These days there is a lot of talk about “educational applications” of research in psychology. More than ever before, funding organizations (like the National Science Foundation) are putting the pressure on researchers to do work that can tell us how to improve the country’s educational system. At the same time, there’s no clear answer to this crucial question: where’s the line between learning that’s relevant to education and learning that’s not?
Some research is obviously relevant to learning in school. In the education community, many people believe in the power of discovery learning, or letting students learn a concept by realizing it through their own exploration. Klahr and Nigam (2004) compared this teaching method with direct instruction, where new information is introduced by a teacher. The goal was to teach elementray school children how to design a good science experiment. Students who got direct instruction improved more at designing experiments, more so than students who got discovery learning. So unlike many educators had thought, letting students figure it out for themselves can be a lot less effective than learning through a teacher.
Klahr’s studies clearly have a lot to say about how to improve education in schools. But what about much of the other research being done in psychology? There is a big push now in the US to improve math and science education in particular. It turns out that people with better spatial thinking (like imagining an object and spinning it around in your mind’s eye) tend to get jobs in math and the sciences. A recent article in an education journal written by a psychologist (Newcombe, 2010) offers some techniques that parents and educators can use to improve kids’ spatial thinking. Each suggestion is based on research done in psychology. Should this kind of research be used in this way?
Applying research done in psychology to education is a very tricky business. For example, one of the suggestions in the Newcombe article is to do jigsaw puzzles with children to improve their spatial thinking. The article only cites one unpublished research to support this suggestion. Practical advice to parents and teachers should be based on findings backed up by a large body of research. In medicine, we’d want to know that lots of studies found a link between eating grapefruit and breast cancer, before cautioning women to run away from citrus – and the same should apply for education.
Another important detail: the study mentioned in the Newcombe found that kids who played with puzzles tended to have better spatial thinking later on. This means we still don’t know whether playing with puzzles directly leads to better spatial thinking. And as a general rule, it’s hard to know in advance whether a finding from a lab will hold up in the messy environment of a real classroom. So testing research findings in a school-like setting is another important step to take before applying them to education.
Ideally, educators should only pay attention to findings that are (1) based on many experiments, (2) show a direct link between learning strategies and learning outcomes, and (3) hold up in the classroom. Most research in psychology has a long way to go to meet these standards. In fact, Newcombe and some other scientists admit to as much in another article: “We do not have an overarching and interconnected theory…that can suggest practical instructional strategies…for a broad range of topics in the sciences” (Newcombe et al., 2009).
Here’s the good news: although there’s lots of work to be done, this story will eventually have a happy ending. Psychologists live off government funding; more and more of that funding is being earmarked for studies with educational applications. So many years from now, when enough research has been done, our grandchildren might finally get a good education.