The Practical Researcher – Part 1

Data.  Research.  Math.  Science.  Probability.  Statistics, trend lines, standard deviation, correlations – oh, be still my heart!! I look on those words with the same kind of intense interest that equals the drooling lust I bestow upon Corvettes.  Yeah, I know.  I’m not normal in that regard.  However, those same words don’t need to conjure up feelings of revulsion or fear, either.  For data and research to be so much a part of our lives and our work these days, it’s kind of odd how truly paralyzed professional, degree-holding people get about this topic.  I know I can’t convert everyone to my love affair with data and research, but I can try!  So let’s demystify this a bit and see if I can at least help you not want to run screaming in the opposite direction when the subject comes up.  This month I’m focusing on all things data so we can all feel empowered to use it to drive our professional decisions.  This week’s focus starts with demystifying some vocabulary.
Data – it sounds so ominous, clinical, and mathematical.  It can be all of those things, but at its core it’s just information.  It’s facts that are simply indicators of reality at certain points in time.  Data is clinical in that it’s objective and plays no favorites; it just IS.  You can use math to collect or analyze it, but you don’t have to.  Data is anything that can be collected in some way, like observations, tests, tally marks, rubrics, conversations, measurements, or frequency.  If you capture, collect, or compile it in some way, then it’s data.  As a teacher, leader, or coach you do this dozens of times a day, officially and unofficially.  You’re probably a real pro at this already (and you just don’t know it)!
Science – applying the scientific method (remember that from your youth?) is just being methodical and thoughtful about what you want to know, how you want to gather evidence, and determining how you will look at it so that some facts emerge.  When you apply a little science to your process, you’re probably trying to eliminate your own biases, preferences, or opinions on the subject so that you’re not just going with your gut or your knee-jerk reaction.  You want some objective information.  Don’t get me wrong here – both your gut and your reflexes are powerful guides and guardians.  Good researchers pay attention to both to guide their work.  Sometimes, they end up being right on the money and both your instincts and the evidence point to the same conclusion.  But sometimes, those outcomes are different – and that’s powerful knowledge, too.  Either way, you know more than you did when you began, so that’s a good thing.
Math – Math didn’t start out being my best friend.  Yes, there’s a separate story there and I’ll share it with you in a future post.  Suffice it to say that we made up over the years, and I learned that Math, like Professor Snape in Harry Potter, just looks menacing but is really a good guy.  Math can be practical and straight-forward or very deep and complex, but all of it is in support of illuminating the truth and helping, in some cases, point to possible outcomes.  Math just wants to be friends; he can’t help it that some people find him scary.  In the end, Math is just a humble servant trying to help us organize our information to come up with a solution that makes sense.
Research – that sounds scientific, hard, and destined to make your brain do the equivalent of advanced yoga poses.  In reality, research is nothing more than wondering something and posing a question you’d like to know the answer to.  It mimics the scientific process.  You conduct some sort of activity and collect the results (data) to shed light on what’s going on.  You gather all your data and look at it all together (analyze) to see what story it’s telling you.  You might do some math to clarify or help organize the data so that it’s easier to see connections.  You add all that to your own knowledge and expertise and you draw a conclusion.  From there, you take some kind of action based on what you learned.  Simple, right?  Again, I bet you do this often and you didn’t even realize you were doing research.
And finally, there’s Probability.  When you do the research, maybe apply the scientific method, collect some data, and perhaps even do a little math, the process begins to paint a picture.  Probability is then seeing where the weight of the evidence points.  Probability is the strong likelihood of something happening – or not.  Of course, you have to be careful of garbage in, garbage out, too.  The better, more reliable your data, the more confident you can be about the likelihood of the outcome the data is suggesting.  There are ways to quantify this likelihood by turning it into Math’s language, taking it to a whole other level of certainty and verification of facts.  However, most of the work we do doesn’t really require this level of scrutiny of the details.  We all are pretty capable of putting information together and seeing where it’s leading, and that’s all that’s needed most of the time.

Put these terms together and – Voila!  You have the foundation you need to get started doing some action research on your students’ progress to help them – and you – reach those goals you both want to reach.  So maybe give it a try?  Take it out for a coffee and see what develops?  You might just find that you both have a lot to say to each other.

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