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'Knowledge exchange' between researchers and practitioners must be a two-way street

Blog Editor, IOE Digital27 May 2014

 Louise Stoll and Chris Brown
Both of us are fascinated by how research finds its way into policy and practice. Most researchers hope their findings will be used, but engaging people isn’t always easy or straightforward.
It’s good to see an increase in initiatives focusing on this challenge – for example, the Education Endowment Fund’s recent call for bids in relation to encouraging the uptake of research in schools. Many terms are used to describe the process – dissemination, knowledge transfer, knowledge mobilisation, research utilisation to name a few. Whatever their intention, the message they can convey to practitioners is that researchers have the knowledge that practitioners need to receive.
Our attention has been caught, though, by the term ‘knowledge exchange’. This suggests a two-way flow in a more equal relationship, which makes a lot of sense. Everyone has their own knowledge and experience to share and research can enrich this, as well as pushing researchers to think again about what their findings mean in different contexts.
An R&D project, funded through the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC’s) Knowledge Exchange Opportunities Scheme has been giving us the opportunity to explore researcher/practitioner relationships in more depth. Over the last six months, along with our colleagues Karen Spence-Thomas and Carol Taylor, we have been working with Challenge Partners, a group of more than 230 state-funded schools across England that work collaboratively to enhance the quality of their teaching and leadership, with an ultimate aim of improving outcomes for children and young people. Challenge Partners (CP) aim to provide a vehicle for their schools to learn from the best of their peers.
Our project has been adding research into this mix. It’s exploring and learning about establishing an expanding and sustainable network of middle leaders (such as department heads, subject leaders and key stage leaders) across CP schools that can: exchange evidence-informed knowledge about effective middle leadership that changes teacher practice; track its impact; and find powerful ways to exchange the outcomes of their applied project work more widely within and beyond the partnership to benefit a broader range of educators. For a summary of our project questions and the project, see: ESRC Middle Leaders Project.
In workshops, we share both research findings and effective practice. These are then blended together to create new knowledge that middle leaders use to design and refine processes and tools to help them lead more effectively and track their impact. In between sessions, the middle leaders test new ideas and trial tools with colleagues and teams both in their own and in other schools. They do this both via face-to-face engagement and through social networking. With us they will also be developing processes to embed the notion of sharing high quality research-informed practice between schools in their own networks and for practitioners in other networks. We have a parallel evaluation strand where our researchers and researchers from two Challenge Partners (CP) schools and the CP office are collecting baseline and follow up information, and following project activities.
Partnership is absolutely critical. We co-designed the project with CP, are now involving middle leaders in planning and facilitating sessions, and are co-evaluating the project. Through this, we are trying to model knowledge exchange and collaboration by drawing on the expertise and practices of researchers, knowledge exchange professionals (a term used by the ESRC to describe people who help translate research findings) and practitioners. We hope this will increase the project’s potential to benefit the middle leaders and their colleagues and pupils.
Ours is a two-way relationship: we are learning from our partners as well as them from us, and we have combined our research knowledge, Challenge Partners’ prior experience and published knowledge, and the middle leaders’ knowledge. At times this challenges our thinking – we are tracking this as well – but we know that powerful professional learning does just that.
We will be back with an update in a few months.