Moving teaching out of the 1890s

Article by: Anita Acai

Educational researchers have been conducting studies on human learning and memory for over a century. Yet, our teaching practices have not changed very much in that time. Having to memorize lines from Shakespeare in my high school English classes was likely as painful for me as it was for students back in 1890, the same year that researchers first began questioning memorization as a pedagogical tool. Despite what are now decades of evidence showing that memorization is of little benefit to future learning, this practice–like many others–is still widely used today, nearly 125 years later.


Although educational researchers have generated a lot of evidence about learning over the years, some of which is incredibly well-established, this evidence is usually only targeted to one group: other educational researchers. End-users of the information–teachers and educators–are unlikely to seek out, or even have access to, the latest educational research. Even if they do, much of it is written using terminology that is difficult to understand or in ways that do not clearly describe how the research findings can be practically applied in the classroom.

Some educators may be reluctant to rely upon scientific evidence to guide educational practice. For example, this article in the Chicago Sun-Times argues that, “our national despair over the performance of our schools has fueled an industry of tips and techniques that are being mechanically applied to teaching to produce predictable results. This approach, largely borrowed from corporate and industrial practices, attempts to replace the art of teaching with a science of instruction.” Although there may be some truth to this statement, the art and the science of teaching should not be seen as two mutually exclusive domains. It is possible to maintain the art and the creativity that makes teaching such a rewarding practice while still relying on well-established scientific information to guide practices. In fact, doing so is important if we want to maximize our students’ learning and ensure that we aren’t wasting our resources on learning tools that have no proven educational benefit.

In disciplines like medicine, entire programs of research are devoted to knowledge translation–that is, elucidating ways to move research into practice and making research knowledge more accessible to both those who will use it, and the public. For example, in 2011, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) reported an annual budget of over $30 million for knowledge translation grants and funding opportunities. Unfortunately, no such parallel exists in education. David Daniel, a researcher who has been praised for his translation efforts in education, writes that while a considerable amount of methodologically-sound research has come from cognitive psychology and related fields, there has been limited testing of some of these lab-based findings still in classroom settings. On the other hand, research that studies learning in a full pedagogical context (often known as the scholarship of teaching and learning approach) is generally practical and ecologically valid, but tends to be very context-specific and often lacks an empirical framework to guide the ongoing development and extension of findings. One of the keys to improving knowledge translation in education, then, is bridging the gap between these two “tribes,” as Daniel refers to them.

“Although bridging the gap is easier said than done, efforts can and should be made to make educational research available and applicable.

For educational researchers, there are ways of disseminating knowledge that are more accessible, easier to understand, and have wider reach than traditional scholarly publications. Potential avenues might be interviews, newspaper articles, and television/radio programs, which traditionally have rarely featured topics pertaining to educational research. However, a promising trend is that certain scholarly publications have started increasing the accessibility of research by becoming open-source or by encouraging researchers to write in ways that highlight how their work can be applied in a practical sense. For example, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology offers authors the chance to write teacher-ready research reviews, which are “brief review[s] of classic or contemporary research findings which have direct implications for teacher pedagogy and student learning, providing a translational platform from laboratory to classroom.”

It is also important for both educators and researchers to engage in discussions surrounding knowledge translation. Without a continued dialogue, it will not be possible for researchers to understand what educators need to be able to apply their findings and for educators to have any faith in using research knowledge in crafting their teaching practices. Such dialogues can take place in a variety of contexts, including conferences. As an example, this year’s Symposium on Education and Cognition, hosted by McMaster University, will feature a conference workshop devoted entirely to the subject of knowledge translation in education.

Now that we have reached a point in educational research where evidence is abundant, it is time to start shifting our focus towards sharing and implementing this research knowledge. Rather than remaining rooted in the pedagogical past, using evidence to guide instructional practices will help post-secondary institutions adapt to the teaching and learning needs of students in the 21st century.

Anita obtained her Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry from the University of Guelph, where she was a President’s Scholar, 3M National Student Fellow, and Millennium Award Laureate.