Alternative Facts: Is Your Practice Really Data-Based?

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So, I’ll start this piece with ‘so’, in a light-hearted tribute to Daniel Kerr’s signature blog-commencing line, and in honour of his 200th post for The International Educator.

 Student Preparedness

It is expected that educators train students to use data or research to inform their decisions and viewpoints. Many international schools’ mission statements pronounce that their students will think critically, marking this as a key skill that we value in our community. From literature to science classrooms, teachers are showing students how to identify credible sources and analyse large volumes of information to make sense of what is applicable in their work. But are we doing this in our own work?

Educator Training

You’d be hard-pressed to find an international school that overtly eschews research to inform policy and practice. “Data-based” and “research shows” are buzz phrases, guiding us through the tangle of options to best serve our students. However, many educator training programs do not prepare us to conduct – much less responsibly consume – academic research. It is not enough to assume that, because the study was conducted by an established institution, it will be applicable to your classroom. 

I earned my undergraduate degree at the University of Colorado at Boulder. CU’s college of education, at the time, required a statistics course as part of the teaching certificate program, but virtually nothing else in terms of research methods or design. Many graduate education programs also emphasize professional skills, offering practical rather than research-oriented coursework. I argue that understanding academic research is practical, and a critical skill for all professional educators.

Context Counts

When we cite a study as justification for a policy or practice we’re following, how often do we actually read the study? It may be that the project we’re referring to had significant findings, but they were never reproduced outside of one limited setting. A research team that measured positive results with a particular reading intervention in a small school in the Middle East, for example, may not yield the same findings at a large school in Asia. Much of the educational research published for international audiences is based in the United States or the U.K., limiting the relevance to international schools elsewhere.

The celebrated example of Finland leading the world in education has sparked global conversations about how to recreate these results elsewhere. It is unlikely, however, that anybody will be successful in this endeavour, given the numerous unique contextual elements that influence any educational system. That is not to say that we cannot learn from Finland, nor that we must look only for academic research strictly bound to our context. However, as we instruct our students to think critically about the data before drawing conclusions, so must we as educators carefully consider a study before deciding whether it is relevant to the policies and practices we employ for our students.

How do you know when a piece of research is appropriate to guide your school?   

 

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