There is an increasing call for high quality research to guide both policy and practice in education. Our team at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) refers to the building of strong relationships between research and practice in schools as “knowledge mobilization” (KM). In a previous column we discussed reasons why good evidence is not always applied to practice in education. In this column we talk about actions that could improve educators’ access to relevant knowledge gained from rigorous research.
During their post-secondary studies, teachers and administrators have regular access to educational research. However, access to research is more difficult in schools, not least due to the pressures of time and the challenge of translating complicated research findings into a form applicable to everyday practice. Still, the gap between research and practice is certainly not insurmountable. There are many ways in which people are already incorporating evidence into practice in education, and these provide a guide to future efforts.
All education partners can take steps, many of them relatively easy, to garner greater value from research. Some universities and other research facilities provide researchers with the supports and tools necessary to promote research uptake, such as translating results into teacher-friendly language and formats, or helping to create links and networks between researchers and practitioners so that they can work together to better understand the practical implications for schools.
On a similar note, schools can make better use of graduate students and teacher candidates, who have one foot grounded in the realm of academia and the other in schools. Graduate students, in particular, can work in ways that help practitioners access research surrounding a particular problem or issue at the school, as well as tailor research findings into a form appropriate for a teacher audience.
Many school boards already partner with local faculties of education in order to promote the use of research evidence in both policy and practice. These partnerships can include access to library resources; access to expert researchers who are willing to work with schools in order to help them both gain access to research and translate results into practical and relevant applications; or working with the university to produce succinct summaries of research findings on various topics for educators. These connections can sometimes be quite casual or informal, yet still very helpful to people working in schools.
However, even when research evidence is readily available, there are still accessibility issues to overcome. One serious challenge is research literacy. Educators today are constantly pulled in multiple directions and have little time or incentive to include research in their daily practice. Some school boards provide professional development opportunities that equip administrators and educators with the skills to understand and evaluate the quality of research findings, as well as the ability to identify linkages between research and its practical implications.
School Boards can also support research by developing stronger professional learning communities, with a research focus, within and across districts. For example, groups that meet informally – sometimes with external experts – to review important research findings can provide an opportunity for educators to share and discuss research with others who understand the complexities of classroom life, while also working on school and district priority issues.
The value of research is reinforced when policy documents include links to research evidence as well as practical applications for practice. This way practitioners can better understand the rationale behind policy, as well as what works and why when it comes to translating that policy into school life. Policy can be supported by good public reviews of research, including annotated bibliographies so that administrators, practitioners, and the public can track down relevant information on the topic without having to go through a time consuming search.
When reliable evidence is more readily available, it is more likely to be a regular part of school decision-making. Administrators and teachers can incorporate research evidence into the discussion when trying to determine solutions for school issues or new directions to improve courses or programs. Research can also be used to help solve conflicts within schools by providing sound knowledge that goes beyond popular opinion and personal experience, both of which still tend to be powerful influences on educational decisions and practices. It is especially important to ensure that the empirical evidence is consistent with existing practice because new research has often been important in leading to the adoption of new and better practice in schools.
Overall, it is clear that improving access to research is one key to teaching as a knowledge-based profession. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what a profession would be if it were not committed to making use of the best available evidence to guide practice. To accomplish this task, all partners in education need to work together to build strong bridges between research, policy, and practice.