The education field has long had a conundrum commonly referred to as the “research-to-practice gap.” Put simply, researchers and practitioners (such as teachers or administrators) frequently feel disconnected from one another.
The work of the two groups often remains separate: research about educational issues may not be disseminated outside the research community, and the issues most relevant to practitioners do not always make it onto research agendas.
One useful way for researchers and practitioners to address this conundrum is to deliberately and consistently connect through research-practice partnerships. Some connections are formal arrangements, such as research projects designed and coordinated between universities and school districts. Support for such partnerships has grown in recent years, with projects funded by state or federal education agencies, university departments, or foundations.
While these formal partnerships have helped create connections and generate useful data, partnerships need not be formal to be valuable. Informal partnerships between researchers and practitioners have the potential to be more direct and immediate and do not always require specific funding. By understanding the history of the research-to-practice gap and observing how both groups can improve by working together, researchers and practitioners can move toward creating fruitful and productive connections.
Reasons for the Research-to-Practice Gap
Sometimes these groups do not always communicate effectively, and research indicates reasons for these communication troubles include different cultural and communication norms, different expectations for how information is perceived and communicated, and different needs related to research. Additionally, the two groups commonly work on disparate timelines: those working in a school district may not be able to wait for the results of a multiyear study before making decisions, for example.
The Promise of Connection
When practitioners have access to and understand research data, they can use it to guide their decisions and continually improve their practice. When researchers are in direct conversations with practitioners, they are more closely involved with classroom practice and are aware of what data are most needed. While researchers’ agendas need not be entirely driven by practitioner queries or interests, being informed of practitioner perspectives can allow them to fine-tune questions or investigate in more innovative ways.
Making Connections: Researchers
There are many ways researchers can expand their professional horizons and connect with practitioners on an informal level.
Go to practice-focused conferences. It is common for researchers to attend conferences filled with other researchers—often within their highly specialized part of the field. Attending conferences targeted toward practitioners and listening to their experiences and concerns can open valuable new lines of thought.
Create and actively continue connections. Attending conferences is a first step. Researchers can then engage practitioners in conversation, stay in contact after official meetings, and continue seeking input on research questions.
Read outside your comfort zone. Admittedly, much of researchers’ reading time is filled with those articles and books directly relevant to current studies. However, reading other work can spur new ideas and help facilitate conversations with practitioner partners.
Think about translating your work and research in general. Academic journals require researchers to be trained to write in a particular way. However, such writing conventions often make research studies inscrutable or unappealing to nonacademic readers. Connecting with practitioners requires specific efforts to translate research, whether in writing or conversation.
Making Connections: Practitioners
Similarly, practitioners can do many things to involve research more directly in their practice and create informal partnerships with researchers.
Attend research-related sessions at conferences. Many practitioner-focused conferences include sessions that either highlight recent research findings or offer more general explanations of research. Attending these sessions can lay the foundation for more research use and may allow practitioners to identify potential research partners.
Think about what data could help your practice. Helping researchers to create more influential research agendas begins with knowing what data would help answer your own questions or guide your practice. Practitioners should ask themselves what specific kinds of data would be directly applicable to them.
Talk to researchers about gaps in the literature. Many times, researchers would be interested in going in a particular direction in their research if they knew it was needed. One of the most useful prospects of informal research-practice partnerships is working together to identify gaps in existing literature.
Learn more about research basics. Many practitioners avoid research because they lack comfort with it. Becoming familiar with foundations of research studies and methodologies can demystify research. Research partners can identify useful resources and answer questions to increase research understanding.
We All Benefit When We Establish and Maintain Connections
A central goal of education research is to identify concerns, gaps, and promising practices. Getting research into the hands of education practitioners is the only way to usefully implement findings. Likewise, by sharing their experiences, needs, and concerns, practitioners can help ensure that research questions and agendas are timely, targeted, and useful to those most directly affected by research findings and the policies they may influence. Researchers and practitioners can improve their work by developing understanding of the other side. By cultivating connections via informal partnerships, we can all more meaningfully influence education.
Bridget Thomas (@DrBridgeQIP) is Senior Education Researcher at QIP and Adjunct Professor at George Mason University. Her work focuses on early childhood policy and translating research for multiple audiences.