Using Research as Part of Teaching

While here in Australia, I've been reading Jack Schneider's From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education. It's the type of book that leaves you typing into your iPhone while in bed, frantic to jot down a note or two lest you forget.

As the title suggests, Schneider's main purpose is to show how some research has made its way into classrooms. At the outset, however, Schneider asks why the vast majority of educational research rarely makes its way into teaching practice. One of his explanations is the role of a teacher in American history and the social, religious, and educational traditions we imported from Europe; a teacher was expected to deliver content, not consume it. The legacies of these traditions are long-lasting. Teachers, Schneider writes, are not expected to "manage their own professional growth, develop new practices, or tap scholarship for their own use."

I've been struck by the emphasis that Australian teacher education programs place on reading and using research. In most assignments, the pre-service teachers must cite research to support their claims. Course syllabai give guidelines about how to use research in their writing. I've seen this in syllabai intended for masters students and undergrads, and in a more and less selective university. Most of the research is intended to come from students' course readings, but some find additional scholarship to support their points of view.

Academic writing requires the use of research to build an argument. But I have rarely seen such attention to use of research in teacher education assignments in the U.S.

I unearthed some essays I wrote from my own teacher education program and found not one citation among the five essays I re-read. At Michigan, we very infrequently seem to ask pre-service teachers to base their writing on research. In one class I helped teach, students were asked to cite research but rarely did. In another class, we hardly used the readings at all; in no assignment did a student formally cite a reading.

The U.S. programs I've been a part of have been uniquely focused on developing teachers' practice. I'm convinced about the importance of this work; students from historically marginalized communities are more likely to have beginning teachers, and beginning teachers need practice and feedback on listening to and probing student thinking, facilitating discussions, implementing norms and routines, and building relationships. Yet being here has made me wonder whether using research should become part of this list -- part of what it means to teach.

Australian teacher educators I've talked to seem to think so. One teacher educator repeatedly emphasized that she was trying to create "research-based teachers" who study their teaching and use research to answer questions raised by their practice.

I also wonder if the comparative absence of research in teacher education courses is a product of American anti-intellectualism. Recently, I've become hyper-aware of our anti-intellectual tendencies; I'm asked whether Donald Trump has a chance at being president by nearly everyone I meet.

I asked some of the pre-service teachers about all of the research they were being asked to use. They were of mixed minds about it. One described being overwhelmed by the demands of the essays in the program. Another noted that the intellectual rigor of the assignments was "quite intense"; though that was good, she said, she wondered how it would translate to the classroom.

Much of educational scholarship is dense and targeted at researchers. But teacher-friendly texts are numerous, and teachers are learners capable of reading outside work; many already do, while others can be supported in doing so. In his conclusion, Schneider recommends not only that research become more accessible, but also that teachers become involved in vetting research.

I haven't figured out what I believe about learning to use research while learning to teach. I do know that in this regard, the differences between U.S. and Australian programs I've been a part of are stark.