ResearchEd: Getting Beyond Appearances

Not from ResearchEd.

The Beuchet Chair shown at the right is a fun visual illusion—a trick involving distance and perspective—and illusions like it are solid, predictable go-tos for anyone trying to make the case for the importance of learning about science and research at events like ResearchEd.

The idea is to show you how appearances can be deceiving, how your own cognitive apparatus is not designed to present the world to you perfectly as it is, and that, most importantly, experiences alone, whether isolated or combined, do not reliably illuminate the hidden patterns and regularities which govern our lives and the natural world.

Once this doubt is sown, what we hope happens next is that you will re-evaluate your beliefs about the world as you continue to move through your life, strengthening some of them with better explanations and justifications, loosening the threads of others, and considering new beliefs and motives, too.

And central to this ongoing project for those of us both inside and outside of science are, I think, two tendencies, represented at some of the sessions I attended at the ResearchEd Washington event last week:

  1. The tendency to distrust the superficial, shallow, easy, or popular—those things that are, like the illusion above, true only from a limited perspective. It is the tendency to be dissatisfied with everyday explanations, short-term thinking, folk wisdom, and faith-based certainty.
  2. The tendency to seek out deep explanations rather than ephemeral ones—a preference for connected, theoretical (though still fallible), conceptual knowledge, which “constitutes the means society uses to transcend the limits of individual experience to see beyond appearances to the nature of relations in the natural and social world.”

Robert Pondiscio: Why Knowledge Matters

Robert Pondiscio’s session was as pure a distillation of this latter tendency as you’ll find. Robert memorably contrasted two reactions to President Obama’s inauguration: one which expressed an elation that the United States now had a president that looked like many underrepresented students, and one which expressed a deep connection to the nearly 50 years of American history that came full circle on January 20, 2009—a history that could not be accessed except by the knowledgeable.

He cautioned that the two reactions are not mutually exclusive, while still driving home the importance of conceptual knowledge and the school’s vital role in providing students access to it.

Knowing stuff is pretty exciting!

I was reminded, again, of scenes we often see when something of astronomical importance has just happened—that roomful of jubilant scientists at, say, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Sure, the images of, say, the Mars Rover’s safe landing come along eventually. But pictures are not what gets these folks excited. It’s data. Data that says the Rover has entered orbit, has deployed the parachute, has fired its rockets. What causes all the excitement is, quite literally, knowledge.

The Learning Scientists: Teaching the Science of Learning

The Learning Scientists continued to reinforce the power of investigating the deep and often hidden patterns and regularities involved in education as they presented evidence for the benefits of spaced practice and retrieval practice on student learning.

Many lifetimes lived out in close proximity to children and students have failed to systematically reveal these robust effects on learning. Yet, stand back, apply a little (1) and (2) from above, and you get results that help overturn the destructive notion that the brain is like a tape recorder. While it would be a mistake to assume that a result is true just because it’s counterintuitive, results around spacing and retrieval often are, even to the participants in the study.

Dylan Wiliam, Ben Riley

What I took away from Dylan’s keynote and Ben’s presentation (and from the Learning Scientists’ session)—other than what they were about (info on Ben’s session here)—is that while I am attracted to those ideas in education that feature a suspicion of everyday thinking and a search for deeper regularities, it is absolutely vital that we have people in our community who can bring this search for general meaning to our everyday thinking (and not the other way around! which is essentially searching for empirical justification for low-level theorizing; also called just-so stories)—people who understand the realities of the classroom, where much of what is discovered in education science must play out. People who are much more diplomatic than I, but with whom I could easily find common cause.

Because we all have a desire to see learning science and other education research have a tangible, practical, positive effect on students’ (and teachers’) lives. But we can’t pull it off alone. We have such a great start in connecting research with practice in groups like ResearchEd!

Published by

Josh Fisher

Instructional designer and editor for K-12 mathematics. My research interests center mostly around mathematics education.

Leave a Reply