In yesterday’s Teacher article, we discussed what is meant by evidence-based practice in education, including quality research, evidence-based teaching practices, and gathering evidence to help you understand and meet your students’ needs. Translating academic research into classroom practice is traditionally a one-way relationship – from research to practice. Here, University of Queensland (UQ) colleagues Stephanie MacMahon, Jack Leggett and Annemaree Carroll share details of a collaboration with educators that aims to bridge the research-practice gap and make translation a two-way process of engagement.
In Australia, there are calls for a systematic approach to developing, sharing and implementing evidence-informed practices more broadly and more quickly (Australian Government Department of Education and Training, 2018). The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers state that all teachers should demonstrate capacity to engage with relevant research, and that accomplished teachers should develop and lead the use of evidence-informed practices in schools (AITSL, 2011).
Academic research can inform practice, but translating it into practice in diverse and complex school contexts is challenging. Understanding these challenges can help bridge the research-practice gap. At the Science of Learning Research Centre (SLRC) – a centre at UQ that integrates neuroscience, education and psychology – research is being done into understanding, measuring and promoting learning.
The SLRC also investigates how research can effectively translate into application in Australian classrooms. The findings supported the design of the SLRC Partner Schools Program (PSP), a program of professional inquiry and of collaboration between educators and researchers.
Why there is a gap between research and practice
Here are three of the factors, according to research, that contribute to the gap, along with comments from participating teachers to illustrate key ideas and experiences.
- For educators, access to research and researchers can be challenging, and this can lower the perceived relevance of research to practice (Lysenko, et al., 2014; Wandersman, 2003). Schools are often unable to access relevant journals and attend research presentations, as reflected in a comment from one of the PSP school leaders: ‘I didn't have access to the university database, so I was really quite dependent on [SLRC team] to provide those papers.’
- Substantial time is required to engage with research and evaluate the impact of evidence-informed practices, and spare time is increasingly rare in schools. ‘[My biggest challenge] as a teacher is the time challenges… I have a full‑time load.’
- Educators report low self-efficacy for engaging with research and applying findings (Coldwell, et al., 2017; Lysenko, 2014). For some, engaging with universities or researchers is intimidating: ‘I discovered that not everyone is as comfortable with research; and that some people find the idea of working with universities and doing research, and even attending professional learning at the university, they weren't as comfortable as I thought that they would be. … Is it because we say “neuroscience and psychology”? … or I wonder if there's something about the “science” … that makes people feel like, “Well, I don't have a background in that, and so this won't be accessible to me?”’
The PSP was designed to address these and other factors that contribute to the research-practice gap.
Educators and researchers partnering to bridge the gap
Traditional research translation is often one-way – from research to practice, ignoring the insights of educators (Fischer, 2009). Therefore, fundamental to the PSP are partnerships for dialogue between researchers and educators.
To establish these partnerships, researchers from the SLRC and UQ work with a small group of teachers and leaders from each school to identify a topic of interest to that school. The partners work together to understand the phenomenon: what the research says about it and what it looks like in their school context.
Phenomena explored in the PSP include teacher and student wellbeing, effective learning strategies, learning regulation, blended learning, engagement, motivation, transitions, and more. Through a year-long professional partnership between the school team and SLRC researchers, each school engages in six formal points of contact supplemented by other ongoing engagement with the SLRC team.
The PSP is designed to build teacher efficacy in conducting and understanding research, providing professional learning at these formal points of contact on:
- assessing the quality and relevance of evidence;
- research design;
- development and administration of measures;
- data analysis and interpretation; and,
- research translation and communication.
Drawing on the SLRC expertise, each school undertakes a program of research in their own school around their phenomenon of interest. Projects are designed to help teachers balance rigour with reality: investigating school-identified priorities systematically while retaining a manageable scope, embracing where possible existing evidence within the school, and acknowledging limitations when interpreting findings. The projects are designed to be valuable in themselves, but also to empower educators to continue using their new skills outside and after the project.
Benefits of a school-centred partnership approach
Schools in the PSP help to advance our understanding of effective research translation. The PSP is being evaluated as a model for translation, using various measures of effects on educators’ research skill, perceived self- and collective-efficacy, and professional networks.
Initial findings indicate that it improves educator capacity and efficacy, and school learning culture. The PSP is providing educators with the tools to systematically collect evidence. As one teacher put it: ‘… [it is] our evidence. It is not other people's evidence… So whilst we are using other [research] to back up what we are saying…we are owning it more.’
Most important, however, is the impact each project is having within teachers’ unique school communities, and how the projects are building out the circles of engagement between educators and researchers. Another teacher commented: ‘Being involved in a partnership like this, giving teachers access to researchers and people from university – you know, that connection and partnership between universities and schools is something that's spoken about, but this has made it practical.’
How schools can get involved
The SLRC Partner Schools Program is open to all schools across Australia. It generally runs across the academic year but there is flexibility, depending on the needs of each school.
If you would like more information about the program and how to get involved, please email Dr Stephanie MacMahon on firstname.lastname@example.org
Stay tuned: The authors of this article, and teachers and school leaders participating in the partnership program, will be sharing more about what’s happening in some of the schools over the coming weeks in Teacher.
AITSL. (2011). Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.
Coldwell, M., Greany, T., Higgins, S., Brown, C., Maxwell, B., Stiell, B., Stoll, L., Willis, B. & Burns, H. (2017). Evidence-informed teaching: An evaluation of progress in England. Research report July 2017(DFE-RR696). Department for Education.
Australian Government Department of Education and Training (2018). Through Growth to Achievement: Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools. Commonwealth of Australia.
Fischer, K. W. (2009). Mind, Brain, and Education: Building a Scientific Groundwork for Learning and Teaching1. Mind, Brain, and Education, 3(1), 3-16.
Lysenko, L. V., Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Dagenais, C., & Janosz, M. (2014). Educational research in educational practice: Predictors of use. Canadian Journal of Education, 37(2), 1-26
Wandersman, A. (2003). Community science: Bridging the gap between science and practice with community-centered models. American Journal of Community Psychology, 31(3/4), 227-242.
As a school leader, how do you keep abreast of research on effective teaching practices?
As a teacher, how confident do you feel to analyse and interpret educational research? What forms of evidence do you use to inform your classroom practice?