Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Odyssey Initiative

When I started writing this blog, I had the idea that someday it would lead to a large-scale school observation project: traveling the country in search of exceptional teaching practice and innovative school design. My experience in teaching had demonstrated to me what radically different sorts of institutions go by the name "school" in this country and what wildly divergent sorts of wisdom different educators have collected about how children learn and grow. I wanted to go out and see the range of teaching practices and schooling models at work in America.

My own schemes have gone off in other directions, but my friend Todd Sutler is about to embark on a journey much like the one I imagined two years ago. Along with two colleagues, Todd will "tour the best schools and classrooms in the 50 states to observe and document what is already working in American schools." The three researchers intend to use their findings to inform a new charter elementary school, which they are designing and which is scheduled to open in Brooklyn next Fall. The project, dubbed the Odyssey Initiative, is being funded on Kickstarter and is garnering attention within the education world and in the mainstream media as well.

The Odyssey Initiative and the interest it is garnering within education circles-- some of which is quite mainstream-- underscores a strange divide in the world of education research. In the academy and at the higher levels of policy analysis, quantitative methods are ascendant, and even those scholars who are doing qualitative work often rigidly control their observations, reducing teacher behaviors, for example, to a series of numerically coded gestures and expressions, in order to fit the aesthetics and aspirations of hard science. At the same time, educators and school administrators, even those in the heart of the No-Excuses movement, often make prolific use of open-ended observational methods of data collection. Schools that boast of their data-driven instruction still devote more time to classroom observations than to analysis of test-results. And the preeminent exposition of No-Excuses methodology, Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion, is not a would-be scientific analysis of teacher behaviors and student outcomes but a work of close observation and psychological interpretation, carried out by a former teacher.

Observational research is very different from more rigid methods of education research. It requires more art, depends more on the individual impressions and mindset of the researcher. It is harder to generalize from, but often more useful. It can tell us little about universal laws of behavior but can offer great insight into the practice, the techne, of education. It is a practitioner's research method-- and so, it is appropriate that three teachers planning to found a school should use it. I would like to see more education research being done by educators-- for the sake of both the schools and the research.