Teachers in Search of Good Research

05/11/2015 11:44 am ET | Updated May 11, 2016

The phrase "research says" has been so misused that many teachers cringe when they hear the words.

That isn't because helpful research doesn't exist; it's because teachers have been exposed to a lot of bad advice and instruction claiming to be "research-based," often in professional-development sessions organized by their principals and superintendents.

All of which is why I am intrigued by a nascent movement of teachers in the United Kingdom who have announced that they are taking control of their own professional learning. Their declared intention is to seek out good research that will help them learn something new and useful for the classroom.

The group, ResearchED, operates on a shoestring and organizes conferences almost entirely through social media. It has had several conferences in the U.K. -- apparently it attracted 1,000 in London -- where teachers come to hear from researchers and other educators who are trying to figure out what's valuable and what's "rubbish," as founder Tom Bennett says.

They brought their spirit of intellectual excitement to the United States with a conference in New York City a couple of weeks ago, and I was thrilled to be a part of it. A fairly small audience -- a couple hundred people -- got to hear some really interesting speakers, including Valarie Lewis, the former principal of P.S./M.S. 124 in Queens; Ben Riley, the founder of the new Deans for Impact, which aims to transform teacher preparation in this country; and Daisy Christodoulou, who writes about the need for teachers to incorporate principles established by cognitive science into their classroom practice.

A couple dozen people came from the UK primarily, as far as I could tell, to see University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham, whom they treated like a super celebrity. Willingham has spent more than a decade as the ambassador of cognitive science to the field of education, writing a column for American Educator called "Ask the Cognitive Scientist" and several books, including When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science From Bad in Education. It was fun to find myself in a room full of people who agree with me that he's a superstar. Let's face it: As a college professor, he is a rather unlikely celebrity.

The folks at ResearchED are hoping to hold more conferences in the United States because, as one of the UK folks, David Weston, tweeted afterward, "I'm struck how similar the professional development challenges are."

In explaining how popular ResearchED has become in the UK, founder Tom Bennett said in an interview:

I think the success of ResearchEd ... has been because it has tapped into a hunger of educators to become masters and mistresses of their own destinies. ... ResearchEd serves as a conduit for these people to meet, to discuss, to challenge each other and finally to meet researchers and academics and ask them to account for themselves -- but also ask them to get involved in what teachers are doing.

I'm looking forward to seeing whether ResearchED is able to tap into the same hunger among teachers in the United States.