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May-June 2011

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Editorial: Research for Action

In the last issue of Change (March/April 2011), I talked about the conditions that make the present a wonderful time to be starting off as a college teacher—when we're seeing an intensified focus on learning and on teaching strategies that emphasize problem solving, an increasingly sophisticated body of research on the brain and on learning, technologies that open up new pedagogical possibilities, and a new attention both to general intellectual skills such as critical thinking and to student engagement. But as I was working on this issue, I was struck by the new horizons that are opening up on the research landscape as well.

Paul Lingenfelter lays out the problem of academic research clearly: methodological purity as traditionally defined is often at odds with research that actually addresses the problems of practitioners—since, as he says, “complex social and political processes do not submit easily to the reductionist methods of the scientific community.” He urges scholars to do the kind of action research first promoted by Donald Schön, where the researcher is searching not for the abstract “controlling laws” that govern many situations but an understanding of a particular, concrete set of circumstances and of “practical strategies for intervening that acknowledge complexity and that address the inevitable gap between knowledge and application.”

Fortunately, today the new technologies give researchers just entering academia a much more varied and powerful set of tools with which to do this work than we have had in the past. They enable scholars to create and manipulate large and complex data sets that can be mined for invaluable information, as Lingenfelter shows.

At first, it looked like the increased technical power we gained simply enabled us to address old questions more efficiently, just as the invention of steel seemed initially to provide not much more than a nifty new way to make false fronts for buildings. But now we're beginning to use that power to address new questions or to look at old ones in ways we hadn't thought of before—akin to the moment when someone thought to use steel inside buildings and voila! you have the skyscraper and the modern city.

Gail Mellow, Diana Woolis, and Diana Laurillard, for instance, show how technology has enabled the community colleges in the Global Skills for College Completion (GSCC) project to capture, represent, trace patterns in, and disseminate the best classroom practices of master developmental-education teachers, those whose students' success has been greater than that of their peers. In finding the figures in the carpet, they have harvested some of that practitioner wisdom that previous scholarship has so often ignored and that is such a vital component of action research.

This is the scholarship of teaching and learning taken to the next step, where it is done by a community of faculty who face the same teaching challenges. As such, it could be a model for how, say, individual disciplines might find and disseminate the most effective teaching strategies in their fields.

But Jeffrey Plank, David Feldon, William Sherman, Jennifer Elliott and their colleagues had to breach disciplinary boundaries in order to address a set of complicated real-life problems that affect the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Complex-systems thinking and computer modeling combine powerfully in the UVA Bay Game, showing how researchers can take many more variables into account in coming up with solutions to large social/political/ecological/economic challenges.

In using their students to play the game, the Bay Game faculty also teach: they call on the video-gaming expertise of their students and in turn give them a rich, ambitious, and ambiguous experience of rigorous and realistic problem-solving where “effective interventions,” as Lingenfelter says, “tend to be complex, interactive, and adaptive.” This is the kind of experience that Lillian Xie (see Listening to Students) is counting on college to offer her.

Carol Twigg's work, like that of Mellow and her colleagues, demonstrates that the new analytic power we have makes it inexcusable for us not to do more and better research on the effectiveness of our own teaching practices. This is a point Stephen Handel that made in the last issue, a propos of research on developmental education. But Twigg takes it a step further: given the unsustainable rise in the price of higher education, she looks not just at the effectiveness but at the cost-effectiveness (what Bruce Johnstone called the “learning productivity—that is, learning/cost) of those practices. Her work sets the standard for one kind of research we need to be doing on teaching from here on out—and, as Ted Marchese would say (see his response to David Arnold on continuous quality improvement in the last issue), we need to do it continuously and iteratively.

This research is vital. A couple of other articles in this issue show how we need to do a better job at promoting learning, since evidence is accumulating that our students are, on average, not becoming the nimble analytic thinkers that the future requires, possibly because we ask so little of them (in particular, not enough reading and writing to move the needle). Richard Arum and Josipa Roska aren't the first to make the case that our educational results have been disappointing: several years ago, the administration of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy to college students made much the same case (you can find The Literacy of America's College Students, 2006, at But the explicit connection to our practice is damning.

The urgency of this work is increased by the nation's new college-completion goals. Martha Kanter makes the Obama Administration's case for increasing the number of college graduates in this country in order to secure our economic, political, and civic future in an increasingly competitive world. But this means we will need to better educate all our students, including the ones we have served the least well—those whose high school preparation has been inadequate and who require remediation—if we have any hope of increasing graduation rates without a fatal diminution in the quality of the degree from what seems to be its already low average standard.

But returning to my optimistic opening, we now have the ability to tackle these problems, given our new research capacities. Scholars just entering the academy are the ones who will do most of this work, which could enliven many years of a productive career. But it is the responsibility of senior scholars and administrators to reward them for it. We cannot afford for those faculty members who met every week for hours to develop the Bay Game to discover that time they took away from disciplinary basic research is fatal to their professional ambitions—not if we're going to build the educational skyscrapers of the future, not to mention satisfy students like Lillian Xie.

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