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Improving Research Use in the World We Actually Live In

How to maximize research use in education policy and practice.

Researchers often believe, or at least have the hope, that rigorous peer-reviewed work will find its way into practice. However, as Carrie Conaway, who is one of the rare people who has worked for years in an education policy or practice setting who understands what rigorous research is, explains:

"Research influences policy more often than much of the academic community thinks, and more frequently every day as we learn how to do this work better. But its influence is less linear than researchers expect, and it is driven as much by relationships and organizational capacity as by the actual information studies produce. Research use operates through conversations, not code; structures in organizations, not standard errors; relationships, not randomized controlled trials."

Carrie kindly replied to my questions about her work on maximizing research in the real world, how “research-practice partnerships” might be one useful way of linking practice and rigorous research, and how her book Common-Sense Evidence can be used by education leaders and scholars more broadly to improve the use of research in practice.

How can we maximize research use in the world we actually live in?

First, by recognizing that research use doesn’t always look how we expect it to. People often envision research use as a linear, one-directional process: An educator or policymaker is sitting at their desk, waiting to make a decision, when some research comes across their desk. They read it and then decide to implement whatever that research says. But the reality is a lot more complex.

Carrie Conaway, used with permission
Source: Carrie Conaway, used with permission

The research on research use shows that it’s a process that extends over time, not an event or a single moment. It’s embedded in organizations, and it’s inherently social. And the most important way research matters for practice is probably its influence on how people frame problems, rather than how it informs any specific decision or choice.

If you think of research use that way, then it becomes obvious that the way to maximize research use isn’t just to get more research in front of practitioners. We need to create opportunities for practitioners to integrate research use into their daily work and make meaning together from data and evidence. Without attention to these social mechanisms, any effort to increase research use will fall flat.

What are research-practice partnerships and how do you think these are helpful for research to play a more influential role in practice?

A research-practice partnership is “a long-term collaboration aimed at educational improvement or equitable transformation through engagement with research” (Farrell et al, 2021). Concretely, RPPs put researchers and practitioners into the same conversation, on equal footing when it comes to defining what research needs to be done and interpreting its meaning for practice. This is a radical shift from traditional research production models, which envision researchers developing and testing interventions and then “translating” them or scaling them up, with little or no interaction with practitioners in the process.

Practitioners benefit from RPPs because they create a structure for the social mechanisms that enable research use: regular interactions with researchers about individual research projects, larger events where findings can be shared and interpreted, and so on. These structures allow research use to flourish. But researchers benefit too, through a deeper understanding of the context and local priorities that influence their work and deeper relationships with the practitioners who can most directly benefit from their findings.

Why did you write the book Common-Sense Evidence? Do you think this could be a useful book not only for education leaders but also researchers and practitioners from other disciplines?

My co-author Nora Gordon and I wrote the book because using evidence is an essential skill for educators, and because no other book helps educators learn that skill and apply it in a practical way. Few educators receive any training about how to use evidence effectively in practice—what kinds of questions to ask, how to know what type of evidence you need to answer a specific question, what makes for stronger or weaker evidence, how to know if a particular finding is relevant to their own context. Nora and I hope that our book empowers educators to use evidence to improve their own work, by helping them to cull the prior research findings that are most convincing and relevant for their own practice and giving them a structured way to learn from and improve their work over time. While the book is written with education leaders as the intended audience, the skills and techniques we describe are broadly applicable to anyone who wants to learn how to use evidence in a policy or practice setting.

References

Booker, L., Conaway, C., & Schwartz, N. (2019). Five ways RPPs can fail and how to avoid them: Applying conceptual frameworks to improve RPPs. William T. Grant Foundation.

Conaway, C. (2020). Maximizing research use in the world we actually live in: Relationships, organizations, and interpretation. Education Finance & Policy, 15(1), 1-10.

Farrell, C. C., Penuel, W. R., Coburn, C. E., Daniel, J., & Steup, L. (2021). Research-practice partnerships in education: The state of the field. William T. Grant Foundation.

Gordon, N., & Conaway, C. (2020). Common sense evidence: The education leader’s guide to using data and research. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

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