We have the first batch of Empirical Educator Project (EEP) summit videos available in the form of a four-episode interview case study. You can see the full set here. I’ll be blogging about the series over the next week or so, starting today with the first episode on the definition of an empirical educator.
A lot of the currently popular terms of art that bear some relation to “empirical educator”—efficacy, evidence-based, research-backed, data-informed, etc.—tend to produce discipline-inflected responses (e.g., “It makes no sense to talk about ‘data” when you’re teaching English composition”) or suspicion due to vendor, funder, and media hype (e.g., “‘Efficacy’ is just the latest marketing buzz phrase”). And many of these terms tend to emphasize products or implementations. We wanted to put the focus on people, and we wanted the term to be inclusive of a wide range of practices that are discipline- and context-appropriate. So we introduced a new term, which always requires some norming to get people rallied around a common understanding of it.
Here’s what a sampling of summit participants had to say about the meaning of “empirical educator” after a day of work together:
The definition becomes increasingly inclusive as you listen to the complementary perspectives over the course of the video.
I think we’ll develop a more rigorous, evidence-based understanding of what it means to be an empirical educator over time—while hopefully maintaining the inclusive spirit. For now, I’ll put out my own taxonomy of levels of empirical education:
- Intuitively empirical: This comes down to whether you pay attention to your students and do something differently with them based on what you observe. Do you always do the same thing, or do you have a bag of tricks that you can draw from when you see students struggle? I believe that the substantial majority of educators are empirical in this sense. They may not think of it as empiricism, but they are observing student behaviors and are adjusting their strategies based on what they see, guided by some sort of rationale for choosing which strategy to employ in different circumstances.
- Mindfully empirical: Mindfully empirical educators think about how they can get the maximum amount of useful diagnostic information from day-to-day course work. They design their courses with a goal of creating many feedback loops that enable them to be adjust their teaching to the needs of the students.
- Meta-cognitively empirical: Meta-cognitively empirical educators are empirical not only about how they use their existing bag of tricks but also about which tricks they should have and how effective those tricks really are. They consciously and regularly test their own assumptions about effective teaching, and they are open to trying new appropaches. My read of Lauren Herckis’ research is that the barrier of moving from mindfully empirical to meta-cognitively empirical (and to the next level, socially empirical) is where a lot of the difficult work needs to be done. Lots of educators are intuitively empirical, and the transition from there to mindfully empirical is not a huge leap. Getting them to test and challenge their deeply held beliefs about what constitutes effective teaching is a lot harder.
- Socially empirical: Socially empirical educators view effective teaching not as an individual art but as a shared pool of knowledge and experience that everyone can learn from and contribute to. They seek out common vocabulary, methods, and standards of proof so that they can learn with their colleagues and raise the collective bar. This is the beginning of disciplinarity.
One way of thinking about the goal of EEP is to create a critical mass of socially empirical educators. They may not all arrive at one shared vocabulary, set of methods, and standard of proof. We will likely need a family of subdisciplines and empirical approaches to handle all the many meaningful contextual differences in education. But if a majority of educators see their work as embedded in a collective effort to learn together about how we can be more effective educators, then we will progress much more rapidly as a sector.
I think it’s also important to note that the term “educator” is intended to be more inclusive than just people who work in classrooms. Although instructors will be central change agents in any empirical education movement, anyone who is directly involved with designing or delivering a meaningful educational intervention is included in our definition of an educator. This means program administrators, instructional designers, and product designers, among others, can all be empirical educators.