The Knowing-Doing Gap: 3 Practices To End Now

Educators commonly use the phrase, “research-based, best practice,” when introducing new programs and initiatives. The phrase demonstrates the school has done due diligence, scholarly review, conferred with other practitioners and gives confidence to parents and community members that the school knows what it is doing. Due to the results of the research, schools are reasonably confident that the new program or initiative will do what we say it will do . . . improve learning.

Unfortunately, educators too often fall victim to ignoring or de-emphasizing the “research-based, best practice” phrase when it no longer fits current practice, especially in the face of opposition from inevitable naysayers. This is the knowing-doing gap.

Bridge the knowing-doing gap by ending these 3 common school practices now.

Traditional Elementary School Homework

Let’s classify traditional homework as worksheets, spelling lists, rote memory lessons. It does not include reading for enjoyment, which should be encouraged on a daily basis.

If your elementary school provides traditional homework on a regular basis, it is contradicting the research. Here is what “research-based” scholars say about elementary school homework.

“The mean correlation between time spent on homework and achievement was not significantly different from zero for elementary school students.” Harris Cooper et al. Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement, A Synthesis of Research, 1987-2003. Cooper, Robinson, Patall, p. 43.

“Homework in primary school has an effect of around zero.” Researcher and Professor John Hattie.

Educational research has limits due to the nature of its subjects — kids. However, traditional homework does not lead to improved learning in elementary schools. No researcher will make a direct correlation between homework and achievement. There is some evidence that homework has a correlation to learning in middle school, more so in high school.

Instead, schools should be emphasizing and supporting reading at home. Schools might consider ongoing passion projects at home too. Children can report interesting findings and new learning back to the classroom.

So the question is: Why does our school give traditional homework when it is clearly NOT a “research-based, best practice?”

Averaging Grades

Averaging grades has never been a strategy that improved learning. We just didn’t know any better. Thanks to Todd Rose in the ground-breaking book, The End of Average, we understand how using averages are actually detrimental. In the context of schools, no child is precisely an average student.

Rose goes on to say, “Our education system is based on a 19th century idea of an average person and using 20th century statistics.” Instead, researcher Rose joins other educators in recognizing the individuality of every learner. By emphasizing averages and sameness, we lose the opportunity to develop the individual strengths of each child. He calls this individuality, “jaggedness.”

Educators have long known that children develop and learn in uniquely different (jagged) ways and at different times. So why do we cling to a model now proven to be myth? It is much easier and quicker to grade, rank, and sort by using averages. Some believe using percentages and averaging creates an objective grade. Not true. And, in the end, all grading is subjective.

For more information, read Rick Wormeli’s article on averaging grades and a NPR interview with Todd Rose.

Final Exam Week

Why is a final exam necessary? Short answer. It’s not.

A tired refrain concerning final exams is that the process reflects real-life. It does not.

Students who continue studies do end up taking high stakes exams to enter professions. From getting your driver’s license to the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) to the bar exam, the standard is to RE-TAKE examinations until a satisfactory result is achieved. Final exams in high schools and colleges are high stakes, one shot opportunities.

What about exam week preparing students for college? Let’s use Harvard as an example. In 2010, only 23% of Harvard undergraduate courses scheduled final exams. And in graduate level courses the numbers drop to 3%.

Due to the nature of the week, multiple finals for students and teachers/professors with a looming deadline to turn in grades, the type of exam is usually one that is easy to mark. Often times, there is little or no feedback on exam results. Feedback is the core of learning. However, the grade is done. The learning is over.

There is no question that emphasizing important concepts and skills multiple times has significant educational value. No problem with circling back for review. Smaller, more frequent assessments coupled with real-time feedback result in learning that sticks.

Why not turn this time into a Genius week, an expanded version of Genius Hour? Or just continue the regular learning. Educators often lament, “There just isn’t enough time!” Here’s two weeks a year.

You can give a final grade without a final exam. If Harvard can do it, why can’t your school?

For a more in depth “examination” of final exams, take a look at this blog post.

The knowing-doing gap is real.

And even more prevalent in our personal lives. How many times have you started a workout regime or a new diet and failed? Clearly, we know the need to get in better shape or lose weight but a high percentage of these efforts end without success. As another example, despite overwhelming evidence that wearing seat belts saves lives and is the law in 49 states, the National Highway Safety Administration reports that 11.5% of American drivers still do not buckle up.

Why is educational change difficult to make?

Perhaps, we try to make the changes too big at the start. To end these faulty school practices, start by reducing homework, read/share articles on shifting away from traditional grading, or weight your final exam similar to other exams during the grading period. This will provide time to learn more about our false assumptions and tackle fears about change.

The greatest gap in life is the one between knowing and doing.
Richard Biggs