The Wisdom of Practice: Using Evidence in the Classroom

True or False: Most teachers don’t use evidence in the classroom. I recently spoke with Bill Penuel at University of Colorado Boulder about the work he and some colleagues are doing at the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice. They are studying how school district leaders and principals use research in practice. Bill argued that “evidence-based policies” have largely failed and that we need a new paradigm to guide our thinking about the role of research in improving schools. The Center has a number of projects that are focused on “collaborative design” to reimagine the way in which researchers and educators work together. We have also found in our work that “collaborative design” is a practice that works with teachers as evidenced by the scale and spread of the Literacy and Math Design Collaborative tools. Our conversation made me think about what evidence teachers actually use in the classroom, how they interpret the research that is out there and how they apply it, take for instance studies like our own Measures of Effective Teaching. What are teachers actually doing differently based on that research? Where do they even hear about the research and what research do they rely on to make changes in their classrooms? Some researchers claim that teachers don’t really use evidence to make judgments. While others claim that teachers actually use evidence all the time; they are making evidence-based decisions much faster than most of us given the nature of their work with kids and how quickly they must respond to different situations in the classroom. The evidence they are using though isn’t necessarily the same as that produced by researchers—it’s what I often refer to as the “wisdom of practice.” How might we find the right balance between “research” and the “wisdom of practice?” I think that is what Bill Penuel’s group is trying to find out with educators. Until they do, I would argue that there is some decent evidence most teachers know what they are doing. Grades (a teacher’s judgment about what our kids know and don’t know) are still a better predictor of college readiness than the SAT. Now that the College Board has rolled out a redesigned SAT that might change, but until it changes, I’ll be on teachers using the “wisdom of practice” and hope that we can find better ways to engage them in research they can actually use.