The greater Pittsburgh Region is bustling with innovation and houses big-name companies, such as Google, Uber, UPMC and PNC. It is no secret why Pittsburgh attracts such a variety of industry titans: Education. The region is home to world-class university research centers, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, which help cultivate a spirit of innovation.
Less well known outside of Pittsburgh is that many K-12 school districts in the region, including members of Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools (such as Avonworth, Baldwin-Whitehall, Elizabeth Forward, Fox Chapel, Montour and South Fayette) and districts active within the Remake Learning Network, place a heavy emphasis on partnerships between researchers and K-12 practitioners, yielding big gains for both districts and universities.
Take the South Fayette School District for example. There, administrators recently partnered with Carnegie Mellon to pioneer the development and pilot testing of the nation’s first coherent K-12 curriculum on computational thinking. Montour School District and Carnegie Mellon created research consortium with three other area districts called the LearnLab. The LearnLab brings together K-12 classroom teachers and university researchers for research collaborations, introducing evidence-based education technologies into the classroom.
Montour’s first-grade teachers are also working with a team of researchers from St. Vincent College's Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media to study interactions between teachers and students through the use of technology.
Recently, a multi-disciplinary team from the University of Pittsburgh was awarded $300,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to diversify access to urban universities for students in STEM fields. This two-year researcher-practitioner partnership aims to increase participation of underrepresented minority students in postsecondary STEM programs.
These researcher-practitioner partnerships do not happen by accident; nor are they sustained by luck. For each of these examples of successful researcher-practitioner collaborations, there are likely ten examples that did not work out very well. Why? Certainly not for lack of good intentions. The reality is that practitioners and researchers operate in very different worlds, often with different timelines, incentive structures, and lenses for looking at education and learning.
7 Keys to Building Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships
Although the greater Pittsburgh Region is unique because of its locally controlled school districts and excellent universities, the ingredients for successful researcher-practitioner partnerships can be found almost anywhere. Below, we cull several key principles for establishing and maintaining productive, mutually beneficial researcher-practitioner partnerships:
1. Identify joint work: Researchers and practitioners can and should have goals that are different. The trick in developing a successful partnership is to identify the space in which joint work contributes to the goals of both researchers and practitioners in meaningful ways.
2. Ensure there is a boundary spanner: The worlds of research and practice are very different on dimensions such as the pace of the work, the driving goals (producing knowledge versus serving students), the kinds of work prized by their respective institutions, norms for discourse and methodologies employed. A researcher-practitioner partnership can die an early death if differences are not adequately identified and negotiated. Some practitioners and researchers are able to span these differences based on their past experience in one another’s context but some are not. Look for partners with the capacity to serve this boundary spanning role for each endeavor.
3. Negotiate structural and cultural differences: It is important to identify and design for the differences that exist between researchers and practitioners in terms of work styles, incentive structures, motivating goals and communication routines. In addition, there is often an unstated perception that the university-based researchers are the “experts” and this can create a perceived power differential in the interactions between researchers and K-12 practitioners. Expertise in all forms (including, and especially, practice-based expertise) must be valued and validated within all interactions.
4. Identify project champions: For each partnership, there should be a champion within each organization who will drive momentum, liaise with key stakeholders within their organizations and persist in driving for the vision when challenges arise.
5. Align work with core values: Every successful organization has identified core values that focus effort and resource allocation. Make sure that each organization’s values align with the goals of the partnership. Critical to this is ensuring that the shared goal of improving conditions for children is represented in the work.
6. Obtain foundation support: Pittsburgh is fortunate to have a generous philanthropic community including the Grable Foundation, Heinz Endowments, Benedum Foundation and many others. A strong foundation partner will not only financially support the partnership, which is critical for launching the work and developing models for sustainability, but may also help set goals and measurable outcomes and help create a broader ecosystem in which the work can be nurtured.
7. Be flexible: It is often said that a successful marriage depends on give and take and trust. This also applies to researcher-practitioner partnerships. There will be hard times in the partnership; remember to address challenges directly, be flexible and trust each other.
Finally, take a play out of Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning Playbook. Created by the Sprout Fundthrough an open source digital platform and hardcopy book, the Playbook serves as a how-to-guide for replicating successful innovations including network support strategies and taking advantage of connected learning ppportunities with the goal of remaking learning in your city.