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On being an informed consumer of educational research in the digital age

Been blogging less frequently lately, mostly because the tenure application deadline looms LARGE.  But, I got a bit riled up after reading an article that Kevin Jarrett pointed out via Twitter.

Blogging under the auspices of The Wall Street Journal (a highly respectable publication), John J. Edwards III wrote about a forthcoming book by two sociologists at the University of Texas-Arlington.  He surely learned of this book through a press release issued by the Office of Media Relations at UT-A.  I think it’s great that the folks in that office are promoting this book.  In fact, the public relations guru that works in my unit at VCU will be publishing an article about me and my blogging/professional networking in the next issue of our alumni magazine.

I do, however, have a couple of problems with this press release and the associated blog post by Mr. Edwards.  First, Edwards notes only that the book is “forthcoming.”  The press release says that “[t]he book is being published…with the release date to be announced.”  So, not only is the book not available to the public yet, but there isn’t even a date for release yet.  I don’t have a ton of experience with book publishers, but I have plenty of data from experiences with colleagues.  And I’m guessing that without even a date for release, we won’t see this book for a while.

That’s highly problematic.  When I read articles about educational research in the popular media, I’m instantly skeptical.  Not skeptical as in doubtful; but skeptical as in “I’m going to have to see the actual text of the report/article/book myself” so that I can make my own meaning of it.  Here, all I’ve got to go on is one blogger’s account of the book.  Furthermore, there’s no indication that Edwards read the book himself.  He quotes directly from the press release.  YET, amazingly (maybe not considering the usual credibility of the WSJ), there are dozens and dozens (I couldn’t count) of comments to the post.  I understand that Edwards used the press release to ask a couple of otherwise banal questions to his readers, but wouldn’t we all be better served if we had access to the book itself?  Wouldn’t the discussion within the comments be a more interesting and more informed discussion?

My department is launching a new Ed.D. program in educational leadership this coming fall semester.  In planning the program, we’ve had some really good and really important discussions about the sorts of skills and dispositions school leaders need to have.  I’ve been most interested in our conversations around “inquiry.”  There, we’ve concluded that school leaders need to be informed and critical consumers of research.  In fact, we’re working on a case/module where the doc. students will be asked to consider, for example, new math software.  There will be various activities built into that case/module, and among them will be an exploration of the research base on math software.  In an era where schools are mandated to implement only research-based programs, it’s crucial for educational leaders and policymakers to not just accept what others say about the research base for a given program.  They need to know how to find and critique the research base themselves.  This becomes particularly important in the digital age, where access to information is not bounded by space or time and where anyone with an Internet connection can provide information.

I recognize that the media relations folks at UT-A were doing their jobs by creating advance buzz for a book to be published by two of their faculty members.  And, I realize that there’s nothing inherently wrong with using a press release as a departure point for a blog post.  But, I just think a disservice has been done to the educational community here.

My second problem has to do with the book itself and the way it’s portrayed in the news release and the blog post.  The language used suggests that these researchers have devised some kind of novel argument.  Consider: “The authors explore topics like time-use in schools; the confinement and physical disciplining of young bodies as they carry backpacks and sit at cramped desks; the stress on fine motor skills; the performance principle and grading; the performance principle and testing; the disunity of mind and body; vocationalism; a fetish of facts and factoids; rote learning and regurgitation; worksheet-driven learning; classroom authoritarianism and competitive school sports.”  Isn’t the verb “to explore” usually associated with charting new terrain?  Perhaps this stuff is new to the researchers, but haven’t they ever read anything by the likes of Alfie Kohn?  Even Gary Stager?  According to the UT-A website, Dr. Agger is a professor of sociology and the humanities housed in the Department of Sociology.  Same with his co-worker and wife, Dr. Shelton.  They are sociologists and apparently not especially sociologists of education.  So, maybe they are not as versed in the literature on progressive education.  Maybe they do reference that literature.

And, is their argument/contention based on new data they’ve collected and analyzed?  Or, are they synthesizing others’ research?  Or, are they simply theorizing?

But, see I can’t know any of this for sure.  And, apparently I won’t know for sure for a while because it’s not clear when the book will be available.  That’s what’s so infuriating here.  Rather than creating advanced buzz, the fine folks at the Office of Media Relations have just thoroughly annoyed me.  They’ve treated you and me as uncritical consumers of information.

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