Beginning a research-practice partnership is no easy feat. How do you begin? How do you establish a partnership? And once the partnership has been established, what do you need to do to sustain the partnership? Currently, as a fifth-year doctoral student,
I am engaged in a second year research-practice partnership (RPP) with my faculty advisor, Rossella Santagata. Our partners are an elementary school principal, a district administrator, and a math coordinator/teacher educator. I hope I can share some useful insights based on my own learnings over the past few years.
After some on-and-off conversations that spanned a couple of years, we decided to work together as a team with a vague understanding that we would collaborate on something related to math teaching and learning. There was some understanding of what each of us would bring to the table, but the details were ambiguous, intentionally. As researchers, strove to come to the partnership without an agenda Rossella and I were conscious of the perception practitioners may have about researchers coming into their school context, giving practitioners little to no power in the research design. At our first meeting, we mapped on a white board our values and goals around math teaching and learning to see where we converged. This process allowed us to not only get buy in from our partners but also to begin to create a community united by shared values/goals. During this affinity mapping activity, I noticed how we were mindful of the space we took up, voices that weren’t heard, and made the effort to be inclusive.
(re)Imagining my role
I’ll be honest. I felt very uncertain if I had the right set of skills to be a contributor to this partnership. As a PhD student, you are initially positioned as a novice researcher. The research tasks you are assigned shift in complexity and depth over time. As a fourth year student (at the time), I felt that I had accumulated sufficient knowledge and skills that could be useful for the group, but I didn’t think I was a research “expert.” I still have much to learn. If the practitioners ask, I can’t respond immediately to questions about what’s in the literature for something specific. Overtime, I noticed how frequently the phrase “I don’t know” was spoken by those who were experts in my eyes. “I’m not familiar with that literature. I’ll need to read more about that.” Hearing these phrases made me realize that our partnership team is genuinely engaging to learn together and that it’s okay to not know everything. Our collective shift to embrace a learner mindset greatly contributed to our trust and relationship building. Now, this doesn’t mean you should show up to your meetings unprepared. You still need to do your work (e.g. reading up on relevant literature, asking colleagues and knowledgeable others for advice, and seeking whatever necessary resources). But it’s okay to shift fluidly between being a learner and a knowledgeable partner. (Your partners might be negotiating the two or more identities as well.)
Understanding first before responding
Another critical learning was that you need to deeply understand the problem of practice and the context it is situated in before jumping to a response. One thing I recall being intentional about when practitioners shared emerging tensions in their contexts was to ask questions to understand. Practitioners’ world seemed to move a lot more quickly than researchers’ world. There is typically a strong sense of urgency and a need for solutions. The strong urgency conveyed by the practitioners resonated with me creating a desire to be useful and helpful right away. What was helpful in navigating these situations were the standing meetings I had with my faculty advisor to make sense of the situation and share my thinking. She would remind me to pause before reacting and ask questions to understand the issues and the context before jumping to a solution. This also reinforced our (researchers) identities as co-learners and collaborators not solution providers. We aim to learn together understand the problems of practice in more nuanced ways, so that we can co-construct our responses.
Importance of shared experiences
Shared experiences with your partners take different forms: regular meetings, co-design activities, weekly email check-in, or a phone call. For us, it is Friday (very) early morning meetings. We find ourselves extending invitations to engage in various learning opportunities in each other’s worlds. The principal invited us to join staff meetings and connect with teachers to build relationships. The district administrator and the math coordinator/teacher educator invited us to join the professional learning experiences that the teachers were engaging in and in relevant district-level experiences. We invited our partners to be guest speakers for Education courses and meetings at the School of Ed at UCI. The lines that separated our contexts became blurred as we crossed boundaries. We immersed ourselves in each other’s work and deepened our understanding of each other’s contexts. These shared experiences have expanded our thinking and allowed us to engage in deeper, more sensitive conversations that are critical in strengthening our relationship as a research-practice partnership.
Being part of a research-practice partnership has been an incredible experience for me. I saw what I have read in the literature come to life and realized that I was equipped with knowledge to anticipate but needed to learn how to navigate it all. As one of the partner in our RPP team, my understanding and vision of collaboration and building trust/relationships expanded, and I expect my understanding and vision to continue to deepen.