Teachers College’s new President, Thomas Bailey, cares a lot about doing good research and ensuring that it makes an impact in the real world. Following the 2008 Phyllis L. Kossoff Lecture in Education & Policy delivered by New York City Public Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, an Academic Symposium during the week of Bailey’s inauguration featured two academic panels:
1. Marking Research That Matters: Building Consensus for Great Ideas
Watch the panel “Making Research That Matters: Building Consensus for Great Ideas,” featuring TC faculty Laudan Jahromi, Kimberly Noble, Douglas Ready, Robert Siegler and Haeny Yoon.
A while back, preparing for a major research conference, Haeny Yoon suggested creating a Special Interest Group (SIG) devoted to play. “Why?” the conference organizers responded. After all, there were already two SIGs devoted to early childhood education — so what was the point of a third?
“And that was really an impetus for asking bigger questions,” said Yoon, Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education, during “Making Research that Matters: Building Consensus for Great Ideas,” the second of three panel discussions that constituted the academic symposium held during Inauguration Week. “Is play only about early childhood, or is play something artistic and visual? Is play something adults do? Do teachers play? Do curriculum designers play? Do policymakers play?”
“No!” interjected Doug Ready, Associate Professor of Education & Public Policy.
Yoon laughed along with the rest of the audience, but continued, “Sometimes you get ideas from across different disciplines. It’s the idea that this is the research I want to do, and these are the people and disciplines that might fit into it and that might even afford me a new way of looking at something.”
Moderated by Laudan Jahromi, Associate Professor of Psychology & Education, the panelists — Yoon; Ready; Kimberly Noble, Associate Professor of Neuroscience & Education; and Robert Siegler,, Jacob H. Schiff Foundations Professor of Psychology & Education — grappled with questions such as: Is there a secret sauce for coming up with and conducting great research? How important is it to take a multidisciplinary approach? and What are the benefits of being a researcher at Teachers College?
“I think if your work is inherently and in a meaningful way informing a diverse group of fields, and if you get the point across, that’s the best outcome as a faculty member. And TC definitely recognizes the importance of that kind of work.”
— Laudan Jahromi
“For me, what’s really been powerful is to bring a more basic side of neuroscience into a public policy domain,” said Noble, who made international headlines three years ago with a study that found a negative association between poverty and brain development in young children. She’s now leading a national study to determine the impact on children ages zero to three whose mothers are given cash supplements. “As a neuroscientist, I can talk about correlations, but not about causality without talking with people from other fields.”
Siegler, an internationally known expert on children’s mathematical development, said he’s most interested in “what’s important, what we don’t know much about,” as well as areas where “we do have methods and could make progress, but just haven’t.” Too much research in academia “follows the herd,” he said, with the result that (as the late TC and Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler once put it) we know “more and more about less and less.”
Yoon said that, as a former school teacher, she became interested in conducting research about young children because “a lot of kids are labeled as underperforming, but when we look at their practices outside what is deemed normal, they’re doing a lot of really sophisticated things — and we can capture that through studies of play.”
And Ready, said simply, “I always just want to write about what I want to write about, and if something is hot but boring to me, I won’t focus on it. And what that’s meant over the past few decades is that, methodologically, I’m all over the map. Some questions are clear causal questions — does X cause Y. So we’re evaluating several middle school math curricula, and we’re doing randomized control trials, because the question is, do kids who experience this math curriculum learn more math? It’s clearly an X causes Y. But [for] other really important questions, we can’t randomize the treatment. So the study we did of school suspension in New York City focused on black males — we obviously couldn’t and don’t want to randomize suspensions. And so, answering that question demands a whole other methodology.”
Being at TC, all agreed, offers distinct advantages in shaping research and building a career that can follow less rigidly defined paths.
“I’ve had my work cited in development psychology-types of journals in child development, in autism journals, in culturally diverse types of journal outlets,” said Jahromi, who directs TC’s Intellectual Disabilities/Autism programs and has conducted extensive studies on emotional self-regulation in children with those issues — particularly immigrant children. “There’s a challenge to that when your work is being evaluated by the outside field, because the question becomes, ‘Who are those people in your field?’ Because you don’t just identify with one field, and you have to speak across the board. But I think if your work is inherently, and in a meaningful way, informing a diverse group of fields, and if you get the point across, that’s the best outcome as a faculty member. And TC definitely recognizes the importance of that kind of work.”
Siegler said that TC, by virtue of being in New York City, has given him access to “an incredibly diverse and interesting population of children,” which has enabled him to explore different factors that might be responsible for poor achievement in mathematics. And because nearly all disciplines at TC are in some way focused on education, he said, departments and fields are less siloed than at traditional universities.
Interestingly, however, there was less consensus about the importance of “multidisciplinarity,” as Ready called it.
“About once a year, a student in economics comes into my office and says something like, ‘I want to do a regression discontinuity design — do you have a good question?’” he said. “And I reply, ‘I think you have that a little backwards, what’s the question first?’” Similarly, “people often say, ‘I want to build a multidisciplinary team,’ and sometimes that makes a lot of sense, and sometimes that makes less sense. You have to think about, ‘What’s the question?’ and to what extent does addressing the question require a multidisciplinary team?”
Siegler agreed. “It’s more about the skill sets you need rather than the disciplines,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s the research question you’re asking that’s fundamental. Everything else follows from it.”
Still all agreed that TC offers unique opportunities to partner with the best people, whomever they might be. Ready and Noble recalled meeting one another for the first time several years ago at a faculty picnic.
“It’s more about the skill sets you need rather than the disciplines,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s the research question you’re asking that’s fundamental. Everything else follows from it.”
— Robert Siegler
“It wouldn’t have been common that I’d have had a ton to talk about with an economist — but we did because our work really does have commonalities,” said Noble.
“We started out talking about how do you measure the link between socioeconomic status and child outcomes, and the challenge of measuring that in a causal way, and she said, ‘Well, we’re trying to figure out a way to randomize this cash intervention among babies,’” Ready recalled. “And my mouth just dropped open — ‘This is so cool!’ And we went on from there, and there I am eating a hotdog with a neuroscientist in Morningside Park. And I don’t know many other institutions where that would happen.”
2. Practice Makes (Almost) Perfect: Working with Practitioners in the Field
Watch the panel “Practice Makes (Almost) Perfect: Working with Practitioners in the Field,” featuring TC faculty Erica Walker, Thomas Brock, Charles Basch, Christopher Emdin, and Marie Miville.
As a new geometry teacher at a large urban high school, Erica Walker arrived one morning to find 15 students she’d never met before waiting outside her classroom. The principal had sent them after they’d complained they weren’t learning enough from another teacher. Walker already had her hands full, so she improvised, recruiting the best students from both classes to help lead tutoring sessions. Word spread, Walker obtained a breakfast budget, and soon “every day before school my classroom was full of kids doing geometry. It was a beautiful sight.”
In fact, the peer-tutoring model created on the fly by Walker — now Professor of Mathematics & Education and Chair of Teachers College’s Department of Mathematics, Science & Technology— was so successful that she made it the focus of her dissertation and, subsequently, a book (Building Mathematics Learning Communities: Improving Outcomes in Urban High Schools, published in 2012 by Teachers College Press). Much of her current research in local schools still employs that model.
“So this is an example of how a practitioner’s work can inspire a researcher’s work,” Walker said after telling that story to open “Practice Makes (Almost) Perfect: Working with Practitioners in the Field,” the panel she moderated as part of the Inauguration Week Academic Symposium. “It just so happens that, in this case, the practitioner was me, and the researcher was me, too. We sometimes think of the relationship between researchers and practitioners as one-way, and I’d like to push back on that.”
Walker’s fellow panelists went even further.
“I wouldn’t have a research agenda if there weren’t practitioners informing the work I’m thinking about,” said Christopher Emdin, Associate Professor of Science Education, who has introduced the idea of hip-hop pedagogy to teachers around the world. “At the anchor of any research are the problems or successes that a practitioner finds. So I think the idea of the researcher existing outside of the work is the problem. We can’t be effective researchers if we’re not willing to go out there and engage in the practice with you.”
“I wouldn’t have a research agenda if there weren’t practitioners informing the work I’m thinking about. At the anchor of any research are the problems or successes that a practitioner finds.”
— Christopher Emdin
Emdin, who has published several books and scores of research articles, added that the chief means of distribution for his research is a chat group he started seven years ago. “It was very lonely, basically me tweeting into nowhere, but it’s since become a place where educators across the country — so, teachers, parents, high school students and professors — are together every Tuesday night at nine p.m. Eastern talking about the intersections of hip hop and education, hearing research from right away — how it affects practice.”
Charles Basch, Richard March Hoe Professor of Health & Education, spent years assembling data showing that poor and minority students are disproportionately affected by a group of health conditions that includes asthma, teen pregnancy, violence, attention deficit disorder and insufficient breakfast, and that, taken together, these disparities are a major contributor to the nation’s academic achievement gap. But that effort was only the first step in a campaign he has since waged to focus national attention on the problem and, in particular, prompt schools to incorporate student health as a fundamental part of their mission.
“Our greatest challenge as an institution is to put in place what we already know,” he said. “And the only way to do that is to put it in practice with practitioners. You have to involve them from the outset to conceptualize and design the approaches.”
“Our greatest challenge as an institution is to put in place what we already know. And the only way to do that is to put it in practice with practitioners. You have to involve them from the outset to conceptualize and design the approaches.”
— Charles Basch
Marie Miville, Professor of Psychology & Education and Chair of the Department of Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, said that practitioners “oftentimes are the voices of the people in a way that researchers in our academic world are not.”
Some years ago, as a faculty member at Oklahoma State University, Miville worked on a program to educate indigenous children. At TC, she co-founded the College’s bilingual concentration in Latina/o Mental Health, which has worked extensively with communities in Washington Heights and other areas of the city.
“Practitioners can introduce us to community members who are extremely powerful and just raw and honest about what works and doesn’t work,” she said. “We’re trained that this is how research is going to look, but when you work with exploited tribes who’ve been hurt by research, there’s no protocol. You’ve got to get to know the leaders, go to the sweat lodges. Because with communities that have been exploited or have never really had their faces represented around the table of a research project, you have to be there, you have to be present, and you and your team or students have to be a group of people that’s trusted and respected first, before you say, ‘How can we help?’ Because for years, ‘How can we help?’ has meant ‘How can we impose our thoughts on yours?’”
“With communities that have been exploited or have never really had their faces represented around the table of a research project, you have to be there, you have to be present, and you and your team or students have to be a group of people that’s trusted and respected first, before you say, ‘How can we help?’ Because for years, ‘How can we help?’ has meant ‘How can we impose our thoughts on yours?’”
— Marie Miville
Thomas Brock, who joined TC’s faculty this year as Research Professor and Director of the Community College Research Center, concurred. “We come in as researchers not to impose but to listen — and that is probably the most important factor in making research work.”
In his previous role, as Commissioner of the National Center for Education Research at the Institute of Education Sciences, Brock introduced Research Networks Focused on Critical Problems of Policy and Practice, a grant program specifically aimed at promoting greater collaboration between research teams and practitioners in the field.
“The premise, which you had to document, was that the question had to come from the practitioner,” Brock said. “Also, the practitioners and researchers had to work together in all phases of the results, including data collection, analysis and dissemination. We learned that practitioners are the greatest disseminators in the world. They are more convincing and persuasive when they get on a stage to talk about the work and how it made a difference in their schools than even the best lecturer or professor that I’ve encountered.”
Yet these collaborations didn’t cohere overnight, Brock said, in part because the teams needed to sort out who the right players were and what their roles should be, and in part because it simply took time to build trust.
“Often, at the beginning, they were just trying to understand a problem,” he said. “Rarely were they ready to jump into a randomized controlled trial right at the outset.”
Emdin, too, lobbied for thoughtful deliberation, responsibility and patience in the implementation of research studies and projects. Case in point, he said, was his Science GENIUS program, a curriculum that embeds a deep understanding of STEM subjects through hip-hop music. Though the program has been widely acclaimed by the media and peers for its success in New York City, Emdin views it as a work-in-progress that has required a lot of adaptation to local cultures as he has exported it to Jamaica, Canada, and even other American cities.
“I’m not going to do fast food research when we need soul food,” Emdin told the symposium. “Fast food means I run in there and churn something out. This requires Thanksgiving dinner work. That allows you to get an investment.”
Ultimately, he said, many students automatically react to school as boring. The trick for any teacher — and the premise of using hip hop — is to observe what young people do when they’re not in school mode, see what gives them joy and import that activity into the classroom.
Miville agreed. “Learning is as emotional as it is cognitive, and to be able to access the heart as well as the mind — I have found that’s where the learning and insights happen. I call it dancing on the precipice of risk. When you’re truly open to what someone is trying to tell you, you’re quiet, you’re listening — and that’s the energy teachers, practitioners and researchers all must bring to the table. Our ability to access the other person’s joy, that’s what builds motivation.”