School & District Management Opinion

Moving Beyond Building Practitioner Capacity to Mutual Learning in Research-Practice Partnerships

By Urban Education Contributor — September 04, 2017 6 min read
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This post is by Caitlin Farrell (@ccfarrell), director of the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice (NCRPP, @NCRPP). Stay tuned: Thursday’s post will feature a practitioner’s reflection on this post.

We often hear about the need to “build capacity” of practitioners to use research. This usually gets translated as improving practitioners’ skills in using research to make decisions or imparting knowledge on how to engage in continuous improvement efforts.

It is tempting to think about research-practice partnerships as solely serving this purpose. In this view, researchers work with practitioners to identify a relevant problem of practice. The researchers conduct a study of that problem, and practitioners use evidence from the research to inform next steps. The hope is that when the work is done, individual practitioners’ capacity to use research will have improved, and educators will independently use research in their future work. The idea is that, eventually, research partners will no longer need to play a role.

While the work of RPPs involves some capacity building, our research at the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice points to a different, broader vision for research-practice partnerships. This image of what RPPs can be focuses on organizing for mutual learning opportunities for both researchers and practitioners to solve complex, persistent educational issues. Here, I offer an alternative framework for understanding the possibilities of research-practice partnerships.

From Gap Filling to Co-Construction and Learning

Building capacity in a partnership can be framed as filling gaps in practitioners’ knowledge and skills. This view calls to mind Paulo Freire’s concept of “banking education,” where researchers deposit knowledge into practitioners’ heads which practitioners passively accept. It privileges a one-way pathway, where researchers produce knowledge that practitioners consume in more or less skilled ways. This view also sometimes brings a deficit orientation towards practitioners, limiting their role as only that of consumers of research and knowledge.

We find partnerships can be rich places for dialogue and co-construction of research and policy solutions. Here, both research and practice expertise is valued. Practitioners are active partners who bring extensive expertise related to content, pedagogy, and how to work within complex educational systems. In partnerships, practitioners are knowledge generators, too. For instance, in the Strategic Education Research Partnership‘s work with the Minority Student Achievement Network, teacher co-designers played a critical role in designing, testing, and redesigning instructional materials to support Algebra learning.

Further, the learning in a partnership is not one-sided: RPPs also aim to build the capacity of researchers to engage in more practice-relevant work and to impact local policies and programs. They can contribute to researchers learning new research methods to pursue practice questions. For example, in the Seattle-Renton STEM partnership with the University of Washington, researchers learned new social network analysis methods in response to the district’s interest in documenting the broader influence of resources beyond those teachers immediately involved in the project. More broadly, though, partnership work can lead to shifts in researchers’ understanding of problems in education, in their own research agenda, and in how they orient to research. All involved in a partnership stand to learn from the work together, not only practitioners.

From an Individual to Organizational Focus

“Building capacity” tends to focus on individual practitioners’ knowledge and skills. Certainly, individual areas of expertise contribute to broader improvement efforts. However, district capacity (and likely researcher capacity, too) is largely a collective, organizational affair.

In past work, we have found there are interrelated, organizational dimensions that contribute to a district’s ability to make productive use of what a research partner brings to the table. We studied two departments in one district, each engaged with the same research partner. In one department, the research partner’s ideas were mostly absent in subsequent policies and routines, while these same ideas were quite present in the second department’s initiatives.

This difference was due, in part, to the organizational conditions that supported the department’s ability to learn from their external partners and adapt their guidance into district initiatives. These organizational conditions included: the presence of distributed prior knowledge connected to the focus problem; strong communication amongst those engaged in partnership; and leadership activities that linked the partnership work to ongoing district activities. Had we only focused on individual leaders’ abilities to access and engage with research, we would have missed the bigger picture of district decision-making and the role for research therein.

From Short-term Intervention to Long-term Relationships

Finally, the vision of an RPP as a short-term intervention misses out on the key ingredients that make partnerships tick. Partnerships rest on foundations of trust, mutualism, and empathy for others’ issues. These features are fundamentally about the relationships built among researchers and practitioners. Relationships do not occur overnight; they take time to develop and mature. The more trust there is, the more expansive the work can become.

Therefore, it may be inappropriate to think about partnerships of having an expected expiration date, where researchers leave and practitioners work independently (although this can occur naturally when grant funding ends, key partners move to new institutional or geographic homes, etc.). Many of the most prominent research-practice partnerships in education represent long-standing commitments to work together. The Chicago Consortium for School Reform, for example, has been a 25-year collaboration between the University of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools. The power of partnerships may lie in their ability to shift the ways that researchers and practitioners engage in work together in the long-term, not as part of a short-term project together.

Moving Forward

This framework suggests we think about RPPs as ongoing relationships organized to support mutual learning around our most pressing educational problems. What does this perspective buy us?

For one, it gives researchers a better starting point for approaching practitioners as equal partners. It helps researchers see practitioners as bringing unique contributions to the work that improve the quality and relevance of the research. And it encourages researchers to orient themselves, perhaps with some humility, as learners within a partnership setting.

Second, this vision moves us beyond solutions that focus solely on building individual practitioners’ knowledge. It asks us to see practitioners and researchers within their broader settings and to think about new strategies that take into account these organizational realities.

Finally, it prepares us to expect more, not less, of partnerships as sites for engaging in complex work of promoting equitable change to systems. That’s because everyone’s in it for the long haul, building the trust and joint capacity required to solve some of education’s most difficult challenges.

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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.