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To reclaim world leadership in education, U.S. schools must put greater emphasis on evidence-based practices

The release of David Guggenheim’s documentary “Waiting for Superman” has stimulated increased interest in the quality of education that children receive in America’s public schools.

The release of David Guggenheim’s documentary “Waiting for Superman” has stimulated increased interest in the quality of education that children receive in America’s public schools. According to the film, “among 30 developed countries, we rank 25th in math and 21st in science.”

Clearly, the causes of the problems in education are complex. There are many possible remedies that well-intentioned people believe may help, many of which are likely to be expressed and debated as we approach the November elections. In fact, it is easy to get lost in the various opinions that exist about these matters. Perhaps it would be wise to step back and consider how to best think about them.

Many professions today are being revolutionized by the idea of “evidence-based practice” as they recognize the unique ability of science to help winnow truth from error. This does not appear to be true in education. In fact, educational practice often diverges sharply from educational research.

For example, research indicates that academically oriented preschools tend to be experienced more negatively by children than play-oriented preschools, but preschools increasingly are pressured to focus on academics. Research shows that a holistic curriculum incorporating art, music, science and physical activity support (rather than detract from) cognitive learning in school, and clearly have their own benefits in encouraging the development of a balance of different skills and talents, but many schools are cutting or eliminating these programs. Research suggests that individuals learn foreign languages most easily before the age of 7, but most school districts do not encourage foreign language study until middle school or high school.

Passive learning chosen over active engagement
Research reveals that students are most intrinsically motivated and learn best when they are actively engaged in the learning process, but many classrooms focus more on passive learning, rote learning, and memorization. Research shows that individuals lose their natural interest in an activity when they are bribed with tangible rewards (such as stickers, prizes, or awards of various kinds), but most classroom teachers rely on these extrinsic incentives to motivate students. Research does not support the notion that learning is enhanced when instruction matches students’ “learning styles,” yet the importance of learning styles increasingly is emphasized in education.

One of the reasons educational practice differs so dramatically from educational research seems to be that people of influence in education do not appreciate or understand the value of relevant science. Most of these individuals do not seem to recognize that their opinions, often based on limited experiences, are less likely to be valid than carefully conducted scientific research. In fact, it seems that few politicians, school administrators, teachers and school board members have a good background in the science of child development or the science of education. Perhaps this, then, is the primary problem in education today.

There are many causes of this underlying problem. The best scientists are rewarded much more for sharing information with other professionals through academic journals or professional conferences than with those who might directly apply their research. Politicians are primarily concerned with the position of their party, the influence of special interests, and the relatively uneducated opinions of their constituents. Teachers increasingly do not seem to be exposed to the best science relevant to their work in their educational preparation or professional development. Courses and seminars offered to individuals interested in education often emphasize theory more than the best science available.

We should use the science that we support
Ironically, our government is one of the primary sources of funding for science in child development and education. In a time where most everyone is concerned with the government using its resources judiciously, it would seem wise — at the very least — to use the science that we already support.

Of course, science has its limitations and must be effectively applied to fit the needs of the situation. However, it seems that a greater emphasis on evidence-based practices in education may be one of the essentials to reclaiming world leadership in education and all that this means for the greater good.

Andy Tix, Ph.D., teaches psychology at Normandale Community College. He blogs regularly at The Quest for a Good Life.