Putting the R&D Back in Education

Without question, educators and policymakers alike are using the term “innovation” more today than they ever have.  If we look at the dictionary definition of the word, we are asking for “something new or different introduced.”  If we look at programs such as the Investing in Innovation, or i3, program, we are expecting “something new or different” that is proven effective, offering some sort of research base behind it, some sort of data to support it.

Throughout such discussions, conversations on education innovation are likely to focus on the use of education technology in the classroom.  It is an obvious avenue to pursue.  Most of us equate technology with innovation. From flat-screen TVs to iPhones to interactive whiteboards to search engines like Google, we see technology as innovation.  And for educators, moving that technology into the classroom is a likely extension of the innovation debate.
Over at ISTE Connects (www.isteconnects.org), the good folks at the International Society for Technology in Education are rolling out their Top Ten in ’10, a list of the most pressing education technology issues facing U.S. classrooms today.  In one of the most recent postings, they raise the issue of education R&D.  In calling for increased investment in ongoing research and development, ISTE notes that “solid investment in education R&D, particularly if focused on innovation in teaching and learning, ensures that we remain a global leader.”
Loyal readers of Eduflack know that this issue of education R&D has long been near and dear to my flickerin’ little heart.  When you compare education to other industries, particularly healthcare, our investment in research and development is but a microfraction.  We look to teachers and schools to innovate, but we don’t necessarily have the resources to do the all-out research to determine what innovations are the most effective, with what audiences do they work, and what are the most effective uses.  And unlike healthcare, we surely don’t have researchers out there developing instructional interventions for one issue, only to find that it works for something completely different.  So our R&D process becomes more like faith healing than Mayo Clinic.
Groups like the Knowledge Alliance (formerly NEKIA) have long fought to increase federal spending on education R&D.  And since the establishment of the Institute of Education Sciences six-plus years ago, we’ve seen greater attention focused on the research side of the R&D house.  In the last decade, we’ve made incredible progress in increasing the visibility of and the need for education R&D.  But we still have miles and miles to go before we can sleep.
Over the years, Eduflack has seen some truly incredible education R&D work, including the effective use of MRI scans to track a student’s literacy abilities.  For those who say that education is more art than science, all you need to do is check out an MRI as part of reading skills acquisition.  You can actually see brain activity change as students learn and gain proficiency.  It is absolutely incredible.
I recognize that reading instruction may be a little passé these days, so let’s look at topics such as teacher quality.  We have a wealth of research on the necessary components for effective teacher education programs.  It doesn’t matter if they are traditional or alternative routes, we know the skills, knowledge, and support that aspiring teachers need to be effective in the classroom.  So how do we take that research, continue to extend it, and apply it to current efforts to boost teacher quality and incentivize good teaching?  How do we ensure that research, a familiar topic in education, is actually connected with development, be it policy or instruction?
And equally important, how do we use the R&D process to ensure that those latest and greatest technologies are being effectively used in the classroom?  As I wrote earlier this week, EdWeek’s Kathleen Kennedy Manzo had an interesting piece on the use of interactive whiteboards in the classroom, and whether they actually improve learning.  So what does it take to move the research on how such technologies can improve both teaching and learning into the hands of those teachers and educators who receive the technology?  How do we use the R&D process to ensure that ed tech comes with the “manuals” necessary so that the end users can be most effective?
As part of its Top 10, ISTE (a group Eduflack has been fortunate to work with) is soliciting feedback from its members and other interested parties on how closely the ISTE list crosswalks with the concerns and needs of the field.  R&D has always been a tough sell to education practitioners.  They can see it as taking funds away from instruction or turning their classrooms into Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory.  But at a time when we are asking more and more of our schools, when resources are at a premium, when it is demanded we innovate, and when the teaching and learning opportunities offered by new technologies have never been greater, education R&D has quickly become a non-negotiable.  

95 thoughts on “Putting the R&D Back in Education

  1. Patrick, as usual you hit the nail on the head. Thanks for the mention of MRI. I am aware of the MRI scans while at UT Med School with Jack Fletcher. Since retiring, I am working on ensuring that whiteboard teachers have access to appropriate activities based on the NELP and NRC reports released in 2009 for early childhood. You might be interested to check it out. Teachers love it because everything is there for them. I saw the whiteboard utilized as detailed in the blog and Manzo’sarticle and it is more uneven than even believe me. It drove me crazy! I decided to be innovative and work with Hatch early childhood and so far the response has been overwhelming positive. Keep up the fabulous work. Regards

  2. Really liked this story. If you think about it, we’re still teaching our kids like we were 200 hundred years ago. Think of all that innovation in technology and society since then. I read somewhere that one of Obama wants to apply venture capital techniques to education. So that’s a good sign.

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