In its first iteration in the field of health care, translational science was developed to accelerate the process of turning biomedical research discoveries into real-world applications (National Center for Advancing Translational Science). More recently, translational science has begun to impact education as well, allowing students to benefit from advances in cognitive research and neuroscience more quickly. The Windward School, through the Windward Institute and its affiliation with the Haskins Global Literacy Hub, has played a significant role in the process of translating research findings into research-based and research-informed practices and programs for the benefit of its students and the larger educational community.
The Big Disconnect
In Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done About It (2017), Mark Seidenberg provides a succinct description of the disconnect that exists between the science of reading and what takes place in classrooms throughout the United States and its devastating results:
The gulf between science and education has been harmful. A look at the science reveals that the methods commonly used to teach children are inconsistent with basic facts about human cognition and development and so make reading more difficult than it should be. They inadvertently place many children at risk for reading failure.
An overwhelming number of research studies clearly and unequivocally identify scientifically based instructional practices as the most effective method for teaching reading (Rayner, et al., 2000; Moats, 2000; National Reading Panel, 2000; Moats, 2000, Moats, 2007; Goswami and Bryant, 2016; Gough, Ehri, Treiman, 2017; Solari et al., 2020). Often referred to as the Science of Reading (SoR), these scientific findings have increased our knowledge of how children acquire language skills and have identified the most efficacious instructional methods to develop proficient readers. Unconscionably, the use of these research-based instructional practices in schools across the United States is at best a “work in progress.” Decades of abysmal performance on tests of reading (Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), etc.) confirm the profound adverse effects of this failure to adopt research-based instructional practices to teach reading.
Establishing a Connection: Translational Science and Reading Research
In Translational Science: A Road Map for the Science of Reading (2020), Solari and her collaborators sum up this frustrating problem by positing:
…It is troubling how little the current and past debates have focused on processes that could ensure that the instructional experience students receive in classrooms is informed by existing science. Specifically, we contend that the persistent gap between SOR and its school-based implementation exists because the field has yet to invest in the appropriate methodologies and processes to develop an effective model of translational science.
Mark Seidenberg (2012) confirms the disregard for science that is prevalent in education, stating,
There is an enormous disconnect between science and educational practice. We occupy two different worlds. I believe this is an enormous waste. Many people on the education side dismiss this research as completely irrelevant to their mission. Teachers aren’t exposed to this research as part of their training.
The Windward Institute and the Haskins Global Literacy Hub: A Partnership in Translational Science
The Windward School has long recognized this disconnect, and its mission statement clearly articulates the School’s proactive commitment to addressing this problem, stating, “To meet these goals, the School provides ongoing training to its faculty based on the most current research and shares its expertise with the parent body, other educators, and the broader community.” To this end, in 2020, The Windward School established The Windward Institute (WI) whose mission is “To increase childhood literacy rates by disrupting the educational status quo to save more lives.” To achieve its mission, the WI engages in activities that Solari and her co-authors (ibid.) identify as key elements of translational science in reading research, including, but not limited to
advancing scientific research from basic research science,
testing evidence-based practices in authentic environments, and
communicating and disseminating the research and research-based practices widely to improve reading achievement.
Advancing Scientific Research from Basic Research Science
The Windward School/Haskins Laboratories Partnership is an excellent example of how the WI is advancing scientific research from basic research science. This partnership began in 2018, after several years of initial discussions that took place among members of the Haskins research team, the Head of School, and the Director of Windward’s Teacher Training Program.
The initial project of this partnership is the in-school research study, Predicting Literacy Outcomes at The Windward School. This study uses neurocognitive measures to better understand which instructional strategies work best for students, a critical step in moving toward individualized brain-based instructional programs. The immediate goal of this in-school neuroscience partnership is to use electroencephalograph (EEG) technology at frequent intervals as children progress through their Windward education, to identify early indicators of which children will respond to standard research-based treatment and which children are more likely to have persistent problems. To achieve this goal, in-school neuroscience laboratories were established at Windward. Critically, the hope is to identify new strategies that will improve outcomes for these students. The research team also hopes to use cognitive and brain imaging research to improve early diagnosis of language-based learning disabilities (LBLD) in at-risk preschool children.
As a result of this in-school research study, the research team has observed that exposing teachers to the concept of brain plasticity, the brain's ability to change structure and function, leads to critical transformations in the ways teachers and learners perceive their roles—moving from the long-held belief of “using the brain” to one of “changing the brain” (Dubinsky et al., 2013). Brain plasticity has resulted in the emergence of a new perspective on instruction, one where teachers come to see themselves as designers of experiences that ultimately change students’ brains. As a result of the increased knowledge gained through this collaborative project, teachers are further motivated knowing that they have the ability to design and provide experiences that will shape students’ brains, and students are empowered by understanding that their experiences in school can actually change their brains.
Brain plasticity has resulted in the emergence of a new perspective on instruction, one where teachers come to see themselves as designers of experiences that ultimately change students’ brains.
An article describing this research project entitled Researcher–practitioner partnerships and in-school laboratories facilitate translational research in reading was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Research in Reading (April 5, 2022). The article was co-authored by the project’s principal investigator, Dr. Nicole Landi; Windward faculty members Najah Frazier, Danielle Scorrano, Annie Stutzman, Jay Russell; and researchers from Haskins Laboratories. In this report, the authors discuss the creation of the partnership, the scientific problem that it addresses (variable response to reading intervention), and the epistemological significance of researcher–practitioner bi-directional learning, thus further advancing scientific research.
Testing Evidence-based Practices in Authentic Environments
Since early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to widespread school closures. Even today, students continue to be taught using distance learning or a hybrid model where in-person instruction is minimal. These changes to the normal way students are taught have had a major impact on academic and socio-emotional development. Researchers estimate that this resulted in a 30% loss in learning by the start of the school year in the fall of 2020 (Kuhfeld, M. & Tarasawa, B., 2020). This has become known as known as the COVID slide.
The Windward Institute/Haskins Global Literacy Hub partnership responded to this disastrous situation by providing Windward families and families of New York City public school students with access to a research-based learning program, GraphoGame, that could be used at home to counter some of the effects of the COVID slide on reading. In the process, the researchers that developed the program were able to gather valuable insights by testing their evidence-based program in an authentic environment. As a result of the Windward Institute/Haskins Global Literacy Hub partnership’s lobbying, GraphoGame was able to offer the GraphoGame American English synthetic phonics app free of charge for all U.S. app store users for the 2020-21 school year.
Originally, GraphoGame research focused on Finnish and other languages with transparent writing systems, ones in which each letter corresponds to a single sound and vice versa. In languages with opaque writing systems like English, however, the connections between letters and sounds are more complicated. By playing the game, children first learn the letters in the alphabet and their corresponding sounds, gradually moving to short words and then to increasingly longer words. GraphoLearn adapts the difficulty level to the child’s progress. Early research identified which groups of children benefit most from playing GraphoGame: those at risk of reading failure and non-readers that have not yet started learning. Further research showed that playing GraphoGame makes the brain of a non-reader more sensitive to letters and speech sounds, preparing them for the development of higher order reading skills.
Communicating and Disseminating the Research and Research-based Practices Widely to Improve Reading Achievement
The Windward School is steeped in the use of research-based practices and has a long history of communicating and disseminating these practices widely to improve reading achievement. The Windward Teacher Training Institute (WTTI) was the immediate predecessor of the Windward Institute. Established in 1986, the Windward Teacher Training Institute played a critical role in The Windward School becoming one of the preeminent schools in the country for the remediation of students’ language-based learning disabilities. Over the 20 years of Sandy Schwarz’s leadership as Director of the Windward Teacher Training Institute (WTTI), it experienced unprecedented growth in its professional development offerings, the scope of its work, and the number of constituents it served. Given the significant impact of these increased responsibilities, in 2018 the Board restructured the WTTI into two separate entities: The Windward Teacher Training Program (WTTP) and The Windward Institute. After almost two years of careful planning, in January 2020 the School officially launched The Windward Teacher Training Program which recruits, hires, trains, monitors, mentors, and retains Windward teachers and The Windward Institute (WI) which focuses on and serves as a resource for research-based practices for Windward and the broader educational communities.
The Windward Institute provides professional development for educators and parents and facilitates partnerships with universities and researchers to provide a bridge between research and educational practice. The Institute maintains ongoing and active outreach by providing professional development based on scientifically validated research in child development, learning theory, and pedagogy, including courses, workshops, seminars, and lectures that address a broad range of topics appropriate for both mainstream and remedial educational settings.
The Windward Institute provides professional development for educators and parents and facilitates partnerships with universities and researchers to provide a bridge between research and educational practice.
The annual Schwartz lecture and the monthly READ Podcast are but two examples of the many initiatives that the Institute uses to disseminate research and research-based practices. Recent Schwartz Lectures have included Translational Science in Reading: Where have we been and where are we going? By Emily J. Solari PhD, Early Identification of Dyslexia: Research to Practice by Hugh Catts, PhD, and What Basic Research on Brain Behavior Can Tell Us About Young Children with Learning Challenges by Richard Aslin PhD. There has also been a concerted effort to increase the presence of the Institute on social media that has resulted in extensive postings on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The Institute also sponsored the Research Education ADvocacy (READ) Podcast. Hosted by Danielle Scorrano, READ highlights the work of educational leaders and prominent researchers. With a new episode each month, READ Podcasts offer insights into research, education, and advocacy by applying research in practice across educational contexts and connecting with prominent researchers and thought leaders in education.
To complement the information shared through professional development offerings and social media, a resource section was added to the Institute’s website to provide educators and parents with evidence-based materials. The WI faculty also contributed to the creation of the Haskins Global Literacy Hub's website which contains a growing library of recommended educational and social-emotional research papers, articles, webinars, and more.
The Potential of Translational Science
The translational science initiatives of The Windward Institute described in this paper represent only a fraction of the efforts that the Institute’s faculty has made, but they are illustrative of The Windward School’s commitment to the powerful last sentence in its mission statement: “To meet these goals, the School provides ongoing training to its faculty based on the most current research and shares its expertise with the parent body, other educators, and the broader community.” As translational science begins to change the way reading is taught, the Windward Institute is well positioned to contribute to the long-sought goal of improving literacy outcomes for all students through the adoption of the Science of Reading.