GUEST POST: An Interview with a Writer who Believes that Stories help Science
Ulrich Boser is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he examines education issues. He just finished a book titled Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or, How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything. He is also the founding director of the Center’s science of learning initiative.
1) Tell us about your work.
I'm a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP) and work on education issues. I've been at CAP for several years, and during that time, I've examined various topics from school spending to teacher expectations. Before CAP, I was a journalist, and I worked at both Education Week and US News and World Report.
Over the past several years, I've become fascinated by the new science of learning. I think it’s a powerful lever to boost student achievement, and earlier this year, I launched an effort at CAP to promote the science of learning. We will be doing a mix of research, writing, and policy analysis.
I also just finished up a book titled "Learn Better" that looks at how people can gain skills more effectively. The book releases today and covers everything from the generation effect to the importance of spacing learning out over time.
a) You’re a writer, but you’re also a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. What does this involve?
I see myself as a translator of sorts, and I often take education research and try to shape it into something that will shift the public debate over a specific policy or program. At the same time, I spend a lot of my time tracking policy debates and figuring out ways that research can help shape those discussions.
Sometimes this work involves a lot of writing like a book. Sometimes it means doing my own research in order to answer an unanswered question. Sometimes it means having a little fun and writing a BuzzFeed quiz on “learning to learn.”
b) What do you enjoy writing about the most?
The phrase “I don’t like writing, I like having written” sums up a lot of my feelings towards writing. To put it more exactly, I find writing to be a pretty painful activity, and I’ll often do everything that I can do avoid it, from checking Twitter to grabbing a fifth cup of coffee.
But I really enjoy sharing stories, promoting new ideas, and shaping conversations over important issues. I also find writing to be a clarifying process: It makes me think more clearly about an idea. But in the end, writing is an “ends justifies the means” thing for me.
2) About science communication
a) What is the best way to translate research published in academic journals to a wider audience?
In a way, the first answer is the most obvious: Make sure the research isn’t just published in an academic journal. This is easier than it sounds, and a lot of publications are eager to push out work by scientists. The op-ed pages of most major newspapers regularly feature work by researchers. Trade publications, newsletters, and blogs can also be great venues for the translation of research.
Also consider professional networks; educators get a lot of their information from professional associations and conferences, according to one recent study (1). Academics also shouldn’t be shy when it comes to social media, and Twitter and Facebook can do lot to help spread the word about important new research.
The dissemination of research isn’t just about the platform, though. It’s also about the nature of the research itself, and academic findings gain traction when they fit into broader narratives. Practically speaking, this means seeing how research ties to bigger societal debates, from conversations about income inequality to the future of democracy.
To help with translation in this regard, I recommend using a lot of analogies. Metaphors and similes can go long way to help people understand complicated ideas, and there’s a lot of research showing that analogies are effective in learning—and communication (2).
Researchers should also rely on stories. Personal narratives are another powerful way to communicate thorny ideas. I tried to do this a lot in my recent book on learning. So instead of describing the many studies on spacing, I told the story of Roger Craig, who used the research on spacing to win at Jeopardy! To make the idea of feedback come alive, I told the story of taking basketball lessons in my forties.
For more on how to make research have a broader social impact, I’d recommend Made To Stick by the Heath brothers. It’s a wonderful book.
b) How can we challenge common misconceptions in education?
I’m a little pessimistic on this point. It’s hard to change opinions. That said, I think social norms are much more powerful when it comes to the transmission of ideas than people generally believe. We’re amazingly social beings, and no one wants to be left out of the social loop.
We can challenge misconceptions, then, by making them socially undesirable. While No Child Left Behind had a lot of flaws, it normalized conversations about the achievement gap. Or consider spanking. I think lots of people believe that spanking is an effective parenting tool. But they don’t spank their kids because it’s socially frowned upon. A good thing, honestly.
c) What are some good ways to involve teachers in research?
I think that teachers shouldn’t just be talking about research with researchers, they should be actually doing the research with researchers. Teachers should be included early on in the research process, and then should help shape the research in an on-going way.
I think David Daniel’s work is helpful on this point. He argues that the science of learning often doesn’t actually show how teachers should teach, and he recommends that more should be done to "translate" education research into school environments. Teachers could—and should—play a crucial role in this process, helping work with researchers to understand how the science of learning works in different contexts.
(1) Penuel, W. R., Briggs, D. C., Davidson, K. L., Herlihy, C., Sherer, D., Hill, H. C., ... & Allen, A. R. (2016). Findings from a National Study on Research Use Among School and District Leaders (Vol. 1). Technical Report No. 1.
(2) Gentner, D., Holyoak, K. J., & Kokinov, B. N. (2001). The analogical mind: Perspectives from cognitive science. MIT press.