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What SoTL Research Does and Doesn’t Give Us

Last week I tried to write a blog post about research article reviews—those quantitative, qualitative, or narrative summaries of where the research stands on a given issue. I couldn’t make the post work. It ended up being a tirade about the disconnect between research and practice.

But I’m back at it this week, finding my way via an old article. For years, I’ve used Stanford education professor Elliot Eisner’s description of teachers as those who “orchestrate” learning. Seeing a reference to it motivated me to look up the Eisner article and reread it. Looking back, I think that’s the article that first made me aware of the complexities involved in teaching.

The piece includes a critique of the scientific orientation to education. Among several arguments is one relevant to reviews of research. The scientific approach takes teaching and learning each apart and then studies the small segments. It’s predicated on the assumption that once the variables in each segment have been isolated and controlled, the findings become predictable and can be used to build an effective educational practice. “First, you learn how to introduce the lesson, then how to pose questions to students, then how to demonstrate a principle, then how to bring a lesson to closure and when these and several other dozen—dare I say hundreds?—of teaching skills are learned, the ability to teach skillfully will have been achieved.” (p. 8)

And so, what you have in a review of research are individual studies that provide unique snapshots of how a “treatment” worked (or didn’t) in a particular situation. It’s like a photo album of a trip—it’s the same event, but the pictures are all different. What’s frustrating is the fact that photo collections are nice to look at but not terribly useful. Most reviews provide a general sense of what’s known about an aspect of teaching or learning and sometimes there’s some principles that can be extracted, but they’re still tough to apply to what unfolds in class (or online) on any given day.

And Eisner explains why—it’s that space between the research and the teaching. “What skilled teaching requires is the ability to recognize dynamic patterns, to grasp their meaning, and the ingenuity to invent ways to respond.” (p.9) Eisner’s example is a familiar one. You ask a question in class and get no verbal response. What you see are “enigmatic messages” (p. 10) on students’ faces and in their posture. You try to figure out what’s going on. Was the question unclear? Was it too hard? And almost simultaneously you start trying to figure out what to do, and it’s at this point the research gains relevance. It offers guidelines—we know things about wait time and about nonverbal immediacy. What we know doesn’t prescribe the necessary action, but it does give us options. It’s up to us to make the choice—and do so on the fly.

We can’t stand in front of the class, formulate hypotheses, run through possible theories, and thoughtfully decide on a course of action. “Students are not inclined to wait . . . Teaching action is more immediate than reflective.” (p. 10) I’ve always loved. C. Roland Christensen’s observation that trying to reflect on a discussion as it unfolds in class is like trying meditate on a speeding fire truck. The teacher has to act. It’s not that the theories and research are irrelevant, just that as Eisner points out “they are more in the background than the forefront of the action.” (p. 10)

Maybe we’re expecting too much from the research. We want certainty, predictability, results that repeat, right answers, evidence-based solutions. And that isn’t what the research delivers. And it’s why the “teacher as maestro” metaphor better captures where we are, what we have, and what we need. Behind the podium, which holds a complicated content score, we raise the baton and look to the orchestra—a collection of different instruments, some louder than others, played by those who are prepared, those who haven’t practiced, those with a lot of ability, and those who struggle. We’ve got 60 minutes and the mission for us is to take what we know and what we’ve learned from experience and use that to get these students making music with the content.

Reference: Eisner, E. (1983). The art and craft of teaching. Educational Leadership, January, 5-13.