Communicating about evolution: the danger of shortcuts

When we talk about evolution and education, our first thoughts usually race to evangelical churches, school boards, and states like Kansas and Tennessee. While cultural battles over “belief” in evolution and its place in public schools are certainly important, a lesser-known issue is that acceptance and understanding are not the same thing, and  many people who enthusiastically “believe” in evolution don’t actually understand the basics of how it works. This may not be a problem if our only concern is that the public votes to keep non-science out of the public science classroom. But an understanding of evolution impacts more than just one hot-button issue at a time. It is necessary to understand issues surrounding antibiotic and pesticide resistance, overfishing, potential effects of climate change, the relevance of animal models in medical research, and it is the conceptual framework through which all other biological fields can be best understood.

A wide variety of evolution misconceptions have been documented in the science education research literature at all levels from elementary students through college students, museum visitors, and the general public.  The recently open-access [1] journal Evolution: Education and Outreach is an excellent resource for those looking for insights into communicating with non-experts about evolution. Evolutionary biologist T. Ryan Gregory contributed a review article (pdf) in 2009 that nicely summarizes the most prevalent misconceptions about natural selection. Others have documented learning difficulties associated with macroevolution, the relatedness of species, and interpreting tree diagrams. U.C. Berkeley’s Understanding Evolution website has a good starting list of common misconceptions related to all aspects of evolution.

Experts who do understand evolution by natural selection often use shortcuts and metaphors that are mostly harmless among those in the know. However, these same shortcuts can reinforce and even cause many misconceptions among students and members of the public without strong evolution backgrounds. Increased awareness of the science education research on evolution among teachers, informal educators, exhibit designers, documentary filmmakers, and journalists could go a long way toward preventing further entrenchment of these misconceptions.

I’ll attempt to outline some of the major misconceptions and learning difficulties related to the mechanism of natural selection and discuss some common ways of talking about evolutionary processes that can reinforce these misconceptions.

Darwin's Finches
Darwin’s finches or Galapagos finches. Charles Darwin, 1845. U.S. public domain.

Fitness and “survival of the fittest”

To evolutionary biologists, fitness has a very specific meaning: the number of offspring left by individuals of a species having a certain genetic makeup compared to other individuals with different genetic makeups. A recent “daily explainer” on i09, “Why ‘survival of the fittest’ is wrong,” tackled some of the issues wrapped up in this word. The colloquial usage of “fit” as “big, strong and healthy” [2] makes the phrase misleading. And evolution isn’t really about survival at all. It’s entirely about reproduction. Often living longer can mean more chances to mate, but survival only contributes to evolutionary fitness inasmuch as it enables an increase in successful reproduction events. An organism that lives to the upper limit of its lifespan — but never successfully reproduces — contributes exactly nothing to the next generation.

Populations and generations

The mechanism of natural selection is based in population thinking. To an expert, a population is a group of organisms of the same species that interbreed and that live in the same geographic area. Importantly, it is not an equivalent term to species. However, most non-experts do not think in terms of populations. They think in terms of individuals, species, or ecosystems. This translates to mistaken assumptions about what evolution acts on. Many people think that evolution happens to one individual during its lifetime, or that entire species (including all the individuals) gradually change into new species. Again, shortcuts such as “over time, the finches gained bigger beaks” can reinforce the idea that all members of the species grew bigger beaks. A better statement would have been “over many generations, finches with large beaks had more offspring than finches with smaller beaks, until nearly the whole population had large beaks.”

Adaptation

Adaptation is nearly ubiquitous as a “vocab” word for elementary-age students, before they understand anything about genetics. Students are expected to learn that an adaptation is something along the lines of “a trait of an organism that helps it survive in its environment.” This often devolves into “just-so story” explanations about how beavers have big teeth because they chew on trees all the time, or giraffes have long necks because they are always reaching high into the trees for food. It doesn’t help that journalists, teachers, and lecturers often use colorful metaphorical shortcuts to talk about adaptation. While their intention may be to create a lively article or talk, an expert’s metaphor is often a non-expert’s reality.

In his review article, Gregory highlights some of the problematic language used to describe adaptation:

Thus, adaptations in any taxon may be described as “innovations,” “inventions,” or “solutions” (sometimes “ingenious” ones, no less). Even the evolution of antibiotic resistance is characterized as a process whereby bacteria “learn” to “outsmart” antibiotics with frustrating regularity.

Human tendency to anthropomorphize everything from animals to inanimate objects and natural processes is well known, and tough to combat. (See Heider and Simmel’s 1944 experiment in which people assign intentions, emotions and even genders to moving geometric shapes.) In the context of evolution anthropomorphic descriptions can lead to the misconception that individual organisms try to modify themselves to better fit the environment, and then pass down those acquired traits to their offspring. A shaky understanding of genetics also underpins this idea, but sloppy communications can reinforce it.

A focus on adaptation from the early grades forward can also lead to the idea that each organism is perfectly adapted for its particular environment and niche, and that every feature of an organism has an adaptive purpose. Evolutionary biologists know this simply isn’t the case. Most traits that we call adaptations are simply “good enough.” They were a little more useful in a given circumstance than other traits — they weren’t designed from the ground up for the current situation. Learning about adaptation — and developing misconceptions about it — before grasping the genetic, generational mechanism of natural selection can put students at a disadvantage when they get to middle and high school biology classes.

Unity and diversity: a two-step process

As Gregory emphasized in his review article, evolution by natural selection is a two-step process: (1) new variation arises by random mutation and recombination, and (2) individuals with certain variants have more offspring than other individuals with different variants. Focusing on either mutation alone or selection alone can lead to the following misconceptions, respectively: that evolution is completely random, and that evolution results in perfectly optimized organisms. When communicating about evolution with non-experts, it is important never to refer to one without referencing the importance of the other.

Evolution is tricky. For those of us who understand it, its power to make everything else in biology crystal clear is deceptive. Most of us had naive ideas about evolution as children or students. As we progressed in our studies of science these were replaced with more accurate mental models. But we are the exceptions — most people don’t go on to major in science or think about it for a living. Yet as citizens they are often called upon to make decisions that require an understanding of evolution. And as humans, an understanding of evolution can contribute to a deeper appreciation of nature. Shortcuts are catchy — droning on about populations and generations can get tedious and wordy. It takes talent to communicate about evolution both accurately and compellingly, but experts and science writers and educators have a responsibility to get it right.

[1] Evolution: Education and Outreach used to be open-access, then it was toll-access, and now everything from January 2013 onward is open-access, but you’ll still have trouble getting the older issues.
[2] Amusingly, the British meaning of “attractive” for “fit” is actually a little more accurate in cases of sexual selection — though we’d still have to change it to “Reproduction of the Fittest.”

Can you worry about an animal you’ve never seen? The role of the zoo in education and conservation.

Update: twitter readers have contributed cases where captive breeding programs have saved species from extinction, and have (or are in the process of) released animals back to the wild. Many zoos also hold the last remaining animals of their species. Examples of successful conservation cases include (but are not limited to): Ozark hellbender: salamander, Houston toad, Kihansi spray toad, Socorro doves, Mauritius kestrel, pink pigeon, Arnold’s giant tortoise, California condor, and the previously mentioned golden lion tamarin and  black-footed ferret.

“He had black fur and a horn on his head,” my sister said. She came to DC for a few weeks and spent many afternoons visiting our local zoo. After one of those visits,  she hurried to Google Chat to report that a big tall bird was chasing her behind the fence of his enclosure. My sister described the bird as having long fur-like feathers and a horn. She has never seen anything like that before and was genuinely curious. She was familiar with the belligerent bird’s neighbors, the rheas (ratite birds like ostriches and extinct moas). Rheas are native to South America, as are we, and we’ve seen them before while growing up in south Brazil. “Mystery bird” was about to become a perfect example of zoo education.

Rhea at the National Zoo. Photo credit: Rory Harper.

What justifies the existence of zoos? Questioning the goals of zoos.
The role of the zoo has evolved to prioritize research, education, and conservation. Some people still condemn the existence of zoos based on zoo’s past life of pure entertainment. It is true that zoos started as menageries and amusement parks, but they have come a long way since the late 1800s. Currently, laws protect wild animals and guarantee their welfare (e.g., Animal Welfare Act, Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act). Accreditation bodies make sure zoos and aquariums offer great care for their animals.

The field of animal research  benefits from zoo experience. Zoo keepers, researchers, and vets have learned a lot about animal care as zoos evolved. Improvements in husbandry have led to increased longevity of animals in captivity. In his book At Home in the Zoo, published in 1961 and covering the previous thirty years on the Manchester Zoo, Gerald Iles mentions that “animals which were once either difficult or impossible to keep in captivity are not only thriving but breeding. Longevity records are constantly being broken.”

Zoos have an essential role in conservation. Back in the 60’s, Iles already said that “…the animals of Africa have been reduced by 80% within the last hundred years… and 600 species of animals are tottering on the brink of extinction.” Currently, zoos have their own breeding programs to help in cases of dwindling populations. All efforts in captive breeding have led to increased research. Like author Jake Page put it, “many zoos have become places of rigorous scientific research… coupled with an active effort not just to preserve in captivity those creatures that are endangered in the wild, but… to understand, save, and replenish unique natural habitats.” Besides breeding endangered animals (e.g. the successful golden lion tamarin breeding program, or the black-footed ferret breeding program), zoos are also investing in displaying less popular animals.

Still, there are many people and organizations out there who dislike or choose not to believe in this new role of the zoo. People like Peter Batten, who in his book Living Trophies states that “primary reasons for zoo use are only remotely connected with learning.”

Do Zoos actually educate?
A study at the Edinburgh Zoo tracks visitors who enter a primate exhibit ‘Living Links to Human Evolution Research Centre’ in the Edinburgh Zoo. The exhibit is outfitted with a behavioral research center, and on many occasions researchers are present and working with the primates. The study aimed to determine if watching the researchers had any impact on visitor experience.

Behavioral researchers at Primate Research Center, Edinburgh Zoo. Photo: Bowler et.al, 2012

The study followed visitors and measured their dwell time in the primate exhibit, in the presence and absence of primate researchers. They found that visitor dwell time increased in correlation to presence of researchers. Bowler and colleagues claim that “…parents were often seen explaining the research to their children … what was happening in the research room.” But are visitors simply drawn by the “activity” (as opposed to passive viewing)? How do we know if the research observation is translated in education?

Another study aimed to identify the effect of animal demonstrations and of interpreters (the docent equivalent in zoos and aquariums). With a similar approach, Anderson et al. followed visitors and measured dwell time on Zoo Atlanta’s Asian small-clawed otter exhibit. In this study, researchers also surveyed visitors before and after they entered the exhibit. The survey attempted to find out if visitors’ perceptions of otters changed after their visit. Did they actually learn?

Zookeepers and interpreters were present in the otter exhibit. They talked to the public about the otters, and showed their natural behaviors through demonstrations (see section about demonstrations below). Some visitors were offered a sea otter demonstration, a demonstration accompanied by interpretation (albeit read from a script), and some were not offered demonstration or interpretation (i.e. signs only). The study attempted to measure the effects of interpreters, animal demonstrations, and signs on visitor learning. They determined that the visitors spent an average of two minutes  passively strolling the exhibit (i.e. with signs only and no human presence), compared with six minutes when animal demonstration was taking place, and eight minutes for animal demonstration plus interpreter. The survey results indicate that visitors preferred to watch the demonstrations. By comparing pre- and post-visit questionnaires, researchers believe that “visitors attending an animal demonstration retained large amounts of the content material weeks after having attended the animal demonstration.”

sea lion and keeper in the training demonstration. Keeper has a whistle and a bucket of fish for rewards. Sea lion is rewarded when she shows her flipper for inspection (for example, during a vet exam). Photo credit: Rory Harper.

Aren’t animal demonstrations just entertainment in disguise?

Most zoos offer animal demonstrations. I had a chance to watch sea lions on their training sessions. The zookeepers bring two of the animals out, while the public lines up to watch. The demonstration is in fact a training session for the sea lions: keepers reward the animals for certain behaviors, like rolling over, exposing their fins, allowing themselves to be petted. The sea lions receive rewards of fish and squid after they allow the keepers to treat them with eye drops, or rub their flippers. The goal of this training is not to amuse visitors, but to facilitate animal care. You can’t force a 500 lb marine animal to roll over to ultrasound their abdomen. The training counts on voluntary animal participation and proves very effective for animal care and also for their mental stimulation.

Besides, it is a great opportunity for science education and for spreading a message of conservation. The keepers talk to the public about sea lions in their natural habitat, their anatomy, their innate differences from seals. They also mention that the two older sea lions at the zoo were rescued from the wild as pups when their mothers died as result of sea contaminants. The image of helpless orphaned sea lion pups in a polluted sea is a powerful one.

Zoo keeper puts eye drops in sea lion’s eyes. Sea lion is rewarded with fish for complying. Photo by Rory Harper.

Educating by creating affective connections.

Jake Page mentioned that an affective connection with animals greatly helps conservation:  “It is difficult to be concerned about the fate of an animal you have never seen. Even a two-dimensional film representation of an animal does not have anywhere near the same effect as seeing one in the flesh, hearing it, smelling it. The usual response to such a real-life sight – whether in a zoo or in the wild – is emotional.” Gerald Iles points to an extra benefit of zoo animals to education. According to Iles, animals are individuals with personalities, and allowing the public to see that will have an impact in their emotion: “the public, visiting a zoo, sees many kinds of animal. Each species conform to a set pattern, often based on facts gleaned at school. Elephants are just elephants; lions are just lions; bears are just bears. What the visitor often does not realize is that each animal is also an individual…all my zoo elephants were different from each other, and each one leaves me with a different memory.” Another study reported on the “the positive effects of zoos on students cognitive and affective characteristics.”  As we’ve been saying here on Sci-Ed, education can be maximized if there is an affective connection between learner and object: it’s a moa at the mall, a marching penguin, and stumbling on learning opportunities.

Zoo critics will always exist. Many advocate for phasing out zoos, while offering no suggestion for what to do with the newly-homeless animals. They even disapprove of the role of zoos in education. Peter Batten, the incredulous zoo critic, believes that “the zoo’s contribution to education is minimal, … and most people show no more than casual curiosity about its animals.” As evidence for visitor’s disregard for animals or for learning, he cites “years of hearing visitors call cassowaries ‘peacocks’, toucans ‘fruitloops’, tigers ‘lions’, and otters ‘beavers.’”

At the zoo I’ve heard visitors call an ape “monkey,” and a rhea “ostrich.” It still does not change my belief that correct terminology is not necessarily an indicator of people’s attachment to the animals. Visitors are not expected to arrive at the zoo knowing the names and species of all animals in its collection. And I’m sure they are leaving the zoo with more information than before they walked in. In fact, my sister saw the “black bird with a horn” (or what Batten’s visitors called a “peacock”) but left the zoo with the knowledge of a new animal. I’m sure she won’t forget the rare sighting of the endangered cassowary. That’s an animal only found deep in New Guinea jungles, or in zoo conservation programs, where it helps researchers and visitors alike marvel at nature.

Mystery bird, the cassowary at the zoo. Photo by Rory Harper.

 References:
1. Anderson U, Kelling A, Pressley-Keough R, Bloomsmith M, Mapple T (2003) Enhancing the zoo visitor’s experience by public animal training and oral interpretation at an otter exhibit.  Environment and behavior, Vol. 35 No. 6, 826-841
2. Bowler MT, Buchanan-Smith HM, Whiten A (2012) Assessing Public Engagement with Science in a University Primate Research Centre in a National Zoo. PLoS ONE 7(4): e34505.
3. Frynta D, Lisˇkova´ S, Bu¨ ltmann S, Burda H (2010) Being Attractive Brings Advantages: The Case of Parrot Species in Captivity. PLoS ONE 5(9): e12568.
4. Kalof L, Zammit-Lucia J, Kelly J (2011) The Meaning of Animal Portraiture in a Museum Setting: Implications for Conservation. Organization Environment
5. Yavuz et al. Science and technology teachers’ opinions regarding the usage of zoos in science teaching. The online journal of new horizons in education, volume 2, issue 4, 2011
6. Whitworth AW (2012) An Investigation into the Determining Factors of Zoo Visitor Attendances in UK Zoos. PLoS ONE 7(1): e29839.

Mathematical Literacy: A necessary skill for the 21st century

Maths chocolate
Photo by Flick user s-guilana | CC BY 2.0

My Grade 9 math teacher was a jolly British man, and probably taught me one of the most useful things I ever learnt in high school: how to do basic math in my head (or, since I was in the British educational system, it was Grammar School). Every so often we’d go into our math class and find little bits of paper on every desk. This was a harbinger of doom – it meant we were having a 20 question surprise quiz. And not just any quiz, a mental arithmetic quiz. He would read a question out loud twice, and then we’d have to do the math. He’d give us some leeway (you didn’t have to be exact), but man did I ever hate those quizzes. At the time, they seemed impractical and a colossal waste of time. In retrospect, they were incredibly useful.

Now, being on the other side of the divide, I see something that concerns me. I regularly TA undergraduate and graduate students in statistics, and I notice that many of them, while they have all the skills to do math, are absolutely terrified of it. And as soon as you fear a subject, or don’t want to learn it, you won’t. Your mind will shut down and every instinct you have will prevent you from engaging in the material. As a result, I spend the first hour of any class I’m teaching talking to the students and determining what it is they don’t understand to tailor my sessions accordingly. But the comments generally involve variations on:

“I just don’t get math.”
“I’ve never been any good at math.”
“I don’t like it.”

Of these, the first two concern me. The third I can’t help – I don’t need my students to love math, but I do want them to understand enough to pass the course and feel comfortable interpreting statistical analyses. There’s a culture among schoolkids to dislike math and the perception that it’s largely useless. While in chemistry you can see stuff blow up, and in biology you can dissect animals, math is a largely abstract concept. That perception then manifests as a lack of interest, which results in poorer performance, and that puts people off math. This is further compounded by a phenomena known as “Math Anxiety” or “Math Phobia.”  Ashcraft and Kirk discuss this extensively in their 2001 paper, and suggest that much of the anxiety is a result of the fear of getting the wrong answer in their tests. I’m not going to delve into it now as the whole area of math performance, both in terms of math anxiety and performance anxiety as well as cultural and gender differences in math warrant a dedicated post. For now, let’s just talk about what constitutes “mathematical literacy.”

The OECD released a report in 2000, where they defined literacy in three domains, and the way they defined numerical literacy was:

Quantitative literacy – the knowledge and skills required to apply arithmetic operations, either alone or sequentially, to numbers embedded in printed materials, such as balancing a chequebook, figuring out a tip, completing an order form or determining the amount of interest on a loan from an advertisement.

The OECD also conducts the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) which evaluated the performance of 15-year olds in math, science and reading. It defines mathematical literacy as:

Mathematical literacy is an individual’s capacity to identify and understand the role that mathematics plays in the world, to make well-founded judgements and to use and engage with mathematics in ways that meet the needs of that individual’s life as a constructive, concerned and reflective citizen

As you can see, the idea of numerical or mathematical literacy, as defined above, isn’t advanced math like calculus or algebraic manipulations. We’re talking about being to understand the order of operations and activities requiring that level of mathematical understanding. Given that the world is moving towards a knowledge based economy, the lack of mathematical literacy is a big concern. Now more than ever the ability to critically evaluate information presented to us to draw our own conclusions, rather than have someone tell us what they mean, is of the utmost importance.

In Canada, this has particular relevance as we (like most of the Western world) are in the midst of an aging population. This comes with its own set of challenges, but one is that as patients age, they suffer from illnesses, and if they are unable to to interpret medical information or if doctors are unable to explain to patients in a way they’ll understand, then patients are unable to make informed decisions about their health.

Maths
Photo by Flickr user Minibe09 | CC BY-NC 2.0

I’m not implying that everyone needs to be able to advanced math and statistics. Given the advances in technology (see abacus app above), you can now use an app to calculate how to split the bill or calculate a tip (iLounge reviews 30 (!!) apps here). You don’t need to be able to do hierarchical ordinal regression using bootstrapping, or factor analyses, or structural equation modelling. But given how much data we are presented with on a regular basis, be that in the form of interest rates on a bank loan, discount on sale items or even polling numbers for political parties (the latter discussed by Swans on Tea), a basic level of numerical literacy is not only important, it’s necessary.

References
Ashcraft, Mark H.; Kirk, Elizabeth P., “The Relationships Among Working Memory, Math Anxiety, and Performance”, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 2001 pp. 224-237
Ciampa PJ, Osborn CY, Peterson NB, Rothman RL., “Patient numeracy, perceptions of provider communication, and colorectal cancer screening utilization.” J Health Commun. 2010;15 Suppl 3:157-68. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21154091
OECD. “Assessing Scientific, Reading and Mathematical Literacy: A Framework for PISA 2006” 2006. Available online at: http://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisaproducts/pisa2006/37464175.pdf
OECD. “Literacy in the Information Age: Final report of the International Adult Literacy Survey” 2000. Available online at: http://www.oecd.org/education/educationeconomyandsociety/39437980.pdf

Facing the research-practice divide in science education

Science education researchers and science teachers have much to offer each other. In an ideal world, knowledge would flow freely between researchers and educators. Unfortunately, research and practice tend to exist in parallel universes. As long as this divide persists, classrooms will rarely benefit from research findings, and research studies will rarely be rooted in the realities of the classroom. If we care about science education, we have to face the research-practice divide.

How did it get this way?

When we talk about research and practice, we’re talking about academics and teachers. In the most typical case, we’re talking about professors of education working at universities, and teachers working at K-12 schools. The divide has its roots in historical and current differences between researchers and teachers in their training, methods, work environment, and career goals that have led to misunderstanding and mistrust. In a 2004 paper titled “Re-Visioning the academic–teacher divide: power and knowledge in the educational community” Jennifer Gore and Andrew Gitlin describe the state of the research-practice divide through the lens of the two groups of people involved, and the imbalance of power between them. Historically, they argue, the framework of science education research has been that researchers generate knowledge and materials that teachers need, but rarely recognize the need for teacher contributions. This assumed one-way flow of knowledge has certainly sparked animosity between the groups, deepened by cultural differences associated with differing career paths.

Of course, some people have been both K-12 teachers and academics in their careers. To get this perspective on the issue I reached out to a colleague, Assistant Professor of Science Education Ron Gray (Northern Arizona University). Ron has been a middle school science teacher, a teacher of science teachers, and is now a science education academic. When I asked him about the experience of transitioning from teacher to academic, he recalled:

“I don’t believe I had seen a single primary research document in education before earning my doctorate.”

Most K-12 science teachers are fairly disconnected from the research world once they leave universities and enter schools. They lack university library access, yet currently many of the best journals in the field, such as the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Science Education, and the International Journal of Science Education are not open access, and require a per-article fee to read. So how does research reach most teachers? I talked to a few science teachers about where they encounter science education research studies — many used science and education pages on Facebook, one got papers sent from an administrator, and some read practitioner journals. Many science teachers are members of the National Science Teacher’s Association (NSTA), which publishes practitioner journals and holds national and area conferences where teachers can hear about research findings. NSTA plays an invaluable role in working to connect research and practice. However, for perspective, NSTA has about 55,000 members, most but not all of which are practicing science teachers, but there are currently about two million practicing science teachers in the U.S.

The disconnect also stems from unfortunate misperceptions of professors by teachers and teachers by professors. Both groups often discount each other’s knowledge bases and workloads. Professors can harbor elitist attitudes about teachers, discounting the value of practical classroom experience in determining what works in education. Teachers frequently claim that professors suffer from “Ivory Tower Syndrome” — the assumption here is that professors live cushy lives, sheltered from the realities of schools, and therefore can’t produce knowledge that is useful in today’s classrooms. A high school teacher quoted by Gore and Gitlin explained:

“A lot of what [researchers] think is based on the past and they are out of touch. And so we call it the Ivory Tower. Welcome to our world.”

When I asked high school science teacher Laurie Almeida how she perceived the credibility of science education research, she responded:

“Somewhat credible. I work at a difficult school, so I feel that some of the research is way too out of touch with the reality of my school.”

An ivory tower of sorts. Sather Tower, U.C. Berkeley. Photo by Bernt Rostad.
An ivory tower of sorts. Sather Tower, U.C. Berkeley. Photo by Bernt Rostad.

There is sometimes truth to the ivory tower criticisms; Gore and Gitlin noted that in some academic circles, the more closely research is associated with practice, the more devalued it is. Furthermore, science education research is far from perfect. Small-scale studies with limited applicability are published more frequently in science education than they are the natural sciences. This trend hasn’t escaped notice from teachers either. When I asked about the perceived credibility of science education research among teachers, science teacher Toni Taylor told me:

“Too often I see ‘research’ that includes only a small sample population which makes me question the validity of the research,” and “Sometimes I feel like science education simply tries to reinvent the wheel.”

However, a lot of the mistrust between the two groups is based on their misunderstanding of each other’s professions. Teachers do not always appreciate that many researchers are often in the classroom regularly, conducting classroom-based studies and collecting data. This “back of the class” view can be highly illuminating, and is a valid way to know classrooms. Some researchers got their start as K-12 teachers. And higher education is certainly not immune from classroom management issues or over-filled schedules. Professors have stress — just ask the #realForbesProfessors (this hashtag exploded on Twitter following the publication of a Forbes article claiming that professors have one of the least stressful jobs). Similarly, researchers can forget that experienced teachers have a wealth of knowledge about the specific interactions of classroom context, pedagogy, and subject matter.

 

What can be done?

My conversation with Professor Ron Gray about what academics can do to better connect with teachers aligned well with calls in the literature for more researcher-teacher partnerships. He said:

“The best way would be to get back in the classroom but the tenure process just doesn’t let that happen.”

His response highlights the rigidity of teacher and researcher career paths. Even a former teacher who switched to the researcher path can’t switch back again without ultimately losing “traction” in both careers. Perhaps we should question the wisdom of entrenching people interested in science education in one narrowly-defined career trajectory or another. Instead, career advancement could reward the accumulation of diverse but synergistic experiences. Science education is a multidisciplinary endeavor, involving science, social science, and communication skills — why shouldn’t our career options reflect this?

Similarly, certain aspects of teacher training might be due for a change. Teacher education could be a crucial time to break the mold  that has placed researchers as producers and teachers as consumers of research. Gore and Gitlin suggest that student-teachers at the undergraduate or master’s levels could be attached to ongoing education research projects as research assistants. They would become intimately familiar with the purpose and methods of educational research and could become significant contributors to it. This would take some restructuring, as many programs focus on more “immediate” concerns such as classroom management, but the benefit could be the production of teachers who recognize the value of research and feel capable of making contributions to it.

The open access movement in scholarly publishing could also have a crucial role in breaking down barriers. Toll-access journals can function as practically impenetrable “ivory fortresses” where valuable knowledge is locked away from practitioners. However, open access will likely prove necessary, but not sufficient in closing the research-practice gap. Teachers I’ve spoken to are very positive about open access but guarded about how much more time they’ll spend reading research articles. Time is a huge issue for teachers. But the alternative — locking up research findings in places where both time and money can be barrier for teachers — is certainly not helping to connect research with practice.

For the short-term, most education research articles are still in toll-access journals. For those without easy access to the primary literature in science, research blogs have become an incredible resource. However, the science education research blogging community pales in comparison to the science research blogging community. While teachers can find the latest science news and engaging resources to share with their students by following the science blogging community, they are not as likely to find quick-and-easy write-ups of science education research findings that are relevant to their pedagogy, curriculum development, assessment practices. As the Sci-Ed blog establishes itself, I hope that my fellow writers and I can attempt to partially fill this role. And I hope that many others in science education continue to follow the research blogging model.

 

Reference:
Jennifer M. Gore & Andrew D. Gitlin (2004): [RE]Visioning the academic–teacher divide: power and knowledge in the educational community, Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 10:1, 35-58.