The Unavoidable Intervention of Educational Research:

A Framework for Reconsidering Researcher-Practitioner Cooperation

Educational Researcher. 26, 7 (1997): 13-23

 

 

Jon Wagner

 

Division of Education

University of California, Davis

 

 

            Over the past two decades, two critiques of educational research have stimulated increased interest in cooperation between university research faculty and school teachers and administrators.  The first critique argues that without active participation by teachers and administrators, educational research cannot generate findings that are useful to improving the schools.  In response to this critique, a variety of strategies have been proposed for enriching researcher-practitioner collaboration, some of them to good effect.  Less than two decades after Tikunnoff and Ward (1980; 1983) documented the value of collaborative research with teachers, projects of this sort have become increasingly visible in the schools and in the research literature  (Argyris, 1985; Erickson & Christman, 1996; Hargreaves, 1996; Oja & Smulyan, 1989; Winter, 1989).  Collaborative action research in general has become more popular in education, as have “teacher research” and other forms of practitioner-initiated investigation .[1]

The second critique reflects a political conviction that traditional forms of educational research reflect asymmetries of power and knowledge that exploit, disempower or mystify practitioner and subject populations.  In Ladner’s (1971: 6) characterization of this view, “the relationship between the researcher and his [sic] subjects, by definition, resembles that of the oppressor and the oppressed, because it is the oppressor who defines the problem, the nature of the research, and to some extent, the quality of the interaction between him and his subjects.” 

            In response to this second critique, some scholars have called for greater parity between researchers and practitioners -- or research subjects -- in how individual research projects are designed and organized (Gitlin, 1990; Gitlin & Russel, 1994; Lather, 1986; Lincoln & Guba, 1989).  Others have recommended that educational researchers move towards forms of political agency and activism that serve the interests of disempowered groups, including, but not limited to, those they study (Delgado-Gaitan, 1993; Fine, 1994; Lather, 1986; Lather, 1994; Roman & Apple, 1990; Trueba, 1988).[2]

            By and large, discourse and reforms framed by these two critiques have neglected the fact that all educational research in schools involves cooperation of one form or another between researchers and practitioners.  Whether they serve as research subjects themselves; help researchers design, conduct and support studies of other school members; or simply grant formal or informal approval of a project; the cooperation of practitioners is essential to the conduct of research in schools.  For that matter, even schooling data reported in public documents are available to researchers as a result of cooperative agreements, either implicit or explicit, between educational practitioners who collect and report data, those it is reported about, the public and the state.  

            Though it is an unavoidable characteristic of educational research -- in the terms noted above -- cooperation between researchers and practitioners can take quite different forms, and researchers disagree profoundly about which of these are most valuable .  Some scholars argue eloquently for close, almost intimate cooperation between researchers and practitioners while others recommend more limited forms of engagement, or none at all.  These ideals are valuable as ethical standards or heuristic devices, but they also distract attention from empirical inquiries into the different forms that such cooperation can take and the implications of these different forms for educational research and reform. 

            As a step towards stimulating just that kind of inquiry, I will describe three forms of direct cooperation that I have observed between educational researchers and practitioners.  Each form reflects different pragmatic, moral and political expectations for research project participants, and each also has different implications for supporting educational research and for reform.  Taken together, these expectations and implications illustrate some of the ways in which, unavoidably, research projects themselves are social interventions in the lives of researchers and practitioners.[3] 

 

 

Empirical and theoretical contexts

 

            My own understanding of cooperation between researchers and practitioners has been developed through field studies of educational research projects conducted by others and through participant observation in projects of my own design.  Taken together, these studies have drawn on documents, field notes, and interviews from about three dozen research projects, two dozen schools and school districts and seven research universities.  While all the projects I have studied include some elements of direct cooperation between researchers and practitioners, they reflect diverse theoretical perspectives, data collection methods, and units of observation and analysis.

            I have reported previously about some of the specific universities, schools and projects examined in these studies (Wagner, 1993; 1995; 1997).  However, my intention here is to present a cross-project framework for describing and analyzing different forms of cooperation between researchers and practitioners.  Given this intention, I have drawn not only on the field studies noted above, but also on long-term personal relationships with individual teachers, administrators and students, several of whom have offered valuable insights about their “cooperative” participation in different kinds of educational research projects. 

            One insight passed on to me in this way is that teachers routinely regard themselves as “research subjects” even when researchers focus their inquiries on other school members or on specific aspects of school organization, curricula, assessment, and so on.  As a result, cooperation between educational researchers and practitioners appears to many teachers and administrators as cooperation between researchers and “practitioner-subjects.”  With that insight in mind, detailed accounts by researchers of their engagement with research subjects (e.g., Lareau, 1989; Rabinow, 1977; Stacey, 1990; Vidich, Bensman & Stein, 1964; Wax, 1971; Whyte, 1984) are both relevant and instructive in thinking about researcher engagement with practitioners.  So too are analyses of researcher-subject relationships in general(Adler, 1987; Georges & Jones, 1980).

            Building in these accounts and analyses of social science field research, recent scholarship has focused increased attention on how researchers and subjects conceptualize issues of role, stance, voice and agency.  This work has been enriched substantially by feminist scholars and by others trying to use research to support social, community, or professional development.  Although profound disagreements characterize scholarship within these areas, there is also some consensus about the value of examining questions such as the following:  How are the “voices” of research subjects represented in research designs, activities and reports (Fine, 1994; Lather, 1994; McCall & Wittner, 1990; Nespor & Barylske, 1991; Richardson, 1991)?  What prospects exist for engaging subjects themselves as researchers or co-investigators (Argyris, Putman & Smith, 1985; Argyris, 1985; Erickson & Christman, 1996; Gitlin, 1990; Gitlin & Russel, 1994; Oja & Smulyan, 1989; Whyte, 1991; Winter, 1989)?  And, under what circumstances can and should researchers become subjects of their own investigations (Delgado-Gaitan, 1993; Fine, 1994; Foster, 1994; Stacey, 1990; Swanson-Owens, 1986)?[4]

            Informed by these questions and the related work of other scholars, the framework I propose for examining direct researcher-practitioner cooperation is a typology of social organization.  Within this typology I refer to “cooperation” as the arrangements through which individuals participate in co-oriented social activity.  These arrangements may be more or less attractive, stable, comfortable, explicit, or understood to those involved, and there is nothing categorically good or bad about cooperation itself.  However, when cooperation does not exist, social activities that require it cannot occur.

            For example, when we argue that classroom instruction requires cooperation among students and teachers and among students themselves, we do not mean that everyone -- or anyone -- who participates in classroom instruction enjoys it, or is somehow a “good person” for having facilitated the process (Jackson, 1990b).  What we do mean is that unless students and teachers are willing to participate in co-oriented activity in classrooms, classroom instruction -- however effective or ineffective it might be -- cannot happen.  The same is true for educational research and the cooperative arrangements it requires of researchers and the practitioner-subjects they study in schools.[5]

            By direct cooperation I mean cooperation that is manifest in exchanges, transactions and agreements negotiated directly between individual educational researchers and school teachers or administrators.   Direct cooperation is an essential feature of projects in which teachers or administrators participate as research subjects by being observed, interviewed, polled, or otherwise examined.  Direct cooperation also is a feature of projects in which school practitioners are called upon to provide researchers with access to, or data about, other school members, including students, parents, and other practitioners.[6]

            In the projects I have been studying, three forms of direct cooperation appear to have special significance, and I will refer to these as data-extraction agreements, clinical partnerships, and co-learning agreement.   As an ideal type, each form of cooperation reflects different social arrangements, inquiry and reporting strategies, and operating assumptions.  These different forms are worth examining for several reasons:  First, they can increase our understanding of how researchers and practitioners arrange joint participation in research projects.  Second, they can help us understand how joint participation of this sort constitutes a local intervention.  Third, they may be useful to researchers and practitioners as templates for designing and negotiating research cooperation.  And fourth, examining these forms can alert us to implications of research project design for educational research and reform as social institutions.

            One such implication emerges when we recognize that the different terms by which researchers and practitioners agree to work together -- i.e., to “cooperate” -- also define different ways of being.  As Goffman (1963 : 180) noted about this process in organizations,  “Built right into the social arrangements of an organization . . . is a thoroughly embracing conception of the member -- and not merely a conception of him [sic] qua member, but behind this a conception of him [sic] qua human being.”  In just this way, different forms of cooperation in educational research support different conceptions of the researcher and the school practitioner as persons and as actors in other institutional contexts, including their home institutions and larger efforts of educational reform. 

 

 

Data extraction agreements

 

            The most traditional form of cooperative educational research, broadly defined, is one in which university researchers make whatever logistical and legal arrangements are necessary with teachers, students or administrators to study the schools in which the latter work.  Period.  Notable examples of this are common within the research literature.  Based on their own written accounts of what the research entailed, we might include studies by Goodlad (1985), Jackson (1990b), Lortie (1975), Peshkin (1986) and many others.  I refer to this orientation as extractive, because school settings are regarded as a resource from which researchers extract knowledge for distribution to other communities and locales. 

            Research questions examined within extractive educational research focus on the nature of education and schooling. These questions, and whatever answers are developed to them, are regarded primarily as the province of the researcher.  Research processes can involve quantitative or qualitative forms of data collection that are systematic and perusable to other researchers.  In some cases, they may make sense to practitioners; in others they may appear to practitioners as confusing, arcane, intrusive, intimidating, boring or ridiculous.   However, a key feature of this form of cooperative research is that asymmetry of understanding and purpose is quite acceptable.  Researchers and practitioners view their roles as distinct.  Each may or may not respect the other, but neither expects the other to share her or his own perspective. 

            In extractive research modes, the reciprocity of researchers and practitioner roles is made explicit in terms of the structure of inquiry.  The researcher is clearly the agent of inquiry, the person who reports knowledge and who constructs the knowledge to be reported.  Practitioners are the people whose work is described and whose work is the focus of analysis and reform.  These differences in inquiry roles are congruent with perceived social location.  Thus, the researcher is outside the schools and engaged in a process of inquiry and reflection.  Practitioners are inside schools and engaged in action. 

            Within extractive research, the value of research to stimulating change and improvement in schools is articulated through institutional and state decision-making.  Knowledge generated through research is put in forms that are “transportable”(Nespor & Barylske, 1991), taken away from field sites and reported to other researchers and to individuals working at higher reaches of the schooling hierarchy.  Through the actions of these individuals, or so the argument goes, research knowledge can help create policies that guide school practitioners in improving their effectiveness.  Different versions of how this process works have been articulated by Jackson (1990a), Shavelson (1988), Suppes (1978)  and others.

            Expertise in this form of cooperation is bifurcated and clearly bounded.  In its idealized form, researchers are affirmed for their research expertise without any expectation that they also understand schooling practice.   Similarly, practitioners may be valued for their practice without any expectation that they also know something about research.[7]  High level administrators, elected officials and their staffs are regarded as the go-betweens, mediators and translators whose task it is to understand both research and practice and to exercise good judgment about the implications of research findings for state and institutional regulation.

 


 

Clinical partnerships

 

            A second form of cooperation involves clinical partnerships between researchers and practitioners.  Research questions associated with this form include variations around the same core themes that characterize extractive research.  But the clinical perspective adds questions about how practitioners and researchers can work together to improve knowledge about schools and educational practice within them.  Notable examples of this clinical orientation in education appear in the work of Delgado-Gaitan (1990), Goldenberg (1991), Heath (1983), Moll (1987), Tharp (1989), Weinstein (1982), and others, and in a broad array of projects characterized as “collaborative action research” (Argyris et al., 1985; Erickson & Christman, 1996; Oja & Smulyan, 1989; Whyte, 1991; Winter, 1989)

            As with data-extraction agreements, research within the clinical mode can involve quantitative or qualitative forms of data collection that are systematic and perusable to other researchers.  However, questions and issues around which the research is organized -- and subsequent reports of research findings -- reflect cooperation and negotiation between researchers and practitioners.  Asymmetry of understanding and purpose is not as acceptable in this form of cooperative research as in the extractive mode, as efforts are made by both practitioners and researchers to develop a shared understanding of their separate, but complementary enterprises.

            The reciprocity of researchers and practitioner roles is retained in the clinical mode.  The researcher is clearly the agent of inquiry and practitioners are the people whose work is the focus of analysis and reform.  But practitioners can also engage in inquiry, at least by assisting their researcher colleagues, and attention is given by both to the process of researcher-practitioner consultation itself.  Thus, while the researcher remains outside the schools and practitioners inside, both researchers and practitioners are also engaged in jointly defined work that cuts across those two domains.  As a result, clinical partnerships may acknowledge, in addition to the separate expertise of researchers and of practitioners,  the value of special skills in research-practice collaboration or clinical research.

            Within the clinical mode, the value of research to stimulating change and improvement in schools is grounded in direct communication between researchers and practitioners about problems and issues.  Knowledge generated through this kind of research may be reported to other researchers and to policy-makers, but it can also be reported to practitioners, either during or after the conduct of research itself (Weinstein, 1982).  Within efforts to improve their own effectiveness, or so the argument goes, this research-generated knowledge represents a resource to practitioners themselves.

             

 

Co-learning agreements

 

            A third type of cooperative educational research can be characterized as a “co-learning agreement.”  Many field researchers thank their subjects for contributing to the researcher’s understanding of the subject world, but these affirmations rarely extend to noting new knowledge that engagement with subjects has contributed to how researchers understand their own world.  However, this orientation is explicit within some forms of feminist scholarship (see Fine, 1994, for an excellent overview).  Implicit references to co-learning of this sort also can be found in work by Becker (1986b), Delgado-Gaitan (1993), Gitlin (1990), Grant (1988), Lather (1986), Lieberman (1988), Schon (1987), and Swanson-Owens(1986).  As Delgado-Gaitan notes (1993: 409) in describing how a field research project led her to new understandings of her own role as a researcher, “To counter our own ignorance and biases as researchers, we must integrate into our research rigorous and systematic joint analysis with our participants.”

            Co-learning agreements are even more interactive than the clinical form of cooperation described above, and they reduce several, but not all, of the asymmetries that characterize research conducted in extractive and clinical modes.  For example, the division of labor between researchers and practitioner becomes much more ambiguous, as both researchers and practitioners are regarded as agents of inquiry and as objects of inquiry. 

            As a result of this ambiguity, co-learning agreements can incorporate questions about social and cultural phenomena that fall outside extractive and clinical research, including questions about the work routines and institutional home of the researcher.  Restated as a variable in social location, the fact that researchers are outside and practitioners inside the school is acknowledged, but attention is also given to the fact that researchers are working inside and practitioners outside universities or other research agencies.  As a consequence of including researchers and their home institutions as objects of inquiry, these too become targets of reform and critical analysis. 

            Research questions associated with co-learning agreements may include those pursued within data extraction agreements and clinical partnerships.  However, co-learning agreements also raise questions about educational research itself and about problematics of its relationship to education and schooling.  The resulting research agenda can be broader even than that associated with clinical research, and the relevant data correspondingly more diverse. 

            As is the case for data extraction agreements and clinical partnerships, research processes within a co-learning agreement can include forms of data collection that are systematic, perusable to other researchers and either quantitative or qualitative in scope and design.  However, co-learning agreements typically involve some reflexive, inquiry as well (Woolgar, 1988), stimulated in part by cross-contextual comparisons of the home institutions of K-12 practitioners and university research faculty.  The questions and issues around which the research is organized, and subsequent reports of research findings, may also reflect cooperation between researchers and practitioners.  In general, asymmetry of understanding and purpose is not acceptable as an operating principle, though it can be revealed as a reasonable outcome of collaborative inquiry itself.  That is, while efforts are made by both practitioners and researchers to develop a shared research enterprise, these efforts can themselves reveal understandable differences of perspective, some of which may be attributed to institutional positions or social location. 

            In a co-learning agreement, researchers and practitioners are both participants in processes of education and systems of schooling.  Both are engaged in action and reflection.  By working together, each might learn something more about the world of the other.  Of equal importance, however, each may learn something more about his or her own world and its connection to institutions of schooling.

            In addition to the specialized expertise developed by researchers and practitioners as members of their home institutions, co-learning agreements can also acknowledge the special skills required to cross institutional boundaries between schools and universities.  But in this case, crossing boundaries is valued more for importing reform than for exporting it.  Because inquiry and reform issues focus on both schools and universities,  researchers appear as research-practitioners and practitioners as practitioner-researchers. 

 


Research cooperation and educational reform

 

            Differences between these three ideal-types of researcher-practitioner cooperation are summarized in Table 1.  Individual projects of educational research can resemble one type or another, more or less, and some projects may include elements of all three.  In addition, the same project may present a quite different face to individuals who occupy different institutional positions.  As one notable example, co-learning agreements between university researchers and school teachers may appear to students of those teachers as data extraction agreements.  Similarly, data-extraction agreements between researchers and school district administrators may appear as co-learning agreements or clinical partnerships between the same researchers and colleagues in other universities or in state offices and agencies (McNergney, 1990).

 

Table 1

Three forms of researcher-practitioner cooperation in educational research

 

 

Data Extraction Agreement

Clinical Partnership

Co-Learning Agreement

Focal Research Question

What is the nature of education and schooling?

How can practitioners and researchers work together to improve knowledge of schooling and practice?

What is the nature of education, schooling and educational research?

Research Process

Direct, systematic inquiry designed, conducted and reported  by researcher.

Systematic inquiry, cooperatively designed and reported by  researcher and practitioner.

Reflexive, systematic inquiry, stimulated in part by ongoing collegial communication between researchers and practitioners.

Context  and  Stance

Researcher is outside the schools and engaged in reflection; practitioners are inside the schools and engaged in action.

Researcher is outside the schools and engaged in reflection; practitioners are inside the schools and engaged in action.

Researchers and practitioners both participate through action and reflection in processes of education and systems of schooling. 

Model of Change

Knowledge generated through research can inform educational policy and contribute to improved instruction.

Researchers and practitioners can conduct cooperative research on problems of practice to help practitioners improve their own effectiveness.

Drawing on knowledge gained through cooperative research, researchers and practitioners are responsible for initiating complementary changes in their own institutions.

Expert Roles

Researcher as researcher; practitioner as practitioner.

Researcher as researcher and collaborator; practitioner as practitioner and collaborator.

Researcher as research-practitioner and practitioner as practitioner-researcher in their home institutions.

 

 

            These three types of cooperative research are shaped profoundly by how they assign the archetypal roles of agent of inquiry and object of inquiry.  In the extractive mode, educational researchers are clearly the agents of inquiry and school members the objects.  In the clinical mode, both educational researchers and practitioners are agents of inquiry, but school members alone appear as objects of inquiry.  In co-learning agreements, researchers and school practitioners are both involved as agents and as objects of inquiry (Table 2). 

 

 

Table 2

Inquiry roles of researchers and practitioners

within different forms of cooperative educational research

 

 

Inquiry Role

Data Extraction Agreements

Clinical  Partnership

Co-Learning Agreement

 

Object of Inquiry

 

Practitioners

Practitioners

Practitioners & Researchers

 

Agent of Inquiry

Researchers

Researchers & Practitioners

Researchers & Practitioners

 

 

 

            In the projects I have been investigating, differences between these different forms of cooperation are evident also in the organizational and cultural features they support, including modes and frequency of communication, topics of discourse, and shared activities (Table 3).  These differences, in turn, support different forms of engagement between educational researchers and practitioners.

            Differences between the three ideal types appear also in how they are viewed by outsiders, including those eager for educational research to play a role in policy making and reform.  Indeed, the three types of researcher-practitioner cooperation described above correspond in some respects to evolving research needs of educational policy-making.  In McLaughlin’s account of “lessons learned” from two decades of educational policy-making (1987), she notes a shift from assuming that educational policies could be implemented without the active cooperation of practitioners, to recognizing that practitioner cooperation is necessary for implementation, and to a more recent understanding that practitioner cooperation is necessary not only to implement policies, but to develop them and to assess their impact. 

            The “lessons” McLaughlin learned from her own examinations of educational policy-making are not necessarily those learned by others, and the current policy climate includes a complete array of top-down and bottom-up prescriptions, within which different forms of researcher-practitioner cooperation may be more or less useful.  For example, within top-down perspectives on school change, data-extraction agreements may seem more credible than co-learning or clinical cooperation -- their hierarchical form is consistent with hierarchical perspectives on schooling within which top-down change initiatives seem reasonable and necessary.  Indeed, research projects that appear authoritative may play a special role within authoritative school structures, or at least generate greater leverage than projects in which researchers are questioning not only the schools but also their own métier.  The reverse applies within bottom-up perspectives on school change.  Here, co-learning agreements may have greater credibility, stemming in part from a tacit rejection of researcher-practitioner hierarchy and an investment in collegial give-and-tack this can be more sensitive to local circumstances. 

 

 

Table 3

Activities characteristic of different modes of cooperative educational research

 

Researcher-Subject  Interaction

 

Data Extraction Agreement

 

Clinical Partnership

Co-learning Agreement

Form of Interaction

 

 

 

Written correspondence

Yes

Yes

Yes

Telephone conversation

Sometimes

Yes

Yes

Face-to-face  meetings

Sometimes

Yes

Yes

 

Content of Interaction

 

 

 

Negotiate researcher access to research subjects

Yes

Yes

Yes

Clarify research questions

No

Yes

Yes

Design data-collection activities

Sometimes

Yes

Yes

Design and conduct data analysis

No

Sometimes

Yes

Design and prepare research reports

No

Yes

Yes

Solicit in-process evaluation of research project

Sometimes

Yes

Yes

Provide ongoing reports and accounts

No

Sometimes

Yes

Discuss individual participants

No

Sometimes

Yes

Discuss relationship of project to institutional life

No

Sometimes

Yes

Discuss relationship of project to personal life

No

Sometimes

Yes

 

 

 

            Co-learning forms of cooperation -- and to a lesser extent clinical partnerships -- have two other attractions within what McLaughlin identifies as the more highly evolved perspective on policy-making:  First, by engaging practitioners in investigating their own schools, they can stimulate discourse within a school about alternatives to present or recommended practice, alternatives that may be necessary to make good on particular reform ideals.  Second, agreements of this sort can stimulate researchers to investigate extra-school policies and practices that significantly impact the schools, including formal arrangements for preparing new teachers, developing curricula, designing assessment systems, funding schooling or educational research, and so on.

 


Cooperative engagement and research

 

            Some research questions are easier or more difficult to pursue within one form of cooperation than in another.  For example, in co-learning agreements, it is difficult to investigate issues of K-12 schooling without attending also to issues of higher education.  Clinical partnerships encourage attention to how practitioners define the problematics of their work, not just how these are defined by educational researchers.  Other research questions may be relatively easier or harder to examine through data-extraction agreements.

            One intriguing prospect emerging from the projects I have been investigating is a “U-shaped” relationship between interpersonal researcher-practitioner involvement and practitioner resistance to answering objectifying questions -- i.e., questions about their ascribed status or behavior asked without much interest in their experience or ideas.  Practitioner resistance may be relatively low in low-involvement arrangements because questions of this sort are consistent with impersonal relationships with unfamiliar researchers.  As engagement and familiarity increase, researchers and practitioners become more fully-dimensioned persons to each other, and practitioner resistance to impersonal questions increases.  However, with even greater familiarity and engagement, personal relationships can be stabilized at higher levels of trust and regard, at which point practitioner resistance drops off again.

            Given the structure of their careers and workplaces, few researchers are able to follow this kind of engagement from one end of the curve to the other.[8]  As a result, even though long-term collaboration between researchers and practitioners might enrich the quality of their research, the prospect of increasingly intensive social life with practitioners or research subjects appears to many researchers as an immediate threat to the focus and design of their current studies.

 

School members’ experiences of research cooperation

 

            One consequence of supporting richer social life is that projects designed along clinical or co-learning lines may have greater power to reframe participants’ understanding of their own work.  By creating an engaging, social alternative to home institutions of school and university, co-learning agreements in particular also create opportunities for individuals to develop knowledge that challenges routine and taken for granted assumptions of each institution.  In some sense, these arrangements create a new social space between schools and universities, as noted in the following comment from a high school teacher involved in a project of this sort:

 

Well, working with you guys [university research faculty and staff] is not like really research, I mean, I guess it is research.  Is it research?  I mean I know that we are collecting data, you are analyzing it,  and we are looking at it too.  And I’m doing that in my own [teacher research] project too, if I can just get it done, though I have no idea of what getting it done means. . . . But it’s not like you are just saying ‘Have your students fill out this survey and give it to us,’ or something like that.  At least I don’t think it is like that.  No, it’s not like that.  I mean, we do get stuff for you from the students, but you aren’t using it to tell us what to do.  I mean, you do but you don’t.  It’s more like we are asking these neat questions about things that otherwise just don’t come up, and we also get together, you know, we hang out.  There’s a different set of ideas.  And not just for us, right?  And we get to talk about what you should be doing differently at the university here, and that’s. . . that’s got to be part of it, doesn’t it?  I mean, when I see what is happening to student teachers at our school, and I get my own ideas about what the university should be doing to prepare teachers, that becomes part of all this too, or at least it has.  So it’s more, I don’t know, back-and-forth, and I kinda like this. . . this stuff, and that’s what I’d like to do more of is just be more involved in this in-between stuff, to have some kind of a flow between that [university research] and what I am doing and when I work and how I apply it.  Bringing what I do in my work to here and bringing what I learn to what I do. 

 

            The more intensive social life that characterizes co-learning agreements can be both an asset and a liability.  Researchers who make themselves very available to practitioners and research subjects may learn things that cannot be learned in other ways.  However, time spent in the field is also time not spent with other researchers or with policy makers.  Intimate relationships with schools can come at the expense of intimate relationships with policy-making agencies, the kind of relationships cited by some as a key feature of effective policy research ventures (McNergney, 1990). 

            Clinical partnerships may support social interaction rich enough to nourish continued engagement and also to stimulate participant interest in co-learning agreements.   The comment of another high school teacher involved in helping establish a clinical research partnership addresses this prospect directly:

 

[the university faculty member] has been just terrific.  She is really helping us learn how to improve kids reading in this school, and she’s doing this in all different ways.  She’s teaching a class at the school.  Well, she’s there sometimes, but it’s [her research assistant].  He’s there primarily, a lot, and he’s great.  And they’ve got the teachers reading things and talking about them and then we are designing different ways of working on these things in the classroom, and with the really difficult students, that’s sort of the focus.  And then she’s got us set up to assess what’s working, rethink it all, revise, try something else.  That was a hard part at first, but I think now we all pretty much agree that it’s valuable.  It’s necessary.  I think this is really making a difference, but you know being involved, I mean really involved, with this is just great. . .  But I think it’s also getting us into something with [the university faculty member] where she’s thinking differently about research.  And I know we are all talking about things that need to be done in the way we prepare people to teach and to do research.  That’s another whole thing that’s come out of it, and maybe that’s a bit of a surprise for [the faculty member]. 

 

            In contrast to clinical partnerships and co-learning agreements, the social life of extractive research agreements may be too limited to engage participants over long periods of time or to move participants into more engaged and interactive relationships with researchers.  This also can be an asset and a liability.  Designing and executing their studies within data extraction agreements may leave researchers relatively free of participant demands and concerns.  However, this occurs at the expense of more intimate knowledge of the phenomena they are investigating and, at times, to the dismay of practitioners themselves.  Depending on their prior expectations, some teachers and administrators may not experience frustration with research relationships of this sort, but some certainly do, as noted by a third high school teacher:

 

Before that project ever got started I went and spoke with [a university faculty member] about working with us.  Talk about the cold shoulder.  So I said, ‘Hey, I don’t need this,’ and went and talked to you guys and some people at State.  Then a year latter I hear from the superintendent that we’re going to be collecting all this data for the same people who didn’t have the time of day for us before.  I’m not saying they are bad people, but something’s wrong when this is how it works out.  So, we take their survey and give them all this other data and then. .  poof!  Where’d they go?  That’s the last I heard.  To this day I haven’t seen a thing from it.  I didn’t even know they’d done anything until I heard from you.  But even if they did, what will those reports do for me?  And you know I’m not a person who’s against research.  A lot of teachers are, flat out.  I was the one trying to get something going with them in the first place.  But, you know, it does all come down to people, and if you don’t even see them or talk to them how can you work with them?

 

            This perspective towards data-extraction agreements is relatively common among practitioners, but it is not universal, nor do practitioners universally affirm the value of more intensive and interactive relationships with researchers.  Thus, one form of cooperation is not categorically positive for either practitioners or researchers nor is another always negative.  The three forms differ substantially in the opportunities they provide for social life between researchers and school practitioners, but some teachers and administrators may be content with less involvement by researchers while others seek more, just as some researchers may be comfortable with more involvement, some with less, and even these patterns can change over time.  However, as illustrated by the comment above, even the least engaging forms of researcher-practitioner cooperation represent interventions in the life of schools -- though not necessarily the kinds of interventions that practitioners or researchers would like to see.

 

Cooperative engagement and reform

 

            As a complement to differential engagement in educational research, each mode of cooperative research also supports differential engagement in educational reform.  In the extractive mode, school teachers and administrators appear as relatively passive accessories to research-based change strategies initiated by the researcher in contexts well removed from field research sites.  In the clinical mode, the change strategies of researchers have practitioners as their target, but practitioners are also affirmed as change agents within their own profession and the schools.  This was clearly the case for the high school teachers quoted above who were working to improve their instruction of reading.  In co-learning agreements, change is defined more locally than in the other two, but target locales include both the university and the schools.  As a result, both researchers and practitioners are affirmed as change agents within their own institutions, while structural connections between these institutions define a set of terms in which change initiatives in each are interdependent.  Comments of the first and second teachers quoted above make just this connection between instruction in their own schools and the university’s role in preparing new teachers.

            One consequence of seeing both researchers and practitioners as change agents in their own institutions is that cooperative, university-school research projects can stimulate changes in both the university and in the schools.  Indeed, in some cases, a commitment to this kind of mutuality is necessary to maintain the good-faith engagement of school participants, a commitment that also can lead to university reforms.

            For example, in one of the projects I have been investigating, information generated through cooperative research on teachers’ ability to transfer constructivist teaching strategies from one subject to another led to changes in university programs of pre-service and in-service education.  This cooperative research also led university teacher educators to create a new pre-service methods course -- co-taught by teachers involved in the research project -- and to investigate the outcomes of this course for student teachers.  As another example, research and development projects on college-preparatory mathematics, English and physical science curricula led to proposals for change and further investigation of introductory mathematics, English, and physics instruction at a university.  In some cases, these changes in programs were complemented by related proposals to revise job responsibilities and review criteria for supervisors of teacher education, in-service and extension staff, and even for tenured faculty members. 

 

 

Educational research as a social intervention

 

            Distinctions between data extraction agreements, clinical partnerships and co-learning agreements may be useful in trying to understand the engagement of individuals in different research projects and reform initiatives.  However, because of the kinds of communication they require and stimulate, all forms of cooperative educational research have the potential to alter the social life of individuals and institutions.  That is, to the extent that educational research involves cooperation between researchers, practitioners, students or other subjects, it also provides those individuals with opportunities for new or revised forms of social life, regardless of what the research is about. 

            This observation has several related implication:  First, organizational features of educational research projects represent social interventions in their own right.  They bring people into new relationships with each other and with their home or neighboring institutions, and they absorb the limited time, attention, and affective engagement of project participants.  They can stimulate experiences of community, alienation, security, distress, tension, excitement or satisfaction for individual members.  They can support distinctive dramas of inquiry and reform, and they can create social worlds for project participants that fit neither entirely within, nor survive entirely without, the institutional life of schools and universities. 

            Second, some of these organizational features are the direct consequence of design decisions made by individual researchers and practitioners.  As social and cultural phenomena, research projects are shaped by other things as well:  the social organization of universities and schools, relationships between particular schools and universities and the social status and career path of individual participants, and so on.  However, research projects are relatively free of many bureaucratic controls that apply to work falling wholly within either the schools or the university, and, as a result, they can be responsive to guidance by project participants.

            Third, the design elements of research projects that are most important in shaping social relationships between researchers and practitioners are routinely neglected in academic courses on educational research design.  Nor do good accounts of the social design of research projects appear in the research literature.  As an unfortunate parallel, neither are these issues examined in programs of professional preparation or in-service education for teachers or administrators.  

            Fourth, because these issues receive little if any attention in schools and universities, it is difficult for researchers and practitioners to exercise well-informed judgment about the social design of educational research projects in which they participate.

            In assessing the costs of this difficulty, it is useful to reconsider Goffman’s observation -- cited earlier -- about different conceptions of the “human being” implicit in different kinds of “organizational membership.”  Thus, it is quite possible for “cooperative” arrangements within projects of educational research to re-affirm hierarchies among institutions, or differentials of knowledge and power between people, or the domination of persons by social institutions.  In university-school research projects, these re-affirmations can trivialize the expertise and agency of school teachers and administrators, assign unrealistic expectations to university faculty members, and discourage some project participants from wanting to do this kind of thing again.  In just these terms, Ladner’s (1971) concerns about the “oppression” of research subjects by the researcher are quite relevant.  However, it is also possible for cooperative arrangements within research projects to challenge institutional hierarchies, reduce differentials of knowledge and power, and support individual persons in resisting institutional domination.  In just these terms, some projects can be as liberating for practitioners -- or for researchers -- as others are oppressive.

            Given how little time and attention are allocated within universities and schools to the social design of educational research projects, we should not be surprised when positive aspects of research cooperation are less developed than they could be, or when negative aspects come to the fore.   But, maximizing positive outcomes is not as simple as choosing one form of researcher-practitioner cooperation over another.  In some cases, data extraction agreements may be the best match to researcher and practitioner needs and expectations.  In other cases a clinical partnership or co-learning agreement may make more sense.  Or, in still other cases, project participants may settle on an ideal configuration that includes elements of all three, then alter this configuration over time in response to changing needs and circumstances. 

            With these possibilities in mind, a key question remains:  How does the process of “settling on something” occur?  How can researchers and practitioners thoughtfully determine the forms of cooperation that will work best for them? 

            My own studies of researcher-practitioner cooperation fall far, far short of providing an answer to these questions.  However, I am convinced that greater familiarity with more explicit models of cooperation may be useful to both researchers and practitioners in making informed decisions about how they cooperate.  This conviction rests in part on the diffuse democratic principle that while more informed choices among a wider array of options do not always lead to positive outcomes, they still seem preferable to less well-informed choices among fewer options.  However, it also rests on field observations, and these recommend the following caution:  Problematics of power, knowledge and engagement are an essential element of our most well-informed understanding of education and schooling, and there is little reason to believe they are any less essential to understanding educational research.  They certainly shape and are shaped by researcher-practitioner cooperation, an unavoidable social foundation on which that research rests.

 

 

Notes

 


References

 

 

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[1]           A number of statements recommending teacher research appeared in the mid- to late 1980’s ( see, for example: Cross, 1988; Goswami & Stillman, 1987; Lytle & Cochran-Smith, 1989; Myers, 1985).  Publications by and for teacher researchers have increased substantially throughout the 1990’s, and the growth in teacher research activities exceeds by orders of magnitude the increases in teacher research publications -- i.e., a very small percentage of investigations that teachers are conducting in their classrooms and schools under the umbrella of teacher research ever appear in published form (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993).

[2]           Collaboration and empowerment do not necessarily go hand in hand (Erickson & Christman, 1996).  Indeed, some forms of collaboration can leave traditional differentials of power and knowledge untouched, or even reinforce them.  And some projects of educational research (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990 is a notable example) may challenge traditional configurations of power and knowledge without paying much attention to collaboration with practitioners or research subjects .

[3]           Some individuals believe that research projects can be designed to have no local impact whatsoever, but this denies social aspects of educational research that are obvious to anyone who cares to look, including activities through which subjects and practitioners make their own sense of the research projects they encounter.  Others acknowledge that local interventions cannot be avoided, but regard them as largely unwanted side effects that are best minimized.  Still others see local interventions as a primary attraction of their engagement in research. 

[4]           Although these questions are pursued with exceptional vigor among qualitative researchers, they are relevant to both qualitative and quantitative studies.

[5]           This definition of cooperation corresponds closely to how sociologists characterize the foundations of “collection action” -- see, for example Becker (1986a) , Gusfield (1981), or Goffman (1967).  However, it also has features in common with the kinds of relationships that Nespor (1993) describes as participating in and constituting a common “network.”

[6]           Some projects of educational research do not involve direct cooperation -- library research and some historical studies fall into that category --  and the framework I propose has little relevance to these per se.  However, because research projects are social phenomena, they are embedded in myriad contexts of social organization, culture and meaning.  As a result, direct cooperation between researchers and practitioners is much broader, more common and more complex than researchers acknowledge in routine attention to consent forms, response rates, and issues of “researcher-subject” rapport.

[7]           Of course, “expert teaching practice” itself may be unrecognized within the discourse of researchers (Lytle & Cochran-Smith, 1989), and respect for researchers “research expertise” may not fare much better among school teachers and administrators.

[8]           Some researchers have carried their work this far (e.g. Delgado-Gaitan, 1990; Smith, Kleine, Prunty & Dwyer, 1986; Smith, Prunty, Dwyer & Kleine, 1987; Spindler, 1987; Spindler & Spindler, 1987).  Others have begun to use this long-term perspective to frame provocative questions about the impact of research on practitioners (e.g. Clark 1991).