Connecting research and educational practice is essential. The ongoing effort to make this happen (which I’ve called the “science of reading movement”) is a landmark development in the history of reading pedagogy. However, it is also a work in progress. Education is a massive enterprise with numerous stakeholders whose interests are not all alike. Creating the paths to meaningful change is difficult in this environment. Course corrections may be necessary along the way.
From my perspective as a researcher, I have concerns about where these efforts are heading. In the talks I began to voice them.
This note is to say: please wait. There’s a limit to how much information can be conveyed in an hour-long talk. The talks raised issues but did not settle them. (It was also deeply unfortunate that there was no discussion after my Atlanta talk, due to problems with the conferencing tech.) There is more coming. (For one thing, I will be re-recording both talks because neither is available in intact form on-line. They will be posted here very soon.)
I know from experience that when I say anything critical about beliefs or approaches that people value, it creates discomfort. A little discomfort is OK, but panic is not. Sometimes people conclude from a talk that they’ve been doing everything wrong and want to be told what they should be doing instead. My main message is that people need to think about what they are doing and why, taking into account new information that I’m offering. It isn’t “you’re all wrong and you should immediately change what you doing.” You’re not and you shouldn’t.
Obviously not: I can’t tell you what to do in class tomorrow or in a session with a severe dyslexic. I’m a scientist, not a K-5 teacher or reading specialist. My expertise is in conducting and explaining research. I am trying to use this expertise to help improve effectiveness, efficiency, and equity of instruction.
I am very aware that it is far easier to say what’s wrong with a given approach or curriculum than to offer a replacement. I have to believe that identifying the limitations of an approach—based on research that people may not know about—will be helpful in improving instructional materials and practices.
It is a frustrating role, however. Here’s something that happened to me recently. I was approached by my local school district about sitting on a committee that was deciding which reading curriculum to adopt. I have worked with the school district before. I have been studying several of the major curricula to see how they are designed and where they agree and disagree. I have some relevant knowledge. When I gave it a little thought I realized that I wouldn’t be much help. The school system is committed to investing in a new curriculum; I would find it very hard to recommend any of the major ones. I’d rather see money spent on supporting in-service teachers, developing a cadre of well-trained coaches, providing high quality PD, adding support personnel and so on. These needs are even greater now because of the catastrophic impact of COVID. But, if you want to buy a curriculum, plus the support services, software, and other add-ons, I don’t have much to contribute. That doesn’t feel great.
I do know something about reading research, however. My concerns focus on the difficulties in making effective use of it. The science of reading movement has been enormously successful in raising awareness about the existence of basic research relevant to reading instruction. Many teachers have benefited from personal and professional development activities in the area. There is a lot of forward momentum that I am trying not to dissipate.
There also are growing pains, however. The SRM seems to be coalescing around a small number of topics, studies, and authorities. This is yielding a simplistic version of the “science of reading” that is encouraging some practices that are questionable with respect to efficacy, efficiency, and equity.
This narrowing of focus is prompted by a valid concern: teachers (and other educators) have to be able to understand the research in order to make use of it. Since most educators don’t have much background knowledge in the area, the message has to be kept simple. That is the rationale for focusing on what I called “classic rock” studies.
I think this approach is giving up too much too soon. It underutilizes the science, underestimates the teachers, and diverts attention from the need to improve professional training. The science of reading movement hasn’t even gotten to the good stuff yet. I think teachers can absorb the important findings if they are presented the right way. Good PD is clearly an important component. Improving pre-service training would have the biggest impact, but that it is not happening as yet on a broad scale.
Relying on a few studies and authorities is ill-advised for another reason. Every study has its limitations; every authority only knows so much (yes, I am including myself). The limitations create easy targets for people who aren’t sympathetic to the “science of reading.” I’d rather identify the problem areas (with an eye towards fixing them) than leave it to them.
For some time I have been thinking about ways to communicate important, useful research findings more effectively. I’ve settled on focusing on what we know (with good confidence having weighed the relevant research), not individual studies or authorities. Margaret Goldberg and I will be giving a talk about this collaborative work at the next meeting of the SSSR. We intend to begin rolling out this material well before then. It won’t tell people what to teach or which system to use. It will provide a set of principles or guidelines that can be used in making educational choices and designing curricula and activities.
In the meantime, what else could be done to advance the integration of research and practice? It seems pretty obvious that progress depends on collaborations between active researchers who know the science and are familiar with the educational issues, with educators who are in the schools or manage what happens there (teachers, principals, superintendents) and educators who provide pre- and in-service training (in schools of education, in for-profit and non-profit companies). What could be done to make more of this kind of collaboration happen?
Here are some things that might be tried. I have no particular expertise here or inside information about what will work.
- All those companies that are marketing educational materials based on the “science of reading”: ask who the scientists are on the team. Not just people with advanced degrees; I mean, people who have conducted and published basic research in serious journals. Are they actively involved in developing products or acting as advisors who lend credibility to a product?
- Is there a way to increase the participation of active scientists in education efforts? I don’t know—try asking. The incentives for collaborating with educators to improve materials and policies are not high. Researchers do research. The intrinsic and extrinsic rewards come from significantly increasing what we know about ourselves and the world. It is hard to pry good people away from their work. And many of us have had unsuccessful experiences working in the educational-industrial-political complex. However, the COVID pandemic has demonstrated that a crisis can be highly motivating. Many serious researchers in areas such as immunology and infectious diseases have gotten deeply involved in communicating complex science, challenging misinformation, and calling out charlatans (see, e.g., @laughterinlight on TikTok). Perhaps more cognitive science researchers could be recruited if they had a better understanding of our literacy crisis and why their participation is needed.
- Ask philanthropies what they are doing to connect research and practice in reading and other areas of education. Many of them have topics such as education and child health as parts of their portfolios. The advocacy efforts that succeeded in the passage of legislation in many states could be directed at funding projects to join education and science in the service of increasing literacy.
- Contact the government agencies that fund education-related research and ask: are you funding projects that would bring educators and researchers together to develop materials, formulate guidelines, create curricula for teaching teachers or coaches, etc. Or ask your representatives in Congress. You might start with IES.ed.gov, though there are other agencies as well.
- Is there a college in your area that offers degree programs for future teachers? Ask the department or school of education: do you offer courses in cognitive science as part of teacher education? Do you have full-time staff with expertise in this research who are actively involved in teacher education? Do you partner with any departments on campus where such experts are found (e.g., psychology, communicative sciences and disorders, linguistics, educational psychology). Again, if the answers aren’t satisfactory, that could suggest a focus for future advocacy activities.
I hope this is helpful and not too disruptive. More to follow.