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Originally published Thursday, May 2, 2013 at 3:58 PM

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Moving education theory from the lab to the classroom

Pay attention to the American Educational Research Association, writes columnist Lynne K. Varner. The ideas and trends discussed by its members today will be part of the education-policy debates of tomorrow.

Times editorial columnist

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The critical need to translate education research into practice is not lost on members of the American Educational Research Association.

Watch this group. They are the primary conduit for moving pedagogical research from the lab to the classroom. What they are talking about now will wind up as fodder in education-policy debates at state boards of education, state legislatures and Congress.

The organization just wrapped up a weeklong annual meeting in San Francisco.

The theme: “Education and Poverty: Theory, Research, Policy and Praxis,” was enough to conjure up images of Ph.Ds stroking their chins while pondering algorithms. But I tuned in online and am convinced that effective improvements in the public schools start not at the legislative level, but among the researchers pushing esoteric ideas backed by quantifiable results.

I’ve written about education long enough to have a sense of what works. But researchers convey an authority that comes from saying, “When you do this, it leads to that and we know it because we’ve tested it over and over.”

Certified smart people planting seeds that will eventually translate into solutions for some of education’s most vexing problems is worth our attention.

“We have more and better theories than we ever had before,” said Margery Ginsberg, an associate professor of education at the University of Washington.

Ginsberg attended the conference and walked away with the “Relating Research to Practice Award” for her work coaching teachers at Cleveland High School.

Coaching teachers is one example of a tested educational theory, albeit a simpler one. Research has proved that in the absence of coaching, teachers — and anyone for that matter — will continue to do what they’ve always done.

When it comes to teaching, universities tend to be viewed narrowly as training programs. But Ginsberg and her research colleagues smartly see themselves as coaches working to help teachers throughout their careers.

Ginsberg has developed four priorities for Cleveland’s teachers struggling to engage students. She calls them the four R’s: relationships, relevancy, rigor and results.

Students who tend not to be successful in school need positive relationships with one another and the teacher. They need classwork that is relevant and rigorous. And they need to see results of their work. Ginsberg is on to something.

A study reported in The New York Times found the biggest education gaps are between rich and poor students. No surprise there. But part of the puzzle was that wealthier students are more likely to see education’s payoff, in both good grades and a good life. They are motivated to do well because they know it will pay dividends. Poorer students have fewer examples of the ways education translates into economic and personal success.

Here’s what education researchers are talking about now:

• How does a teacher create learning projects that include an appropriate level of challenge and inquiry, relevancy, engages each student in the project and desirable results, that is, students actually learning something?

• How do social media and technology impact learning, instruction and future education research? Twitter as a literacy tool. I’m not joking. It may sound improbable but one of the most thoughtful papers presented at the conference examined Twitter’s application in literacy efforts.

• How do you motivate students? Educational theories about this have evolved from the days when behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner’s positive and negative reinforcement theories reigned. Intrinsic motivation is now the buzzword: giving students reasons to want to challenge themselves in school.

Assessments remain a big part of the conversation. Researchers spend a lot of their time measuring and assessing research, but the question is how to do it well.

“There’s clear evidence that to best understand what students know and can do, tests are not enough,” Ginsberg warns.

Put these researchers on our education-reform radar because change starts in the lab.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter @lkvarner

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