conference: conclusion

I’m at the departure gate, waiting for my plane to begin boarding and bring me back home. It’s a calm ending to the week. The plane needs some maintenance work, so we get to wait to see how long we need to wait.

In a session yesterday, I started to pose to myself the idea that all papers presented could be reduced to a singular line: “we did something, and something good happened after that.” It was striking me that paper after paper, year after year, conference after conference, this general trend pretty much summarizes all the studies we pay attention to. “Effects of _____ [insert course here] on _____ [insert student or teacher group here] conceptions of _____ [insert concept or attitude]” is a standard format that you’ll see at any session, and within the abstract you can see something about “gains,” and later you’ll learn, probably on the third to last slide, that these students or teachers learned something. What struck me this week is not just that we keep doing the same work, over and over again, but that if you do something, perhaps anything that has any kind of deliberate attention, something good comes of it. I have yet to read any title that states, “How a Well-Intentioned Educational Innovation Really Fucked Everything Up.” It makes me wonder what we could accomplish if we spent less time presenting some only halfway presentable work and, instead, spent more time doing the deliberate work that apparently always does something good.

This morning John pointed out to me that there are a couple other strands of research that my overgeneralization overlooks. First, there is a smaller but significant number of studies that observe some natural educational environment, before anyone tries anything different. In general, these papers could be titled, “The Troubled State of Education in _____ [insert setting]: Implications for Reform.” They go on to implicate some deliberate action that should be taken and subsequently studied. A very small subset of work looks at the “meta,” the overview and synthesis of lots of other work. In short, these look at one of the two other categories of studies and they somehow summarize the results. And what do they find? The metaview of studies looking at the current state of education demonstrate that things could be improved; and the metaview of studies considering what happens when we try something out is that good things happen when you put in some deliberate effort.

So, to summarize the educational conference: Do stuff, and things will be better; the alternative, the norm, is worse.

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