A few notes to accompany a panel session at Deakin, organised by CRADLE 14th October 2019.
Although my publications are reasonably well-cited and I can say that some of my work is taken up by other academics, my impact on policy and practice is quite marginal. There are claims I could make about specific areas of change in curricula or in how teams approach the design of learning environments. But these claims feel patchy to me: important in a specific program or university, but nothing that would count as credible evidence of impact at scale.
However – and this is an example of shiftily switching a practical into an academic problem – I am very interested in the pathways from research to policy and practice change. So, for example, I’ve been carrying out research on:
- how university leaders construe the challenges of integrating educational, IT and physical infrastructure planning,
- how to make educational design experience and design ideas easier to share and re-use,
- how teams of academics and educational developers collaboratively design for students’ learning, and
- what counts as ‘actionable knowledge’ in/for the design of programs of professional education.
I’ve also worked with AARE and other organisations, in Australia and elsewhere, on aspects of research policy: including approaches to the evaluation of research quality and impact and strategies for research capacity-building and engagement with ‘non-academic’ users of research.
At the panel session today, I summarised three ways that researchers in (higher) education tackle the challenges of ‘impact and engagement’. These descriptions are very broad brush, and not meant to offend. I’m calling them ‘thoughts and prayers’, ‘branding innovations’ and ‘research-practice partnerships’.
‘Thoughts and prayers’ is the default. A researcher writes up a study, an educational innovation or whatever, publishes a paper in a higher education journal and hopes that someone will read it, and be inspired to change what they do.
Much more noisy and visible is the work that goes on when a person or team coins a persuasive term and markets it hard. I will try not to be too cynical about this. Education is prone to fads and fashions and a set of research-based ideas can be taken up quite readily if they are presented as a discrete and coherent whole. I’m sure we can all think of some examples where a pithy phrase transforms into something that can be trade-marked, branded and/or sold as a commodity. Epistemic fluency, teaching-as-design, design thinking, evaluative judgement, feedback literacy, visible learning, productive failure, flipped classrooms; even such large and hairy mammoths as PBL.
Only a small proportion of these get a breakthrough into the mass market. However:
- those that do make it big tend to be used to set the mould (or expectations, or standards) for what educational impact should look like and
- educational practices and educational systems have shown they are capable of radically reinterpreting research-based interventions and actually realising something very different from what was tested in the original research, and
- what is easy to pick up as a package is easy to drop as a package.
A recent article in the ‘Fairfax’ papers illustrates this, with Deanna Kuhn’s work on ‘growth mindset’ as the example. The original research was deep, painstaking and insightful. The educational take-up, around the world, has been widespread and enthusiastic. But implementations are many and varied and some have moved a long way from anything Kuhn would recognise. In other words ‘implementation fidelity’ is far from guaranteed in educational systems, so the connections between research, practice and outcomes can be very tenuous.
This brings me to the third approach, which I’ll subsume under the heading of ‘research practice partnerships’. There’s an excellent book on this by Bill Penuel and Daniel Gallagher. Rob Ellis and I summarised some of the ideas, customised for higher education, in the second half of our most recent book. The organising theme here is engagement, with impact on practice as one of the benefits – accompanied by a stronger, reciprocal, role for practitioners to shape research. The RPP idea has shaped some of our work in setting up the Centre for Research on Learning and Innovation at Sydney University, though we have a long way to go yet.
Such partnerships have also influenced a strand in my own research – such that I’ve chosen to research educational practices in which there’s a reasonable chance that research-based knowledge will prove useful. For example, common sense and good evidence suggest that teachers are much better placed to consult research when they are designing for learning (‘upstream’ of a learning activity) than when they are in the middle of a live teaching-learning event. In addition, when the right materials, tools or spaces become available at the right time, they are likely to become part of prevailing practices and have beneficial and sustainable effects. Research-based ideas that take on a material form, such that they can become entangled in – and reshape – existing practices, live a different life from those that sit silently in the literature. Hence, I’ve researched the dynamics of design teams’ working practices and have experimented with rendering research-based insights in readily materializable forms (such as design patterns).
My final point: I’ve had a close involvement in setting up and/or running four research centres in the last 30 years. I’ve been drawn to this mode of working for a number of reasons. But one of them is a realisation that the intensification of pressures on academic researchers means it’s not sensible to try to be outstanding at all aspects/phases of the research lifecycle. For one person to be energetically forming new ideas for projects, securing funding, recruiting and guiding research teams, writing for academic and practitioner audiences, overseeing a suite of dissemination activities, liaising closely with practitioner communities and policy-makers, making cases for internal resources, etc etc – that’s a recipe for burnout and disaster. We can’t all be good at all these things all of the time. Also, some of them really benefit from specialist skills. Hence: if you want to engage in a sustainable way in processes that are likely to improve the impact of your research, you are best advised to work closely with kindred spirits.
Recent articles on the LSE Impact Blog by John Burgoyne and Toby Green.
The UK REF Impact case studies from Durham on Threshold Concepts and Lancaster on Evaluative research improving policy and practice.
The DETYA report on The Impact of Educational Research – published in 2000, but thorough and full of insights.