical of such programs by analyzing references included in the presentation for source and age.  In service teachers do not readily push back against administrative mandates, but developing communities of practice that celebrate and support critical eyes enhance this skill set (Bannister, 2015).  These communities can and should engage in critical conversations around new interventions found in literature, assessing its applicability in their school context.  Teacher preparation programs are another way to help prepare future teachers to continue their education beyond state mandated professional development hours.  Programs should work to help pre-service teachers assess the value of the literature they are reading, specifically the source and age of the information, as well as its transferability.

Universities must continue to support teachers once they are in service.  With constrained district budgets, schools often lack funds to provide financial support for external professional development.  Forging partnerships between universities and schools would provide a solution to these constraints and an opportunity for continued support.  However, these are often limited by barriers of location, costs, or stipulations of grants the university uses to reach teachers.  Utilizing online MOOCs (massive open online courses) designed for teachers can also enhance teacher content knowledge.  However, beyond content knowledge, pedagogical practices change as research changes.  Faculty-led, online communities could foster cross-school communities of practice (Wenger, 1999), with access to experts who are tapped into what is current in educational research.  Teachers would be able to participate from their location using both synchronous and asynchronous participation methods, and could choose the communities that best meet their current needs.  The pedagogies learned within the communities could then be tried in the classroom with results shared with the community for feedback.

Practicing teachers need to consider the context of their school community and its alignment with research they find.  To do so, the practitioner community will need to continue to be reflexive of their practice.   Specifically, teachers and administrators should work together to identify the specific needs and goals of their school community and the methods that allow them to reach their stated goals. Teachers craft a teaching philosophy that works with who they are and who their students are, pieced together from their experiences, formal and informal observations of schooling.  However, without constantly utilizing current literature and self-reflection, teachers and administrators perpetuate existing practices that can stalemate change at the expense of our students (Barab, Barnett and Squire, 2002).  Being attentive to the goals of the classroom, and to how academia can help reach those goals, will be important to making the previous suggestions viable.

Finally, teachers should engage in practitioner inquiry, based on research and their professional expertise.  After reflecting on the literature’s place in their own situated practice, teachers should determine if and how these research-based practices exist in their classrooms and schools and then try them.  Teachers should have the aforementioned school community goals and the teacher’s own goals for students in mind and determine what will best measure the effectiveness of the new practice in improving students learning experience.

My advice to my friend would be this: I know the school is doing the best job possible to teach all students and prepare them to be future citizens, and it should continue to do so.  By addressing the multiple intelligences or learning styles of their students, the teachers in the school are differentiating their instruction, helping to engage learners in a variety of modes, and providing choice and control for the students over their learning.  In the process, the students are growing socially and academically.  Even if the theory is being challenged, their instructional practices are working for those students in that school.  However, the teachers should not stop reflecting on current pedagogies and learning about new ones.  Given its location in a major metropolitan area, I suggest seeking learning experiences via partnerships with educational programs at one of the many nearby colleges of education while remaining critical of pedagogical choices in their school.  The key question for the teachers moving forward will center around their pedagogical choices – are they being made because someone told them to do so, or because it produces demonstrable results that translate to the students they serve?

Bannister, N. A. “Reframing practice: Teacher learning through interactions in a collaborative group.” Journal of the Learning Sciences, 24, no. 3 (2015): 347-372.

Barab, Sasha A., Michael Barnett, and Kurt Squire. “Developing an empirical account of a community of practice: Characterizing the essential tensions.” The Journal of the Learning Sciences 11, no. 4 (2002): 489-542.

Bateman, Kathryn M. “Science Literacy in Science Education Literature: An examination of the presence of “Science Literacy” in practitioner and research journals and policy documents.” Presentation at the Harvard Graduate School of Education Student Research Conference, Cambridge, MA, April 19, 2015.

Klein, Perry D. “Rethinking the multiplicity of cognitive resources and curricular representations: Alternatives to ‘learning styles’ and ‘multiple intelligences’.” Journal of Curriculum Studies 35, no. 1 (2003): 45-81.

Waterhouse, Lynn. “Inadequate evidence for multiple intelligences, Mozart effect, and emotional intelligence theories.” Educational Psychologist 41, no. 4 (2006): 247-255.

Wenger, Etienne. Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge University press, 1999.

Kathryn M. Bateman is a doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Instruction, focusing on Science Education at Penn State University. Katie is a former middle school science teacher and informal science educator, with specialization in urban education.  Katie holds a BS in Marine Science and an M.Ed. in Elementary Education. Her current research interests include Earth Science education, learning progression development, and how science curricular practices are impacted by educational policies tied to standardized testing and accountability measures. She is the Technical Chair for the AJE Forum.

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