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Connecting History, Research, and Practice.


I hope by this time, I have convinced you all that youth library service is education. If not, check out some of my previous columns or contact me. Library services are not formally considered education, but the work that youth librarians do is very much in line with informal education. I start here, because the rest of this column will be about education, and you can insert library services as you see fit. Consider this a peek into someone who struggles with how to apply research to the work that library staff does.

In 2000,1 was a young masters student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. At the time, everyone was talking about A Bridge Too Far (Bruer, 1997) and pushing us to learn as much as possible about neuroscience and, at the same time, bemoaning the fact that it might be a bridge too far to affect practice. The problem that Bruer pointed out is that neuroscience is too distant from educational practice to inform it. We continued to push neuroscience in the school of education with very long, weak bridges. There was a clear divide between those in the Mind Brain and Education program (those who took classes in neuropsychology, the biology of development, and trauma) and those in Teaching and Learning (those who worried about practice and actual students). I think that divide represents a struggle that continues to this day. How does/can/will research inform practice?

Horvath and Donoghue (2016), in their reexamination of Bruer's paper, explain that the scale at which neuroscience understands learning is much smaller than the scale at which educational practice understands learning and that this mismatch is what makes it nearly impossible for neuroscience research to inform practice. They argue that the mechanisms at the neural level do not act in isolation and that for these mechanisms to be useful in education, they need to be placed in the context of the entire body, community, and population. As Bruer (1997) pointed out, using knowledge at the level of neuroscience to prescribe behavior at the level of education is problematic. He described several types of bridges that attempt to make the connection, but the one of most concern is the prescriptive bridge.

The prescriptive bridge is the one most often found in professional development programs in the 1990s in which neuroscience is applied directly to the practice of education. This jump is problematic. "Although, knowledge of the brain is certainly exciting and may inspire some teachers to develop novel concepts or theories to explain classroom behavior, the levels-of-organization framework reveals that prescriptive utility (what to do in the classroom) will never spring from this knowledge" (Horvath and Donoghue, 2016, p. 9). It makes much sense that understanding the mechanism of neurons will do little to inform teacher practice. Neurons alone explain very little about what happens in a learning environment, so understanding that relatively tiny mechanism is unhelpful.

It seems that fields like cognitive science and learning sciences should be a closer and easier connection to education than neuroscience. Horvath and Donoghue (2016) lay out the layers of data, domains, and professions. They suggest that creating stronger bridges between adjacent layers is the key to bridging research and practice. If this is the case, then understanding learning at the organism level (cognitive and behavioral psychology) should be a relatively easy bridge to education practice. I am not sure that is the case.


The history of the field of learning sciences illuminates the way that psychological research has evolved to include more complex aspects of learning (Greeno, Resnick, and Collins, 1997). While more straightforward views of the behaviorist/empiricist are more distal to educational practice, they help explain the basic building blocks of learning. More complex views such as cognitive and metacognitive theories are more proximal to education and help explain the more complex processes of learning. This progression makes sense in the context of the levels as explained by Horvath and Donoghue (2016). Learning sciences seems to be moving up the layers from cells to organ, to the organism and beyond.

It seems that there is still a bridge to build from cognitive science to practice. While neuroscience is a much finer grain size and a long bridge to education, much of the reading we have done so far is also a few bridges removed from education as a system. While it is important to understand cognitive monitoring (Flavell, 1979), deliberate practice in expert performance (Ericsson and Chamess, 1994), and associative mechanisms (Crowley, Shrager, and Siegler, 1997), it is not nearly complex enough to inform practice. One of the fundamental problems with research of this type is that it is studied in isolation and comes with many limitations that inhibit its helpfulness in practice.

One of the areas I think about a lot is transfer, especially the transfer of "basic" cognitive skills. While the research points to understanding metacognitive strategies and deliberate practice (Ericsson and Chamess, 1994; Flavell, 1979), the educational market translated this research into "brain-based activities." When the focus is solely on the building of neural networks and neuroplasticity, the idea of scale and transfer is lost. "Of importance to educators is not whether these behavioral patterns scale-down to brain change, but whether they scale-up to more general, educationally relevant behavioral sets and outcomes" (Horvath and Donoghue, 2016, p. 9).

The idea of "scaling up" is of particular interest. It seems that while cognitive psychology (as I understand it) has done a great job understanding the organism and even how it connects down to the organ and possibly to the tissue and cells, it tends to ignore the upper systems and contexts. What the newer ideas in learning sciences give us is the connection to the topmost layers-the population, community, and policy (Greeno et al., 1997; Penuel, Fishman, Haugan Cheng, and Sabelli, 2011). I wonder about the connection of the whole-is there a way to connect neuroscience all the way up to policy without losing the important nuances of the research? Of course, complex mechanisms make for poor product marketing and unconvincing policy.


I think Bruer was right to worry about the prescriptive bridge between research and practice, though I do not believe that adjacent levels on the scale of learning (Horvath and Donoghue, 2016) are all that easy to bridge. I see education as a product of both the lower layers of organism, organ, tissue, and cell and the upper layers of population, community, and beyond. It is not enough to bridge cognitive science to education practice; we must also bridge it to policy, culture, and context. I will not pretend to understand the research and theory on scale, but it seems like the narrow view of neuroscience and learning still pulls at the research in cognition and learning.

There are many barriers to bridging research and practice, but I'd like to outline a few here: the history and tradition of psychology research, making research intuitive, and implementation.

The history and tradition of psychology research are of particular interest to me as a student of cognitive science. Psychology research relies heavily on controlled variables and isolated mechanisms. As the field of cognitive science and neuroscience drift farther from the fields of practice, this type of research tradition becomes less connected to education itself. While I see the practicality of this type of split, I think it does a disservice to the field and makes it incredibly difficult for those of us trying to learn and make connections between all of the research. The farther that research in the understanding of learning mechanisms drifts from education, the more watered down the understanding is in the field. It seems counterintuitive that educators not be educated in the mechanisms of learning. As a practitioner, isolated variables add little to the reality of practice.

The second barrier is making research intuitive. My experience as a practitioner and peer educator has taught me that research is not accessible. Without a university affiliation, articles are unavailable, and even if they are, they are neither easy to understand nor to put into practice. I struggled with this myself, and I had more education than most of my peers in the subject. When research is not accessible, practitioners use what they have--practice journals, news reports, and intuition. Any researcher knows that all studies come with caveats and limitations, but those are not reported in readily available media. This type of watered-down understanding of learning puts practitioners in a vulnerable position. Software, textbook, and training companies are more than happy to provide prescriptive training, technology, and oversimplified learning theories for these thirsty educators. The lure of results and simple, intuitive practices is strong. This is a gross oversimplification, of course, as many educators are savvy enough to avoid these traps and educate themselves. I have taught enough professional development to know that formulas are alluring and much more satisfying than the complexity and messiness I can describe as an academic.

This leads to the problem of implementation. Psychology studies are limited by a sample. Means are measured and tracked, and growth is reported. It is enough for a psychology researcher to say that the average score improved with the use of a certain intervention. For an educator, this may not be enough. Each student comes with a host of expectations, aspirations, and demanding family members. A family is never going to accept that the mean score improved when Little Johnny is at the low end of the bell curve. Not only that, but implementation must be done at a rapid-fire pace with guaranteed results for someone to risk the time and energy to learn it.


In many respects, formal education moves much more slowly than informal (Halpern, 2003). The lack of coherence in training, however, creates an uneven application of research into everyday practice. This loose coupling in the field (Labaree, 1997) makes room for innovation, but it also makes shared goal setting and pooling resources difficult or impossible. In the small pockets of innovation, there may be room for a more holistic view of education based on research and theory. These environments could be perfect for these types of context-dependent research-based learning over the pre-packaged, scripted methods (Akiva, Li, Martin, Horner, and McNamara, 2016). This kind of training, even in the most enlightened institutions, is labor intensive and challenging.

The strength of formal education is its relatively clear goals. While the goals of informal education are dependent on institution, funding, and resources, the goals of formal education in the United States is relatively clear--fairly. Learning itself could be unpacked further to determine if goals are actually about understanding, metacognition, and strategy, or a transfer. Unfortunately, that kind of unpacking has to be done by people who have access to and understand the research and theory. If policymakers--people who have minimal experience with both research and practice--then those goals are going to be subject to the politics of marketing, public appeal, and simple, watered-down science. Even local goals, if set by practitioners, are going to lack the nuance that could be provided by learning theory and research.

In my opinion, the best way to bridge research and practice is to bridge it with experience. People with substantial experience and identities in both worlds can help leverage partnerships, translate for both sides, and create useful tools for professionals that do not deflate the meaning of the research. Bruer (1997) worried that neuroscience was a bridge too far to education practice. I think he is right, but I also think that the bridge between practice and research itself is a daunting pursuit.


Akiva, Thomas, Junlei Li, Kelly M. Martin, Christy Galletta Horner, and Anne R. McNamara. "Simple Interactions: Piloting a Strengths-Based and Interaction-Based Professional Development Intervention for Out-of-School Time Programs." Child & Youth Care Forum. 46, 3. June 2016: 285-305.

Bruer, John T. "Education and the Brain: A Bridge Too Far." Educational Researcher, 26(8), 1997: 4-16.

Crowley, Kevin, Jeff Shrager, and Robert S. Siegler. "Strategy Discovery as a Competitive Negotiation between Metacognitive and Associative Mechanisms." Developmental Review, 17(4). 1997: 462-489.

Ericsson, Karl A., and Neil Charness. "Expert Performance: Its Structure and Acquisition." American Psychologist, 49(8). August 1994: 725-747.

Flavell, John H. "Metacognition and Cognitive Monitoring: A New Area of Cognitive Developmental Inquiry" American Psychologist. 34(10) 1979:906-911.

Greeno, James G., Lauren B. Resnick, and Allan M. Collins. "Cognition and Learning." In D. C. Berliner and R. C. Caitee (Eds.), Handbook of Educational Psychology (pp. 15-46). Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Halpern, Robert. Making Play Work: The Promise of After-School Programs for Low-Income Children. Teacher's College Press, 2003. 208p. $54. 978-08077-4370-6.

Horvath, Jared C., and Gregory M. Donoghue. "A Bridge Too Far--Revisited: Reframing Bruer's Neuroeducation Argument for Modern Science of Learning Practitioners." Frontiers in Psychology. March 16, 2016: 1-12.

Kirschner, Paul, John Sweller, and Richard Edward Clark. "Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work" Educational Psychologist. 41(2) June 2006: 87-98.

Kuhn, Deanna. "Is Direct Instruction an Answer to the Right Question?" Educational Psychologist, 42(2) December 5, 2007: 109-113.

Labaree, David F. "Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals." American Educational Research Journal. 34(1) January 1, 1997: 39-81.

Penuel, William R., Barry J. Fishman, Britte Haugan Cheng, and Nora Sabelli. "Organizing Research and Development at the Intersection of Learning, Implementation, and Design." Educational Researcher. 40(7) 2011: 331-337.

Sharon Colvin is currently a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education, where she is studying libraries as informal learning spaces. She was a youth services librarian for ten years in Massachusetts and Vermont and is passionate about public libraries. Colvin has a master's in education from Harvard University and a master's in library science from Simmons College. She currently resides in Pittsburgh with her two cats and remains addicted to YA literature.
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Title Annotation:research connections
Author:Colvin, Sharon
Publication:Voice of Youth Advocates
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2019
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