Educators are increasingly pressed to use research to inform and justify their decisions and reform initiatives. For their part, researchers in education and other applied fields want to produce work that is relevant and useable by practitioners. Partnerships between researchers and practitioners are on the rise as a particularly promising approach to bridging the gap. Research-practice partnerships (RPPs) are long-term, mutualistic collaborations between practitioners and researchers that are intentionally organized to investigate problems of practice and solutions for improving educational outcomes.
To realize the promise of RPPs, however, we must see them as opportunities for a new kind of joint work, rather than as merely a mechanism to translate research into practice. We need to support researchers and practitioners as they engage in research and design that leverages the expertise of both groups, generating ecologically valid research designs as well as improvement strategies, that are valuable to all.
The Rise of Research Practice Partnerships (RPPs)
A growing number of federal and philanthropic initiatives promote the development of long-term partnerships between researchers and practitioners. For instance, the Institute for Education Sciences funds their Researcher–Practitioner Partnerships in Education Research program, and the National Science Foundation supports the MIST Project (Middle-school Mathematics and the Institutional Setting of Teaching) focused on the improvement of middle school mathematics at scale. The Strategic Education Research Partnership brings together researchers, designers, and practitioners to improve student learning through collaboration. With increased funding being invested in these partnerships, it is important to consider how to best conceptualize and design these promising partnerships.
The Problem with the Translation Metaphor, Research-to-Practice
The predominant solution for bridging the divide between research and practice has been to develop better ways to translate research into practice. Within this metaphor of translation, the goal is to close the gap between research and practice by making research findings more accessible to practitioners. The notion that research needs to be merely translated for educators oversimplifies educators’ practice, the varied ways research can inform practice, and what actually happens when interventions and programs move from one setting to another. The translation metaphor fails to address what we know about the process of research use:
- It involves extensive interaction, in which research findings are transformed in the process of becoming useful in new contexts
- It involves mutual learning on the part of researchers and practitioners, since how to solve problems of implementation cannot be fully known ahead of time.
Moreover, a model that emphasizes a uni-directional transmission of research findings fails to account for the expertise of practitioners. Practitioners are not passive recipients of research findings; rather, they are active contributors to a complex process. To best realize the potential of RPPs, we need new ways to conceptualize and design research-practice partnerships that recognize the learning process that underlies research use, can leverage diverse expertise, and are designed for the contexts in which they will be implemented.
A New Metaphor: Joint Work
Instead of being conceptualized as translation work, RPPst engage in joint work that generate dynamic learning opportunities that improve practices by strategically bringing diverse skill sets and resources together. In these settings, researchers and practitioners investigate problems of practice that are negotiated by both groups. The identified problems have immediate relevance to practitioners’ work. In this collaborative context, the organization’s goals for improvement and components of the research are defined and evolve through interaction, rather than being planned fully ahead of time and/or defined by singularly by one party.
Research-practice partnerships often involve the creation of new ways of working, boundary practices, that they use to organize their work. An example would be the creation of a collaborative design process that involves district leaders and researchers working together to design a new curriculum or professional development for principals. The emerging boundary practices incorporate familiar as well as unfamiliar elements of the existing routines from both the researchers and practitioners in the partnership, generating a broad repertoire for organizing joint work. Researchers and practitioners engage in this joint work to design, implement, and improve pressing problems of practice. The collaborative nature of this work allows for the generation of research designs and interventions that are specific to the context in which they will be applied. It allows for various forms of expertise to be incorporated into the design, generating more valid research.
As educators encounter increasing challenges, researchers are tasked to generate ways to best support and collaborate with the on-the-ground work of education. Many have pointed to RPPs as one promising strategy to meet these demands. We need to move beyond a vision of RPPs as a model of translation of research to practice, and, instead, conceptualize RPPs as joint work of researchers and practitioners. It is through joint work that researchers and practitioners come together around shared problems of practice, generating research and interventions that are relevant to both groups.