4 Ways To Be ‘Research-Wise’ in 2023
“A hallmark of wisdom is knowing when it’s time to abandon some of your most treasured tools — and some of the most cherished parts of your identity.” Adam Grant, Think Again, 2021.
In today’s information-overloaded world, it’s so easy for us to scan research and drag-and-drop it into our educational contexts. But, let’s be real; there are no silver bullets in education.
This is beautifully illustrated by the following story:
You may recall the ‘Marshmallow experiment’ first attempted in the 1960s… A marshmallow is placed in front of a child and the child is then told that she can have a second one if she can go the 15 minutes in which the researcher is absent without eating the first one. The experiment found that children who had the willpower to delay the gratification of eating the marshmallow were more “successful” later in life; at school and eventually at work.
This research has been recreated numerous times with similar results.
However, in 2012, the University of Rochester wanted to understand more about children’s behaviour in the marshmallow experiment. They were curious about the array of techniques children employed to help them control themselves. The experimenters also wanted to delve into the complexity of the children’s behaviours — was it only about delayed gratification? To determine this, scientists added a prelude to the main marshmallow experiment by changing an external factor; the reliability of the facilitator. To begin with, the facilitator gave the children poor-quality craft materials to work with and then promised them that they would return with better-quality materials. Half of the facilitators returned with better materials and half didn’t. When the marshmallow experiment was subsequently conducted, the children who had encountered the reliable facilitator were more likely to hold out for a second marshmallow whereas the children who had encountered the unreliable facilitator were less likely to wait for a second marshmallow.
The key factor in this experiment was trust. Did the child trust that the facilitator would return with more marshmallows or not? Was there a high probability of reward or a low probability?
Often, we take research as a rule book; the researchers did x to get y so we must do x to get y.
Conversely, we might refuse to rethink and discount research, especially if it challenges our current thinking. Instead of the copy-paste approach or the skeptical approach, let’s converse with research. All contexts are organisms that change, move and adapt, and, with respect to our contexts, we must respond reciprocally. We must also change, move and adapt.
1. Take your time, delve in slowly and synthesise the research yourself.
“…the best strategists are actually slow and unsure,” Grant, 2021.
Consider the research from an ‘intellectually humble’ position. I like to use Project Zero’s ‘Peel the Fruit’ thinking routine.
- What do you see?
- Interrogate the context of the research (look for similarities and differences to your context).
- What stands out to you about the research (the process and the results)?
2. What are your questions and puzzles about the research?
- What are your biases and how might they influence your thinking?
- What questions do you have about the research?
- Keep asking why the outcomes of the research occurred the way they did.
3. What connections are you making?
- How is the research validated or invalidated by other research you know about, especially in similar contexts?
- How is the research validated or invalidated by your own practice?
“[Be] actively open-minded. [That] requires searching for reasons why we might be wrong — not for reasons why we must be right — and revising our views based on what we learn.” Grant, 2021.
4. What might be other perspectives on this research?
- How does it align with your and your school’s values?
- How might it affect students and how might they feel about it?
- What would the parents and the wider community think about the research?
- Is there research that rebuts this research?
- What might be the researchers’ bias? Is this research affirming other research they’ve conducted?
5. What is the heart of this research?
- What did the research really uncover about teaching and learning?
- Is it timeless?
- Is it general or specific?
- How does it fit in a VUCA world?
6. What is this really all about?
- What might be the timeless principle (or set of principles) that you can consider in your context?
- Research must be interpreted contextually… studies are taken in places and times with very specific constraints that are and always will be different from our contexts.
2. Interpret the research from a contextually literate and affirming stand-point
- What elements of the research align contextually AND affirm the school’s guiding statements and strategic direction?
3. Consider running a pretotype of the applied research.
“It takes wisdom to know what to [do] in what situation, because different situations call for different types of … responses.” Enns, 2019.
A pretotype is a raw version of your strategy, used to merely validate that the new idea is worthwhile.
- Consider why any change would be necessary and impacting — what problem does a pretotype it respond to?
- What would need to be adjusted from the original research so it’s more authentic and purposeful for your context?
- Consider creating a “lite” loonshot vs franchise model (similar to that suggested in the book, Loonshots, Bahcall, 2019) to test the research. The ‘loonshot’ group tests the research and is given the space and freedom to do so in their own way. Whereas the ‘franchise’ group continues practicing with the status quo pedagogy. Both groups are equally “loved” and also equally evaluated in regard to the impact of the new pedagogy. Loonshot pedagogy is integrated into the franchise if and when the impact has proven significant.
“[The most successful US presidents] saw many of their policies as experiments to run, not points to score.” Grant, 2021.
4. Don’t drop something that has merit because it didn’t “work” immediately.
Sometimes, we’ve been through all the “research-wise” steps above and we still don’t see the expected impact. Should we drop it? Perhaps not. Sometimes a small tweak might be all the change that’s needed to have a big impact. If you have an inkling that the change is indeed worthwhile, get some feedback from the participants, make the necessary adjustments, and give it another go. One way to do this is through a type of Systems Thinking named ‘Actor Mapping’. Check out one way to run the process here.
By following these four steps, educators and educational leaders can become more research-wise in 2023 and beyond. Remember to take the time to carefully read and synthesize research, consider it in an intellectually humble way, interpret it contextually and affirmatively, and think critically about how to apply it to different contexts. We should also consider running pretotypes of the research to see if it is successful in their context, before fully implementing it. By doing this, educational leaders can ensure that they are making the most of research to benefit their contexts.