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Professional Development Opinion

Response: Ways to Build Partnerships Between Teachers & Researchers

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 04, 2018 16 min read
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The new question of the week is:

How can education researchers work better with educators and vice versa?

It’s not uncommon for educators to feel like their knowledge and experience is not well-respected by researchers. And it’s not uncommon for researchers to feel that their work is not respected or appreciated by educators.

Today’s post will explore how to change that narrative and consider how researchers and educators can best work together.

Responses are written by Dr. Ramon Goings, Lorena German, Sally Zepeda, Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin, David Bateman, PhD and Jenifer Cline, MS. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Ramon, Lorena, Sally and Jenny on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. By the way, you can also now listen to the show on Google Play and Stitcher, in addition to iTunes.

You might also be interested in a previous post, Several Ways To Tell The Difference Between Good & Bad Education Research.

Response From Dr. Ramon Goings

Dr. Ramon Goings is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Loyola University Maryland. His research explores gifted Black male student success PK-PhD, diversifying the teacher and school leader workforce, and nontraditional student success in higher education. Dr. Goings previously served as a music and special education teacher:

Researcher: “My findings show that students benefit from teaching reading through a more student-center approach.”

Teacher: “Do you realize that this is a math class?”

The scenario is a dramatization, however, when I visit schools I am surprised by the disconnect between education researchers and K-12 school based educators. After many discussions I have come to the conclusion that at the crux of the disconnect are differences in values that undergird researchers and school-based educator’s jobs. For instance, researchers are immersed in the latest theories about what is happening in school settings and are rewarded when espousing these theoretical concepts in academic journals. In contrast, some school based educators are tasked with providing a rigorous educational experience for all children notwithstanding limited access to resources.

Despite this disconnect, I believe there is value in the experiences of each group. As a benefit to school-based educators, education researchers have spent years developing an area of expertise and understanding of the importance of data that can help teachers create classroom environments that are not only provide rich opportunities for students, but also provide them the guidance to show empirical evidence how their teaching is impacting students. To support education researchers, school-based educators can provide a unique lens that can help shape our work. In particular, the school based educator perspective can help you answer questions such as, “Will my intervention really work in schools?” This is paramount because as academics we often receive funding (and lots of it in some cases) to test our interventions yet I would argue that having a teacher on the research team would be critical in the development of interventions. Practitioners experiences and knowledge are critical to addressing issues within school settings.

So, what is a potential solution? I would propose that schools of education allow education professors once every three to four years to spend an entire school year teaching one class in a K-12 setting with a school-based co-teacher. As a culminating project, the education researcher and school-based educator should develop a study that could address an issue impacting that class. This experience is needed to ensure academics remain connected to schools, which can inform our research and provide tangible solutions. For school-based educators, this opportunity can strengthen their understanding of solution oriented research projects.

As an education researcher who is not far removed from being a classroom music and special education teacher, I see an opportunity for teachers and researchers to learn from each other. In order to close the disconnect, we will need leaders from the K-12 and higher education community to spur innovation in the classroom, which will ensure that educators are able to use their talents to positively impact students’ lives.

Response From Lorena German

Lorena German is a 12th year Dominican-American educator working with young people in Austin, Texas. She has been published by NCTE, ASCD, EdWeek, and others and is an active member of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network. She is a two-time nationally awarded teacher and co-founder of The Multicultural Classroom, an organization seeking to support educators in developing a culturally sustaining approach to education. Lorena is a wife, mami, teacher, and writer. Follow her on Twitter at @nenagerman:

There are several challenges with education research from a teacher’s perspective. The first is that often, researchers write in a way that is inaccessible to teachers. The jargon, the language, the phrases, the research buzzwords are outside of the terms teachers are using in a practical way in our day to day lives. Many teachers are not reading the latest research books published because they are dense and difficult to understand. It sometimes leads to a rejection of said research because of its inaccessibility and therefore creates a sense of insecurity among teachers.

A second challenge that arises with research is that is sometimes feels disconnected from the daily grind. What I mean is, that sometimes research speaks to theories, ideas, postulations, and hypotheses. It reads, sometimes, as very distant from what I do when I walk into a classroom and meet with young people face to face. While theoretical frameworks and teaching stances are essential to explore and necessary to define for all teachers, which is why our schools ask for our teaching philosophy, the content produced by researchers often feels too focused on that theory and less classroom-based. This furthers the feeling of disconnect and then coupled with complex and hard-to-read language, research continues to feel far away and therefore unnecessary.

Lastly, education research is sometimes wrong. I have read research books that share horrible generalizations of Latinx students and communities, for example, and it’s honestly enraging. I wonder what school on earth granted them their PhD with such biased, racist, and clearly misguided information. The best research is grounded in love and humanizes the students, teachers, and communities it’s exploring and speaks to how to improve teaching. The best research can be understood by teachers who have been in the field for decades and newly arrived, fresh-out-of-college educators. The best research offers solutions for daily challenges and speaks to the shifting demographics of our country. The best research works to dismantle the oppressive ways in which education has destroyed communities of color and that research presents us with new ways of teaching and learning.

One way researchers can stay away from making these mistakes is to write with the teachers in mind. How would you say this in person? Also, speak to teachers while you write and have teachers review your writing. Let us ask, “What does this mean?” Let us say, “This isn’t clear.” In the same way that we all believe our teaching should be student-centered, I would say education research should keep teachers (along with students) at the center, too.

Response From Sally Zepeda

Sally J. Zepeda is a Professor in the Department of Lifelong Education, Administration, and Policy at the University of Georgia. Her book--Job-Embedded Professional Development: Support, Collaboration, and Learning in Schools (NY: Routledge)--situates teachers, leaders, and other school personnel at the front of the class with its exploration of numerous approaches and models of job-embedded professional development:

I have had the good fortune of working as a Professor-in-Residence with the Clarke County School District (Athens, GA) to frame their teacher and leader evaluation systems and with the Barrow County School System (Winder, GA) to support efforts to develop their instructional coaching program. Through the work with these systems (and others throughout the years), I learned we have our own ways of communicating the importance of practice and the evidence needed to influence it and policy. However, we both share the unequivocal commitment to further our understanding of children, schools, programs, systems, and the teachers, leaders, and others who enact the educational program.

Getting to this understanding in ways that support research embedded in practices across PreK-12 systems is a balancing act well worth the effort. We can learn a lot from each other, and here are a few perspectives to advance our thinking about this important topic.

Acknowledge the value of the work. “The work is the research” is an apt way to think about how research and practice inform each other. Without value, mutual trust cannot be built. Some school systems are reluctant to work with higher education because in the old model, professors would come in, collect data, and never return. Of course, a final report detailing complex statistical measures was given to the superintendent--perhaps the person furthest from the work. Findings were written in ways that key points about how practice might improve were replaced with discussions imbued in past research, all distanced from the classroom, the school, the system.

In the new model, teachers and professors work together to frame research with each contributing to data collection, analysis, and discussions applicable to the context of the work. This leads to the next point, a question.

Who owns the research versus who uses the research? This is an interesting question. The old paradigm situates the university professor as owner; the new paradigm calls for partnerships between higher education and PreK-12 school personnel who will hopefully be motivated to examine practices more deeply with research that can help us understand the complexities of the work by shining light on evidence to support better decision making at the local level--albeit practice, policy, etc.

Collaborative Learning Spaces Replace Silos. For practice and research to make a difference, it must be built collaboratively, not in silos. Often, professors design studies behind the screen in the ivory tower and then pitch these to schools expecting no feedback or input to the process. The new model is to develop focus for research alongside PreK-12 schools and involve key personnel in designing the methods, collecting data, analyzing data, and framing meaning for the results. This collaboration situates everyone as learners, promotes ownership, and most assuredly, engages people in making warranted changes and modifications.

Research in Real Time vs Lag Time. I was at a conference in the early 1990s where Seymour Sarason, the great change theorist, started a keynote with the following. “In higher education, we play the Ready, Ready, Ready game; whereas, in PreK-12 schools, they play the Go, Set, Ready game.” Interestingly true. There is an inordinate amount of time before the results of research get released and published in refereed journals that have high-impact factors. Many academics are not interested in publishing for highly-respected scholar-practitioner journals that have high readerships comprised of school personnel. We have different audiences and motivation levels to get published.

In higher education, we play the “publish or peril” game for promotions, tenure, and post-tenure reviews. School systems want data and results right away, tomorrow is too late to see if, for example, an intervention is making a difference. Also, school systems are under pressure to implement programs, system, or policies and do so without evidence. They then seek out data for the purposes of “evaluation after the fact.” Somewhere a balance can be found in our purposes. What a novel idea to include school system personnel in publishing.

The final perspective I offer is that both PreK-12 school personnel and university professors need to serve as bridge-builders who can engage in mutual inquiry in equal partnership.

These were just a few thoughts on how the work between PreK-12 school personnel and university professors can keep us focused on ways to support research on educational practices. Our schools and the children served are depending on us.

Response From Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin

Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin teaches the PostDoc Masterclass at University of Cambridge. She served as an award-winning teacher, school administrator, district administrator, and chief education & research officer and has been honored by the U.S. White House for her contributions to education. One of Dr. Rankin’s books is titled Fist Aid for Teacher Burnout: How You Can Find Peace and Success:

This topic will be covered in my next book, as education research’s primary benefit can only be realized if education researchers and educators are able to communicate easily, promptly, and freely. Education researchers can help this dynamic in the following areas:

Presenting: Anyone who has frequented education research conferences can attest to the dry, jargon-ridden, sleep-summoning way research findings are typically presented. Unless attending educators also have experience conducting formal studies, they are likely to be discouraged and to learn less than desired. Researchers should apply findings on the best ways to teach/communicate to their own lectures. Attendees should be actively engaged (e.g., think/pair/share), should have opportunities for discussion (presenters should never speak for more than 15 minutes without giving attendees the chance to talk), should see highly visual slides rather than word-heavy bullet-points, should hear findings communicated in language non-researchers can understand, should learn how study recommendations relate to their own practice, etc. Researchers should also present at non-research conferences where they are likely to reach more educators.

Writing: Too many education studies suffer from Dusty Shelf Syndrome, which is what I call cases where the study sits on a shelf or webpage unvisited or rarely read. Even when studies are read, too often they are only read by other researchers and not by those in position to apply the shared knowledge to improving education for students. Whenever researchers believe their findings can help students, they should write for a range of educator-audience publications (print magazines, blogs, e-newsletters, etc.), or at least partner with an educator who can relay the findings in these ways. Researchers should also write with the audience in mind, so research jargon is avoided and ways to apply recommendations to practice are clear.

Relationships: When working with educators, researchers should remain humble and aware that educators have a wealth of expertise that is just as valuable as researchers’ expertise. They should thus listen carefully to educators’ feedback and invite educators to share assertively.

Educators can help, as well, by meeting researchers halfway in a similar fashion. Educators can seek out researchers and their findings while also sharing their expertise (e.g., presenting and writing without educator jargon) via venues researchers frequent. Conference organizers can help by including “teacher presenter” tracks that don’t require an abstract/study to present so researchers can hear about new things happening in classrooms. If both of these two roles actively try to communicate in places and ways the other is likely to encounter and understand, education research is more likely to be of high quality and to ultimately help students.

Response From David Bateman, PhD & Jenifer Cline, MS

David Bateman, PhD is a professor of special education at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania where he focuses on providing appropriate services to students with disabilities. He is the co-author of many books, including A Teacher’s Guide to Special Education.

Jenifer Cline, MS, works in the Office of Public Instruction for the state of Montana. She is a former speech pathologist and a special education administrator. She is the co-author of many books, including A Teacher’s Guide to Special Education:

Necessity is the mother of invention. Given that, there needs to be more of a two-way form of communication between education researchers and educators. Researchers need to sit with educators and discuss the needs of the school, the classroom, or the community, and then work together to build a reasoned response that will help.

Education researchers have as their interests the education of students, however, there are many facets to this. There may be better ways of picking up and dropping off the students in the morning; there may be better ways of scheduling when the various classes have lunch; there may be better ways of utilizing the playground; there may also be better ways or times that should be allocated for reading instruction in elementary schools.

Businesses research where to put products for maximum viewing and purchase, and determine what sounds should be playing in the background to either encourage customers to slow down or increase the speed of purchases. We should do the same in schools. Research the environment. Research the presentation. Research the structure. Research everything, but do it in close consultation with the implementers.

However, nothing like this is going to happen unless we work to address the specific first on the mind needs of educators working in schools on a daily basis. That is why there need to regular and frequent conversations about what needs to be studied, altered, and implemented.

We may be able to find a reading series where the students read three grades higher at the end of the year, and they love reading more than ever. However, there will not be implementation of these series unless the teachers’ needs are addressed and we have regular communication about what needs to be done, when, and how.

Thanks to Ramon, Lorena, Sally, Jenny, David and Jenifer for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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