5 People Skills Ed. Researchers Need to Succeed in Partnership Work
PERC previously blogged English Language Learners in Philadelphia and how data about this population helped inform schools' supports.
Today's post is part one of a two-part blog series reflecting on what the young partnership learned since its inception. Come back Thursday for part two!
What does it take to build a strong research-practice partnership in education? The research and practice literatures give us some pretty good answers to that question. Folks who have studied partnerships, or who have engaged in partnership work themselves, point out that trusting relationships, ongoing communication, and clarity about goals and roles are all necessary ingredients (for example, see this 2014 piece by Education Northwest).
Since January 2017, I've had an opportunity to put these ingredients into practice in an education research-practice partnership in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Education Research Consortium — or PERC — collaborates with public education partners and local researchers on timely, accessible, high quality studies of immediate relevance to education in the city. PERC also provides various kinds of technical support for the district's and charter schools' efforts to incorporate research insights into practice.
Along the way, I've observed certain interpersonal behaviors and dispositions that researchers can display that contribute to strong partnerships. Successful partnership takes not only good research skills but also an ability to work well with people. And just like we can improve our research skills, we can get better at our "people skills" with practice and intentionality.
Here are five people skills that I learned are important for researchers in research-practice partnerships to have. Consider it "relationship advice" for researchers who want to take a partnership approach to their work!
1. Listening carefully and asking questions. As researchers, we love to talk about our ideas. But in the context of research-practice partnerships, it's crucial for researchers to slow down and listen carefully to what their practitioner-partners say about their work and their challenges. That's not to say that the role of researchers in partnerships is merely to do the bidding of practitioners. But research-practice partnerships are meant to address problems that arise from practice, and no one knows those problems better than the people who confront them in their daily work. In short, research-practice partnerships don't begin with a sales pitch; they begin with conversations.
2. Discerning what is truly needed. Listening carefully and asking questions is a good way for researchers to learn about the resources that the practitioner-partner already has and what is still needed. For example, some districts have almost no analytic capacity, while others are well-staffed. In Philadelphia, the district has substantial staff capacity for quick-turnaround analysis and program evaluation. Because the district can do a lot for itself, external researchers must bring a different kind of added value, such as specialized content knowledge or advanced methodological expertise. The situation is different at some of Philadelphia's charter schools that have rudimentary data systems and no dedicated research staff.
3. Being available and responsive to questions and small ad hoc requests. It's important for partnerships to have clear goals, timelines, and agendas of work. That said, an under-recognized facet of partnerships may be the ability of district or state staff to quickly access research expertise — or at least a research-informed perspective — when they need it. Researchers can invite their practitioner-partners to contact them with requests and can make it a priority to respond quickly and helpfully. Responsiveness builds trust. It's a low-burden way of bringing research to practice. And you never know: the question itself, having arisen from practice, might provide an intriguing new research idea.
4. Being reliable and keeping your word. Research-practice partnerships aren't free to any of the participants; they require an investment of time by all partners around the table. In the short term, partnering with a researcher means that something else is added to an already-busy practitioner's to-do list. So, if a promise is made, follow through. If there's an important deadline, keep it. For example, to keep communication flowing among partners, every Friday I work at the district research office, which has set aside a cubicle where I can work. I can demonstrate my commitment to the partnership and build trust by reliably "being there" when district staff expects me.
5. Being willing to pitch in on research-related tasks other than conducting original studies. It would be hard to imagine a research-practice partnership that did not conduct original research. But researchers may find that their practitioner-partners are equally, if not more, interested in technical support for using existing research to inform education processes or policies. This may involve activities like creating a research-informed tool or rubric, improving a district dashboard, advising a research review committee, or helping to develop a process or policy based on research.
Though this low-profile work may not result in a research publication, it may be the most practical and useful undertaking in a partnership. For example, PERC drew on findings from a literature review and case studies of blended learning implementation to help a district program office prepare a research-informed RFP and set requirements for vendors of blended learning solutions. PERC also prepared an assessment for principals to rate their school's readiness to implement blended learning.
Some researchers may feel daunted by partnership activities that push them beyond conducting research studies. I am not suggesting that researchers plunge headlong into activities for which they are wholly unprepared. But researchers should consider whether the promise of partnerships is more fully realized when they are willing to roll up their sleeves and work side-by-side with their practitioner-partners on tasks for which, frankly, probably no one feels fully qualified. In this case, the "people skill" that researchers can demonstrate is an enthusiasm for doing what needs to be done to bridge research and practice, even though those activities are unfamiliar and perhaps unlikely to result in a research publication.
Research-practice partnership work is not for the faint of heart or the easily discouraged. But crossing the border between research and practice is endlessly interesting, and most important, has the great potential of seeing education research impact students' school experiences and outcomes.