When teachers are told to implement a new program because it’s “research based,” what are they thinking and feeling? That’s the question Sarah Morris, a Doctoral Academy Fellow at the University of Arkansas explored. She shares her summary from 400 responding teachers. Instructional leaders should consider how they engage teachers with research.
Read Sarah’s article, “5 Reasons Teachers Are Tired of the Phrase “Best Practice” and “Backed by Research” here.
Email Sarah: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. As instructional coaches and school leaders, you have a challenge to guide continuous teacher growth that promotes student success. This podcast looks to support you with strategies from our experienced guest and insights that I’ve gathered across many years. I’m thrilled you’re here. Thanks for listening.
Steve: 00:27 Sharing best practices research with teachers. Last year I wrote a blog titled, “What’s The Impact of Best Practice?” In that blog, I explored the question, can a focus on best practice be a problem? Adam Grant, the author of, “Think Again,” while speaking to business entrepreneurs, suggests that it may be time to rethink best practices. He stated that the term used to describe a preferred method of performing a given task or procedure might be limiting. The moment an organization calls a practice “best,” they’re creating an illusion that they’ve reached an endpoint where there’s nothing left to top. I got really interested when I read his, his tweet on that, so not be surprised that my attention was caught by an article by Sarah Morris titled, “Five Reasons Teachers Are Tired of the Phrases, “Best Practices,” and “Backed by Research.” It really did catch my attention, and I invited Sarah to join us on the podcast and excited to say, here she is. Welcome Sarah.
Sarah: 01:52 Hi, Steve. Thank you for having me.
Steve: 01:56 To do a quick introduction here, Sarah Morris is a doctoral academy fellow for the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. She’s a former middle school teacher and is now engaged in researching grading equity, teachers’ grading practices, and the ninth grade year in school. So Sarah, I’m gonna tell you, you’re gonna have to come back because those other things that you’re researching are of equal interest to me.
Sarah: 02:27 Yeah, of course.
Steve: 02:29 For starters, how did you get connected to this topic of looking at teachers responses to best practice research and and how did you gather teachers thinking?
Sarah: 02:43 Well, I’m currently trying to do a study with teachers myself as a former teacher turned researcher. So my gears have been grinding a little bit on how teachers are thinking about, well, how do I take in information for research? So I’m a new writer for the We Are Teachers blog, and I asked my editor Kelly to make a Facebook post on the We Are Teachers page, asking teachers to respond to the prompt, and let’s see if I can get the wording right: “How do you feel when a new initiative or program is hyped as best practice or backed by research? How do you feel about these buzzwords in general? Do you trust them? We want to know.” And from there, about 400 teachers commented to participate with what they thought. And of course, I had my own inklings for what I thought teachers would think from my own personal experience, but I didn’t think writing this blog piece would be done justice if I just used my own thinking. So I’m really glad that I got some information from these teachers on what they think about these phrases.
Steve: 03:53 So I’m guessing a little bit of what you were thinking is caught in the word hyped?
Steve: 05:06 Well, there’s a difference in the phrase you’re using there isn’t there, of reflect on this. Usually when I would see the word “hyped,” I’m connecting to the new strategies being sold to me more than I’m being asked to reflect on it.
Sarah: 05:22 Right. And I think there can be two ways to approach it and I think teachers as professionals tend to want to go the reflective route and don’t really go for the hype as much as administrators think they might. Sometimes administrators can be like, “here’s this cow feed, please take this cow feed to the farm and see how it goes,” and the magic better happen or not. But then teachers are like, “well, if you give me this information, let me digest it, let me maybe tease it a little in my classroom, see how it works, and then we’ll see how it goes from there.”
Steve: 06:02 So what were what were some of the common elements you found in the responses from teachers?
Sarah: 06:09 So we did find five common themes that emerged from these comments. What works in one classroom doesn’t work in every classroom. Best practice oversimplifies, the complexities of classrooms, the quality of the research that’s claiming something is best practice is not always great. The new practices normally feel forced by administrators. And then lastly, teachers just feel a little bit of fatigue after covid and they just can’t take any more new things in their classroom. So those were the main five kinda things that teachers were commenting on.
Steve: 06:48 So I frequently talk about teaching being a profession, and I make a comparison to medicine or law. And I describe that in a profession, you study a lot, you learn a lot, and then you conduct experiments with your clients. Do you see that concept matching teacher’s responses to, I guess it hits for sure to me, to all the classrooms aren’t the same, all the kids aren’t the same.
Sarah: 07:17 Oh, yeah, for sure. I mean, it’s really easy to, like the teachers commented, to oversimplify a complex issue with just a blanket research statement or research results, but teachers are the ones that are working day in and day out with students, and they’re the ones that know how to deal with certain circumstances in those specific moments because they are the ones face-to-face with teachers. Personally, I can say that as a researcher, I have skills and I’m trained to know how to gather data for, in general, with large populations, something that could trend towards something being associated with what’s being best for students. But I lose all validity in what I’m saying if I’m not thinking about the practicality of what’s actually gonna work for teachers in their actual classrooms because they’re the professionals and they’re the ones working with those kids. Because I remember when I was a teacher, my first period and the strategies or whatever I was using that beginning of the day looked completely different for my seventh period because not all strategies or techniques work the same for students. And that’s just part of being a professional, is knowing practically, what actually happens is best for your students, versus here’s something that’s coming down the pipeline that’s trying to be shoved down my throat as this is what a best practice is.
Steve: 08:51 I’m thinking that we could move advances in education ahead further and faster if we could get teachers more involved as as research partners. Does that kinda line up?
Sarah: 09:07 Sure. Yeah. I really feel that one. A lot of districts pay consultants to come in and evaluate what they’re doing, tell them what’s wrong, how to do it better, and then the consultants can leave and the districts make these blanket policies for teachers, and then they’re like, alright, this is what you need to do. Good luck. You better do it or else kind of thing. I taught at a district where our principal was very calm when he heard new things down the pipeline, kind of from central office trickling down. And I vividly remember him visiting room to room to room of each experienced teacher or veteran teacher in our building and just kind of like informally talking about something that was coming down the line and being like, well, hey, as the teacher, the one actually facing the students, what do you think about what’s about to happen in our district? And because somebody in central office could claim something that is backed by research, but what do those conversations look like when you practically get your teachers involved and get their input? So I really saw good things in my district, but I know it’s not the same for the rest of the districts that teachers are at.
Steve: 10:29 So I guess that sets you up for my next my next question. A lot of our listeners to this podcast are instructional coaches, they’re school leaders and I’m wondering if you’ve got some suggestions, guidelines, things they might keep in mind when they’re in that position of implementing the district’s new research backed curriculum or strategy. You’ve picked up some things from that administrator you worked with. How would you spell them out as to things that that leaders should be thinking about?
Sarah: 11:08 Yeah, so instructional coaching positions are really important. I’m afraid though, in some districts that they could potentially still close off teachers from those important conversations about what they’re trying to implement. Don’t leave teachers out in this decision making process. I’m fearful of imagining a room where a lot of admins sit around and make a decision, and it’s something that the teachers have to implement and maybe one instructional coach is in there, and maybe they speak up, maybe they don’t, but hey, still, there are no teachers in this imagined room. And that makes me sad because I think that might be happening in places. I know in my building that the experienced and veterans teachers were often invited to take place in these conversations in a sit down meeting where they got to voice their opinion.
Sarah: 12:07 And I think there were a few things that my principal told central office, like, hey, our school is not doing this just because it didn’t work with what was best with our teachers and what we thought was going to be practical in how we implemented it. I know you asked for my suggestion, and this might be too much of an ask, but I think it would be great if somebody in each district knew how to read research. So a lot of things that are told to teachers or admin or anybody in central office, they could use the phrase, “backed by research” or “best practice,” but nobody’s actually reading into the methods of what has actually happened. I mean, there’s a lot floating around in education research where it doesn’t even have a comparison group. We could say that X percent liked this reading intervention, but compared to who? Was there a control group for the reading intervention? How big was your sample size?
Sarah: 13:17 Would the results be externally valid in a different circumstance, in a different school setting? Was there an actual treatment or is this work just descriptive? A lot of people are making decisions for schools that think association means causality, that a treatment actually was the cause of something happening, but it’s actually really hard to achieve causality in social science research like education. So I can shout from the rooftops that I would think it would be great for somebody in each district to read through the research and be like, hey, is this malarkey? Is this not malarkey? But that might be too much of a ask, but I think it’s important to actually read through where did you get this information from.
Steve: 14:02 You know, as I’m listening to you, I’m thinking that most of us as teachers aren’t prepared to actually question research.
Sarah: 14:15 I have to agree. I did my undergrad with a major in mathematics and a minor in secondary education. And no part of my training at all – at all, at all, was about picking apart research and seeing what was good methods, seeing what was bad methods. I then got my master’s, and again, no part of my training at all was about picking part research. I haven’t been able to pick apart research well until I joined the program that I’m in right now, “Education Policy.” Unfortunately, that is a lot of teachers’ realities. They don’t know what’s good research and what’s bad research. I unfortunately don’t have a good answer for that and how to clear that up other than, man, I really hope somebody out there is reading this and reading where you’re getting your information from.
Steve: 15:10 Yeah. It’s almost like we need a different word. The research term can be used to mean so many different things since we don’t know what it says to say that this is backed by research.
Sarah: 15:26 Well, you might have hit a nerve on me. I was just complaining to one of my classmates about how much the verb to “research” bothers me at this moment. Because I’ll be on social media, and I’ll see somebody say, “yeah, I researched this, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…and I’m like, do you mean you Googled that?
Sarah: 15:52 Put it in your search engine? Or do you mean you got 20 papers, collected these 20 papers, stifled through that literature review and you got the results, compared all of the results, and now you have statistically significant findings back in your repertoire? Which do you mean? Do you mean you Googled or do you mean you did a condensed lit review of something? So you might have touched a nerve on that term research, because I hear it often. As a researcher now, I cannot stop hearing how many times people say, “yeah, I researched that.” I’m thinking, “no, you didn’t, you Googled it.”
Steve: 16:54 I will put the link to your article in the lead-in to the podcast so people will be able to find it. And is it okay if folks touch base with you by email?
Sarah: 17:08 Yes, I’m at email@example.com.
Steve: 17:16 Alright. We’ll put that in the lead-in notes too so folks can find it easily.
Sarah: 17:21 Great.
Steve: 17:21 Thank you so much. Appreciate it.
Sarah: 17:24 Yeah, thank you so much.
Steve [Outro]: 17:27 Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn at Steve Barkley or send me your questions and find my videos and firstname.lastname@example.org.