From Research to Recess: Recapping SXSWedu

It was a pleasure to experience the creative energy at SXSWedu in Austin -- all focused on learning. The conference met its goal of fostering innovation in education by engaging a diverse group of stakeholders in meaningful discussion (teachers, administrators, edtech developers, academics, journalists and more).

I was grateful to participate in a panel discussion around an issue that is not only near and dear to me, but also extremely timely and relevant: the growing interest in how early learning experiences and the preschool years impact healthy development. A surge of multi-disciplinary research — from neuroscience to psychology to cognitive science —demonstrates the increasingly vital importance of early education for long-term success. But how does that research translate into practice across the myriad settings in which young children learn — from the classroom to daycare to the home?

It was a privilege to discuss the translation of research to practice with expert panelists Anne Cunningham, human development professor at University of California, Berkeley; Jacquie Porter, Austin ISD director of early childhood education; and Kelly Fisher, Director of Dissemination, Translation, and Education at the Science of Learning Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

In our panel, titled Research to Recess, the group addressed key questions:

  • How can evidence-based research help bridge the gap between formal and informal learning environments?
  • What is the role of the translator?
  • What role should technology play?
  • How do we ensure that all children have access to quality educational experiences?


There are multiple processes through which scholarly education research can be tested, adapted and applied. As Anne Cunningham helped illustrate the translation pipeline involves important shifts and stages that must be facilitated by all stakeholders – from technical to common language, from the controlled environment to the real world, from concepts to adopted practices. This process of translation is essential if evidence-based solutions are to become common practices in the classroom or at home as it makes content more accessible and creates a pathway to implement scaleable learning solutions that are proven-effective.

A great example of the translation process, and the myriad ways in which this can work, has been implemented at Johns Hopkins Science of Learning Institute.  As explained by Kelly Fisher, the Institute looks beyond research applications in ideal settings and labs by taking an innovative community-based approach, gathering feedback from practitioner partners to understand their needs and then synthesizing research and building practices to support those partners’ goals. From there, researchers review the generalizability of practices and apply them to different settings/populations. This approach underscores the power of cross-disciplinary collaboration and the importance of viewing the translation process from multiple angles.

Understanding the Why

SXSWedu 2016

In order for successful translation to occur, we need to help stakeholders understand not only whether a particular approach works but also why it works, and how it works for children and families in their particular environments. This is the role of the translator, to work both with researchers and community partners to design the best system for sharing information. It is important to make everyone aware of the new research and how it can be applied and adapted into what the teacher or parent is doing now. There are barriers to this process, such as communication, clarity and adoption.The challenge is to create a framework that breaks down all three of these barriers to ensure that all children have access to quality educational experiences.


The responsibility often falls on the educators to figure out how the research can have an impact on what they are doing. We need to foster more collaboration between educators and researchers – from the design of the studies to communicating the results and working with administrators and educators to understand the impact on practice. Technology offers promising ways to enhance this process. Schools can access much more data than ever before. Teachers have greater access to information and professional development. Technology can play a role in helping to break down the barriers by providing accurate information on what has worked and link to essential information for everyone.


The other piece of the puzzle is access. There has been an increase in universal Pre-K programs such as the one described by Jacquie Porter, Austin ISD.  During the panel, Jacquie explained that there are a number of major components for a child’s success early in life, including parents and professional development for teachers.  “Family is not only the child’s first teacher,” Porter said. “They will be with the child the entire time.”  AISD has provided Pre-K since 1985 and recently expanded access to three-old students as well offering Pre-K in more schools. She noted that there is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach to translation, and the parent, teacher and administrator all have to be involved.

The Time is Now

This is a pivotal time in early education.  We want to take this conversation further and hear from you.  How can we help teachers and parents translate the scientific research into practical uses in the classroom and at home or where every children learn?  Researchers, educators, and other stakeholders must come together and share their applications and expertise to strengthen the knowledge base, tap into the potential of technology, and create actionable plans to improve early education.