Research Schools: What are they and how do they work?

Aaron Marvel talks about research schools. Modeled like a “teaching hospital” – these schools have researchers and educators working hand-in-hand. Learn how they work, why more schools don’t use them, and common mistakes schools make as they implement this model.


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Below is an enhanced transcript, modified for your reading pleasure. All comments in the shaded green box are my own. For guests and hyperlinks to resources, scroll down.


Enhanced Transcript

Research Schools: What Are They and How Do They Work?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

How a “Kids Deserve It T-Shirt” at ISTE 2017 caused a chance meeting

Vicki: Today we’re talking with Aaron Marvel @AaronMarvelEDU, and this is an example of an awesome meeting.

So I was at ISTE this year in San Antonio, and I’m walking the halls, and I had been looking for my friend Todd Nesloney. I look over, and I see a very friendly looking fellow with a “Kids Deserve It” shirt on.

It was Aaron Marvel, who has been Todd’s Assistant Principal for a little while, and we struck up a conversation. Aaron is passionate about research schools. And it’s something that I’ve been seeing for a while that I think we need to dive into.

What is a research school?

So Aaron, explain for us. What is a research school?

Aaron: Well, I think the easiest way to explain what a research school is, is to compare it to a teaching hospital. I think a lot of people are more familiar with the structure of a teaching hospital.

So you’ll have doctors that are – We’ll call them ‘master doctors,’ people who have been practicing a long time. And they will be supervising and mentoring new ‘doctor residents.’

And all, while this is happening, we’ll have research happening alongside that.

The beauty of that is that it’s a perfect combination of practitioners and researchers (working) closely to share information. Because both sides have very valid information. But often there’s that gap and that lack of communication between the two groups of people.

Vicki: So I love this idea because I’ve had some others on the show – Bill Selak is one example – where they have a researcher on staff, and they’ve been researching flexible seating. And they found an incredible ability to innovate very rapidly because of having a researcher on staff.

Why do you think more schools are not embracing this approach?

Aaron: Well, for one thing, when you look at researchers, a lot of what they write has a lot of very high language. It’s very niched-oriented, and they’re really talking to other researchers.

And also, what they are researching is not actually practical, in a sense, for a teacher. So I think there is this hesitation to get involved with research, because a lot of people don’t understand it. They are afraid that maybe there’s this lack in the way they’re doing things, and that research is going to expose them possibly.

And a lot of people just don’t have a lot of experience doing research. So when they hear “action research project,” they get a little bit nervous, and they don’t know what that first step would actually look like.

How would you start implementing this approach?

Vicki: So what does the first step would actually look like?

Aaron: (laughs)

Well, the first step would be to understand what the research says currently, and what the literature says currently about whatever you want to study.

Once you find out what that is, you begin to implement some kind of new strategy, some kind of new teaching method. So it’s very simple.

And at that point, you want to gather some kind of data, which we do wonderfully in education. We’re usually overwhelmed with data. But the idea of action research is – then you take that data and you really break it down. And you get into the specifics about how that data connects to a specific teaching method.

A lot of times when we break down data, we do it by demographics — African-American populations, Whites, socioeconomics, LEP students. But how does it connect to the teaching method itself? And then how can we improve that method over a long period?

One thing we find is that when you go to a sit-down workshop, teachers bring that back and they immediately implement it for maybe a week or so. But then, there’s not that long sustaining practice, finding where you failed, finding where you succeeded, and then building on that. And that’s really what action research does – the beauty of research schools and what action research have.

The Reason Research Schools make sense

Vicki: Well… and I also love it because, you know, you would just see research, and you would want to apply it, and we do.

But there are a lot of people who sit back and say, “Ahhh. But that research doesn’t apply to me in my school because we’re different because (fill in the blank).”

I mean, in some ways, it does take out that argument. And I guess some people could say it holds your feet to the fire. But couldn’t it really make a school with unique circumstances even better?

Aaron: Oh, most definitely. Because you touched on something very important.

A lot of research – you’re right – is not generalizable to the overall population.

And so if you look at a lot of research, it may be done in Greece or Turkey, or northeast United States – which is completely different from the south or the west. The beauty, also, of research schools or action research is that you’re working with YOUR population. YOUR students. There’s no doubt whether or not it works or whether it doesn’t work with those students.

So you’re right. It does hold your feet to the fire. And it becomes so much more real and so much more relevant than some research that you read on a piece of paper from a country a thousand miles away.

How do you fund a research school? Meet the “Educational Engineer”

Vicki: So some people would say, “OK. This sounds great. But how do you fund it?”

Aaron: (laughs)

Well, the firsts step is not necessarily research schools, but a new term that I’ve read: “Educational Engineers.”

If you think about an engineer, their job is to understand the science, the theoretical behind a particular study, AND to understand the practice. (They need) to be that bridge of, “How do I now apply the theoretical and the research and put it to practice? How do I understand physics and build a bridge?”

Educational Engineers do the exact same thing. They take that theoretical that is very confusing and very abstract, and then they say, “OK, how do I now translate that and get it into the classrooms?”

I think if districts began to set aside money in order to hire these Educational Engineers, then they can begin going into campuses – or maybe do a pilot campus, and really work really strenuously with that particular campus to get something like that going. You really do need an expert like an engineer-type figure.

A School with an R&D Department

Vicki: Yes. Well, when I think of this approach, I first saw it at the American School of Bombay, ASB in India, with Shabbi Luthra, who’s head of their R & D department. And they actually have a literal R & D department, with multiple people working in it that are part of leading innovation at their school. They’re partnered with a curriculum director, but the curriculum director does the curriculum. The R & D director works with the innovation and ongoing improvement. Isn’t that what you’re kind of talking about?

Aaron: Exactly. Yes, and I love that they have a Research and Development Department.

The only other place I’ve heard of that has something like that would be Houston ISD. I actually met the lady who was their statistician. And she really took all that data – sometimes that data I was talking about that’s overwhelming – and she breaks it down to more digestible parts, and really made more sense out of it.

So having a Research and Development Department – they have that niche and those specific skills that teachers and principals don’t have. And for good reason. They don’t necessarily need to have them. But making that information, that data, more digestible and more comprehensible and more practical – is a really important step in this process.

What mistake could schools make with this approach?

Vicki: OK. So Aaron, as we finish up… Do you think that there is a mistake that principals or superintendents might make if they say, “OK. We want to have a research school.” What’s the biggest mistake they should avoid making as they embark?

Aaron: I would say probably taking on too much all at once. It is a lot to learn. It is a mind shift.

You’re not going about changing practice on your campus in the exact same way.

Kind of like, alluding to what I was saying earlier, our typical way to change a campus is to send teachers or administrators to a professional development. Then they come back and they teach it to everyone.

Action research is a long-standing and long-term commitment. So I think you want to come up with a good plan.

A good resource that I’ll throw out there is Brown University Action Research. This (site will give you) a lot of information about how to get something like this started. What it is, what it isn’t, and different resources that you can use to get going.

Vicki: So, his name is Aaron Marvel. We’ll put all of this information in the Shownotes.

I hope that you will be challenged to think about research schools. I love the example he gave about at the beginning, that in some ways it’s like a teaching hospital, and we’re really looking at a research-based school.

There’s a lot of exciting possibilities. I’ll tell you, that where I’ve seen some of the greatest innovation and innovators here on this show – they have been from research schools.

So think about this emerging area of practice as something you can do to further innovation on your campus and be more remarkable!

Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford

Bio as submitted

Aaron has devoted study and practice to the development of passionate, highly effective, and results driven teachers and administrators. His approach empowers teachers and administrators to engage in purposeful reflection using tools such as video recordings and focused action plans through long lasting coaching relationships. His current studies include the teacher belief change process and maximizing work efficiency to get to the tasks that truly matter.

Twitter: @AaronMarvelEDU


Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored podcast episode.” The company who sponsored it compensated me via cash payment, gift, or something else of value to include a reference to their product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe will be good for my readers and are from companies I can recommend. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.)

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere