What is the “education literature”?

Over on the Education in Chemistry blog, Paul MacLellan wrote an excellent article on reasons teachers don’t engage with education research, which is well worth a read. Speaking a few years ago, I used analogy of a paddle boat steamer when talking about the penetration of education research in HE. The paddles throw up some splashes as it sails over the vast quantity of water below. These splashes were meant to represent how many engage with research – taking on what they hear on the grapevine, Twitter, or CPD. It isn’t systematic.

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about whether I should expect my colleagues to read education research, and on balance, I don’t think I should. The reason stems from the argument made about different audiences by Keith Taber in MacLellan’s article, and quantified by the featured commenter under his post. And I think we need some clarity about what we mean by education research literature.

Primary, secondary, and tertiary literature

New research in any field is iterative. We know a certain amount, and someone does some research to add a little more to our understanding. In publishing these research findings, we tend to summarise what was known before to situate the work in context, and add on the new bit. As Taber points out, education has the unique position of aiming to address two audiences: like any field it is addressing other education researchers in that field; but also has a second audience; practitioners who may wish to change some aspect of their teaching, and are looking for “what works”. The trouble with the mixed audience is that the language and semantics for each are very different, leaving the practitioner feeling very frustrated. The featured comment under MacLellan’s blog documents this very well. The practitioner looking to improve faces the difficult challenge: they use some search engine with decent keywords and have to try to pick out some paper that will offer them nuggets. It really is a needle in a haystack, (or a splash of water from the river boat…).

If asked for advice, I think I would rather suggest that such practitioners would instead refer to secondary or tertiary literature. Secondary literature aims to summarise the research findings in a particular field. While it is still written with an audience of researchers from the field in mind, these reviews typically group the results from several individual studies into themes or overarching concepts, which can be useful to practitioners who may wish to see “what might work” in their own context. I recall the value of MacArthur and Jones’ review on clickers, and my own review of flipping lectures in chemistry are examples of this type.

The audience shifts more fully when we move to tertiary literature. While there is still likely two audiences for education research, the emphasis with tertiary literature is addressing a wider audience; introducing the field to a wider audience of interested readers. Typically books summarising teaching approaches are grounded in well documented research, but unlike secondary sources, they are written for those wishing to find out about the topic from an introductory level, and the language is considerate of the wider audience. Think of Taber’s books on misconceptions, and the impact they have had. More recently, the web has offered us new forms of tertiary literature – blogs are becoming more popular to disseminate the usefulness of research to a wider audience and summaries such that recently published by Tina Overton on factors to consider in teaching approaches can help introduce overarching research findings, without having to penetrate the original education research studies.

So should my colleagues read education research? I still don’t think so. A tourist to a new city wouldn’t read academic articles on transport infrastructure and architecture – they would just read the tourist guide. Of course it can be inspiring to read a case study or see what students in an individual situation experienced. But I would rather recommend secondary and tertiary sources to them if they are going to spend any valuable time reading.

And that means, in chemistry education’s case, we need a lot more of these types of publications. A recent J Chem Ed editorial suggested that they are thinking about promoting this type of publication, and any movement in that direction is welcome.

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2 thoughts on “What is the “education literature”?

  1. Useful summary Michael thanks. I really only had the time to read the primary literature when I was teaching when I was studying as part of the PGCE (a major advantage of this type of ITT) and then MEd. Taber’s book and others and the likes of Ed in Chemistry were instrumental in my learning as a teacher and in my currently
    . I think we can all do more to help teachers (and SLT) understand how research can, and should, contribute to teachers professional learning. This takes time and really should be a focus year on year, preferably as at least one INSET day a year.

  2. Michael, I think this is spot on. We are constantly wondering why methods with strong research backing doesn’t end up in practice by chemical educators that are not education researchers. Maybe most of them don’t read what we write since we are typically writing for researchers.

    This is also one of the reasons I enjoy Education in Chemistry so much, because it offers more of these research based ideas in language that is readily accessible to teachers of chemistry.

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