Working between the laboratory and the classroom

Researchers need to adapt to the everyday life of schools
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Do you sometimes picture researchers as people with their “heads in the clouds”, so focused on big ideas that they are clumsy with practical matters? Well, I have been confronted with this cliché a few times, and it didn’t help that I am someone whose mind tends to wander.

Actually, though, I deal with quite a few practical things in my work, whether I need to organise a study, recruit participants, or track children’s responses in Excel. I have found that working in school settings requires juggling logistical issues in quite a flexible and collaborative way. Being “practical” and efficient are key to a research project’s success. Or, stated another way, practical obstacles can easily get in the way of lab-school collaborations.

A recent paper reviewed the current strengths and weaknesses of interdisciplinary collaborations, as well as the long-term threats and opportunities that may cause them to perish or flourish. A lot of the challenges to successful communication between educators and researchers pertain to differences in vocabulary and to practical issues, such as time requirements and logistical considerations. Educators and researchers work on different timescales and within different environments.

“Getting educators involved in the design of research studies can result in a fuller collaboration, with educators having a say in the research rather than being simply ‘recipients’.”

For example, most of the time, educators interact with children as a group in classrooms. They organise multiple learning sessions within a single day, while dealing with various distractions. In contrast, researchers often take children out of the classroom to carry out individual assessments in a quiet room to “control” for distractions.

Thus, research projects conducted in school settings pose issues for educators who must find a spare room for the research project and help children catch up with their lessons after a session with the researcher. As multiple children move back and forth between the classroom and the “research room” throughout the day, teachers face an accumulation of micro-interruptions.

To tackle these difficulties, researchers and educators shared some practical tips that help them work together:

  • Short assessments minimise the amount of time children are out of the classroom and vulnerable to disruption. For example, if children need to go on a break or to a school assembly, it is easier to postpone a 10-minute assessment than to interrupt a 40-minute test.
  • Advanced planning reduces logistical demands on schools. Researchers can be “up and ready” when they arrive in schools, bringing along their own computers, testing booklets, a back-up Internet connection, and a list of children’s names.
  • Transitions should be carefully planned as children typically need 5 to 10 minutes to move from their classrooms to the research room.

Researchers who work in school settings will encounter practical constraints that require flexibility and compromise. A quiet room in a school is not the same as a laboratory booth, and testing rooms will always be different across schools. Different schools also can allow visits at different times of the day, depending on their schedules and room availabilities. Researchers and educators must collaborate to find a balance between the fundamentals necessary for a valid study and the actual possibilities a school setting has to offer.

For us researchers, it is worth reminding ourselves that the field of educational neuroscience is still fairly new, and some researchers lack experience working in school settings. We need to ask for educators’ patience when they perceive research expectations as unrealistic and impractical. Educators’ experience and points of view are helpful to adapt research goals to the school setting.

Explicit communication from the research teams can clarify why some requirements (e.g., access to a quiet room or the use of a lengthy assessment) are necessary to gather data that ultimately will benefit educators. Thus, getting educators involved in the design of research studies can result in a fuller collaboration, with educators having a say in the research rather than being simply “recipients”. In addition, having a main contact in each participating school can help facilitate development of the project and synchronisation of calendars and logistics.

“To reach the community and develop mutual trust, avoid jargon and state the project’s overall purpose clearly.”

Overall, communication must be facilitated at various levels: with the headteachers, the teachers, the parents, and the children. Explanatory meetings and accessible documents can help alleviate vocabulary discrepancies. Information sheets should be tailored to each stakeholder group. To reach the community and develop mutual trust, avoid jargon and state the project’s overall purpose clearly.

Practical planning and organisation are not a sub-product of research; at the end of the day, they are key elements for projects to run smoothly. So researchers… let’s not be afraid to reach out and collaborate!

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