This past April, I had the exciting opportunity of learning about research methodologies and current issues related to education research through the Undergraduate Research Education Training Workshop at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting. Among the topics addressed, the troubling disconnect between research and practice stuck most firmly in my mind. I learned that many of the findings and recommendations that arise from education research do not guide teachers’ and policymakers’ decisions. The issue extends in the other direction too, as many researchers do not base their work on the real problems teachers face and the ideas teachers have for addressing them.
As I explored the vast amount of research at the AERA Annual Meeting, the issue became more salient. We are swimming in education research, yet we all agree that our education system still has a long way to go to realizing rigorous and equitable learning outcomes for all students. What is preventing us from properly utilizing the vast amount of research knowledge already present in academia to significantly improve practice? I propose that a major reason is the tendency for education research to theorize ideas more than test and evaluate them in practice.
For example, research on asset pedagogies has focused a lot on theory, and rightfully so. Asset pedagogies represent ways of teaching that uphold and value the unique knowledge that students gain through their life experiences and cultural practices. Accordingly, students’ personal experiences represent assets—not deficits—in their learning, even if their knowledge is not represented in the school curriculum. The goal of asset pedagogies is to foster more equitable learning outcomes within the classroom and the education system as a whole. Much research and academic discussion has been rightfully dedicated to delineating and improving asset pedagogies, such as Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 1995) and Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy (Paris, 2012). These ideas have stimulated great intellectual dialogue that have pushed the field of education further in its conception of effective and equitable teaching.
Nevertheless, despite the evolution of these theories, many teachers still struggle to implement asset pedagogies in practice. The ideas make sense, but the logistics of implementation are very complicated. For example, in describing the goals of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, Ladson-Billings (1995) writes about one teacher who taught traditional poetry concepts through the use of rap music—a significant part of her students’ cultures. As an undergraduate preparing to become a high school mathematics teacher, I am motivated by such success stories but also left with many questions. What steps could I take to identify and understand the cultural practices of my students, practices with which I may be totally unfamiliar? If I have a diverse classroom, how do I build on multiple different cultural practices at once? How do I connect students’ cultures to mathematics in ways that satisfy curriculum goals?
These ideas are not new—researchers have voiced similar concerns. Paris and Alim (2014) emphasize that one cannot oversimplify a culture to a set of static traditional practices and assume that all students of a certain background or ethnicity share those practices. What, then, are time-efficient steps teachers can take to discover and understand the lived experiences of each of their students? Nasir, Hand, and Taylor (2008) also point out the challenges that arise when students bring many different cultures and experiences to the classroom. How can teachers make sense of their students’ cultures collectively while simultaneously upholding each student’s background as unique? Moreover, how exactly do teachers build upon students’ cultural knowledge to both sustain this knowledge and help students master curriculum topics? I am confident that we can eventually answer these questions, but only if research shifts to focus on implementation as much as theory.
This approach to bridging the divide between education research and practice is difficult. It requires researchers and teachers to form close partnerships in which they continuously communicate and exchange ideas so that the actions of one party align with and build upon those of the other. I envision that a research project driven by this sort of partnership could take the following form: teachers identify a specific challenge they face in their practice, such as a question regarding implementation of an asset pedagogy; they collaborate with researchers to generate potential solutions; and then researchers design experiments, conduct observations, and analyze data to test the efficacy of the proposed solutions, modifying them if necessary. As an aspiring teacher and education researcher, I hope to engage in both sides of such a relationship during my career. We must work hard to transfer educational theories as promising as asset pedagogies from academic research to practice.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465–491.
Nasir, N. S., Hand, V., & Taylor, E. V. (2008). Culture and Mathematics in School: Boundaries between “Cultural” and “Domain” Knowledge in the Mathematics Classroom and Beyond. Review of Research in Education, 32, 187–240. http://doi.org/10.3102/0091732X07308962
Paris, D. (2012). Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy: A Needed Change in Stance, Terminology, and Practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93–97. http://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X12441244
Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (2014). What Are We Seeking to Sustain Through Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy? A Loving Critique Forward. Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 85–100.