As part of NCRPP’s ongoing work, we spend quite a bit of time thinking critically about how research interacts with and shapes practice. That includes talking about the kinds of research that practitioners use, exploring how research contributes to decision making, and considering the form and function of research-practice collaborations. If our end-goal is to meaningfully improve the connection between research and practice, however, I would argue that we should consider having some more fundamental conversations – in particular, about how we define the role of the researcher in the educational enterprise, about the nature of our work, and about how we should relate to practitioners.
Looking in the Mirror
Recently, I found myself venturing down this road in a conversation with Mike Petrilli over at Education Gadfly. There, Mike wrote a post questioning the impact of evidence on practice. He raised a number of factors that might mitigate the ability of research to inform educators’ work. These included issues related to dissemination and consumption of research, consistent with the wider conversation regarding research use. In my response, I tried to “flip the script” by arguing that researchers should take a long look in the mirror as we question whether our work has a meaningful impact on practice. Doing so might require us to consider whether the work that we produce actually meets the needs of districts, schools, and educators. In addition, some (forthcoming!) findings from our work here at NCRPP support the idea that we also need to think deeply about the kinds of relationships we build with practitioners.
An educational leader who participated in one of our studies, for example, urged researchers to think about their relationships with practitioners as a “marriage,” built upon shared goals, mutual respect, and open communication between equal partners. Another leader built on this idea, sharing that relationships between researchers and practitioners should be “symbiotic” and based upon “common concern” for issues that matter for schools and districts. Others lamented past relationships with researchers in which they felt like minor partners, or looked down upon. One leader, for instance, shared her frustration with the “condescending” and “arrogant” disregard some researchers appeared to hold for practitioners’ knowledge and experience.
These leaders, and others in multiple districts, indicate that issues of reciprocity, trust, ongoing engagement, and mutual respect weigh heavily on their consideration of collaborative work with researchers. Together, they point toward what one of our participants described as a “paradigm shift” in how researchers and practitioners interact – one which, I would argue, urges education researchers to become a more integral part of districts and their efforts to improve.
The Role of the Researcher
In thinking about this, I’m reminded of Henry Mintzberg’s “Structure in 5’s.” Mintzberg, an organizational theorist, suggests that organizations tend to feature several discrete components. Among these is the “technostructure” – the portion of the organization that focuses on learning about and improving upon its work. This includes, he argues, the analysts and researchers who evaluate the organization’s efforts and work to improve and systematize its productive processes.
Many districts – facing ever-tightening resource constraints and shrinking central offices – have limited ability to engage in the kind of work that Mintzberg describes. The technostructure of these organizations has effectively become disembodied, with much of the capacity for research, evaluation, analysis, and improvement residing with external actors like academic researchers, research firms, and think tanks. The relative detachment of these technostructural elements from the core work and contexts of districts creates a significant challenge for practitioners who are, in fact, hungry for evidence they can use to improve.
Participants in our work corroborate this fact. One district leader shared, “As [a] practitioner, I only know how to do the practice every day, but I don’t have the ability, capacity, resources, or time or knowledge to make sense [of it].” Another shared that, in her district, “Leaders spend so much time in administrative duties, they don’t have the time to go into the classroom, and observe, and then report on and analyze the data and write the findings.” In both cases, these leaders indicated that having partners capable of helping them with such reflective work was critical. Leaders also pointed out, however, that the most helpful partnerships were those that focused on the issues, priorities, and concerns most relevant to the district.
Building Stronger Ties
So where does that leave us? I would hearken back to the start of this blog, when I raised the notion that researchers might be more self-reflective when considering the issue of research use among practitioners. Part of doing that involves thinking carefully about how we, as inhabitants of the disembodied educational “technostructure”, might re-couple our work to the efforts of district organizations striving to improve.
What does that look like? A number of emerging paradigms in education research offer potential pathways – some of which we’ve discussed in this very blog. Models like design-based research and research-practice partnerships (RPPs) tether the technostructural capacity held by external entities more tightly to districts by creating longer-term, mutualistic partnerships between researchers and practitioners, and focusing their efforts on critical problems of practice that matter for educators. In addition, they reframe researchers and practitioners as members of the same team, working side-by-side to achieve shared goals.
That is not to say, of course, that all studies can or should be long-term RPPs. These models do, however, point to a set of norms and practices that all researchers might consider as they seek to work with educators. Moreover, they present a very different reflection for researchers as they gaze into the mirror: One that positions them as deeply embedded in the work of schools and districts, rather than standing apart from or above it.