Privileges Must Be Shared: Let’s Stop Tokenizing the Wisdom of Practice

Categories: Careers, Contemporary Issues, Other, Research, Research Roles, Research Skills, Teaching

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This month MethodSpace will focus on emerging and online research methods– emerging ideas about research and how we can keep conducting inquiries during the pandemic. You will find interviews with innovative authors and researchers, original posts, and open-access resources. In September SAGE is a sponsor for the Nvivo conference, Qualitative Research in a Changing World, so we’ll highlight content and speakers from this global event. Check back throughout the month– find the evolving series of posts here.

Dr. Jane Shore has contributed several posts, including a video interview. In this guest post with Sarah Singer Quast, she reminds us of the importance of bridging research and practice. If we want real impact, this connection is essential. It you want to read more about this topic, see the series from December 2019.

By Dr. Jane R. Shore (Revolution School, Head of Research and Innovation)  and Sarah Singer Quast (Education Consultant)

Increasingly, organizations and schools are investing resources in positions focused on research, evaluation, and learning with the expectation of better integrating research into their work, as well as drawing on organization experience to contribute to fields of research.  These individuals frequently serve as conduits between two separate worlds, the world of practice and the world of research.  Based on our own experience working as research partners within organizations, we recognize the need for new models and paradigms that can offer a pathway for these individuals and organizations to conceptualize this necessary integration.

Evidence gathered through research offers tremendous opportunity for organizations. However, too often we mischaracterize what research offers and how to use research as a tool in practice.  We fall on traditional, hierarchical models in which research is bestowed and researcher wisdom is superior.  In our experience, research as a transactional exchange is not effective and in fact in many cases, hinders the integration of research and researcher wisdom in practice.  The empowered practitioner recognizes the assets that s/he brings and seeks a new relationship with the research and researcher.

As applied researchers, we value the wisdom and expertise of both practitioners and researchers, we have been inspired by experiences where we have seen these two come together to strengthen the value of research to practice.  However, distrust and imbalance power dynamics too often challenge these relationships.  This must change.  We offer the following framework as a conversation opener and an opportunity to forge a common language and approach for the integration of research and practice in ways that maximize the value that both offer as we seek innovation, high quality implementation, and impact.

This time in the world of COVID has challenged our hierarchies in a positive way. Especially in education, the hierarchies that have existed with regard to whose voice can be seen as an expert have begun to shift.  Prominent voices in all areas of research – from cognitive learning sciences to literacy – have made it clear that we must value the professional wisdom in the field and, “listen to the teachers.”

We welcome this change, as the inequities of who gets to have a voice, who can be the expert, has been blurred and obscured in time, frequently valuing those with little to no contact with students, classrooms and schools to provide “expert insight” into how learning happens.  

None of us can claim to be an expert with insight into the unknown educational landscape that lies before us. For this reason, we look to experience, and those voices deeply embedded in the work have been amplified. We value multiple perspectives, not for the sake of, “valuing multiple perspectives,” but because we have seen this lead to more meaningful collective progress. It has not been entirely successful, but that does not mean we should not keep going.  It means we need to push through to find ways to create what we call collective expertise.

In this article, we share a vision for collective expertise in education that we believe allows us to rise above the dichotomy of “research to practice,”  and begins to reveal the joint space of “research and practice.” Collective expertise is a term that has been used in other fields to express the difference between individual expertise and that of a group. We contribute to this definition by sharing our vision for a shared culture of bi-directional expertise – that which recognizes the various funds of knowledge that, when blended together, can produce the most productive and coherent messages to bring us forward.

Here, we argue that what the field needs are tools for researchers to use every day to make sure we are truly engaging with and elevating practice and practitioners.  This is hard work and we all have embedded in our minds some level of research that falls back on hierarchical models that have been in place for centuries.  We suggest this practice of gathering and privileging collective expertise is a goal we should continually be striving for in our professional practices. 

The Challenge: Research and Practice are DIVIDED

Research in education is not having the impact we want it to have. More specifically, much of what we know of as research is not created with the user in mind. Practitioners are encouraged to gain “research literacy,” but there is very little effort on the part of researchers to make their knowledge and findings more transparent. To break down the walls that privilege professional journals, academic language and processes by which conclusions are anointed as “best practices.” And generally, research is NOT offering information that practitioners need.  

This exists on many levels. Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) professor Thomas Kane noted in a recent Education Next article:

“Researchers, rather than policymakers and practitioners, are posing the questions, which are typically driven by debates within the academic disciplines rather than the considerations of educators.”

What can we do to bridge research and practice in education, given the urgent time we are in now?

Too often what the field values as evidence revolves far more around the validity of the methods used than the value of the questions asked. This results in a body of evidence that takes a lot of time to gather and often exists a level above the realities and contexts of our educators.  Decision-makers (from practitioners to administrators) in education often struggle to find research relevant to their specific contexts.

Hierarchical models of research value producing generalizable results not the use of research to customize to the specifics of individual settings with unique characteristics and needs. In other words, published results require relevance to many and therefore only end up relevant to a point.

We do not mean to suggest that generalizable results are not beneficial to the field, just that we invest too much time on this side of the research spectrum.  So what can we do to shift this?  We explore a few ideas below:

  1. Build relational trust:   We need to develop research models that value collective expertise and make space for each other’s knowledge. Ravitch (2020) highlights the importance of an inquiry stance that asks explicitly what wisdom do practitioners bring to an issue and what wisdom do researchers bring.   

A survey was produced by the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice (NCRPP) gathering information from 733 education leaders in 485 school districts across 45 states about their use of research in their work (2016). While nearly 72% of respondents said they use research to expand their understanding of issues, most of those only did so only “frequently” or “sometimes,” not “all of the time.”

This is consistent with our experience working with and within organizations and schools. While practitioners value research on the surface, they often find the most value in reflecting on their own experience and/or the experience of peers. Research is often shared in these contexts, validated by practitioner experience rather than the result of an open-ended literature review.  This offers a model for, rather than a critique of, research use.

  1. Write research in clear and accessible language: Research needs to be Free Accessible Interpretable and Ready to use (FAIR).Research, for example, that is locked behind paid firewalls minimizes practitioner access and furthermore signals that these articles are not intended for a practitioner audience. 

If the goal of our education system is to foster a well-educated public, not just to create a class of intellectual elites, then scholars who produce academic papers should be grateful to their peers who incorporate their work in practice. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case. In many areas of scholarship, especially in education, it’s commonplace to find a divide between “academics” and “users of research,” where the former is often dismissive or condemnatory of the latter.

  1. Focus research on testing rather than proving:   A lot of attention has focused on “effectiveness” research or “proving” something to evaluate whether a specific practice or program, once implemented, affects an education outcome. However, we need to place more emphasis on testing ideas out, engaging the “hack mindset” employed in lean start-ups. Through the creation of small, quick, and cheap experiments, we can develop specific solutions that fit into specific contexts and add up to stronger systems.  Hacks may focus on small, specific changes but they’re built on research-based practices that lead to Deeper Learning, and taken together can create the kind of big change that we all aspire to—namely, preparing students for life in the real world. Check out efforts like School Retool.

As a leader-learner, how many times have you been excited about an idea—but gotten bogged down in the complexities of making it happen? Change is met with resistance. The stakes are high. There are countless moving parts to consider, and opinions to sway. Even setting a schedule for the year feels daunting in schools during this time of COVID.  What if we just set a schedule, make different tweaks (that are research-informed, e.g.,optimal learning times for students, engaging students in different types of small group instruction) and track what the actual impact is of those tweaks?

  1. Elevate the unique roles and value of both foundational (generalizable) and applied research: 
    For practitioners, foundational research can seem like a mismatch to the needs of the field – re-treading findings that are already widely accepted and/or taking years to complete,  However, we often need foundational research that draws on the power of large scale studies and the deeper insights of confirmed or disproved findings to drive broad-scale policy changes.

“Think about the number of studies that had to be published for people to realize smoking is bad for you,” said Ronald Iannotti, a psychologist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “There are some subjects where it seems you can never publish enough.” But with so much of the obvious to wade through, it is difficult to see the value of findings that could make a difference.

We need to be clearer about the difference between foundational and applied research and the role that each needs to play in the development of our policy and practice.  The level of inquiry and influence is often different, but no less important when applying research methods on a grander scale or around a specific hack.  As applied researchers, we see the legitimacy of pushback against a field that has privileged and prioritized foundational research. However, we also recognize the issue is not that this work is not of value, but rather that our research language and our investment of resources have been skewed far too much in that direction. Furthemore, we would argue that the pressure to offer findings more quickly or deliver new findings threatens the ability to deliver high quality foundational research. Speed and new findings based on contextualized findings are the purview of applied research driven by practitioner needs and interests.

  1. Stop tokenizing practitioner wisdom:  Professional experiences or beliefs, organizational priorities, and political demands influence how individuals interpret evidence and ultimately make decisions. Frequently the voice of the field becomes tokenized in language around “listening to the field” rather than collaborating.

Name the virtue signaling and performative allyship that often happens in research and practice. Terms used in anti-racism work, but extend to any situation in which one voice is privileged over others. Researchers frequently claim to be connected and value the voice of practitioners. Until this performative allyship is named, we will continue to reinforce these dichotomies.

In order to authentically engage and represent practitioners in research, we need to change how we engage as researchers.  Tables of crosstabs generated from analysis software and logic models with endless bulleted lists of 8-point font are not engagement tools.  We need to draw on tools and language that foster practitioner engagement. This often means moving towards more visual, iterative forms of idea presentation.

A Solution: Share Culture of Collective Expertise

To address this division, we propose intentional work around the development of a shared culture. We argue that this must be seeded in the training of researchers NOT just training of practitioners (which is the bent of the field) in order to cultivate the change needed to growing the profession.

A Framework for Shared Education/Research Privilege

Creating this shared culture will increase the influence of practitioners and the influence of research. We propose the following model to recognize the progression of steps that must be taken to share privilege in this space.

Translation (Research to Practice):  We see this as a first stage on a continuum of research and practice integration.  Here, active steps are taken to interpret and translate research in ways that offer greater relevancy to practitioners.  The emergence of applied frameworks that incorporate evidence from research are a great example of this. 

An example may be found in the Career Development Framework designed by the Philadelphia Youth Network, who took an evidence approach to developing a tool that can be used across multiple stakeholders to align pathways towards post secondary and employment goals.

In this stage, an internal or external partner often helps to play this translation role, serving as the connection point between research and practice.

Connection (Practice to Research):  This is the second stage in our continuum.  Here, the practitioner and organization have an opportunity to design research around the specific context and questions of their work.  This often happens through the development of specific relationships between researchers and organizations.  Organizations and researchers frequently design symbiotic relationships in which practitioners gain access to advanced research methods and additional capacity, and researchers gain access to data and information that can meet the standard of a peer-review article.

In Philadelphia, Students Run Philly Style has had a long-standing relationship with the School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality at Temple University – which has supported the integration of evidence-based measures and practice, and offered high quality data analysis to support internal work, while also offering opportunities for external scholarship

Relation (Practice to Research and Research to Practice):  In this stage, practitioners and researchers move from transactional engagement into a more dynamic space that offers frequent interaction and iteration around research questions.  Internal staff dedicated to research and evaluation, in particular, offer unique opportunities to engage in cycles of research and learning and elevate the learning that emerges rather than elevating answers around specific questions set from the start.  In this stage, practitioners draw on researcher tools and wisdom to move work forward.

Michael Quinn Patton has written extensively about this type of interaction as Development Evaluation, offering several examples of what a partnership between researchers and program decision-makers can look like.  

Revolution (Practice as Research):  This is our opportunity. Build cultures in which researchers are connected to the practice – and practitioners are field researchers. Some early adopters exist and models in this vein have been explored and written about prior.  However, in our experience without broad-scale paradigm shifts, we will continue to take incremental steps backward and forward in this direction.  We need a revolution in education of research and research of education!

A Call to Action

What transformative questions can researchers and practitioners explore that extend from training to practice- that honor collective decision making? Before engaging in any applied research, we propose there are important questions that all parties must ask themselves.

  • What shared language do we need to engage in this work?
  • Are there multiple privileged voices creating our research/practice questions/agenda? Our design? Our methods? Our analyses? Our interpretations?
  • What knowledge of practice informs this research?
  • What knowledge of research informs this practice?
  • How might the findings of our work be put into practice (measurement, instruction, learning design)?
  • How will the findings inform research training and development?
  • Who are the intended users of this research?
  • How might all collaborators ensure the conclusions are interpretable and ready to use?
  • How will this inform professional development for researchers?
  • How will this inform professional development for practitioners?
  • How might this work be generative in the field and in research after this study?

We need to focus on blending the best that both offer rather than privileging one side. Researchers need to know practice (so often the message is the other way around).

We can all take several steps to connect scientist-practitioners with practitioner-scientists, starting with the training of researchers to recognize the voice practice must play in their work. Researchers and Practitioners should partner at every step, from question asking to interpreting results. With this type of increased collaboration, educators can feel confident that researchers are working to solve their most challenging problems — and those conducting research can continue to ensure that their work will be valued and used by educators.

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