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Winter 2015

The Letter P for Partners

Illustration by Daniel VasconcellosLast spring, educators from around the world gathered at the Ed School to learn how to close the frustrating gap that sometimes exists between research and practice. The gathering started, perhaps unexpectedly, with a short video clip: comedian Ricky Gervais singing a lullaby about the letter N to Elmo, who was tucked into his tiny bed.

This simple video, said Adjunct Lecturer Christina Hinton, Ed.M.’06, Ed.D.’12, is, in fact, a great example of how research and practice — in this case, education — can go hand-in-hand.

“So much research was done before Sesame Street created this clip to see how to best teach the letter N to children,” Hinton said at the symposium, which she founded with Professor Kurt Fischer and Visiting Lecturer Bruno della Chiesa as part of their new Research Schools International initiative. “Uppercase? Lowercase? In color? Should it include words like nap and nighttime, too? This ongoing assessment is something Sesame does really well. They’ve been committed to linking research and practice since they started.”

It’s this same commitment that Hinton and Fischer focused on when they decided to start their initiative, with della Chiesa joining soon after. With a team of researchers from the Ed School, they partner with schools around the world to tackle problems that the schools are grappling with, similar to how many other fields operate.

“What is true in industries all over the world is that many have established research programs,” Fischer says. At teaching hospitals, for example, doctors work alongside practitioners to make sure that research and practice are linked. However, in education, Hinton says, “That’s the exception, not the rule.”

With their initiative, academic researchers don’t go into a school saying, “This is what we want to address.” Instead, they work with everyone in a school — administrators, teachers, and students — to come up with a research question that is important to the people who work and learn in that building. “The practitioners decide what they need,” Hinton says. The Harvard researchers help them shape that into a testable question and then carry out research to address that question.

For example, one school wanted to figure out how to better motivate students.

“Education research has identified many concrete ways to support motivation — give students a sense of autonomy, allow them to learn with their peers, ensure that they feel competent, and so on. The research team conducted a study to explore how much these practices were used at the school,” Hinton says. “Results revealed that the school was already using many effective practices.” But it wasn’t enough. The Harvard researchers found one gap. “The school wasn’t offering students much choice, which is quite important for motivation.” The researchers therefore worked with the teachers to incorporate more choice into their curriculum — things as simple as letting students pick which book to read. With other schools, the initiative has looked at issues around compassion, the brain and learning, global education, and the role technology plays in helping children learn from one another.

After the question is explored and tested, a report is created. But the research team doesn’t then disappear — it continues to work with the school to analyze and implement the findings in tangible, usable ways. The findings are then shared on the initiative’s website, for free, so that other educators can benefit.

This collaboration, teachers say, is critical.

“It really makes us like partners,” says Allison DeHorsey, director of global programs and a French teacher at St. George’s School in Rhode Island, which has been working with the initiative. “That has strengthened my role as a teacher. Just having that ongoing dialogue is important.”