A New Website Helps Researchers and Practitioners Build Partnerships

It’s been said that researchers and practitioners occupy two different “cultural worlds.” Many researchers want their work to inform practice but are not sufficiently attuned to the problems that practitioners need solved. On the other side of the divide are practitioners who want to learn from research but can’t access or interpret the findings. Moreover, research and practice move at a very different pace: research is often time intensive and researchers are trained to be cautious—to ensure that their statements are warranted by the evidence. That creates a challenge for practitioners who need answers that can be applied to today’s pressing concerns.

As a grantmaking organization that funds research to improve the lives of young people, the William T. Grant Foundation spends a great deal of time thinking about these issues. We understand that practitioners and policymakers may regard research with some skepticism-- perhaps with good reason. The prevailing “research-to-practice” model is a one-way street. To bridge research and practice gaps, we need to build a two-way street with reciprocal exchanges. Organized, intentional partnerships between researchers and practitioners can facilitate such exchanges. That’s why in 2012, in collaboration with the Forum for Youth Investment (FYI), we convened a learning community for partnerships between researchers and school districts from around the nation. The community enabled a small group of partnerships to learn from each other about ways to build stronger collaborations that harness research for educational improvement.

Why are education research-practice partnerships (RPPs) so worthwhile? The products of a partnership can improve student learning, teaching practices, and educational systems by leveraging research to address persistent problems of practice and policy. 

The culminating project of the Foundation’s learning community is the Research-Practice Partnership microsite that launched this week. We didn’t want those developing RPPs to have to reinvent the wheel, so the site can be thought of as a “one-stop shop” for building and maintaining successful collaborations. Our new site’s resources, work samples, and guiding tips are culled from the experiences of the learning community, and will help strengthen existing partnerships and provide guidance to those who look to engage in this important work in the future.

Guiding Tips for Potential Partnerships

To be successful in the long term, our learning community recommends partnerships should:

  • Commit to long term collaboration;
  • Focus on practical problems;
  • Produce benefits for researchers and practitioners;
  • Employ intentional strategies to build and maintain relationships; and
  • Pursue research agendas that are jointly constructed by researchers and practitioners.

The site includes information on six topics: structuring partnerships, developing a joint research agenda and data-sharing agreements, staffing, using research findings, and funding. We hope the site will provide funders who are drawn to research-informed approaches with a better understanding of how partnerships work and how to support them. Partnership activities yield better research, better practice, and better systems.

Guiding Tips for Potential Funders

  • Support general operations. If we only fund people to do projects, that's all they will do. One-off projects take researchers and practitioners away from building long-term agendas to address the most persistent problems. Funders can take the long view, and support the infrastructure, relationship-building, and evolution of sustained lines of work.
  • Request information on process as well as products. Process is an important part of RPP work. Asking a partnership to describe how they will develop and nurture their collaborations signals the funders’ commitment to a successful collaboration.  A strong process is what leads to useful research and smart application of the findings. 
  • Invest in capacity-building. Launching and maintaining RPPs requires both sides of the partnership to learn new skills and to expand their capacities. Funders can fund activities that build the capacity of researchers to collaborate and communicate more effectively and the ability for school districts to translate research findings into teaching, learning, and system improvements.
  • Empower the various stakeholders. Funders can inadvertently exacerbate power dynamics if funding only goes to one partner or the other.  Grantmaking strategies, such as co-funding, can ensure that partners are on equal footing as they negotiate their RPP work .

Learn more at www.wtgrantfoundation.org/rpp and Research-Practice Partnerships: A Strategy for Leveraging Research for Educational Improvement in School Districts.

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