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From lipstick to learning: Research goes to school
HGSE Professor Kurt Fischer

To narrow the gap between research and practice in education, HGSE Professor Kurt Fischer is leading an effort to build schools that join the work of researchers and practitioners. These living, community-based “research schools” will create a fundamental infrastructure for generating usable knowledge in education.

When L’Oréal designs a new lipstick, the company field tests the product and uses information from that testing to improve the product and to refine further research. This cycle typically occurs several times before the product is mass produced.

Educators can usually only envy this cyclic development process when creating new curricula and instructional methods. Finding school partners for field testing and sustained collaboration has always been difficult – and with mounting accountability pressures, schools are reluctant to experiment with innovative techniques or take on additional responsibilities. To get around these obstacles, HGSE Professor Kurt Fischer is working to create “research schools” that will be living laboratories for field testing new techniques, training new teachers, and housing ongoing dialogue between researchers and practitioners.

Building usable knowledge in education requires a reciprocal relationship between research and practice, analogous to the relationship between biology and medicine. Fischer points out that the primary catalyst of the biology-medicine link is the teaching hospital, where researchers and practitioners work together to carry out research that is relevant to practice and train young professionals. In Fischer’s vision, research schools play an analogous role in education. Schools will partner with universities to develop research questions that are relevant to practice, field-test innovative techniques, use practical results to refine research directions, disseminate findings, and train new teachers.

Fischer spent his recent sabbatical working to establish the research school model at the Ross School, an independent school in East Hampton, NY, founded by Courtney Ross. Fischer worked closely with the Ross School to lead professional development workshops, connect teachers with recent HGSE research, and build an infrastructure there to connect research and practice. In the video clip below, from a retreat with the Ross School faculty, Fischer builds on teachers’ practical knowledge by providing research-based techniques that they can use to facilitate learning in their classrooms.

The video begins with a teacher discussing his practical understanding that children thrive with a balance of guided and independent practice. Fischer then formalizes and extends this knowledge by sharing research describing how scaffolding can help students identify gaps in their understanding. Citing an example from physics, Fischer goes on to emphasize that deep learning – gauged by the ability to transfer understanding to new problems – takes a long time.

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Fischer is also helping to develop a method for analyzing learning pathways in the school’s “spiral” cultural history curriculum. The collaborators plan to set up a database to document progress and identify best practices – data that will become usable knowledge for other schools and universities.

Fischer and several colleagues and doctoral students have also established a partnership between HGSE and the Landmark School, an independent school for students with language-based learning disabilities, located in Prides Crossing, MA. HGSE and Landmark are collaborating on several continuing research projects, led by Headmaster Robert Broudo. For example, HGSE assistant professor Jenny Thomson is using event-related potential (ERP) to investigate the role of rhythm sensitivity in reading, and HGSE graduate Todd Rose is exploring the relationship between working memory and vocabulary acquisition. The research and statistical expertise of HGSE faculty provides the Landmark School with more powerful tools to track student progress, while the school provides a site for HGSE faculty to field test innovative techniques in vivo. Research results are recorded in a Landmark database and used to refine research directions.

Research schools can play a key role in connecting research and practice in education. As Fischer explains, “In the same way that teaching hospitals ground biological research in medical practice, research schools will ground education research in school practice.”

By Christina Hinton, doctoral student in Human Development and Education at HGSE

Copyright © 2009 The President and Fellows of Harvard College