Teaching Science in 21st Century

 Teaching Science in the 21st Century: Translational Research in Education
2006-11-03 – NSTA Reports–James E. Hamos


In a recent article on the implications of brain research for teaching and learning (Hamos, 2006), I started by recommending that the application of such research to educational practice needs “to be done with caution and with a realization of the limitations.” One wonders why this note of skepticism at the start of an article that would draw upon exciting, cutting-edge fields such as neuroscience and cognitive science? Basic research findings are exploding in these fields as more scientists from many disciplines are drawn to trying to understand how the brain works at all levels, from molecules and cells to behavior and cognition. Indeed, the Society for Neuroscience, America’s key organization devoted to unlocking the underlying mechanisms of how the brain and nervous system function, draws on a membership of over 37,000 scientists. Conferences, such as those offered by the Learning & the Brain Society (www.edupr.com), focus on connections between learning and the brain; they attract thousands of educators intent on applying new research knowledge to practice.

While new brain-based findings are truly exciting, it is precisely the desire to link basic research findings with educational practice that prompted the earlier cautionary tone. Translating educational research into educational practice has long been difficult, and is the central theme of the current article. I believe that major research findings on the brain are still emerging with some convergence on aspects of how this wonderful organ works, and that the findings related to learning have yet to be carefully linked to educational practice in a manner that would benefit students and their teachers. Indeed, the research to practice divide plagues much of education, which is more likely to be impacted by political winds and local customs than by carefully researched ideas.

During the 20th century, efforts to conduct educational research evolved with many commentaries discussing how findings of research might be applied broadly to classrooms, as well as critiques that seldom are there transfers between research and practice. During this time, educational research typically included scholarly inquiry related to education and evaluation of efforts to experiment in education, as well as dialogue on the wide range of research methods used to study education. By the end of the century, Kennedy (1997) produced an excellent review that reflected on possible explanations for the lack of connection between research and practice, while proposing ways to make research more accessible to practitioners. Still, the conversation persists. In a recent commentary, Fleischman, Kohlmoos, and Rotherham (2003) posit “Why do educators and policy leaders frequently fail to utilize education research?” They then highlight a number of factors that they believe result in this failure, before raising the belief that now is an opportune time to move beyond the issue, and especially point to recommendations in the National Research Council’s (NRC) report Scientific Research in Education (2002).

If research conducted on schools and classroom has not been made broadly relevant to practice, one wonders about research on learning that is a step further removed, yet must certainly relate to student success in the educational environment. In my earlier article, I pointed to How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (NRC, 1999) and subsequent reports from the NRC as important contemporary efforts to bring together what is known about human learning. Interestingly, the authors of these works were challenged to relate their synthesis of the research literature to classroom practice, and the outcome was How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice (NRC, 1999). This volume summarizes key findings of the larger body of work, but does not succeed in transferring the knowledge in a manner that has been useful to classroom teachers or to policymakers who might influence the work of practitioners. To the authors’ credit, this is brought out in the chapter entitled “Responses from the Education and Policy Communities.” They noted that educators remarked that “research findings need to be organized and communicated to teachers and other educators in a way that is easy to comprehend and to integrate into their current thinking” and that “collaboration between teachers and researchers will require a change in the relationship between the two groups” (p. 26). Additionally, the policy community reflected that “for research to be useful in policy arenas, it must emphasize the link between research findings and policies that address the practical issues of education” (p. 28).

What, then, might be among the ways to further efforts to bridge the research to practice gap? Borrowing a term that has become prevalent over the past decade in the desire to bridge the biomedical sciences and clinical medicine, where there also have been failures to rapidly transfer basic research findings to applications in practice, I propose that readers examine the concept of translational research to determine how it can be adapted to education. To define translational research, one can look to the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) effort to re-engineer the clinical research enterprise, wherein the Office of Portfolio Analysis and Strategic Initiatives has developed a roadmap for clinical research that characterizes translational research as follows:

To improve human health, scientific discoveries must be translated into practical applications. Such discoveries typically begin at “the bench” with basic research—in which scientists study disease at a molecular or cellular level—then progress to the clinical level, or the patient’s “bedside.” Scientists are increasingly aware that this bench-to-bedside approach to translational research is really a two-way street. Basic scientists provide clinicians with new tools for use in patients and for assessment of their impact, and clinical researchers make novel observations about the nature and progression of disease that often stimulate basic investigations. Translational research has proven to be a powerful process that drives the clinical research engine. (NIH, 2006)

I suggest that the analogy to the world of education would be appropriate, connecting educational research—stretching from basic brain research on memory and learning to cognitive sciences and the science of learning to studies of educational interventions—with practical applications for classrooms, schools, and school districts that will benefit students.

Translational research in education, similar to medicine, would also be a two-way street between practitioners and researchers with active participation by all members in multidisciplinary teams, and significant support by administrators to conduct such work. Funders would need to realize that they must commit significant dollars for an appropriate duration of time to enable the evaluation and translation of ideas from research to practice. Practitioners cannot be passive recipients of research-funded professional development; rather, teachers would need to be significant contributors to the work, building on solid traditions, mostly with local impact, such as action research and involvement with university colleagues in professional development schools. Researchers would need to consider ideas that have a strong theoretical base and that would be applicable to significant institutionalization in schools and classrooms if brought to scale. I’ll do my part to enable such an approach. Will you?

Opinions and conclusions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

For more information on the NSTA Press book Teaching Science in the 21st Century that inspired this series, visit http://store.nsta.org/showItem.asp?product=PB195X.


Fleischman, S., J. W. Kohlmoos, and A. J. Rotherham. 2003. From Research to Practice: What is the appropriate role of education research in teaching and learning? Education Week, March 12.

Hamos, J. E. 2006. Brain Research: Implications for Teaching and Learning. In Teaching Science in the 21st Century. J. Rhoton and P. Shane (eds.) Arlington, VA: NSTA Press. Pages 275-289.

Kennedy, M.M. 1997. The Connection Between Research and Practice. Educational Researcher, 26(7): 4-12.

National Institute of Health, Office of Portfolio Analysis and Strategic Initiatives. 2006. Re-engineering the Clinical Research Enterprise. http://nihroadmap.nih.gov/clinicalresearch/overview-translational.asp.

National Research Council (NRC). 1999. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. J.D. Bransford, A.L. Brown and R.R. Cocking (eds.) Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

National Research Council (NRC). 1999. How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice. M.S. Donovan, J. D. Bransford, and J.W. Pellegrino (eds.) Committee on Learning Research and Educational Practice, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

National Research Council (NRC). 2002. Scientific Research in Education. R.J. Shavelson and L. Towne (eds.) Committee on Scientific Principles for Education Research, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

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