Educational Research For Educational Practice Research Paper

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After 100 years of systematic research in the fields of education and educational psychology, there is still no agreement about whether, how, or under what conditions research can improve educational practice. Although research and educational practice each have changed substantially since the beginning of the twentieth century, the question of how science can actually contribute to the solution of real educational problems continues to be controversial.

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Because there are no general rules or strategies for translating research into practice, the first part of this research paper focuses briefly on some of the basic problems concerning the relation between theory and practice in education. Next, six different approaches that attempt in various ways to make research findings relevant to education, particularly in schools, are discussed. These approaches concern: (a) using theoretical knowledge to improve technology for teaching and learning; (b) facilitating teacher expertise as a practical application of research on teaching; (c) using studies on classroom learning to provide the scientific basis for ability grouping, mastery learning, and adaptive teaching; (d) using research on cognitive development and learning as a source of scientific information about how to train student’s learning competencies and self-instructional skills; (e) using educational research to design, implement, and evaluate new models of schooling and instruction; and (f) using research findings as a source of background knowledge for practitioners. Suggestions for how research can be made more relevant to educators and for ways in which educational practice can be more research-based are proposed on the basis of these different approaches.

1. The Gap Between Research And Educational Practice

Most research in education and educational psychology is conducted with the explicit or implicit goal of directly or indirectly improving educational practice. As Anderson and Burns (1985) stated, ‘the primary purpose of classroom research is to help educators to improve the conditions of learning and the quality of learning of increasingly large numbers of students’ (p. ix). The kinds of necessary research, the required theoretical insights, and the ways that scientific findings should be translated into practice to attain this goal are issues that have not as yet been resolved. When empirical and experimental research on educational phenomena began, there was a widespread vision, conviction, and expectation that it would generate a scientifically informed basis for educational practice. For example, Rein (1893) stated that ‘there is only one way in teaching that corresponds to nature; to follow carefully the laws of the human mind and to arrange everything according to these laws. The attainment of adequate instructional procedures follows from knowledge of and insight into these laws’ (p. 107).

When these ambitious hopes did not seem to be realized, there was substantial disappointment among both scientists and practitioners. It was not clear how teachers could use such very general and vague recommendations as those, for example, based on a synopsis of classical learning theories by Thorpe and Schmuller (1954). They concluded that instruction was especially effective when learners were motivated, when task demands matched learners’ aptitudes, when learners received sufficient opportunities to relate elements of the learning task to the learning goal, when learners could use external criteria to judge their progress, and when the learning process occurred under conditions that facilitated adaptation to the total situation. Although these conclusions are probably valid, it is not surprising that such nonspecific psychological statements and such obvious educational recommendations led the educational community to the cynical conclusion that learning theorists were perhaps the only ones who could derive personal benefit from learning theory.

Dissatisfaction was not limited to problems in finding practical applications for learning theory. The results from research on teaching also seemed unproductive in providing educators with practical guidance. This can be seen, for example, in Bloom’s (1966) resigned summary of the state of research: ‘large class, small class, TV instruction, audiovisual methods, lecture, discussion, demonstration, team teaching, programmed instruction, authoritarian and non-authoritarian instructional procedures, etc. all appear to be equally effective methods in helping the student learn more information or simple skills’ (p. 217).

The limited applicability of educational science for educational practice has resulted in several metatheoretical debates that have contributed only a little to improving the research situation or to solving practical problems. Some examples of the debated issues are:

(a) Is the gap between scientific and practical work the result of a production deficit in research, a reception deficit in the practitioners, or deficits in translating theoretical knowledge into practical suggestions? This debate has led at least to the insight that scientists and practitioners have different ways of perceiving the world, prefer to define their problems in different ways, and thus speak different ‘languages.’

(b) How relevant is basic research, as opposed to applied research, for education? This debate is especially unproductive, both theoretically and practically. On the one hand, it is difficult to differentiate pure or basic research from applied research; on the other hand, it has become clear that findings from both research prototypes have specific advantages and disadvantages with respect to their practical applications.

(c) Is it more appropriate to use quantitative or qualitative methods in educational research? This debate has almost become a religious war for many, even though the theory of science convincingly teaches that both approaches are necessary and complementary components of any system of research in the social sciences.

2. Theory And Research

These metatheoretical debates and the many concrete attempts to derive practical applications from research findings have led to a variety of different proposals for solving the research–practice problem. Two positions are especially characteristic of these proposals: The first is that theory should take precedence; the second is that empirical work should take precedence.

The first characteristic position, that theory should be preeminent, can be captured by a quotation from Mook (1983), who, in agreement with many other scientists, recalled the truth of the classical adage that nothing is more useful than a good theory:

Ultimately, what makes research findings of interest is that they help us in understanding everyday life. That understanding, however, comes from theory or analysis of the mechanisms; it is not a matter of generalizing the findings themselves … The validity of those generalizations is tested by their success and predictions and has nothing to do with the naturalness, representativeness or even non-creativity of the investigations on which they rest. (p. 386)

Examples of the ways in which theoretical models have aided in the solution of practical problems include the use of attribution theory to provide a better understanding of students’ intuitive explanations for their success and failure; the use of findings from the expert–novice research paradigm to estimate the relative importance of general abilities and domain-specific knowledge in the solution of demanding tasks; and the use of theories of prejudice in the analysis of social conflicts.

The second characteristic position, focused on empirical research, is invoked in instances where there are competing theories, where context conditions determine psychological processes, or where descriptive or causal models must be transposed into prescriptive statements. Sequential research strategies are proposed to solve such problems. One example is the description of ‘six steps on the road from pure learning research to technological research and development in the classroom’ suggested by Hilgard (1964, pp. 405–11): step 1—research on learning with no regard for its educational relevance; step 2—pure research on learning with content that is similar to school subject matter; step 3—research on learning that is relevant to education because the subjects are students, the material learned is school subject matter, and/or the learning conditions are similar to classroom situations; step 4—research on learning and instruction in special laboratory classrooms; step 5—use of experimentally tested learning and teaching strategies in normal classrooms; step 6—developmental work related to advocacy and adoption, for a wider use of the researchbased educational strategies.

These and similar sequential research strategies are followed in many research and development centers around the world. The differences among the programs are, however, too large to allow conclusions about the success of such a strategy. In principle, the possibilities and limits of this approach also depend on the basic relation between educational research and educational practice. Good educational practice is not simply applied science, nor does it consist in the correct use of findings from applied research. Science can at best only provide an important and useful, but always limited, theoretical basis for the planning, analysis, control, support, reflection, and better understanding of educational practice.

The limits of scientific prediction and explanation of educational outcomes are expressed in the conclusions reached by Haertel et al. (1983) based on a comparison of different psychological models of educational performance. They concluded that:

Classroom learning is the multiplicative, diminishing-returns function of four essential factors—student ability and motivation and quality and quantity of instruction—and possibly four supplementary or supportive factors—the social–psychological environment of the classroom, education-stimulating conditions in the home and peer group, and exposure to mass media. Each of the essential factors appears to be necessary but insufficient by itself for classroom learning; that is, all four of these factors appear required at least at minimum levels for classroom learning to take place. It also appears that the essential factors may substitute, compensate, or trade-off for one another in diminishing rates of return. (p. 75f)

3. Models For Bridging The Gap Between Research And Educational Practice

There is no general rule that specifies correct, expedient, or appropriate ways to use scientific findings to solve the practical tasks of education. More importantly, there can in principle be no such rule. There are, however, various approaches available that show how research can be used in different ways and what strategies can be used to translate research into practice.

3.1 From Learning Theories To Teaching Technologies

Educational technology consists of systems of rules, tools, and activities designed to bring students to the point where they can achieve specific learning goals systematically, effectively, and economically. Even more, Glaser and Cooley (1973) perceive technology ‘as a vehicle for making available to schools what psychologists have learned about learning’ (p. 855). Such standardized technologies should, of course, be derived from explicit and tested scientific theory. Although not a necessary component of educational technology, technical devices are frequently used with the purpose of minimizing the negative consequences of fluctuation in attention to errors or mistakes, whether by students or teachers.

The first researcher who, from theoretical grounds, wanted to replace normal instruction in the classroom with almost revolutionary mechanical teaching techniques was Skinner (1954). In the early 1950s Skinner argued that the behaviorist models of learning and conditioning, and the psychological laws specifying how to shape behavior through contingent reinforcement of desired reactions, were the scientific prerequisites for successful and effective instruction. It was his belief that these principles could not be used in classroom teaching because teachers were not able to present the material to be learned in sufficiently elementary components and were not able to provide the requisite number of reinforcements in the necessary contiguity to learners’ behavior, verbal or nonverbal. Thus, he recommended programmed instruction and the use of teaching machines.

Beyond Skinner’s initial attempts, the development of educational technologies made dramatic progress in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Computer-assisted instruction, integrated learning systems, intelligent tutoring systems, instructional media, and intelligent learning environments are some of the key concepts referring to the development, study, and use of modern technical aids for improving educational practice.

In particular, modern computer technology offers a variety of possibilities for the technical design of controlled, but flexible, adaptive, and intelligently guided instructional systems and learning processes. The prerequisites for these systems are general learning theories and domain-specific models of knowledge acquisition that allow the following:

(a) analysis of the learning goal in terms of competent performance (specification of the learning task); (b) description of the initial state of the learner (specification of individual differences in relevant skills and knowledge);

(c) determination of the methods that effectively lead to knowledge acquisition (specification of instructional methods);

(d) assessment of the effects of these instructional methods (specification and measurement of learning progress).

Although there is no disagreement that educational technologies provide an up-to-date tool for education as well as an excellent opportunity for employing research results in a practical way, the relative failure of educational computing in general, and in mathematics in particular, must be acknowledged. The high expectations supported by research that rose in the early 1980s, with respect to the potential of the computer as a lever for the innovation and improvement of schooling, have not been redeemed. Elsewhere De Corte (1994) has argued that a major reason for this relative failure of computers in education is that the machine has been mainly introduced as an add-on to an existing, largely unchanged classroom setting. In addition, due to a lack of good communication, teachers usually had only low expectations about computer support for their teaching. Also, there was in most cases no question at all of an orientation toward modifying teachers’ conceptions about educational goals and their beliefs about learning.

3.2 Research On Teaching And The Acquisition Of Teacher Expertise

A large part of educational research is directed toward investigating educational productivity, teacher effectiveness, and the relation between instructional quality and learning outcomes. Although the empirical findings are very impressive, they are also quite diverse and are not stable across different studies. In a synthesis of the effects of instructional variables on learning, the following rank ordering of noncontentrelated factors was found (with decreasing effect strength): reinforcement, accelerated learning programs, cues and feedback, cooperation programs, personalized instruction, adaptive instruction, tutoring, higher-order questions.

If one considers that the effects of single instructional variables can be masked or mediated by combined, compensatory, and interactive effects from other teaching, student and context variables, it becomes apparent that training single teaching skills cannot be a practical implication of these research results.

It seems considerably more effective to provide a combined training program for teachers that uses the results from research on teaching. The paradigm of the expert teacher provides an interesting theoretical perspective for the practical application of such research findings. Prompted by work in cognitive psychology, this paradigm investigates how experienced and successful teachers differ from inexperienced and/or unsuccessful teachers in their knowledge about education and in their teaching activities. The research results from this paradigm have already been applied in the design of teacher training.

This paradigm allows the integration of two research traditions that have been portrayed as alternative approaches (Stolurow 1965): ‘Model the master teacher or master the teaching model?’. In the expert teacher paradigm, it is possible to directly and systematically relate research on teaching and learning in the classroom to teacher training. Such training should not be directed toward producing a uniform type of ‘expert teacher’, but should explicitly assume that there are interindividual differences in the teacher competencies to be trained.

3.3 Studies Of Classroom Learning

In contrast to the subject pools used in experimental investigations of learning, the classroom is best described as a group of students with very different learning prerequisites who are to be instructed at the same time in the same place. Massive interindividual differences in cognitive abilities, knowledge, skills, motivation, interests, attitudes, and study habits affect both students’ learning behavior and their learning achievements. The relevant research concerning these factors is very extensive. It has led to a large number of psychological theories about how personality states and traits are relevant to learning, and has contributed to the development of measurement models and measurement instruments for diagnosing individual differences in learning prerequisites and learning outcomes.

Carroll (1963) provided an important contribution to the practical application of this psychological research with his ‘model of school learning.’ Described simply, Carroll proceeded from the assumption that, given equivalent learning time, students with different aptitudes would diverge in their learning performance; that is, some students would not attain the required performance goal. To avoid this outcome, each learner must be allowed the learning time he or she needs to attain a specific learning goal.

This model has had a strong influence on subsequent research; in many respects it has been further specified, broadened, and extended, and it has also been used for a variety of different practical applications. For example, the following concepts and procedures can be traced to Carroll’s original model: time on task (the time during which a student is actually involved in a learning task); the personalized system of instruction; individually prescribed instruction; mastery learning; and, largely independent of Carroll’s model of school learning, the aptitude–treatment interaction (ATI) research program. All these approaches have been concerned with the question of whether and to what extent undesired effects of individual student aptitude differences on learning outcomes can be reduced by variations in instruction.

Research on the dependence of school achievement on aptitude differences and instructional conditions has led to important practical applications. Three of these are grouping students for learning, mastery learning, and adaptive teaching.

The educational benefits of grouping students for learning are controversial and seem to depend on the effects of a variety of factors. Furthermore, these benefits are both student-specific and criterionspecific. A successful practical application of ATI research has not been made.

Mastery learning is the attempt to ensure that as many students in a class as possible (90–95 percent) meet a required learning criterion (90–95 percent correct items in a criterion test). This goal is achieved by a limited increase in learning time (about 20 percent) and optimal instructional use of the learning time. Although what one can actually expect from mastery learning in normal school instruction is somewhat controversial, there is no doubt that this is a fruitful model that allows productive research and practical applications.

Adaptive teaching is based on many ideas from Carroll’s model of school learning and ATI research. Adaptive teaching involves both learner adaptation to the environmental conditions presented and teacher adaptation of the environmental conditions to the learners’ present state, to effect changes in that state. The teacher’s goal, in other words, is to make environmental variations ‘nurtured’ rather than merely ‘natural’ for each learner concerned (Corno and Snow 1986, p. 607). ‘Adaptive teaching’ is thus an omnibus term covering a large number of different standardized and informal procedures for adapting teaching in variable, flexible, and dynamic ways to students’ individual differences, so that optimal learning conditions can be provided for each student.

3.4 Fostering Students’ Learning Competencies And Self-Instructional Skills

In the above characterization of adaptive teaching it was noted that the optimization of individual learning requires not only that instruction be compatible with the cognitive and motivational demands of the student, but also that students’ learning competencies and learning motivation be explicitly fostered. There is considerable research in cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, and educational psychology that addresses how to promote competencies and motivation. At the forefront are investigations on transfer of training, learning to think, the promotion of metacognitive skills, and the development of self-instructional skills.

Much of the theoretically oriented research also includes suggestions for applying the findings. Relevant support programs have been tried for elementary, secondary, and university students. Although these programs have demonstrated that intellectual skills and thinking performance cannot be arbitrarily trained, they have also convincingly shown that the training of metacognitive competencies and self-instructional skills can result in lasting improvements. When such programs have realistic goals, are provided over an extensive time frame, and if possible are directed toward the acquisition of domain specific knowledge, all students can profit.

3.5 The Use Of Research Findings For New Models Of Schooling

Research can be used not only to improve existing educational institutions, school organizations and instructional conditions, but also to plan new models for schooling. Such an approach to change is needed when it is unclear whether an educational goal can be reached by gradual and piecemeal changes in current activities or whether fundamental reform is more necessary. Both theoretical discussion and practical experiences are available for using research findings in this way. Such change requires considerations of the factors that must be considered in planning a new educational system, the strategies that should be employed, the problems that must be addressed, and the implementation tasks that must be performed.

3.6 Research As A Source Of Background Knowledge For Practitioners

The practical application of research consists in more than the instrumental use of research findings. In addition, science and research have an educational function; that is, they provide individuals with knowledge about themselves and the world, and allow them to act rationally.

Because people think, decide, and act primarily on the basis of their available knowledge (whether it is correct or incorrect, complete or incomplete, objective or biased), it is important and necessary for those involved in the educational process (politicians, administrators, principals, teachers, parents, students, and researchers) to be able to change or replace their personal beliefs, intuitive knowledge, prejudices, and suppositions with reliable and valid information. Such a replacement is not only a prerequisite for reflective, responsible, and effective individual action, but also a condition for rational communication and discourse among educational practitioners. Although it is not possible to measure the effectiveness of this function of research, it nonetheless seems plausible and important to translate as many research results as possible into the language of the practitioner.

A potentially very promising strategy to bridging the theory–practice gap is a combination of the last two strategies, namely using research for the design, implementation, and evaluation of new models of education and schooling, on the one hand, and research as a source of background knowledge for teachers on the other. This strategy consists in the creation and evaluation in real classrooms of complex instructional interventions that embody our present (hypothetical) understanding of effective learning processes and powerful learning environments. In order to have a reasonable chance of success, such attempts at totally changing the classroom environment and culture should be undertaken in partnership between researchers and knowledgeable practitioners.

Such partnership is essential not only to promote good two-way communication, but also in view of modifying and reshaping teachers’ beliefs about education, learning, and teaching (see De Corte 2000). The positive effects of this partnership idea have, for instance, been shown by Huberman (1990). In a qualitative study of the linkages between researchers and practitioners, he has shown that contacts between both parties during a research project can result not only in better applications of the outcomes of a single study, but also in the establishment of more enduring forms of collaboration.

A specific approach which is in line with this holistic strategy is represented by scholars who advocate the use of so-called design experiments, and who aim at the development of a design science of education. According to Collins (1992, p. 15) ‘a design science of education must determine how different designs of learning environments contribute to learning, cooperation, motivation, etc.’ As a result a design theory would emerge that can guide the implementation of educational innovations by identifying the variables influencing their success or failure. This intervention approach has a twofold goal: it intends to advance theory building, while at the same time contributing to the optimization of classroom practices.

In this respect, Brown (1994) argued that theory building is crucial for conceptual understanding as well as for practical dissemination. In fact, Brown’s project ‘Fostering communities of learners’ is one of the most representative examples of the design experiment approach. In this project the classroom is fundamentally redesigned using innovative components such as reciprocal teaching, the ‘jigsaw method’ of cooperative learning, and the creation of a new classroom culture. Reciprocal teaching establishes a learning environment in which a small group of students is provided with guided practice in acquiring four cognitive strategies with a view to improving their skill in reading comprehension. These strategies are: asking questions, summarizing, clarifying comprehension difficulties, and making predictions about the future content of a text.

A major feature of reciprocal teaching is that it takes the form of a dialog, in which the teacher and the pupils take turns in leading the discussion; gradually the pupils’ share and responsibility in the dialogs increases. The ‘jigsaw method’ implies that small research groups of pupils each study a subtopic of a broader theme. Afterwards they regroup into learning groups in which each pupil is the expert in one subtopic, so that by combining their knowledge they all learn about the whole topic. A new classroom culture and climate is created based on four qualities, namely individual responsibility, mutual respect, establishment of a community of discourse, and a restricted number of participant structures (such as reciprocal teaching).

In the perspective of the further dissemination of this new kind of learning environments it is necessary to keep in mind that they should be realizable in existing classrooms. In this respect the notion of a partnership between researchers and practitioners is also crucial in the light of the necessity of the research–practice reciprocity. Whereas practitioners can help in translating theory into practice, and thus in making classroom teaching more research-based, their partner role can also contribute to make research more practice-driven.

Finally, the orientation of this intervention approach to theory building raises a major challenge for the researchers, namely the development of an appropriate methodology for designing experiments in complex classroom settings in such a way that sound and theoretically valid conclusions can be drawn from a wide range of quantitative and qualitative empirical data.

4. Conclusions

While the effectiveness of these six different approaches to the problem of bridging the theory– practice gap has not been systematically studied, it is plausible that each of them has not only some merits but also some weaknesses. Moreover, much will depend on how each approach is used in translating research results into practice. In this respect, it can be argued that to be successful in making psychological theory and research applicable to education, one should develop a strategy that combines the following basic characteristics:

(a) good communication with practitioners, which means that the relevant outcomes are translated in such a way that they are palatable, accessible, and usable for the teachers;

(b) an orientation toward a fundamental change of teachers’ belief systems about the goals of education and about good teaching and effective learning (in line with the view described above);

(c) a holistic (as opposed to a partial) approach to the teaching–learning environment, i.e., all relevant aspects of the learning environment should be addressed.

The relation between research and practice is complex and difficult. As a consequence, there is no simple, uniform solution to the problem of translating scientific results into practical suggestions. Nonetheless, some general conclusions can be drawn.

First, many different types of research are applicable to educational practice. The value of a scientific study for educational practice is not in any way directly related to the extent to which it mirrors typical features of an applied educational setting.

Second, research results can be used in educational practice in different ways. Six typical examples have been noted: the development of educational technologies, teacher training, the optimization of instruction, fostering students’ learning competencies, the design of new models of schooling, and the use of scientific information as background knowledge for practitioners.

Third, these different strategies for applying research results are not mutually exclusive. Rather, it is desirable to combine several variants to improve the practical situation.

Finally, exploring the processes by which theoretical knowledge can be transformed into practical action must itself be an important domain of educational research.


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