Why don’t teachers and educational leaders trust educational research?  I’ve been asking this question around the world recently, and the most frequent response I hear is, “It’s just not relevant to me.”  The research, no matter how elegantly designed and eloquently presented, has little relevance if the sample of students is from a suburban area of North America and it is presented to urban or rural educators in Central Asia.  Differences in language, cultural norms, governing board requirements, and  a host of other unique characteristics can cause educators and school leaders to dismiss educational research, even when it might have some potential to address the greatest challenges of schools in any location in the world.  Here are five ways that I have found that schools can help to gain more value from international research while still insisting on relevance and applicability to their local environment.

  • Start with Success, Not Failure

            One reason that outside research is resisted by teachers and school leaders is the operating presumption that the researcher is there to help “fix” schools that are broken.  But just a bit of inquiry will always reveal elements of success by students, teachers, and leaders.  A cardinal principle of leadership is that it is faster and more effective to build on strengths than to focus only on weaknesses.  Unfortunately, a great deal of education reform is devoted to identifying weaknesses and creating an environment in which teachers and students feel threatened – never an effective learning environment.

  • The “Science Fair”

            When teachers ask, “How do I know if these new ideas will work with our student in our schools?” the honest answer is, “We don’t know yet.”  But we need not be left in a state of perpetual uncertainty.  The best practice is a Science Fair, similar to what students around the world do every year.  These are simple three-panel display boards in which students typically present a hypothesis, conduct an experiment, and then show their conclusions.  In the context of education, the Science Fair display also has three panels, but the labels for each panel are slightly different.  The left-hand panel is the Challenge, the middle panel is the Intervention, and the right-hand panel is labeled Results.  For example, one challenge that I saw recently was the need to improve student writing.  The intervention (middle panel) was a simplified writing scoring rubric with collaborative scoring by teachers.  The right-hand panel displayed results in the form of significantly improved student writing.  Another example was excessive failures in secondary school math classes.  The intervention was a change from having most practice done at home to practice done during class, where feedback and immediate correction was possible.  The third panel results were striking – more than a 50% reduction in math failure rates.  I have seen similar displays that showed local successes in improving attendance, behavior, reading, and many other areas of student performance.  While the initial ideas for these interventions came from international research, it was the local application and the Science Fair displays that persuaded local teachers and administrators to use it.

  • Personal Relationships for Professional Learning

            Technology is a marvel, and even the most remote schools can be reached through video conferences, social media, and other mechanisms.  However, my five million miles of travel to schools around the world have convinced me that there is no substitute for face-to-face relationships, particularly when we are building trust.  Therefore, before buying the promise that “we don’t need visits – we can do everything remotely,” I challenge leaders to insist on beginning any relationship with face-to-face meetings.  This shows the commitment of the providers of professional learning to understand the local environment and allows for immediate adaptations that are almost always necessary when implementing international teaching and leadership practices.

  • Culture is an Asset, Not a Barrier

            The list of offenses causes by well-intentioned advisors who do not take the time to understand cultural imperatives is legion.  They schedule meetings on Friday in a nation where Islamic faculty and students would find that offensive.  They use western-themed scenarios and stories rather than placing their examples in an appropriate cultural context.  They use western sports analogies, Hollywood movies, or North American political comments to make a point that so offends their audience that the essential learning never takes place.  But a small investment in understanding local cultural references and context can pay enormous dividends.  For example, just taking the time to ask about the game of Cricket (and no, it’s not just a form of baseball) can engage audiences around the globe where Cricket is a passion.  Having students debate the relative merits of the delicacies of different regional cooking can bring out engagement and passion when argumentative reasoning, however necessary, may feel awkward.  Literary references to widely known folk heroes can introduce a reflection on characters, plots, and settings in a way that modern novels fail to do

  • Take a Systems Approach

            The essence of systems theory is the understanding that changes in one part of the system influence every other part of the system.  This is why simple “cause-effect” models in education never work.  The reformer assumes that if there is a problem – such as math performance – then a single change – perhaps curriculum or instructional techniques – will change that.  But every reform effort requires consideration of every element of the system – instruction, assessment, student engagement, family support, and a variety of other system components.  This is the flaw in much of the efforts to train teachers and administrators.  If we do not engage every element of the system, including students, governing body members, community opinion leaders, parents, technology resources, and others, then it is as if we are attempting to win the Cricket game by painting the bat a different color.

While the differences among educational systems around the world are clear, they do have one thing in common, and that is a very high degree of frustration with vendors, researchers, and professional developers who fail to heed these ideas.  We must begin with a focus on success, use a Science Fair approach to document and replicate effective practices, establish personal and trusting relationship through face to face communication, employ culture as an asset to professional learning, and apply a systems approach to every reform effort.

About the Author:

Dr. Douglas Reeves

Dr. Douglas Reeves

Dr. Douglas Reeves is the author of more than 30 books and 100 articles about education, leadership, and student achievement.  Twice named to the Harvard University Distinguished Authors Series, Doug received the Contribution to the field Award from the National Staff Development council and was named the Brock International Laureate for his contributions to education.  His research and videos are available as free downloads at CreativeLeadership.net.  Doug Tweets @DouglasReeves and his e-mail is Dreeves@ChangeLeaders.com.  He has traveled to every continent and lives in Boston in the US.

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