Breaking Down Silos with the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative

By Eric Toshalis
January 17, 2017

Here’s an alarming thought: What if our educational research questions, policies, and practices sometimes arise as much from ignorance as they do from evidence?

I’m wondering this because I have a confession: When I was a middle school teacher, I never read educational research. Mostly this was because I had little time to do so amid the demands of teaching, but it was also because I didn’t know where to look, what to ask, or whether to care about what scholars were discovering. My day-to-day focus was on the practical and immediate—my students, my lessons, my classroom. When I did have questions, I relied on my students to tell me what was up, or I consulted the expertise of my fellow practitioners. I learned a lot from those sources, but my learning was contained, limited. But looking back, I realize now that I didn’t know what I didn’t know and that ignorance led to some problematic decisions in the classroom, like grading students’ homework rather than providing them with specific feedback regarding their progress, structuring opportunities for revision, and co-designing activities whereby students could demonstrate mastery.

Looking back, I realize now that I didn’t know what I didn’t know and that ignorance led to some problematic decisions in the classroom.

When I became a researcher, the situation persisted. As a university professor, I found I had little time to engage K-12 teachers and students but had ample time—and ample incentives—to investigate phenomena (or minutiae, depending on your perspective) that might illuminate best practices. My driving concerns as a researcher were largely empirical, methodological, critical, and institutional. When questions arose, I consulted experts in the field by reading their journal articles or attending their presentations at academic conferences. And I mostly relied on the same core group of researchers because they tended to make the most sense to me. Consequently, the knowledge I was generating mostly stayed within my profession. Déjà vu.

In short, as a teacher and as a researcher, I learned how to think and work in education within a silo. Like all researchers, policymakers, and practitioners in education I wanted progress—to make the next step further and higher than the last, to improve things, particularly for those who had been underserved or marginalized by previous approaches—but each time my role appeared to reward isolation, not collaboration.

And so it became clear to me that despite the fact that educational progress depends on a research-proven, field-tested, policy-driven evidence base, the lack of coordination and collaboration across these sectors was keeping us from moving the field forward. Which made me wonder: What if this silo situation didn’t just hinder progress but actually reversed it? And what if we did something about it?

Educational progress depends on a research-proven, field-tested, policy-driven evidence base, [and] the lack of coordination and collaboration across these sectors was keeping us from moving the field forward.

Well, we are. With core initial support from Nellie Mae Education Foundation, Jobs for the Future built the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative as a catalyst for progress. And we’re serious about the collaborative part! By working together across policy, practice, and research to examine, apply, and share knowledge about student-centered learning approaches, we are identifying and advocating for research-driven practices and policies that will advance what we know and can implement to achieve deeper learning outcomes.

How are we doing this? We’re prioritizing cross-sector collaboration, communication, and a commitment to equity alongside rigorous research. Our Distinguished Fellows, most of whom are educators or systems-leaders themselves, are working directly with our research teams on everything from instrument design to focus group facilitation. Requests for research proposals are written and awarded with input from a cross-sector group of external reviewers and our diverse group of Advisors. All Research Collaborative studies are expected to produce field-friendly materials and top-level takeaways that bring cutting-edge research findings to those who may otherwise not read them, whether due to lack of accessibility, time, familiarity with student-centered learning, or all the above.

We put our commitment to breaking down silos into practice at the November launch of the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative, which brought together researchers, practitioners, and policymakers for cross-sector conversations facilitated by leaders in the field. We spent time tackling some of the thorniest issues facing the field: What do research and practice look like from the perspective of educators? How do we incent and support more researchers of color to study these issues? Where does journalism meet research and practice? How can we leverage new knowledge to advance equity? And for teachers and students—does research even matter? Tackling these questions together—not separately—we began the hard work of co-developing agendas and concrete steps to push the field forward and bring student-centered learning approaches to scale.

In the end, if we can argue that a tree falling in the forest makes no sound if nobody is there to hear it, so too can we argue that knowledge produces zero progress if nobody becomes aware of it. Isolation is the enemy of progress, but collaboration is its catalyst! We’re just getting started, so check back next week on as the Research Collaborative team shares some big takeaways from our November launch, and join us on January 19th for our next Fellows’ Seminar.

Sign up for the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative mailing list to be the first to know about new resources, funding opportunities, and the latest news from the Research Collaborative.

The Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative is grateful for thought leadership and anchor funding from The Nellie Mae Education Foundation and additional support from Overdeck Family Foundation.

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