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What Makes Researchers Effective? Leading Scholars Speak Up

By Rick Hess — March 29, 2022 3 min read
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Regular readers know that earlier this year, I released the 2022 RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings, identifying the 200 university-based researchers with the biggest impact on education policy and practice last year. After a dozen years of doing this, I thought it worth trying something new this year: asking this impressive group to share some thoughts on research, policy, and the state of their field. I sent the Edu-Scholars a brief set of questions, and about one-third responded.

You can read a fuller write-up over at Education Next, but given the professional success and impact of the respondents, I thought it worth sharing some of their specific thoughts on good research practices here. Their key takeaways can be ordered into three loose buckets.

A number of respondents urged that researchers should take care to read broadly and expand their research horizons.

One researcher advised, “Read broadly beyond the field of education. Lots of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction.” Another noted, “I read and listen to fiction, especially speculative fiction. Learning from those who build worlds pushes one to recognize the power of words in shaping readers’ understanding of what you are trying to convey. More academics should not only write better, but also take communicating our message to the wider world more seriously.”

And a third mused, “I think to be a good education policy researcher, you have to be well-read in terms of general news (not just education-related). I read The Economist and The Washington Post cover to cover; other outlets, here and there. I also think it’s a bad idea to narrow your research focus. This is hard because when preparing for reappointment, promotion, and tenure, academia forces you to choose a research topic—i.e., the thing that you’re known for. But I think that creates the problem of researchers only seeing their particular, narrow issue in every education policy problem. ‘When all you’ve got is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.’”

A second common theme: the need to write so that nonacademics can understand the research.

As one scholar suggested, “Write with the explicit goal of application, engage in discourse on social media (largely Twitter), and be willing to speak beyond the discipline and outside the academy.” A tip for doing this? Another respondent wrote, “I simplify problems, rather than complexify them.”

One scholar advised another useful technique in writing for nonexperts, “I try to write using normal words and short sentences, the way I speak. That has allowed normal people (which includes policymakers and board of education members) to understand and use my research. It’s also what’s allowed it to be picked up by the press. The vast majority of educational research is written for other researchers and simply to get tenure and pad one’s CV.”

A third common theme was the importance of collaboration.

Advised one scholar, “Productivity is the best predictor of future creative impact, so I try to stay busy with interesting projects. Collaboration is key: It allows you to increase your productivity, brings multiple perspectives to your work, and allows you to pursue several ideas at the same time.” Broaching the same topic, with a wry note, another noted, “I work with a lot of different and highly talented co-authors so I don’t have to do everything. That increases my impact.”

And another wrote, “I bring a collaborative design mindset to pretty much everything I do. I see all educational systems as made up—that can hence be made better by design. I try asking simple questions, which often lead to complex answers. I love co-writing, particularly with people smarter than me.”

I’ve been in and around education research for three decades, and it’s often felt long on data collection and “evidenced-based” practices and short on practical wisdom. I suspect it’s partly because we usually hear researchers speaking as authorities rather than as people. Turns out that when permitted to speak as people rather than as oracles, acclaimed researchers have plenty of practical wisdom to share.

Please note that answers were lightly edited for grammar and spelling.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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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