School & District Management Opinion

Why Research-Practice Partnerships Need Theories of Action

By Urban Education Contributor — August 09, 2018 6 min read
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This week we are taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming to reflect on some important concepts relevant to research-practice partnerships. In today’s post, Paula Arce-Trigatti, Director of the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships (NNERPP; @RPP_Network) shares how NNERPP’s thinking on theories of action as a critical tool to guide RPP work has evolved.

Check out Monday’s post for more thoughts on important topics in the RPP field: What’s Next for Research-Practice Partnerships?

What does a theory of action have to do with a research-practice partnership (RPP)? And why should I think about having one if I am in an RPP? (Also... what even is a theory of action?)

If you are anything like us at the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships (NNERPP) a few years ago, you might have been asking those very same questions. (Well, if we are being perfectly honest, at NNERPP’s first official gathering as a network of RPPs — the 2016 Annual Forum — there was no mention of theories of action, let alone the questions listed above).

Today, however, it seems to be all we can think about (#obsessed). We attempted our first official theory of action session at the 2017 Annual Forum, where we asked participants to sit with their RPP teams and draw their partnership’s current theory of action on poster paper. We even provided teams with a handy template to work from, prompting them to list out the resources and activities that would support a variety of partnership products and outcomes. At our most recent Annual Forum in Portland, which we recapped in Monday’s post, we hosted not one, but two sessions on theories of action (see the blog post for more information on what the sessions entailed). And as we look ahead to the 2019 Annual Forum, it is no exaggeration to say that the entire 3 day event could be solely about theories of action (like I said, #obsessed).

Why are we so hung up on theories of action? In today’s post, we’d like to share some key ideas around RPP theories of action that are surfacing in our conversations. Who knows — maybe you’ll join us on the RPP theory of action bandwagon as well!


Our shift in conversation over the last couple of years reflects an increasing recognition in the field of the value in spending time thinking and planning how to create processes and conditions to achieve partnership goals. A simple definition that we’ve adopted here at NNERPP is that a theory of action illustrates how a change is expected to come about. In the RPP context, this requires the partnership to put to paper a few things: First, the partnership needs to agree upon a set of goals the team will work towards. Second, a pathway to achieving those goals can then be jointly negotiated across the research and practice sides of the partnership. Beyond that, a theory of action can take on many forms, far too many to summarize here.

All of this might seem obvious to some, but for us (myself included) the concept of a theory of action, especially in the context of RPPs, is quite new. This may simply be a reflection of the variety of research training backgrounds many RPP directors come to the work with (e.g., people with graduate degrees in disciplines other than education may be less likely to know what a theory of action is). Part of it may also be due to the organic way in which the field itself grew — new partnerships learning from existing partnerships in more fundamental ways (e.g., “How do you develop a research agenda with your partners?” versus “Are you testing any hypotheses about how to support evidence-based decision making in practice?”).

Regardless of the origins of our knowledge gap, other leaders in the RPP space are also recognizing the growing importance of having a theory of action for RPPs. Indeed, Vivian Tseng (@VivianT88), Senior Vice President of Programs at the William T. Grant Foundation, summarized this shift nicely in a recent piece for the Grant Foundation. Calling it the “next big leap” for RPPs, Vivian offers valuable insight into how her own thinking has evolved regarding RPPs and theories of action. For example, the initial focus of many RPPs centers on efforts to produce more timely, relevant, and actionable research; while necessary, Vivian rightly points out that those conditions are not sufficient to support a variety of research uses on the practice-side. Instead, she advocates for RPPs to invest time in building a theory of action, specifically one around research use. Without it, she argues, supporting research use continues to be an afterthought, despite it being a commonly held goal among many RPPs.

We couldn’t agree more with this perspective, and from the conversations we’ve had at NNERPP, it seems our members do as well.

Current Themes

So, given this recent flurry of energy around RPP theories of action, what have we learned so far? Knowing full well that when we check in a year from now, we’ll likely have an entirely different set of ideas (such is the world of RPPs), here are a few themes that seem to be emerging:

Multiple theories of action are probably a good idea. Vivian’s piece focuses on a particular example of a theory of action, namely one that focuses on how to support research use. Our experiences thus far tell us that multiple theories of action are likely needed. For example, while there could be an overarching theory of action that connects processes and goals at the partnership level, individual research projects conducted by the RPP likely require their own theory of action. Furthermore, there might even be important distinctions at the level of staff that requires their own theories of action (e.g., the RPP might be interested in “building capacity” — what are the processes and conditions that need to be in place to support any kind of learning at an associate level?).

It’s best to think of theories of action as living documents. To really make them valuable, partnerships should come back to them regularly, iteratively updating them with new information surrounding the original “theory” describing how they might achieve a particular goal. Moreover, we think this type of iteration helps get partnerships into a learning mindset, one in which mistakes become high-value currency in the market for high performance.

Implementation of the theory of action requires the RPP to consider organizational shifts to the work. To really squeeze all you can out of their potential, RPPs must also think carefully about how to implement new processes and routines that will support and take advantage of all the planning work invested in creating the theories of action. For example, how often will the team revisit the theory of action and update it with new information? How will data be collected on whether the theories defined in the theory of action are working, and who will collect it? Who will decide whether the initial goals the partnership is working towards in the theory of action are still relevant? This may in fact be the most challenging part of the theory of action process, given what we know about the general immobility of established routines and culture across organizations.

In Closing

As we’ve said throughout this post, the recent interest in RPP theories of action is still new, and we continue to learn and think about them in new ways every day. The three themes we share here around theories of action reflect our current thinking on the topic. It’s good to remember as well that each RPP is different, the context in which they operate is different, and thus their theories of action and the processes and routines around creating and supporting them will look very different, too. Our hunch is that there may be certain practices that can apply across RPPs, and that it is important to develop and test these in a way that allows us to improve the overall work and effectiveness of research-practice partnerships.

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