Is educational research disseminated to or recontextualized in practice?

Is educational research disseminated to or recontextualized in practice?

I imagine that the most common way of looking at the research-practice relationship is based on a diffusion metaphor. The results of the research must be disseminated to politicians and practitioners. But what does it mean that results are disseminated? Let's take a concrete example.

The  Swedish reading researcher Ingvar Lundberg showed in a study together with his colleagues that if children were allowed to play with the sound and formal side of  language before starting school in a well-thought-out and structured way, their later learning to read was facilitated. The working method became known as the Bornholm model and has had a great influence on the work in Swedish preschools where the working method was adopted.

We can say that the research findings were disseminated to the preschool. But isn't this a slightly simplified picture? Is it rather the case that preschool teachers and others, with the help of texts and materials about the working method, interpret both what the working method means and how it can be used in their context?

The dissemination metaphor can mislead thinking in several ways. I would like to say that in educational contexts we should rather talk about the re-contextualizing of research. Put differently, results and insights reached in a certain context, the research context, must be interpreted and made meaningful in a new context, for example in a school or a classroom. The very movement of the results and insights from one context to another can thus be understood as re-contextualizing of research.

Problems obscured by the dissemination metaphor

If we think that it is only to disseminate findings and insights from research, we tend not to see the complexity of what happens when research is to be used in practice. There is, for example, an enormous amount of studies, above all in American research, which show in experiments/quasi-experiments how different working methods improve the knowledge results for students. Somewhat simplified, it can be said that the students who were taught with the working method learn more than those who made up the control group.

These studies are of course a limited part of all school research, but I suspect that it is the type of study whose results many want to disseminate to the school world. Therefore, I will continue to draw on that type of study when I discuss the dissemination metaphor. However, it should be pointed out that my reasoning also applies to other types of studies.

Why then do teachers and others seldom take this research to their heart when it is disseminated? The research on how teachers absorb research results shows that this process is often about something completely different than dissemination. Not infrequently, research is used instead to legitimize what is done and what is already believed in. Sometimes the results of research can also be misunderstood.

Experiments/quasi-experiments further often involve a strictly planned structuring of the teaching and thus extra resources are added, which means that the context in which a study is carried out looks different from the context in which the results are to be used. This applies not least if the study was conducted within the framework of another school system.

A further problem obscured by the diffusion metaphor is that the research only orients itself towards part of the teacher's mission, usually the knowledge mission. Effective teachers, however, have to orient themselves towards a broad mission. The knowledge assignment is of course of central importance, but it is far from the only assignment principals and teachers have. Schools should also prepare their pupils for citizenship, develop pupils´ responsibility and abilities to cooperate and so on.

In short, talking about dissemination of research oversimplifies and the conditions of practice are not taken seriously enough. Talking about re-contextualizing research, on the other hand, makes it clear that it is about two different contexts, between which there is a complex relationship.

Increasing "context similarity"

The problems with re-contextualizing research results are probably reduced the more similar the context in which the results were obtained is to the context into which they are to be re-contextualized.

Even if I conduct an experiment according to all the rules of the art and get strong effects for a teaching method, I don't know what will happen when my research results are re-contextualized. Even if we have good internal validity in the experiment, that is, we can say with great certainty that it was actually our method/our way of working that caused differences in educational performance, the ecological validity may be low. This means that the experiment is too separated from what it looks like in reality. It is my impression that within the evidence movement, the greatest importance has been placed on internal validity, for example by highlighting the randomized experiment as a model for research. It is probably a workable approach in medical research but need not always be so in research about the school.

If we put the ecological validity in the first place, on the other hand, it becomes meaningful to study how practitioners who succeed iwork. Obviously, they succeed under real circumstances and not in a situation created with a lot of structure and outside support. I myself have carried out such studies of good practices, another example is Bengt and Elisabet Persson's studies of Essunga municipality, a municipality that within a very short space of time significantly improved its school results.

Although it is difficult in such a study to determine exactly what causes a good outcome, the outcome is achieved in a context similar to that in which other school leaders and teachers operate, which hopefully would increase the possibility of being able to re-contextualize lessons learned from the study. However, this should be seen as a hypothesis as we do not have studies of what happens when this type of research results are re-contextualized, for example when other municipalities tried to imitate the work that was carried out in Essunga.

It should be considered that a very, very large percentage of the Swedish municipalities carried out study visits to Essunga, but we know very little what happened when these experiences were re-contextualized in new municipalities. It goes without saying that a diffusion metaphor does not do justice the complexity inherent in such processes, which is a message I wanted to convey in this blog. It is important that the school's work is supported by science, but it is important not to avoid the complexity of what this means by using metaphors that simplify what the processes look like.

 Context transformation

Gert Biesta presents an interesting perspective on the relationship between research and practice in his article "Why ´what works´ still won´t work: From evidence-based education to value-based education" in Studies in the Philosophy of Education (2010, vol 29: 491-503). He links to studies by Bruno Latour and believes that the research-practice relationship is not only about the recontextualization of knowledge, but that it can also involve context-transformation in such a way that the practice will imitate features of the research context. We could then speak of three different ways of looking at this relationship: diffusion, recontextualization and transformation. Biesta does not give concrete examples of what this could mean in an educational context, but the idea is very interesting. I myself have argued in various contexts that such a transformation could be a way to develop practice when certain aspects of the research are taken up by the practice, so to speak transform it. It is partly in line with Dewey's thinking about the relationship between research and practice, but surprisingly enough, Biesta makes no connection to Dewey in this part of his article. As you know, Dewey called the school he ran "the laboratory school".

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