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Why Are So Few Educators Aware of Research in Their Own Field? (Opinion)

I recently had sad experiences at two national education conferences. As part of presentations at the ASCD annual conference and the American Educational Research Association conference, I asked audience members if they knew who developed the phrase “formative evaluation” and who first described how to use “formative assessments” to guide improvements in student learning? To make the question easier, I presented it in a multiple-choice format and offered the names of 10 education writers well-known for their work in educational assessment.

To my surprise and disappointment, only two or three people in each of these well-attended presentations correctly identified Michael Scriven as the person who first used the term “formative” in the context of program evaluation in 1967 and Benjamin Bloom who first applied the term “formative” to classroom assessments in 1968. It was Bloom, together with colleagues Thomas Hastings and George Madaus, who developed the first book on formative assessment in 1971 titled, Handbook on Formative and Summative Evaluation of Student Learning.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I had a similar experience last year at the Learning Forward conference. During a presentation to a large group of education leaders, I asked from whose work I took the quotes, “Learning depends on the connections we make between our present and past experiences,” and “All experiences are carried forward and influence future experiences?” Participants named a variety of modern cognitive scientists and advocates of brain-based learning or culturally responsive education. Not a single person recognized that these quotes were taken directly from John Dewey’s classic book Experience and Education, written in 1938.

Why is there such a lack of understanding of the established knowledge base in our field among educational practitioners and researchers alike? Why do so few new writers and consultants in education make efforts to explore and thoroughly understand that knowledge base?

Most graduate programs in education require students to take a basic course in research methods. In these courses, students learn that after formulating a clear research question, the next essential step is to review the literature to determine what other scholars and researchers have discovered in investigating that question. They do this to ensure that new studies build on and extend our established knowledge base rather than simply repeat what is already known. It also helps avoid Sydney Harris’ poignant observation, “Nothing can be so amusingly arrogant as a person who has just discovered an old idea and thinks it is their own.”

Yet, despite the foundational nature of literature reviews, few writers or consultants take the time to engage in this vital process. To prepare for my presentations on formative assessment at these national conferences, I conducted a search for books published since 2000 that included the word “formative” in the title. I was able to locate 56 volumes, and there probably are more. It seems reasonable to assume that in a book on formative assessment, the author would review the literature and refer to the work of the brilliant scholars who developed the term “formative” and initially described how to use formative assessments as learning tools. But among those 56 books, only six cited the work of either Scriven or Bloom.

Would any science expert write a book about the polio vaccine and not mention the work of Jonas Salk? Would any technology expert write a book about Apple computers and not mention Steve Jobs?

In a letter penned in 1676, Sir Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” What he meant is that he learned from the wisdom and accomplishments of those who came before and he acknowledged that his progress was made possible by the contributions of others.

We have significant giants in the field of education—brilliant men and women whose ideas brought new meaning and understanding to curriculum development, teaching and learning, and student assessment. Scriven, Bloom, and Dewey are but three of many.

Progress in education will be made only by standing on the shoulders of these giants, acknowledging their remarkable contributions, and building on the insights and understandings they offered. Progress will be thwarted if led by those who simply rediscover the ideas of these giants, attach new labels to those ideas, and claim them as their own.

Let’s treat education as the dynamic field that it is, with an established knowledge base built by outstanding scholars and researchers who came before us. Progress will surely be slow and improvement elusive if we continue to ignore their remarkable work. Instead, let’s stand on their shoulders. Let’s recognize their accomplishments, acknowledge their contributions, and build on what they developed to deepen our understanding and advance education endeavors at every level.

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