Dean's Message, May 2008

The dean's Connections column for May 2008



What follows is a section of an essay I’m working on that may be of interest. I welcome any comments you care to share. On another matter, over the next few weeks, the Strategic Planning Steering Committee will be posting various drafts of our Strategic Plan.  Your comments are welcome on these drafts as well.  I’ve been very pleased with how our plan is shaping up, and I look forward to sharing the relevant documents with you. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the remainder of this lovely spring and the summer to come.

Differences Between Interesting and Hard Problems

In medicine, we witness well-established institutions like teaching hospitals, often located in urban areas, that serve patients from highly varied economic circumstances. These teaching hospitals are directly connected to professional preparation programs in medical colleges. Teaching hospitals attract top researchers in the field whose work is considered relevant for neophytes.  Medical colleges find ways to tap into this expertise and see it as an important part of the preparation they offer students who are relatively early in their study of the field.  Moreover, the medical services they provide are broadly available and reach disadvantaged individuals because the cases under study are broadly distributed across income categories. The approach is appealing on numerous grounds, the fiscal crisis of many teaching hospitals notwithstanding.

In education, the record of the interface between research and the world of practice is more troubled. There is, for example, a history of laboratory schools where the rhetoric is similar to how we describe teaching hospitals, but many laboratory schools evolved into elite private schools serving universities’ felt need to provide schooling services for the children of faculty members. More recently, professional development schools have emerged and are intended to strengthen links between colleges of education and the schools, but these schools vary widely and only occasionally involve a serious research component. 

One of the keys to the success of the urban teaching hospital that serves the health needs of patients from highly varied economic circumstances is its ability to deal with interesting problems for the field. It is interesting medical problems that attract the attention of the top researchers in the field and it is interesting medical problems that arguably have pedagogical value for students of medicine. We can speculate that one reason we see nothing similar to urban teaching hospitals serving a diverse clientele in the field of education is that we have not succeeded at making education problems in the field interesting.

What does it take to make a problem interesting?  Several attributes come to mind: First, the problem needs to be tractable and there needs to be some feeling that progress can be made if the requisite effort is made.  In other words, lost causes, or causes that are perceived to be lost, are not very interesting.

Second (and this is a variation on the first attribute), there needs to be some understanding about what kind of expertise is needed to deal with different aspects of the problem. Or, the problem needs to be divisible in the sense that persons with the relevant expertise can make progress, even if other aspects of the problem remain intractable. 

Third, for a problem to be interesting, its solution needs to have a significant impact. The expected impact might be narrow or broad, but there needs to be some reason for believing that it is real and that something real hangs in the balance.   

And fourth, the necessary work needs to be reasonably convenient and not disagreeable. A problem could be otherwise very interesting and engaging, but barriers will inhibit participation. Steps can be taken to reduce the barriers or alternatively compensation can be offered to increase a willingness to put up with the inconvenience. 

With this as an initial means for assessing the interest level of problems, how do medical and education problems compare?  With respect to whether or not a solution is significant, I see no inherent difference. Education problems are certainly important and the stakes are high; the same can be said for medical problems. Some medical problems may be more narrowly focused, but this does not mean they are unimportant. 

I do see differences in how tractable problems are across the fields. Medicine has enjoyed greater success at breaking problems into manageable pieces, developing responses and interventions, keeping track of the results so that the evidence is cumulative, and disseminating findings. It is not that medicine is without its difficulties, but education as a field has lagged in its ability to progress in these ways.

In terms of the convenience of the work, in medicine there is a level of mobility that can make things more convenient for the top talent.  The patient with an interesting medical problem can sometimes do the traveling and come to a center where the relevant expertise is concentrated. However, this will not always be the case, and sometimes medically interesting problems are place-bound and related to things like climate and cultural practice.  In these cases, the medical expertise may face the inconvenience of needing to travel long distances.

Education tends to be quite place-bound and the relevant expertise may need to travel to the site. Education’s collective nature also makes relocation for the convenience of those with the relevant expertise less viable. 

Thus, the significant difference across the fields lies in the comparatively intractable nature of the problems being faced by the field of education.  If the problems are intractable, they are less interesting and it follows that it will be more difficult to attract the talents of the researchers who are best equipped to provide answers to the underlying questions. 

What is making the problems in the field of education so intractable and therefore uninteresting?  Partly it is the limited progress that has been made, but this is not unique to education. All fields start with relatively little knowledge in hand.  Just because education’s present knowledge base is limited neither makes the problems uninteresting nor precludes future growth. 
Part of the explanation can be found in the small number of truly talented individuals with the ability and interests to do the relevant research.  Not many people have been engaged and the field is still relatively new. This shortage is being recognized, and welcome new resources are being made available to expand the number of future researchers who have good skills for conducting powerful studies. The argument is actually circular since the current shortage of skilled researchers with interests in education is related to the paucity of interesting problems in the field.

Another part of the explanation can be found in the nature of current practice where problems are so overwhelming it becomes difficult to establish an analytical foothold.  We have responded by expecting researchers to develop ingenious designs for studies to overcome the quirks of practice that make the research difficult to conduct. An alternative would be to shift the burden away from researchers and toward the world of practice so that there is greater willingness to adjust practice so that we can get definitive answers to important questions for the field. 

This plea for adjusting practice so that it is more amenable to study and richer in the supply of interesting problems has the potential to be quite far-reaching. When schools become so highly dysfunctional due to concatenations of far-reaching and interconnected problems, it is hard to imagine how the phenomenon can lend itself to fruitful study. 

If we are serious about making educational practice more amenable to study, would we know how to proceed?  The answer is yes and would involve disentangling practices so that cleaner differences can be monitored and assessed. The more difficult question is whether there is a political willingness to disturb the operating—but at times quite dysfunctional—status quo.

While this strategy is compatible with the existing growing emphasis on research with experimental designs, there is an important extra expectation for how we practice education. In other words, the burden is not solely on the researcher, but there emerges instead a shared responsibility to generate interesting problems that will attract the interest of the relevant parties.

What happens when interesting problems become hard or otherwise intractable? As we have seen, the hardness of the problem will at some point undermine how interesting the problem is, and there are interesting (and hard) empirical questions to ask about the trade-offs between hardness and interest levels. Indeed, some minimal level of difficulty is probably necessary for a problem to be interesting. If the problems in a field were all easy to solve, it would not be much of a field. 

Finding the proper balance between hard and interesting is the key for attracting and retaining the efforts of the research community. It is this balance that moves a field forward, and it is this balance that has proven to be so elusive for the field of education.  In short, problems in the field of education have been made too hard. This need not be the case. We can take advantage of the control we have over how education is practiced to make changes that will make practice more amenable to study. If the problems thereby become less hard and more interesting, the talent will arrive and the stage will be set for further improvement as we gain more knowledge.

David H. Monk