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Engaging with Researchers: 3 Thoughts for Educational Leaders

By Urban Education Contributor — November 30, 2017 4 min read
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This post is by Thurston Domina, (@ThadDomina), Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (@UNC).

Today’s post is a researcher response on Monday’s post: Working Together: School District Leaders’ Advice to Ed. Researchers.

I’d like to thank the district leaders who shared their thoughts on partnering with researchers with Chris Harrison and his colleagues in the new study Building Productive Relationships: District Leaders’ Advice to Researchers. In reflecting on their experience working with researchers, these educators provided three stellar pieces of advice for scholars who are committed to doing research that helps improve educational practice, as outlined in Monday’s blog post: benefit the district’s work, build trust and relationships, and plan for ongoing engagement.

I’m one of those scholars. Based on a decade’s worth of doing research with practitioners at pretty much every educational level, I can tell you that these are pieces of advice that researchers need to hear again and again. As research-practice partnerships become an increasingly recognized mode of academic inquiry, getting better at engaging effectively with educational practitioners is crucial. But too many scholars — myself included — roll up at district offices with an established research question, conduct a one-off study, and wonder why our work doesn’t inform practice.

In this spirit of collaboration, I want to return the favor and offer three pieces of advice to educational leaders who are interested in engaging with researchers: be curious, engage scholarly communities, and think of research as a verb.

Disclaimer: While the advice that Chris and colleagues provide is based on 200 interviews; mine is based on a read of the literature and a bunch of conversations over coffee. But my hope is that it can help advance the conversation.

1. Be curious

Practitioners, it’s absolutely fair to expect research partners to engage in research that benefits your practice. Your work is hard. You have hundreds of classrooms to staff; a constantly changing policy environment to keep up with; dozens of constituencies, often with competing goals, to satisfy; and thousands of kids with a wide range of needs to serve. You can’t — and shouldn’t — waste your time talking with scholars who aren’t committed to helping you get that work done.

But know that the route from research to practice is often circuitous. Even framing good questions is hard. A key part of the research process involves surfacing issues from across the organization and revising them in light of the data. Resist the urge to pursue research that proves your point or advances your pet project. Rather, find the questions that really make you wonder; those are the places where research can really pay off.

2. Engage with communities of scholars

In the movies, academics live quiet lonely lives, tapping out obscure manuscripts in their dark, dusty offices. That popular conception is half right. I’m currently typing away in an office that could use better lighting and a feather duster. But the quiet, lonely part is wrong. Social scientists who do applied work are inveterate networkers.

Take advantage of those networks. The individual researchers you partner with are likely specialists, masters of a particular set of tools and experts in a particular research literature. Sometimes that expertise is exactly what you need. But other times, who your partner knows is more useful than what she knows.

An easy way to tap research networks is keeping a list of all the questions that surface as you go about your work. Encourage others in your organizations to do the same. Share those lists with research partners every now and again, and encourage them to share your questions with their colleagues. The math education researcher you’re working with may not know anything about school social work; but she might know somebody who does. Distributing effort across scholarly communities can dramatically increase your partnership’s reach.

Partnership work between researchers and practitioners is about brokering; the process of making a match between practitioners who have questions and researchers who can help answer them.

3. Think of research as a verb

I hate the phrase “research shows” because it frames research and the resulting knowledge as static.

Good research “asks” as often as it “shows.” Sure, research involves collecting data and testing hypotheses. But that’s only a piece of the research enterprise. When you sit down to translate a hunch into a question that can be answered empirically, that’s research. When you squint your eyes to make sense of a table, only to realize that it’s telling you about something different from what you really care about, that’s research. When you find out that a practice “works” in one school and start to wonder about what it’ll take to make it work just as well in another school, that’s research too.

I’m not going to lie: Thinking about research as a verb means more work for you, the practitioner. But the fact is, it’s the perfect corollary to the advice you and your colleagues give educational researchers when you ask us to build partnerships and remain engaged over the long haul. If we’re going to build schools that work for all students, we need to stop looking for silver bullets and simple fixes. We need to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Together.

The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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