Who’s in the “Learning Zone”?

Conversations between the lab and the classroom are a two-way street
jarmoluk, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
jarmoluk, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

A growing number of initiatives are encouraging educators and researchers all over the world to join the conversation about improving education. The Learning Zone program, the Learning Scientists blog and podcast, the Learning & the Brain professional development initiative and the BOLD blog are only a few examples of this trend.

These initiatives are often presented as an opportunity for educators to learn from the latest research in the science of learning. However, we hear less about how expertise from the classroom also benefits the scientific community.

Last year I joined the “Learning Zone” when I, as a scientist, was invited to participate in a program of online events in which teachers were encouraged to engage in discussions with educational researchers, neuroscientists, and psychologists. The topics ranged from attention, to socio-emotional changes, to reading. While I was expecting to have the opportunity to share some knowledge and evidence about learning, I was less prepared to enter the learning zone myself.

Learning to write and communicate in a way that is accessible to a diverse audience

Perhaps the most obvious benefit a researcher gains from interacting with educators is learning to write and communicate in a way that is accessible to a wider audience. Writing for a non-academic readership can be challenging for scientists who are accustomed to producing scientific papers intended for other academics.

As I was formulating my answers to questions asked by educators in the “Learning Zone,” I noticed my tendency to provide extensive contextual information, to describe in great detail the methodological approach, and to include a large number of references. I realized that while these details are important in scientific writing, they were preventing me from focusing on the key question for educators: What does this evidence mean in practice?

“Perhaps the most obvious benefit a researcher gains from interacting with educators is learning to write and communicate in a way that is accessible to a wider audience.”

I was pleased to learn that resources like the Frame Works Institute are available to help experts learn to communicate effectively with practitioners and share their knowledge about how children and young people develop and learn.

Weighing the evidence

Education is becoming more evidence-informed, and research results on a broad range of topics are widely available and accessible. However, researchers often find it difficult to know just how to talk about specific kinds of evidence. As I was discussing contradictory evidence on the effects of mobile phone use on students’ attention with educators and other scientists in the Learning Zone, I had to consider different approaches.

I decided that it was best to present the evidence in terms of implications – in other words, I focused on the possible effects of a given pedagogical decision rather than providing recommendations.

“Instead of recommending certain classroom practices or warning against them, researchers can explain the possible implications of a given practice and initiate a discussion with practitioners.”

Instead of recommending certain classroom practices or warning against them, researchers can explain the possible implications of a given practice and initiate a discussion with practitioners. Rather than simply suggesting the use of open- or closed-book quizzes, for example, a scientist might discuss the potential effects of each practice on learning. This encourages scientists and educators to engage in a dynamic process of sharing information, and it is preferable to a top-down approach, in which experts simply communicate their findings.

In addition, discussing the various implications of a given teaching practice can help researchers understand the limits of the practical relevance of the evidence in their own areas of research.

Increasing research’s fruitfulness

Finally, when researchers engage in discussions with the professionals who facilitate learning on a daily basis, in an ever-changing environment, they are better able to understand how challenging it is to translate evidence into classroom practice, even when that evidence has been adequately communicated. For instance, some educators have rightly pointed out that certain recommended methods for improving students’ retention rate through retrieval practice can be disengaging or too repetitive for some students, or that they may be difficult to implement in schools with particularly crowded schedules.

While the complexity of the classroom may at first seem at odds with controlled lab environments, I would argue that gaining insight into real-world learning environments through discussions with educators gives researchers an opportunity to generate innovative hypotheses and study designs, such as the two-generation intervention that was developed in a partnership between researchers from the University of Oregon and Head Start educators.

“Both practitioners and scientists have an important role to play in identifying the most effective evidence-based practices.”

In addition, practitioners’ questions can serve as a reminder that evidence may change, and that our aim is to get a sense of the big picture – which requires the ability to adjust our conclusions as we acquire new information.

As interaction between scientific labs and classrooms increases, in an effort to make education more evidence-informed, we need to remind ourselves that this dialogue is a two-way street. It is clear that these interactions give educators access to the latest research and shed light on how that research might apply to education. But scientists, in turn, need to understand how communicating with educators can improve the quality of their research into the science of learning and make it more relevant in practice.

Perhaps most important, engaging in dialogue with educators reminds us that scientific training does not automatically lead to an understanding of how evidence may translate into the classroom. Both practitioners and scientists have an important role to play in identifying the most effective evidence-based practices.

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