Updates from the Field: Research + Practice Workshop at NARST

April 18th, 2014

This past March, the annual meeting of the National Association for Research on Science Teaching (NARST) was held in Pittsburgh, PA. About 50 science education researchers and practitioners attended a four-hour workshop that explored strategies for building collaborations between researchers and practitioners, described the opportunities and challenges of two ongoing collaborations, and helped researchers sharpen “pitches” that they might make as the initial approach to practitioners for establishing a research and practice partnership. The session was organized by the Research+Practice Collaboratory, and NSF’s Math and Science Partnership Program (MSP), a project to develop and share knowledge about research+practice (R+P) collaborations.

Bill Penuel and Dan Gallagher opened the session with a joint presentation of proposed design principles for R+P collaborations. Bill, a Professor of Educational Psychology and Learning Sciences at University of Colorado, Boulder and part of the Collaboratory leadership, was representing the research world, and Dan, Science Program Manager at Seattle Public Schools, spoke on behalf of practitioners. They argued that the biggest obstacle to R+P work remains a deep cultural divide between the two communities. Bill described it to the audience of (mostly) researchers as the “2nd slide” problem: “Think about what’s on the second slide of your PowerPoint presentation here at this conference. The part where you talk about the underlying theory and motivation for your study. Would practitioners recognize what you’re talking about? Would they value the same things? Would they see that rationale as something that is essential to advancing their work?”

To help bridge the cultural divide and promote a common language, values, and understanding between R+P projects, the Collaboratory is developing four big ideas for design principles.

four big ideas for design principles

Joint negotiation of a common problem

Productive partnerships don’t start with the researcher or practitioner already thinking that they know the exact problem they will be working on. Each probably comes with different perspectives and purposes, and for truly integrative work, a project requires a process of systematic analysis to identify and define specific problems of practice that they will focus on. Driver diagrams were suggested as a helpful tool to support the joint negotiation, because they create a shared, external space where collaborators can work out why problems matter to both groups, how they might attack them together, and what they are likely to learn as a result of the joint work.

The joint negotiation of common problems needs to be ongoing and flexible

As partners work together, researchers and practitioners can expect to create new dilemmas that will need to be addressed. Both internal and external factors can prompt changes in direction throughout the collaboration. Partnerships benefit from routines and practices for reviewing their core, focal problems, and for collaboratively designing and managing the partnership itself. As Dan pointed out, “Everyone should be prepared at any meeting to ask and answer the question: ‘Why are we where we are and what’s in it for you?” Dan suggests that the most important tools to support this kind of ongoing reflection are meeting agendas and a calendar: “Everyone is busy and making space for a partnership is hard. You need to make sure that you are getting together regularly and that you don’t waste each other’s time. You’ve got to be together, you’ve got to have your heart in it, and you’ve got to have empathy for your partners.” Agendas that create the space for people to share their personal and organizational context and are flexible enough to allow the group to “pop up to 30,000 feet” when necessary are essential for keeping everyone aware of the broader context that the partnership is working in.


R+P partnerships have to navigate multiple issues around power and authority. Practitioners often come from big, hierarchical institutions such as school districts or museums. Organizations that represent practice should include people from all different levels of the hierarchy, rather than only those focusing on strategy and administration levels or only those dealing daily with front-line issues of practice. This helps create an understanding within the organization of the need for the partnership and its value, and opens up inter-organizational channels of communication that otherwise can be difficult to establish. Organizing a partnership for equitable participation requires consideration of who is designing policy, who has stake in it, and how can new people be heard. Power is an issue with researchers as well. They come with the pre-ordained mantle of expertise in the field and need to recognize how that creates a responsibility, as Dan and Bill put it, to “be on their best behavior” and to “build the bridge between R+P more than halfway.” Researchers, in particular, need to show how they are willing to go beyond ivory-tower stances that they may be assumed to hold.

Anticipate the counter-normative

R+P partnerships may be unfamiliar to the home organizations of the participants. The norms of the home organizations may not value having people spend all of the time it takes to work across the R+P divide, which may be perceived by colleagues as neglecting one’s “real” work. The partnership needs to create a receptive culture in the home institutions. Thoughtful consideration should be given to how to mentor new people into the partnership and how the value of the partnership will be shared with colleagues. Newcomers to the partnership may need to shift how they think about their own work. Efficiency and expediency – just getting it done the way we know how to do it – is not good for growing a partnership if the partnership is supposed to be about making things different and changing institutional (and field-wide) culture.

Partnership Pitches

After a discussion of the four big ideas, workshop participants then heard from two R+P projects — a formal education collaboration between the University of Washington and Seattle Public Schools, and an informal collaboration between the University of Pittsburgh and a network of informal organizations in Pittsburgh. During the last hour of the session, participants worked in small groups to refine potential pitches that they would make to practitioners to establish collaborative work.

Some of the additional discussion points raised included:

  • Partners have to create conditions for failure within organizations that don’t typically allow it. Practitioners need to know that someone has their back when something fails, not if it fails, but when it fails.
  • Partnership is not always the most effective way to work. There are other types of relationships that are sometimes better.
  • Partnerships sometimes function like a jazz ensemble—it can be challenging to study things that are designed to be improvisational, evolving. How do we work with that from a research perspective?
  • What is the best way to collect input/feedback from practitioners? Researchers need to be careful about jargon and words with multiple meanings, and know that their position as researcher carries a type of intellectual authority and power. When talking about theory, recognize that it may not match up with experiential-based theories of the practitioners.
  • Researchers might pitch practitioners with a partnership idea using a Need, Approach, Benefits, Competition (NABC) strategy. Need is their need. Approach is your angle or the strategy you are bringing to help them meet their need. Benefits represent how will their needs (and their audiences’ needs) be addressed, on their own terms. Competition means a practitioner could work with a range of possible researchers, etc. How will your angle help them learn about and improve their practice, more so than those of other potential collaborators?


Presentations and Materials from the Conference Session

Intro to Negotiating: Building a Knowledge Base for NGSS by Fostering Partnerships Between Research and Practice Presentation

To learn more about the Research + Practice Collaboratory, visit their recently launched website: http://researchandpractice.org.