Research on Teaching Offers No Blueprints, Only Maps

Photo of Blueprint by Erich Stüssi

I sense that some teachers feel that the research on teaching and those who reference it want to tell them how to teach. Understandably, this creates apprehension and resistance toward the research. But I want to clarify that that’s not how the research works, unless it is not very good research. And it’s not how anyone discussing the research should work either. If anyone tells you exactly how to teach based on research, they’re misusing the research.

The research does not offer blueprints for how to teach. It does not provide detailed instructions on what to do and how to do it. It does not guarantee that precisely following said instructions will get you the desired results. There’s no wrap the green wire around the blue post.

Of course, the research on teaching does make claims and recommendations, varying in strength from tentatively suggesting to strongly suggesting. But that’s not the same as telling us how to teach. Rather than complete blueprints, the research offers maps, large maps by now, with lots of detail in certain places, but incomplete. Mountains lie here. These paths have been tried. These rivers, forded—or drowned in. Good pastures over there. Dragons beyond this point. The blank areas, unknown.

It is foolhardy to ignore available maps when traveling through difficult territory. (And teaching well is difficult territory.) But maps differ from blueprints. Using maps still requires plotting one’s own course. To begin with, we have to select which maps to use, based on accuracy and relevance. We have to take into account our own aims, not necessarily the same as the mapmaker’s. We have to consider our abilities and those of our fellow travelers. We have to recognize the difference between the map and the territory. Finally, we have to set out into the partially known and adjust along the way.

In short, maps may show us where the rivers run and where others have crossed them safely, quickly, profitably, or enjoyably. But we still have to cross the rivers for ourselves.

Photo of Map of Lambach by Ars Electronica

By way of example, I want to point to a passage on the last page of Taking Stock, a book-length overview of the empirical research to date on teaching and learning in higher education. Julia Christensen Hughes and Joy Mighty assert the following, based on the evidence of the preceding synthesis of decades of studies:

[W]hen faculty adopt active-learning pedagogies, students are more likely to engage in deep-learning approaches, leading to improved mastery and retention of knowledge and skills, and more sophisticated learning approaches. When faculty adopt traditional transmission-oriented pedagogies, students are more likely to engage in surface learning approaches, leading to learning and skill-based deficits and more novice-like understandings of their disciplines, to the detriment of themselves and society.

This statement briefly sketches a broad map of the most well traveled and clearly drawn areas of the research in question. This map identifies two broad types of terrain, active-learning pedagogies and traditional transmission-oriented pedagogies. And it describes what is “most likely” to happen for students when faculty travel through each sort of terrain.

On one hand, this passage undeniably make claims on us. Teachers setting out for either sort of terrain would be foolish to ignore these descriptions and rely solely on their own impression of the landscape. One can get turned around, walk in circles, misread the environment, get lost without even knowing it. This map provides perspective.

On the other hand, this passage does not dictate how to teach. It does not suggest that “active learning” pedagogies always work or are the only way to teach. It does not suggest that “traditional transmission-oriented pedagogies” never work or are never acceptable. While it certainly endorses active learning pedagogies, it does not mandate any specific one. And it certainly does not mandate any one way of implementing one.

Good research on teaching—and good use thereof—involves thinking carefully and critically about findings and interpretations of findings, what they offers, what they do not offer, what they “sorta” offer. Like reading maps, using research requires specific skills:

  • We should recognize much is known and much remains unknown.
  • We should take results for what they are. They do not mean more or less and do not apply more or less broadly than warranted.
  • We should appreciate that context changes things, but not infinitely. What does or does not work in one context may or may not in another.
  • We should know evidence doesn’t constitute proof and doesn’t need to. We should not take as definitive or brush off what has (only) been supported by evidence.
  • We should allow for a range of ways of responding to findings.

The research on teaching tells us what has worked elsewhere, what has not, what might yet, at what probability, and why. But it is always up to us to adopt and adapt the research for our own contexts, purposes, personalities, abilities, students, subjects, time constraints, other limitations, and other factors not fully anticipated or accounted for by the makers of the maps.

Photo of blueprints by Erich Stüssi
Photo of map by Ars Electronica
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9 responses to “Research on Teaching Offers No Blueprints, Only Maps

  1. I couldn’t agree more Paul. Furthermore, if you are going to try to implement something from research into your teaching, you must be prepared to evaluate the impacts of the changes in as objective a fashion as possible. You need to create an action research model that embraces the nexus between theory, teaching and empirical evaluation in order to innovate in teaching effectively.

    • Thanks so much for this comment. To add to that, if one is not going to implement something/anything from research, one should be prepared to consider the results of that too.

  2. This is a great post. It provides a thoughtful response to colleagues who dismiss the scholarship of teaching and learning because it is sometimes flawed, incomplete, or contradictory (as if research in their own field isn’t!)

  3. Pingback: Resolve to consult a map on teaching with technology | NspireD2: Learning Technology in Higher Ed.·

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