Implementation Issues are Research Worthy, Too!

Historically, academic research in the K–12 has been, by and large, focused on cognitive issues (e.g., why are children having difficulty learning to read?) and instructional strategy issues (e.g., how can instruction address children’s’ challenges to reading?). But, "Designing effective, scalable and sustainable [educational] policies and programs in education is challenging." (Our emphasis.) To say the least! While cognitive challenges are without question paramount, there are many other challenges to designing effective, scalable, and sustainable [educational] policies and programs … "

For example, consider the following vignettes. We would venture to guess that everyone who has been in a K–12 classroom — teacher, IT person, administrator — will resonate with some, if not all, of these situations.

  1. A local university, doing typical K–12 research (i.e., focusing on cognitive issues and teacher strategy issues) has just donated a classroom set of computers to a school for one teacher, who is involved in the research project, to use on a daily basis. The IT department insists that it needs to load the network password onto new computers, since the IT department feels it would be a violation of CIPA for someone from the research group to do that loading. But, unfortunately, the IT group is busy for at least the next 30-60 days.
  2. In order to participate in a research project — and receive professional development, new and exciting digital curricula, support in developing new formative assessment techniques, etc. — a fourth grade teacher needs to have access to a computer cart with a class set of computers relatively regularly (not daily, but typically two to three times per week) for one semester. But, because of “equity issues” the cart is available to all the fourth grade teachers on a first-come, first-served basis, and the cart must be signed out daily.
  3. The principal of an elementary school has agreed that three of his/her teachers will participate in a collaborative research project with a nearby university. The teachers were informed of the principal’s decision. Now, parents must sign a "release form" in order to allow (or decline to sign and thus not allow) their child to participate in the research project since each child needs to have an email address — that won’t be used for email but simply to access apps. But the researchers are perplexed that a month into the project the forms still haven’t been sent to the parents.
  4. A third grade class of students are trying out their new Chromebooks for the first time. One feature that the researchers were excited about and carefully showed the students how to use is this: On the screen, first highlight a word, a set of words or even a sentence, and then click the microphone icon. Those highlighted words are now spoken by the computer. Well, one clever youngster figured out that he/she could highlight a piece of word, e.g., highlight just the letters "ass" inside the word "classroom," click the microphone, and bingo — "ass" is spoken aloud. The youngster, of course, told his/her neighbors, who told their neighbors, etc. about this amazing computer technique. Soon, the classroom was buzzing with spoken instances of that portion of the word "classroom." Upset, the teacher stopped the lesson, and told the students to put their computers back into the charging cart — immediately. 

You can relate, right? And, without question, the above situations are all true events — one couldn’t — and doesn’t need to — make this stuff up!

Now, in each of above situations, the first reaction is usually anger, frustration and finger pointing, with a healthy dose of righteous indignation on everyone’s part! Unfortunately, those emotions tend not to lead to positive, effective resolutions — just more of the same bad feelings. Surely there must be a better way to deal with these sorts of situations — since these sorts of situations can and will negate the excellent instructional strategies developed as a result of excellent cognitive research.

Enter, stage left, a better way! Now, just as in cognitive research one asks "why," in DBIR — Design-Based Implementation Research — one also asks "why" — but instead of exploring a cognitive question, in DBIR one explores an implementation situation, e.g., why can’t the IT staff find time to set up the computers for the researchers? Why can’t a teacher have priority in reserving a computer cart?

In DBIR one uses surveys, interviews, and observations — standard research practices — to find out the "why" — to find out the real reasons for the behaviors that are causing the roadblocks. And then armed with that understanding specific actions can be taken — and a deeper understanding for the future can be developed.

For example, using an interview process, it was discovered that the school IT people, in scenario No. 1, were worried that they now were to be responsible to maintain 35 new computers — and that responsibility had not been planned for in their staffing plans. Interestingly, a conversation was held with the research group and the school IT people, where the researchers assured the school IT people that they, the researchers, would minister to the 35 new computers. And guess what — the day after that conversation someone on the school IT staff found time to put that network password into the 35 new computers.

In DBIR, all implementation issues are research worthy. In DBIR, "roadblocks" are really just learning opportunities. In DBIR, the goal is to design "effective, scalable and sustainable [educational] policies and programs" and implementation issues — not just the cognitive ones — are considered first-class opportunities for research.   

DBIR is a newly emerging R&D methodology for K–12. Consider this characterization from the DBIR website, then:

  • "Designing effective, scalable and sustainable policies and programs in education is challenging. Programs that work in one setting may not work in another …. Many programs require more resources and know-how than individual researchers and educators can provide to make them work for all students …. Design-Based Implementation Research (DBIR) is an approach to organizing research and development intended to address these challenges. It is an emerging approach to relating research and practice that is collaborative, iterative and grounded in systematic inquiry. DBIR builds the capacity of systems to engage in continuous improvement, so that we can accomplish the transformation of teaching and learning we seek."

Consistent with our blog’s theme of "Reinventing Curricula" we feel that research itself needs reinvention! Straight cognitive research isn’t enough if our goal is to design "effective, scalable and sustainable [educational] policies and programs." Towards that reinvention then, we very much like the DBIR methodology and we urge our readers to explore the DBIR website. In particular, review the principles of the DBIR methodology and the case studies of its use in K–12 classrooms.  In subsequent blog posts, we will take deeper dives into DBIR in order to understand how it can lead to the design of "effective, scalable and sustainable [educational] policies and programs."

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