BY DRAGANA MARTINOVIC

Based on my work within the School Board-University Research Exchange (SURE) Network, as well as my collaborations with educators, school boards, and professional organizations (e.g., OAME), I was invited to the AERO 2016 conference to talk about the partnership between researchers and practitioners. In my talk, I discussed the challenges to mutual reciprocity between and among stakeholders (e.g., unequal access to knowledge and distinctions between producers and recipients of knowledge) as well as the benefits of such a partnership for all involved (e.g., as a way to enhance the effectiveness of teachers using and doing research to further education system goals). I made a case that there is a need and a way to have more cohesion between educators’ communities and that knowledge is a cohesion factor.


In December 2016, the Association of Educational Researchers of Ontario (AERO) organized a conference with the theme: “Creating the conditions for effective partnerships between researchers and practitioners.” This theme was designed to address some of the main challenges that school board researchers face in their work, including “adopting a common understanding of the measurement or assessment goals, [building] mutual reciprocity between and among stakeholders, balancing research needs and implementation practicalities, creating value-added information for both researchers and practitioners, and mobilizing knowledge to build capacity and spread” (AERO).

dragana blog image This AERO conference called for harmonization between teaching and research, and for sharing the knowledge between stakeholders in education. The SURE Network was established in 2008 to foster such a partnership. Since then, SURE has committed to knowledge mobilization related to education research (e.g., conducted research, wrote research briefs and journal articles, organized research-to-practice events for educators, created videos and conference presentations).

Enhancing the professional development of educators and mobilizing knowledge is currently within our reach. With the mandatory two-year B.Ed. program in Ontario, faculties of education have ample opportunity to explore new directions for teacher preparation and to adopt the idea of the teacher as researcher (see this Marilyn Cochran-Smith & Christine Power article).

These moves are also aligned with the call to embrace new methods of 21st century learning, including staffing schools with teacher-researchers, organizing schools as centres of inquiry, and promoting an inquiry-based leadership (see this Barry Carpenter article). To date, professional learning that includes support for the teacher-as-researcher can strengthen the capacity of schools to be more responsive to the needs of new generations of children, and the move towards mentored B.Ed. students is in line with the Ontario Ministry of Education’s 2014 plan of action to “support all students and staff in finding ways to be leaders and contributors to the school and broader community” (see this Achieving Excellence document).

Simultaneously enhancing pre-service learning and in-service professional development will bring us closer to these Ministry goals. SURE members are convinced that teaching and research go hand-in-hand (see this 2013 SURE video), but this notion still needs to become commonly accepted even among educators. In a recent study conducted by the SURE Network, we examined educators’ understanding of what research is and what enables or inhibits their use of research in the classroom (from this article and a SURE report to the Ministry of Education).

dragana blog image 3 Approximately 600 educators from 13 school boards in the London, Ontario, region participated in the study, which involved an online survey as well as online and face-to-face focus groups. More than 80% of the participants reported that they were interested in taking part in research but they did not feel confident in conducting research, mainly because of (a) not fully understanding research methodology and (b) lacking training and time. They talked about their feelings of isolation from the research community, and how they often feel like recipients rather than co-creators of knowledge.

The SURE study recommended that schools and school boards set aside time for teachers to conduct research. This could be done by (a) dedicating time to collaborative research activities during regular staff meetings and professional development days, (b) considering research release time for teachers, and (c) creating research consultant positions in the school boards. As stated in a 2012 SURE report to the Ministry of Education, since most teachers felt they needed support in further developing their researcher identity, the study suggested that schools could include research seminars during professional development days and could start using the word ‘research’ more widely in relation to existing school functions (e.g., Professional Learning Communities could be renamed Professional Research Communities or Applied Education Research Communities).

Teachers also revealed that they would appreciate their research being recognized and celebrated (e.g., at professional meetings and through school and board newsletters and websites). We therefore suggested to both schools and faculties of education that they create joint opportunities for teachers and academics to participate in research-related discussions around specific subjects/topics (e.g., organizing focus groups, book clubs, informal presentations, conferences).  

 

Academic partners should connect teachers directly to research by providing resources to assist in research activities and inviting them to engage in joint research projects, contribute relevant research questions, and provide feedback on research projects. Researchers from faculties of education, many of them former classroom teachers, should create collaborative research opportunities for teachers, and peer mentorship can occur in their joint research endeavours. Schools and faculties of education should improve teacher access to primary research results and reports, and develop shared understandings of research language and methods. School boards and the Ministry should provide teachers with more opportunities to design, share, and evaluate their research. These opportunities will celebrate teachers' contribution to the development of “best practices” mandated by school boards, and help teachers identify reasons for challenging the seemingly successful teaching strategies (from the 2012 SURE report to the Ministry of Education on educator research use in London, Ontario).

Consistent with the SURE mission, the Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB) and the University of Windsor (UW) established a partnership in 2011 to encourage and support educators to work in teams and to collaboratively investigate issues of practice (see the Martinovic, Winney, & Knight article). Since its inception, the partnership has been applying for funds to provide release time for collaborative inquiry (CI) teams. In 2011, we were funded by KNAER; in 2012 and 2014, by SSHRC; and in 2016 and 2017, by the Ontario Ministry of Education. We have also received consistent and substantial internal funds from both the GECDSB and UW.

Table 1 shows the number of participants we have had each year and our gradual move towards the whole school inquiry, which is aligned with Barry Carpenter’s idea of schools making the journey of discovery, through inquiry.  

table Dragana blog

Many GECDSB students have also been involved indirectly in this project; in 2015-16, for example, we estimate that ~2,500 students were taught by teachers who were conducting research at the elementary or high school level. Since traditionally, most CI researchers are elementary school teachers, we can assume that all subjects in the curriculum were covered by teachers involved in the CI team. We also found evidence that CI teams who extended their work across the entire school (i.e., participating in the whole school inquires) succeeded in three areas: (a) defining instructional practices that responded to their students’ learning strengths and needs, (b) implementing these instructional practices throughout the school, and (c) building student and family confidence in the resultant experience of quality education. 

 

My first collaborative inquiry project was in 2011. It was the first time the process had been introduced to the GECDSB. Being part of CI changed my teaching [and] my school and set my career down a new path. It was my first introduction into a role in which I was a leader, thinker, and innovator in education. Soon after that first project, I joined many other committees and projects and slowly moved into positions of added responsibility until I left the classroom for the program department in 2015. I see how participation in CI opened doors for myself and so many other colleagues. In fact, all of our current program staff and most of our newest vice-principals have been a CI participant in the recent past.


Over the years, participation in CI has changed the way educators do business. As participants in previous years move into leadership roles, both formal and informal, in our Board, they bring with them the skills they developed through their work as teacher-researchers, but they also bring the structure of CI. It is the structure, after all, that propels teachers to engage in their work as researchers. This year was the introduction of the concept of whole-school CI, and this is in large part because the administrative leaders as well as other teacher-leaders saw the immense impact of the CI through years.                                  

-Heidi Horn-Olivito, a board facilitator on experience with CI, 2015-16

dragana blog image 4 These two examples—the SURE Network and the GECDSB/UW partnership—show that there is fertile ground for teachers and university researchers working together as a professional learning community, engaging in conversations on educational issues, and creating conditions for inquiry (e.g., providing funds for teacher release when doing research and continual research support) that could become part of every educator’s toolbox and practice. Indeed, it is in our education community’s scope of influence to achieve a reciprocity between and among school boards and universities to deal with two existing problems: (a) unequal access to knowledge on the part of teachers, and (b) the distinctions between the producers and the recipients of knowledge.

More than 20 years ago, Michael Gibbons, Camille Limoges, Helga Nowotny, Simon Schwartzman, Peter Scott, and Martin Trow predicted a blurring of the line between the producers and the users of knowledge. More recently in 2008, Michael Gibbons reported that producers and users have indeed become one in the process of knowledge mobilization. Based on Gibbons, educators occupy different social worlds, which intersect or at least share boundaries with one another. For example, a policy maker and an educational researcher-academic may come from the same school board; academics teach students who graduated from schools; teachers graduate from faculties of education, etc.

Although as professionals in ostensibly different fields, we may not always speak the same language (i.e., the language of academia may be difficult to comprehend, even for academics!), our commitment to our students and to the goal of constantly learning, reflecting, and becoming better in what we are doing, is strong. This sharing of goals and blurring of boundaries that separate us are important aspects of cohesion. Knowledge mobilization interventions, such as the recent KNAER call to create educational networks, may greatly contribute to enhanced trust, mutual respect, and reciprocal partnerships between our communities. 

 

…it is important to recognize that clinical trials target a narrow question. They tell us whether some intervention can work….. Such studies, however, are not primarily designed to tell us what it will take to make the intervention work for different subgroups of students and teachers or across varied contexts. At base here is the difference between knowledge that something can work and knowledge of how to actually make it work reliably over diverse contexts and populations.


Yet the latter is what practitioners typically want to know—what will it take to make it work for me, for my students, and in my circumstances? Unfortunately, policy actors who see evidence-based practice as today’s answer typically miss this critical distinction.

-Anthony Bryk 

In addition to its call for harmonizing teaching and research, AERO 2016 raised another topic of interest: how to balance research needs and implementation practicalities to affect policy and decision-making. I find this goal a challenging one, simply because it is influenced by the current chasm between policy, research, and practice (e.g., see Anthony Bryk). But this disconnect does not have to exist!

Bringing Research to the Classroom.jpg

We are all tasked with moving Ontario education from great to excellent, but how can we do this? The key, I believe, is to work collectively as a system and to have trust in the wisdom and professionalism of our educators. In the SURE survey, teachers and school administrators told us that every year the Ministry comes up with new directives (e.g., priorities change, programs are discontinued, new programs are initiated) with the result that after some time, staff become desensitized to what is coming next. But what if instead of numbing our educators, we energized them? Collaboration between the GECDSB and UW is just one example of how we can work together and learn to improve. Michael Fullan suggests that policy makers and school board leaders can make our reciprocal research partnership work and similar work by others part of an education reform by asking: “How can you help me to disseminate and promote these ideas so that others see the importance of this work? 

 

…achieving quality outcomes reliably in complex systems, such as schools, requires its own distinctive methods of inquiry … To be clear, responding effectively to issues of task and organizational complexity does not mean imposing some seemingly arbitrary standards from outside or delivered from above. Rather, it entails an education improvement community that actively creates them through its disciplined inquiries. Practitioners need to engage fully with researchers and others in developing, testing, and enhancing the clinical work of schooling…. The resultant knowledge and associated empirical warrants are practice-based evidence. 

-Anthony Bryk

Consistent with Fullan’s ideas of growing the knowledge base of educators to achieve system change, and Bryk’s ideas about practitioners and researchers co-creating knowledge, the GECDSB/UW project team has been documenting the findings of the GECDSB CI teams and whole-school inquires. Our intent is to find ways to transform this practice-based evidence into the collectively held professional knowledge of educators. Accepting tacit knowledge and practice-based evidence in education as relevant—and valuable—additions to the already acclaimed evidence-based practice, can really move us forward into 21st century teaching and learning!

In the end, however, and with a full understanding that we differ in what and how we know, we are all still members of the same education knowledge brokers group. 

Points to consider:

  • Effective partnerships between researchers and practitioners depend on the commitment of individuals and groups along with strong (but not overpowering) leadership and funding.
  • Policy and leadership decisions may bring evidence and practice together.
  • Educators need to pay more attention to practice-based evidence, which stems from work of collaborative inquiry teams and whole school inquires.
  • Knowledge is a cohesion factor for all educators. We are all knowledge brokers.Increasing Cohesion Dragana Martinovic

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dragana Martinovic is a Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Windsor, where she leads the Human Development Technologies Research Group. Dragana is a Fellow of the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences and a Co-Director of the newly organized Fields Centre for Mathematics Education. She is a recipient of the Excellence in Mentoring Award at University of Windsor. Dragana is also one of the network leads for KNAER's Mathematics Knowledge Network. In her research Dragana explores ways in which technology can improve teaching and learning outcomes, and the digital literacy skills needed for a successful learner and worker of the 21st century. She is dedicated to supporting teacher-led research and providing opportunities for all involved in education to collaboratively work towards increasing student engagement, success, and love for learning.