From ‘Knowledge’ to ‘Action’ – The Key Role of Intermediaries
Joel, Chris, and Angela have recently completed a multiple case study, published in AERA Open (open access here), that aimed to better understand the role education-focused intermediaries can play in connecting research and practice. Here we reflect on one of the ‘cases’ (Edutopia), and particularly on certain key features that might help to move research- and practice-based knowledge to action.
Edutopia, part of a nonprofit foundation established in 1991 by filmmaker George Lucas, describes itself as “a comprehensive website and online community that increases knowledge, sharing, and adoption of what works in K–12 education.” Edutopia has a massive, multi-platform social media presence. As an organization Edutopia serves to produce, host, and broker a great deal of educational content, primarily focused around six core educational principles/strategies: “project-based learning, comprehensive assessment, integrated studies, social and emotional learning, educational leadership and teacher development, and technology integration.”[i]
Our research approach enabled us to compare and contrast three intermediaries, and Edutopia was unique—to say the least!—on several dimensions. This general distinctiveness, plus certain specific attributes, served at least to deeply challenge and stretch our thinking about the ways in which ideas can move and serve to influence thought and action in education. Here we share a few ongoing reflections and we conclude by suggesting potential avenues for further research.
First, in terms of ‘whose’ knowledge Edutopia featured, it was clear they sharply contrasted with other entities by primarily sharing knowledge produced by educators (versus, for instance, knowledge produced by ‘traditional’ knowledge producers such as university researchers). This, we subsequently learned, is both an intentional feature and one that likely substantially impacts upon Edutopia’s popularity. This approach positions Edutopia to strengthen the flow of ideas and strategies from educator to educator, stretching these connections beyond the typical (e.g., team, school, district) boundaries. It is also affirming, we believe, when educators are positioned as experts in their own right, as producers, sharers, and co-constructors of meaningful knowledge. This feature may be particularly resonant in education, a sector in which educators have been sidelined in the policy context, or at least have seen their abilities to influence policy substantially diminished.
Nevertheless, we noted that the Edutopia community was not restricted to one group of stakeholders. Sometimes university researchers, for example, used the platform to share research-based ideas – and, when they did so, they tended to generate much attention. As an example, researcher Nell Duke wrote a blog post entitled “What Doesn’t Work: Literacy Practices We Should Abandon,” an entry that has been shared more than 57,000 times. This level of reach, of course, overshadows by orders of magnitude what typically is achieved when researchers merely publish in (primarily restricted-access) peer-reviewed journals. Reflecting on these findings, in our article’s discussion we encouraged individuals representing multiple stakeholder groups to actively participate on the Edutopia platforms (or similar ones), trusting that these existing networks can be vibrant sites for the two-way exchange of ideas. Such exchanges, in contrast to one-way dissemination methods, are shown by research to be particularly potent in terms of stimulating shifts and new actions. Moreover, as a research team, we share the view that especially powerful learning tends to occur when diverse parties are brought together to exchange, challenge, combine, strengthen, and/or create new ideas and plans.
In terms of ‘what’ type of knowledge is being featured and shared, we witnessed all knowledge types in play to some degree but sensed a preference toward professional wisdom (e.g., educators’ judgments, values, and beliefs: what Aristotle called phronesis). This feature, we believe, relates to educators’ predominance on the Edutopia platform(s), and to the fact that Edutopia is striving to inspire its educator community to implement often complex/challenging changes. In such a context, hearing from educators regarding specifically why (e.g., at the level of values and beliefs) they have made these changes seems quite powerful and important. By way of contrast, more purely ‘scientific’ content was present on Edutopia’s platform, but to a lesser degree and usually in a secondary position.
In general, as Edutopia aims to inspire educators and teams to change their behaviors in particular ways, they can be understood as engaging in knowledge mobilization work. Moreover, they are doing so in innovative and very public ways (e.g., their YouTube ‘strategies’ and ‘schools that work videos’ and their new Twitter chats). We suggest there is more to learn from Edutopia and other knowledge mobilization entities in terms of methods, processes, and impacts.
Taking this all together, we believe we have just scratched the surface in terms of understanding knowledge mobilization in education. Accordingly, Edutopia and other knowledge mobilization entities should be further studied. We suggest those who are interested in facilitating stronger connecting research-practice connections, understanding and better leveraging the flow and spread of improvement ideas, and so forth, would do well to closely examine the specific content that is being shared, and the manner in which it is being shared (e.g., the ‘scenes’ that are being created, in addition to the ‘factual content,’ and the extent to which it persuasively shows both ‘how’ and ‘why’ to do x). Finally, research is needed to more clearly define the ultimate impacts of such material and efforts on professional thoughts, decisions, and actions.
The bottom line is, we know we are not alone in desiring tighter connections between the ‘worlds’ of research and practice. Even more audaciously, we are not alone in wanting humans (including educators) increasingly to be positioned to make decisions that maximize well-being. But if this is what we want, it is just a small step into ‘knowledge mobilization’ work, which may be of special importance in education. Studying, and perhaps strengthening, existing models and networks strikes us as a great way to begin. More specifically, we believe Edutopia and other ‘intermediary’ entities tend to be particularly adept at connecting these disparate worlds. In the best circumstances, these can be sites in which distinct knowledge traditions can be brought into interchange as part of the continued quest to produce and share professionally powerful knowledge.[ii]
[i] George Lucas Educational Foundation. (2017). About us. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/about
[ii] Whitty, G., & Furlong, J. (Eds.). (2017, May). Knowledge and the study of education: An international exploration. Symposium Books Ltd.
About the Authors:
Joel Malin (@JoelMalin) is Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University-Oxford, Ohio. He is interested in understanding and enhancing the connections between research, policy, and educational practice. He can be reached at malinjr@MiamiOH.edu.
Chris Brown (@ChrisBrown1475) is Professor of Education at the University of Portsmouth. His research interests center on how teachers’ use of research and how networks of teachers, academics, and others can lead to improved teaching practice, school improvement, and improved outcomes for children. Chris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Angela St Trubceac is an international doctoral candidate from Moldova, studying educational leadership, culture, and curriculum at Miami University. Her research interests include social studies teachers’ knowledge, perceptions, and experiences of peace education and multiculturalism. Specific to this project, she is interested in understanding and strengthening knowledge exchange activities. She can be reached at email@example.com.