“Research Based” Rhetoric and “Research Based” Reality
Once, my mentor teacher told me about the “10:2 theory.” It states that for every ten minutes of meaningful learning a child does, she should have 2 minutes of a “brain break.” I was open minded, but she could see a bit of skepticism in my face, so she assured me that it was a “research based” practice. I asked her if she had any literature on the theory, and she showed me a book article that also assured readers that “10:2” was “research based.”
Later that night, I decided to do a bit of internet research just to see if I could find any studies that had validated the “research based” 10:2 idea. What I found was that a certain article (telling us the practice was “research based”) cited another article (which told us that same) which cited another, which cited another. Each article cited the other as proof of the 10:2 theory, but none actually had any proof of the 10:2 theory.
My point: “research based” is practically an empty term in the field of education. Obviously, teachers are in no position to find out what research actually says, and (as the example should illustrate) most of those who tell us what the “best practices” are seem also to be quite gullible when it comes to figuring out what the research says. (I think my mentor teacher, a very smart woman, just heard enough people say that 10:2 was research based that she had no reason to check for herself, and they probably heard it from their friends, and so on.)
Here is another example of such an unfortunate trend from psychologist Daniel Willingham’s review of Mel Levine’s wildly popular (in education circles) book One Mind at a Time:
How did Levine come to his particular theory of the mind?
Since A Mind at a Time contains few references to the scientific literature, I telephoned All Kinds of Minds and asked the associate director of research if there was a more research-oriented publication that I might read. She directed me to the web site of Schools Attuned, the teacher training program Levine established to promote his prescriptions for handling learning-disabled students, which lists the “research base” for the program. This research base consists of eight works, all by Levine and coauthors, none of which appeared in a peer-reviewed journal.
A review of these works reveals that they do not marshal research evidence to support their conclusions. Instead, they present the same ideas contained in A Mind at a Time, citing a few references that support well-accepted ideas—for example, that attention capacity is limited—but none to shore up Levine’s particular views.
So what is a good teacher to do? Obviously we all want to do what works, and following the “research based” findings seems the best way to do that. But, as we can see, we can’t always trust what is recommended to us as “research based.” My advice, for what it’s worth? Try any suggestion that sounds good to you, and do your own research in the classroom. Use what works there and don’t listen to what the experts say…or what people say the experts say…or what people say that people say the experts say.