How can education researchers and practitioners work together?
This guest post is written by Paula Arce-Trigatti, member of our Advisory Board and Director of the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships housed within Rice University in Houston, Texas.
Venturing off the well-worn “traditional research” path in education (e.g., researchers working in isolation, practitioners having little access to said researchers or research, a gaping divide between the two cultures continuing to remain firmly in place, and so forth) in order to improve evidence-based decision making is becoming more and more common.
As a representative originating in the “researcher” camp, I find this development thrilling.
In my current role as the Director of the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships (NNERPP), I have been able to see first-hand the potential for change when researchers and practitioners abandon previous patterns of collaboration (read: none) and instead, embrace the opportunities available when important expertise held by each side is acknowledged and intentionally integrated. Convincing people of the value contained in this new way of working is typically not the most challenging part of the journey, in my experience; navigating existing cultural norms and investing time to form new ones is where the obstacles usually lie.
In this blog post, I share some tips we’ve gathered over the years from the members in our Network for overcoming some common barriers researchers and practitioners encounter as they decide to work together. I’ve organized these based on the stage of the typical research process where they might occur: before, during, and after. While not magic bullets, they are tried and tested guidelines that will surely enrich the options available to you should you find yourself on this (very exciting!) newly beaten path.
Before the research happens
As a practitioner, you might have been asked, “Can we have access to your data?” and then quickly assured, “We’ll definitely send you the report once it’s done.” To the researchers in the audience, this is not a great way to start a relationship with practitioners. First, this ignores the valuable expertise cultivated by practitioners and second, this tends to preserve the traditionally inequitable roles taken on by researchers and practitioners when collaborating.
A key first step, then, to establishing a long-term working relationship between researchers and practitioners is co-developing the research questions that will be analyzed.
- Host a one-day event where both researchers and practitioners have the opportunity to engage in a negotiation process of deciding what questions matter.
- Create feedback loops where other stakeholders not present can comment on research questions or agendas previously developed by publishing short reports or summaries online or disseminating these using appropriate channels.
- Invite an outside facilitator to help mediate initial discussions between researchers and practitioners, as the language used by either side may not initially overlap.
- Spend time co-developing a theory of action that will map out the resources, roles, and outcomes needed to support the research and reinforce the collaborative nature of the work.
During the research process
Research projects can be conducted in a variety of ways (i.e., surveys, randomized control trials, quasi-experimental studies using existing data, etc.), and questions and challenges unique to each type of effort will likely arise. Here I focus on a common challenge many partnerships (including many of our members) encounter: Keeping practitioners involved in this stage of the research process, especially if they are not necessarily trained in research methods. Depending on the objectives of the collaborative project, there are several ways to continue to integrate both researchers and practitioners in this phase of the work.
- Sometimes a goal in this stage is what many call “building capacity,” that is, providing opportunities for practitioner-partners to develop their research skills. If that is the case, researchers can coordinate short workshops that help practitioners dive deeper into research methodologies to strengthen their ability to work with data.
- Whether capacity building is an aim or not, scheduling regular check-in meetings between researchers and practitioners during the research phase should always be considered. Practitioners can often provide feedback on whether the data “makes sense,” share valuable context knowledge that is often absent from raw numbers, and help with interpretation of initial findings.
After the research is completed
Even if you’ve managed to reach this stage of the research process without having to cross too many hurdles, knowing what to do with the research once it’s completed in order to impact decision making can very well bring new challenges. While folks continue to explore conditions that will foster practitioner use of research, I share here some promising tips guided by the real-world experiences of our members.
- For researchers, the rule of thumb is the shorter the report, the better (i.e., don’t send a dissertation as an attachment via a one sentence email wishing practitioners the best of luck on future endeavors).
- Think about your audience: you may need to create different products for different stakeholders. For example, these might include a full technical report, a short policy brief, a one-pager with bullets, an infographic, a short video, or a podcast.
- Sometimes meeting in-person is best, however, and facilitating a conversation to chat through the findings and what they mean for practice might be most appropriate.
- If parties are willing, having a researcher on “speed dial” can also be quite effective, since questions about the findings may appear after all of these other efforts have been realized.
If you find yourself in the good fortune of potentially launching a collaborative project that will bring together researchers and practitioners, my hope is that these tips may help guide some of your work. Based on our collective experiences, we do recommend researchers and practitioners consider entering into these projects with the intention of making them long-term, if one wishes to allow the fruits of creating fully trusting relationships to ripen. Investing time in overcoming some of the common communication challenges I highlight here will go a long way in setting the team up for success!
Paula Arce-Trigatti is Director of the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships housed within the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston, Texas. If you are interested in learning more about research-practice partnerships or would like more information about the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships, please visit nnerpp.rice.edu.