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Connecting the Dots between Education Research and Classroom Teachers

Many thanks to Dr. Tyler Thigpen (@tylerthigpenfor this guest post. Tyler is a Partner at Transcend--a national nonprofit accelerating innovation in the core design of school--and Co-founder of The Forest School in south metro Atlanta. He earned his doctorate of education leadership from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

Educators, try your hands at solving for x.

Mrs. Greenfield has 25 students in her freshman Algebra class. Four of them are English-language learners. One has dyslexia. Fifteen students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and many do not have Internet access at home. Ten report that math is not their favorite subject, and in fact find it boring. How many resources (x) will Mrs. Greenfield need to consult to create a lesson plan to ensure each student learns polynomial factorization?

Answer key: x = likely a few dozen online teaching practice resources based on 100 different web searches because Mrs. Greenfield loves her students and wants each one to learn algebraic equations. Except for these additional challenges: the amount of time she has to customize her lesson plans is limited, and the information she gathers may do more harm than good.

Mrs. Greenfield desperately needs to get her hands on good information from a single, trusted source that will show her the best teaching strategies for complex classroom settings. But where? Currently, there are more than a thousand different online resources offering research and development data for teachers. Though a handful of organizations have tried to consolidate the numerous findings of studies, trends, and research available in the field of education that would help Mrs. Greenfield and others succeed in complex learning environments, they lack a focused, streamlined approach.

On the other hand, the field of medicine may point to a useful model. On a recent visit to my doctor, I asked a question he could not answer off the top of his head. He consulted a subscription website called UpToDate®.

UpToDate is an evidence-based, physician-authored clinical decision support resource that doctors use to make "point-of-care decisions" -- i.e., when a clinician needs to care for a patient in real time. Through this online resource, a clinician will find evidence-based, peer-reviewed, user-tested recommendations for the latest and best treatment options they can use with their patients.

Each UpToDate post summarizes all medical knowledge known to date on a topic, and each post is regularly revised by a team of professional clinicians and researchers. The content is professionally verified for accuracy, and clinicians can provide feedback on their experiences. Consider this site to be like a professional-level product review for clinical practices. It is the latest and best clinical research - literally, up to date.

What makes UpToDate unique is the dynamic of having (1) relevant, comprehensive, up-to-date medical research; (2) recommended applications of that research; and (3) the clinician and the patient present in the same conversation. In other words, UpToDate connects the dots between good research and real-life applications.

Does it work? Multiple studies point in the direction of "yes." Patients of physicians using UpToDate experience shortened hospital stays, fewer deaths, and better quality healthcare performance than in settings where doctors do not use UpToDate. At 23 million topic views per month, UpToDate unquestionably leads the field of medicine in research application and point-of-care decision-making.

As the field of education is increasingly pointing toward embracing the diversity of learning abilities and styles, and even building self-directed learning environments in which teachers are more likely to have their own "point-of-care decision" moments, the time for an UpToDate-style web resource for educators has arrived. While education is not perfectly analogous to medicine, there are parallels among the differences between theory and practice in the realm of research and development--namely, getting professionals to use the most current knowledge available and to engage in the discussions that improve best practices.

Jal Mehta of the Harvard Graduate School of Education describes four functions that an UpToDate-style web resource for educators could serve:

  1. Producing knowledge. Presently, researchers write mainly for other researchers, and teachers with knowledge have few incentives as well as little support to share it. There is a great need to produce actionable, practical knowledge about teaching.
  2. Vetting knowledge. The education field lacks mechanisms to evaluate whether knowledge is of any quality or of any use to teachers.
  3. Disseminating knowledge. There are too few intermediaries that share knowledge with teachers in a user-friendly or accessible format.
  4. Using, testing, and refining knowledge. Educational research organizations need to stay in close touch with teachers and school leaders to ensure that what knowledge is being offered is actually useful.

If there were an online education resource similar to UpToDate, Mrs. Greenfield could look up a topic--e.g., teaching students with dyslexia in traditional classroom settings--and find a compilation of research, case studies, experiences, and innovative teaching methods that could make a world of difference for a child for whom learning is a challenge. As a result of better understanding and different teaching techniques, that child may find a passion for mathematics that could lead to solving for even more than x. He could move on to finding y.

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