Education research as clown college
Silly conferences while the schools languish


Article Highlights

  • A guide to the 2012 #AERA conference, from @AEIeducation.

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  • Rick Hess & Francesca Pickett share their favorite #AERA papers.

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  • Education Research as Clown College @AEIeducation

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  • To know is not enough, not knowing what you don't know must also be discussed @AERA_EdResearch conference

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A little over a year ago, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan responded to the explosive news that even Shanghai was outpacing the U.S. in international education assessments by declaring it a “wake-up call” and a “Sputnik moment.” Sixteen months after that impassioned charge, the nation’s education researchers will trek to their annual confab to share the analyses and findings that can help address the challenge.

Under the banner of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), roughly 20,000 researchers will convene in Vancouver to report on research that can help fuel student learning and improve schools. Eager to discover what advances this year’s edupalooza has in store, we waded through the thousands of papers and panels touted in the electronic conference program.

This year’s conference, guided by the theme “To Know Is Not Enough,” invited the nation’s educational researchers to ask, “What actions should be taken . . . to ensure that research knowledge is used to improve education and actually serve the public good?”

We quickly found the kind of papers that promise to fulfill that bold charge and make a real difference, papers such as “Can the Very Thought of Education Break Bricks?” . . . hmm, on second thought, it’s not clear that everyone is on board with this year’s theme. One paper daringly suggests that knowing just might be enough: “To Know I Can Might Be Enough: Women’s Self-Efficacy and Their Identified Leadership Values.” Another pair of authors is more on board with AERA’s theme, in “Seeds of Genius in the Early Lives of Two Eminent Creative Brothers: To Know Is Not Enough.” To sort it all out, attendees can head to the featured presidential session “To Know That We Know What We Know, and To Know That We Do Not Know What We Do Not Know, That Is True Knowledge.”

For those thinking that this sounds tedious, relief awaits at what promises to be a titillating session on “Boredom in Academic Settings.” We can see the typology now: regular boredom, severe boredom, super-duper boredom, “I’m playing Angry Birds under the table” boredom, and “my freaking iPhone is out of juice and I can’t believe I can’t play Angry Birds to get me through this” boredom. We don’t like to prejudge, but we think you may want to be sure your iPhone is fully charged before the session on “Foucault and Contemporary Theory in Education,” featuring such papers as “(Re)imagining Foucault: New Directions in Foucauldian Scholarship,” “Educational Reform and the Problem of Subjectification: Deglobalizing the Global,” and “Technologies of Subjectification: Foucault and the Production of Self.”
Relief awaits at what promises to be a titillating session on “Boredom in Academic Settings.”
For those seeking something less boring, we recommend hitting sessions tackling those four subjects so crucial to improving education: Paulo Freire, games, nonhumans, and cartoons.

No AERA experience is complete without a visit to sessions based on the musings of the late Communist revolutionary Paulo Freire. In fact, with nine presentations, the special sessions on “Freire, Critical Pedagogy, and Emancipation” outnumber those on more mundane research topics such as “Longitudinal Studies,” “Test Validity Research and Evaluation,” and research featuring the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Some of the most interesting Freire-themed papers include “Codifications of Reality as Educational Tools for Critical Consciousness: Retheorizing Freire Through Praxis,” “Teaching for Outrage and Empathy: Challenging Preservice Teachers’ Hegemonic Perspectives and Practices,” and “Student Empowerment, Eco-Pedagogy, Popular Culture, and Love.” Imagine that, everything from “codifications of reality” to “preservice teachers’ hegemonic perspectives” — and you still get a little bit of love. This is why we so love AERA.

But let’s not be humancentric. Other realms also have much to offer. In the cyber realm, one don’t-miss presentation is “Anne Frank Confronts Queen Isabella: Learning Phenomena in Historical, Cultural, and Social Online Simulation Games.” This piece poses many pressing questions, among them: Why is Anne Frank talking with Queen Isabella? And why is it so darn confrontational? Indeed, both Anne Frank and Queen Isabella just might learn something about getting along in cyberspace from “‘We Put Our Swag All Over It’: Negotiating Local and Global Identity Online and Offline.” Another effort to address the thoughtless pro-human bias in education research is “Thinking Across/Through the Species Divide: Nonhuman Animals in Educational Theory and Research.”

And don’t forget the papers rich with allusions to our animated friends. The Flintstones-themed “Getting to Bedrock: Diverse Perspectives on Emergence, Nonlinearity, and Relationality in Education” promises a jolly good time. Meanwhile, friendly Casper is brought to mind by “Crazy, Depressive White Ghosts in the Closet: Someone Help Me Say the ‘N’ Word.” The thing is, Casper is such a friendly ghost that we’re a little unclear why he’d feel a need to say the “N” word. But, if he’s set on it, he should check out the punny “‘Something Doesn’t Feel White’: Racial Affect, White Dissonance, and the Possibility for Challenging Whiteness in Education.”

There are other papers that intrigue us, well, just ’cuz. One such is “A Theoretical Toolbox: Using Theories of Gender and Sexuality to Uncover New Histories of Education.” We frequently think of history as old, but “new histories” sound much cooler and shinier. There’s the astonishingly opaque “(Re)producing and Dismantling Heteronormative Spaces in Schools” — we’re tempted to check this out, if only because one of us will be renovating a basement soon and learning how to dismantle around heteronormative spaces just might save a trip to Home Depot.

Then there’s “Reorienting Deconstruction: Researching the Iterability of the Pedagogical Mark” and “T’aała’i Diidleeł (We Become One): Toward a Collective and Ceremonial Praxis of Indigenous Decolonizing Scholarship.” Honestly, with five graduate degrees between us, we’re curious to learn whether phrases like “the iterability of the pedagogical mark” or “ceremonial praxis of indigenous decolonizing scholarship” mean something . . .  or whether it’s all just bored professors having a laugh after they forgot to charge their iPhones.

Shanghai may have had a good run. But with us getting our Sputnik on and all, we’re sure our kids will be catching up in no time at all.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Francesca Pickett is the nom de plume of a U.S. Department of Education employee.

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About the Author


Frederick M.
  • An educator, political scientist and author, Frederick M. Hess studies K-12 and higher education issues. His books include "Cage-Busting Leadership," "Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age," "The Same Thing Over and Over," "Education Unbound," "Common Sense School Reform," "Revolution at the Margins," and "Spinning Wheels." He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog, "Rick Hess Straight Up." Hess's work has appeared in scholarly and popular outlets such as Teachers College Record, Harvard Education Review, Social Science Quarterly, Urban Affairs Review, American Politics Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, U.S. News & World Report, National Affairs, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and National Review. He has edited widely cited volumes on the Common Core, the role of for-profits in education, education philanthropy, school costs and productivity, the impact of education research, and No Child Left Behind.  Hess serves as executive editor of Education Next, as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, and on the review boards for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. He also serves on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 4.0 SCHOOLS. A former high school social studies teacher, he teaches or has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University and Harvard University. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Government, as well as an M.Ed. in Teaching and Curriculum, from Harvard University.

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