Teachers Don’t Just Use Research — Some Are Designing It Themselves

When Carlo Diy throws out a question to his high school entrepreneurship and marketing students, he steels himself for an uncomfortable few moments ahead. “It’s just crickets,” says Diy, a second-year teacher at Durham Public Schools in North Carolina. “That’s been really challenging for me and, I know, for pretty much all other teachers during remote learning.”

Diy’s district, which only recently resumed in-person learning for high school students, doesn’t require that cameras are turned on, a policy he supports but which leaves him feeling cut off from his class. To spark engagement, Diy has had to get creative.

What would happen, he began to wonder, if students played a competitive game before each lesson, something that would get them out of their seats and practically shouting out answers? Perhaps, in addition to class bonding, their laser-like focus might carry over into the lesson itself, buying him 10 or even 15 minutes of focused attention. It was worth a shot, he figured. So he put it to the test.

As part of a new cohort of teachers-turned-researchers, developed by the The Learning Agency Lab, the nonprofit arm of education consultancy The Learning Agency, Diy is conducting a randomized controlled trial in his classroom. And more than 40 other teachers are conducting studies of their own, exploring topics such as “looping,” where teachers see students multiple years in a row, and how learning about the biology of skin color affects students’ perceptions of race.

Based on surveys suggesting that a majority of teachers want to learn more about research and get involved in it themselves, the program pairs interested teachers with researchers and statisticians who help them design their own projects, accounting for variables such as small sample sizes that educators are likely to run into.

“What we wanted to do was give teachers the support and the resources to ask their own questions and design their own studies,” explains Aigner Picou, The Learning Agency Lab’s program director. From there, a series of workshops on research methodology was conceived, and experts helped teachers outline their studies and begin collecting data.

Called the Teacher Run Experiment Network, it’s part of a growing movement to make research more accessible to classroom educators. Already the movement has sparked initiatives by the EdTech Evidence Exchange (formerly the Jefferson Education Exchange), The Learning Scientists, and a wealth of teacher communities and special interest groups.

“Honestly, teachers are doing research every day, even though we don’t necessarily call it that,” Picou says. “But if you think about how teachers teach, they see how their students respond to things, they make adjustments and then they move forward. That’s research, in a sense.”

Competitive Engagement

For Diy, the study itself is rather simple. During the first few minutes of class, students are divided into teams and play a competitive game, such as trying to guess a well-known brand logo when only a small sliver of it is revealed. They earn points for their team when they guess correctly, often leading to dramatic showdowns in later rounds. “Students love to feel like the things that are in their world and that they think a lot about matter and that I”—their teacher—“know what they are.”

Afterward, Diy begins the day’s lesson, peppering a handful of playful questions into the sequence of his slide-share at regular intervals, asking things like what type of candy they prefer or whether they remember what they had for lunch the day before, and instructing them to type their responses in the Zoom chat. The answers are irrelevant, but seeing them come through the chat helps Diy gauge whether students are still paying attention. If students answer, he counts them engaged; if they ignore it, they’re marked unengaged.

As part of a competitive game, students in Carlo Diy’s marketing classes team up to earn points based on how quickly they can guess a brand logo—such as this one for Instagram—when only a portion is revealed.

“I think that would be a really interesting finding, to have some evidence, some data to back up the claim that a better way to start your classes is with a competitive game, and it will get you 15 minutes of more focused work time,” he says.

The goal of the Teacher Run Experiment Network isn’t to get teachers to publish full peer-reviewed studies in reputable journals, Picou says, although a few might. A more realistic aim is to provide teachers with the skills to conduct research in their classrooms whenever they want so they can test new approaches in a scientifically valid way. “They might find something interesting in their research that says, ‘Hey, this is something to explore,’ and could write it up as an op-ed for example,” she adds. (At least one teacher who’s worked with The Learning Agency, Bill Hinkley, has written about his experiments with spaced practice—in EdSurge, no less.)

Tracking More Than Moods

Texas’ Fort Worth ISD, like many districts, has opted for a hybrid model for its high schools where some students attend in person and others strictly online. To support the flexibility of online students, teachers mark students present as long as they check in at some point during the day.

It’s convenient and accommodating for students, but it tends to leave them and their teachers feeling disconnected, explains Orion Smith, a computer science teacher at Arlington Heights High School who stumbled upon his research idea when hacking together a custom attendance program for his remote students.

“I realized very quickly before the year started that, just from a bureaucratic standpoint, it would make for an enormous hassle,” Smith says of his district’s original attendance plans. “It would be difficult to verify that students had engaged with their teacher in a reliable way that was specific to each class.”

By contrast, Smith’s program is part attendance tracker, part mood meter. It asks for some light self-reflection as a way to build rapport during an isolating time. Using a tool developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, students mark how they’re feeling in the moment—pleasant, inspired, anxious, despondent—and answer a simple prompt (e.g. your favorite book and why; what gives you hope for the future).

“These aren’t very threatening questions. I’m not asking kids to reveal the most traumatic or difficult or harmful thing that ever happened to them. But that doesn’t mean that we never hear deep things from kids,” says Smith. “The tool that students and teachers have leveraged since time immemorial to get students to actually make progress isn’t just communication. It’s relationships, and that requires knowing something about students.”

Since writing the script and piloting it in his own classroom, more than two-thirds of the teachers at Smith’s school have adopted the program, and plans are underway to expand it to other campuses in the district.

These days, Smith is sifting through troves of data he’s collected on how students are reacting to the pandemic and their new, quieter lives. He’s looking at how student moods oscillate during the grading cycle and the impact of major news events, such as the November election, on how students respond. It’s not rigorous research of the type conducted by, say, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Smith says. But that’s not the intention.

“It’s something that I think a lot of other schools really don’t have access to right now, which tells them the emotional makeup of their student body,” he says. “I think that’s valuable and interesting in and of itself.”

For now, The Learning Agency is still adapting its model to contend with COVID-19, which threw an unwelcome wrench into many teachers’ projects. Yet Picou says they eventually hope to introduce a digital platform to make it easier for more teachers to participate at once, and are game to try things like having multiple classrooms work on the same experiment to gather a larger data set.

Diy, too, is still collecting data and processing what that data means. But he’s already sold on how a few tweaks to his standard teaching practice can make him a more effective teacher in the long-run.

“One of the things that I really liked about designing this was figuring out that it can be as simple as asking a survey question, and at least I’ll have a little more data around whether students are at their computers paying attention,” Diy says. “I think all teachers, regardless of subject matter, should run little experiments. The real benefit is being able to objectively say, ‘This is a more effective way to do something.’”

Update: This story has been updated to note that the nonprofit Learning Agency Lab is responsible for the Teacher Run Experiment Network.

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