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Straight Up Conversation: US Organizer Eric Kalenze Explains researchED

Eric Kalenze is a Minnesota-based author and education advocate who's involved in organizing researchED, the professional-development organization that uses crowdsourcing to build educators' research chops. In the UK, where it was first launched a little less than five years ago, researchED has experienced rapid growth. Today, the researchED model has been replicated in the US, several European countries, and Australia. This fall, researchED will hold its third annual US conference on October 7 in Brooklyn, New York (at Brooklyn's Achievement First/Uncommon Schools High School). See here for program and ticket info, and for more on researchED, visit their website, here.

Rick Hess: So, what exactly is researchED?

Eric Kalenze: It's a project that exists to build the research-literacy of educators. At a time when pretty much all initiatives come with big "Research-Based, We Promise!" stickers on them, researchED wants to help make choices rationally and critically by relying on evidence, not merely based on gut feelings or what some witty TED-Talker once said. Unlike the think-tank model, where content is produced through a central channel, researchED provides a network hub. The conferences connect individuals who collaborate, engage in further study, try things in practice, and ultimately produce content that is usually published on independent blogs. It's a cost-effective way for people working in education to access high-quality practical learning. I guess I'd say that researchED is a "grassroots education-improvement movement"—it provides initial impetus and common connection points, but the individuals involved are the ones making it work.

RH: How did researchED get started?

EK: It was started in the UK, in 2013, by a group of frustrated teachers conversing over Twitter. The members of this group were dissatisfied with the faddish, unproven methods they kept encountering in their schools, at education conferences, in the education media, and so on. Tom Bennett—who eventually became researchED's founder and director—suggested that maybe they should stop complaining to each other and build their own conference. The idea achieved liftoff thanks to social media. Prominent speakers offered to appear without fees, teachers from all over offered to help with venues and logistics, a registration system was set up, and so forth. Over 500 folks ultimately showed up to plug into the new learning network. When that initial group loved it—and live-tweeted and blogged about it from home and got the word out—demand just grew and grew.

RH: How did you first get involved?

EK: I attended the first US-side researchED in May 2015, in New York City at the Bronx's Riverdale Country School, to see what it was all about. I met Tom Bennett there. He knew me from Twitter and had read a positive review of my Education is Upside-Down by a member of the researchED network, and he wound up inviting me to submit a proposal for the 2015 researchED National Conference in London. Things took off a bit for me from there within researchED, as my book caught a bit of a wave in Britain and I was invited to speak at more UK conferences. I found myself wishing more US ed professionals could take part in something so inspiringly teacher-driven and evidence-committed. I approached Tom about letting me do some US organizing, and we set to work on what became the 2016 conference in Washington, DC.

RH: In your 2014 book, Education is Upside-Down, you argue that instruction is hobbled by a faddish enthusiasm for misguided learning strategies. I assume you think researchED can help combat that?

EK: I do, though I'm more realistic than to believe it's going to be the force that will set everyone straight. I think, though, that researchED can grow the number of evidence-critical eyes in schools and districts. Let's face it: "The Thing That's Going To Fix Everything" gets rolled out pretty frequently in US education. And each time it does, it burns through immense amounts of time, money, and angst before not yielding much positive change and getting tabled for the next Thing That's Going to Fix Everything. Go back to the beginning of many of those initiatives, whether it's 1:1 iPads or teacher evaluation systems or Balanced Literacy or whatever else, and you'll often find that they weren't based on enough evidence to even take seriously, much less incur all the costs they ultimately did. If our evidence-demanding "conscience" was even a little stronger, with more voices in the room asking, "How do we know?" "Can you show me where it's fixed everything before?" "Can we trust this research or not?" and pushing back when necessary with what the research actually says, I think we'd all do quite a lot better.

RH: There are a raft of research and practitioner conferences for education—in your eyes, why is this one necessary or useful? How is it similar to or different from other such gatherings?

EK: The big distinguishing factors are researchED's commitment to evidence-supported practices and its appeal to everyday practitioners. Ask the next hundred teachers you see, for instance, how many of them plan to go to the next American Education Research Association event or what they thought of some papers presented at the last AERA, and, well, I'd be surprised if even ten of those hundred would have much to say. I'd bet real money, in fact, that a majority wouldn't even know what the acronym 'AERA' even stands for. Where self-described evidence-based conferences like AERA typically attract lots of education researchers and policy wonks, researchED seeks to reach the classroom practitioner. We'd like to see teachers assume leadership and expert-ship roles within the network, which is precisely how it's working in the UK. Attend conferences there, and you'll notice right away that much of the program is occupied by research-passionate and -literate teachers sharing stories of how they are translating research into evidence-supported practices.

RH: Can you give us some sense of what will be presented and how the conference actually operates?

EK: A fundamental piece of researchED is its fast pace, which means short periods of around forty minutes. Speakers' talks are intense bursts of learning, thinking, and interacting, more to get one's wheels turning, and they happen in quick succession. Attendees should expect seven to eight periods, each with four to five speaker choices available. We also like to mix in some full-group attractions, usually with a particularly noteworthy speaker: in 2016, it was assessment guru Dylan Wiliam; in 2015, it was cognitive scientist Dan Willingham. At the October conference, we'll be offering two showcase panels. One is on evidence's impact on policy, practice, and preparation. That will feature Derrell Bradford, Robert Pondiscio, Kate Walsh, and David Steiner. We'll have a second on the education media's role in covering evidence-supported practices. That will include Matt Barnum, Emily Richmond, Richard Phelps, and Ben Riley.

RH: Who is most likely to benefit from attending?

EK: We like to think that anyone who cares about evidence-supported education improvement will find something of value. I will note that the 2017 event is much more focused on classroom practices than 2016's was. More school leaders, teachers, and instructional specialists are presenting this time, as I wanted more people speaking directly to issues of practice. In other words: teams of teachers and school leaders are most welcome—researchED exists for them first.

RH: What do you see as the hallmarks of good, instructionally relevant research?

EK: Great question. All kinds of research are being produced that could count as "instructionally relevant," after all, from studies of systems-level factors like curriculum quality and school operations to those focused on what's happening in learners' heads, to those examining classroom-level techniques. No matter which piece a particular researcher focuses upon, though, it's important to pay attention to matters of sample size and context and actual student impacts—as opposed to, say, teachers' qualitatively gathered impressions. On balance, education researchers today do a pretty thorough job of detailing these factors in their work, but the enterprise—and this includes education media—tends to do a fairly lousy job paying proper attention to them.

The recent RAND report on personalized learning is instructive. While its ink was still drying, several education media outlets and enthusiastic funders began shouting from rooftops about the substantial and diverse sample's achievement gains—which, by the way, were actually quite modest. The report itself, though, actually seemed to indicate that personalized-learning operations were only as effective as a number of contextual factors allowed them to be. Some of the report's authors even reiterated as much publicly in places like Education Week. So, were gains a result of personalized learning, or of well-run schools that happen to use personalized learning? There's a big difference, and the report said so; but what tended to get broadcast is that personalized learning was the real game-changer.

RH: So, what kinds of researchers will an attendee find at researchED?

EK: In October, we'll have people who study systems, like Morgan Polikoff, Karin Chenoweth, Lucy Crehan, and David Steiner; people who study learning processes, like Mark Seidenberg, Katharine Beals, Yana Weinstein, Megan Sumeracki, and Efrat Furst; and those who study classroom practice, like Christopher Weiss, John Mighton, and Pedro de Bruyckere.

RH: If someone can't make it out to researchED, are there other ways to engage in the convening or plug into that community?

EK: Though researchED has done some live-streaming, we still might be an event or two out from making that happen in the US. For now, folks can follow along on Twitter, using the #rEDNY17 hashtag, as live-tweeting insights and takeaways is something of a researchED custom. For those interested in learning more, start with our event site. Speakers and their Twitter handles are all listed there, so anyone can follow away and start learning.

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