As an educator, have you ever felt overwhelmed by the plethora of educational resources and techniques available – on top of and including state and national standards? If so, this news will either make you cry or jump for joy. Perhaps both. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon and Temple University have found that there are “more than 205 trillion instructional options available” for educators to choose from. Their study, which analyzed the research informing education practices, was published in the November issue of Science.

205 trillion options. No wonder you feel overwhelmed. Picking the “right one” would be like winning the lottery – and every teacher knows there is no single “right option” for all students. Teaching is a challenging job and improving education for a nation is as complicated as figuring out how to teach 59 million individual students. Even the researchers behind the study acknowledge that it would be impossible to test more than 205 trillion instructional options to find out which worked best for which students under which conditions.

Teachers carry out instructional experiments on a huge scale throughout the school year. Unforuntately, as the study points out, “[b]ecause collecting data on such activities is expensive, variations in instructional techniques are rarely tracked and associated with student outcomes.” If teachers, schools, researchers and policy-makers worked together, it would be like a nation getting together to sort through lottery tickets and find the winning ones.

The study offers five suggestions for educational research, including focusing on how different instructional forms and techniques meet different needs – such as how best to memorize facts versus how best to learn general skills – and taking advantage of educational technology to help generate data for massive educational studies. To crunch all this data and pull meaningful practices from it, build a national education data infrastructure and more permanent school-research partnerships.

So what does this mean for teachers? The study’s lead author Ken Koedinger echoed what many veteran teachers already know: be wary of educational fads. “Teachers should probe to find out whether or not there are experimental results that support a product,” he said, adding that teachers should compare their students and unique situations to the conditions of the study – a product that improved reading comprehension in small classes of native English-speakers, for example, obviously might not perform as well for large classes of ESL students. “I would like to see more teachers insisting on piloting new products in a scientific way before a full adoption,” Koedinger said in an email. “That means more than just trying a product out with a few classes before adopting them for all.  It means comparing student outcomes in classes using the product with student outcomes in classes using the existing approach.  These studies should use scientific methods, like random assignment of the use of the product to classes or students. In other words, teachers and school administrators could and should be running scientific experiments themselves to figure out what best achieves student learning outcomes.”

Koedinger would like to see such rigorous experimentation become routine, with help from educational researchers and support from school administrators and boards. “If we worked together,” he says, “we could could all be benefiting from the kind of experimentation that is happening out there.”

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