The Marshall Memo: Knowledge Movement in K-12 Education
Joel and Vijay have recently completed a case study which aimed to understand Kim Marshall’s signature product, The Marshall Memo, and Mr. Marshall’s processes in relation to it. It has just been published by the International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership. In this blog post, Joel and Vijay describe key findings and explain why they view brokerage in education as crucially important.
Motivating us—and many others—is the conviction that, still all too often, helpful research and professional ideas are out there, but such knowledge is not reaching educators when needed. Moreover, it’s becoming increasingly clear that tangible teaching and learning improvements can result from strengthening research-practice connections.[i] Several formidable barriers stand in the way, [ii] though certain people and organizations have found ways to at least partially address them. Mr. Kim Marshall, by way of his weekly The Marshall Memo, provides one such high-profile example and therefore became the focus of our research. The Marshall Memo resides in the super important but often overlooked ‘in-between’ space in education, mediating between research and practice contexts. Going in, we hoped a close look at Mr. Marshall and his Memo might help us to unlock some secrets about this space.
What is The Marshall Memo?
By Marshall’s calculations, The Marshall Memo is the third largest US-based education publication. Described by Marshall as education’s The Week, it is “A Weekly Round-Up of Important Ideas and Research in K-12 Education.” Marshall subscribes to 60+ publications and each week scans through many articles, ultimately selecting for summary “5-10 that have the greatest potential to improve teaching, leadership, and learning.” Mr. Marshall describes himself as “designated reader” for his subscribers, mostly K-12 educators—it costs $50 for an individual subscription. The Marshall Memo has been published nearly every week since 2003.
What Problems is it Aimed to Address?
Marshall, we learned, is particularly focused on helping educators address commonly expressed issues related to time, access, and relevance:
- “I [had] a strong feeling that most people in schools don’t have time to read.”
- “trying…to bridge this gap between the very busy 24-7 world…and all this great literature that is out there.”
- Marshall aims to create “intellectually responsible” summaries that capture “the essence of [the material] in (about) ¼ of the words”
- “the good stuff…is so widely scattered” [and, sometimes inaccessible]
- “I want my readers to have access to every good piece of educational thinking or practice or research….”
- “I lean heavily toward practical versus theoretical, actionable versus policy-oriented”
- (when selecting material, I ask) “does this message make sense to a principal? Is it helpful? Is it something that they should be thinking about?”
- Educators frequently reported certain Memo features (e.g., concise reporting, links to original articles) enabled them to further investigate ideas/topics they deemed most applicable. Said one, “it is a good jumping off point.”
- Marshall aims to underscore relevance, for instance by writing as concisely “and…vividly as possible – including stories, good quotes, and results on student learning where possible.”
Mr. Marshall pointed to a Cult of Pedagogy article he had highlighted to illustrate what he appreciates. In that article, author Jennifer Gonzalez described how, when teachers have a couple eager discussion participators, they may incorrectly believe it was an overall success. Gonzalez described her own prior struggles in the area, then introduced several strategies for generating broad, meaningful discussions.
After also reviewing subscriber survey results, we conclude Marshall and the Memo are indeed being appreciated for their role in ameliorating issues related to time, access, and relevance.
What, Specifically, is Included in The Marshall Memo?
As a starting point for analyzing the Memo’s content, we relied on a knowledge mobilization framework developed by Ward[iii] – this framework is organized around four simple questions, concerning why, whose, what type/s, and how knowledge is moved. First, we considered both what and whose knowledge Marshall featured. A key claim for Marshall is that he is comprehensive in his search and selection—i.e., he exhaustively scours the ‘infoglut’ for education-relevant knowledge to feature. Marshall thereby is positioned such that his ‘eye’ is crucial, which he appreciates—in fact, he believes this is “what people are paying for. They’re trusting that my eye…is a good eye.” [We agree. More on that below]. Analyzing several months’ Memos, we found Marshall to incorporate multiple types of knowledge, drawing from a variety of sources, aiming to positively influence practice. He did not solely draw from ‘research studies;’ instead he drew from a variety of materials including newspaper op-eds and blog posts. As noted earlier, he particularly focused on selecting material that he appraised as practical and actionable within school-based contexts.
What Positions Mr. Marshall to Serve as a Major Educational Knowledge Broker?
Marshall is a longtime K-12 educator and, since retiring, has continued to be highly active providing consulting services. He also has written extensively regarding educational topics. We suspect he is trusted to fulfill this role largely based upon these experiences and the positive impressions he has made on educators. Indeed, it stands to reason that a person with deep, longstanding experience in education would possess strong insights into what is practical, feasible, what is likely to be appealing, what is new/different, etc. The expertise Marshall brings to bear probably cannot be overstated. Applying a critical perspective, though, we need to bear in mind that knowledge brokering is not neutral, and therefore it is likely Marshall (like any other knowledge broker) is predisposed favorably toward some perspectives and away from others. Reflecting on his preferences, for instance, Mr. Marshall indicates he “leans heavily toward action, closing the achievement gap, [and] solutions.” As one can imagine, another person might lean differently—e.g., toward theory, toward different ‘problems’ and therefore different ‘solutions,’ and so forth.
Okay…But So What?
The ‘so-what(s)’, we believe, depend on your position and your interests:
If you are an educational researcher, we believe our study has provided a close-up look at educational brokerage in action and can inform ongoing theory building. Related, the study provides some insights into how educational research and ideas (in mediated form) can make their way to educators. As well, we have demonstrated a research design that could be emulated by others, perhaps ideally in multiple case study formats.
For knowledge brokers, this study may provide important insights into strategies that are being valued by many educators. We believe brokers would be well advised, like Marshall, to clearly identify problems they aim to solve, then design their ‘solutions’ based upon theories of action regarding how to address them. Our study also exposed what was primarily a dissemination-focused approach (information flowed primarily in one direction: from Marshall, to subscribing educators), whereas we challenge Marshall and others to consider ways to facilitate knowledge exchange and provide a few ideas for how that might occur. From separate research, we know interactive exchange strategies are more likely to inspire research-based action.[iv]
Finally, for educators, this article highlights the important function of those who reside in education’s mediation context and to enhance practice in some way. We encourage educators to seek these individuals/entities out vigorously but with due caution, considering their backgrounds and motivations and ultimately aiming to discern what information one might obtain through various options. For instance, an educator might ask:
- What are the qualities of content that is being included, and is material about certain topics or expressing certain perspectives being excluded?
- Is the featured knowledge enhancing my professional thinking? If so, how? If not, what might be missing?
- If I detect some bias in terms of content coverage but still wish to rely upon this person/source, can I attempt to counterbalance by also including some other source/s?
As a bottom line, educators may ask about any such product, “Why should I read this?” In the case of The Marshall Memo, key attractive features appear to be that: 1) it casts a uniquely wide net; 2) it favors ‘actionable’ material; and 3) it is concise – designed to be consumed in just 20 minutes. Behind all this, it is educators’ trust in Marshall—in his ability to find and highlight useful research and professional material—that makes the Memo viable.
We hope this blog post has interested you, and that you will check out our full article to learn more! Please also feel free to reach out with any questions or comments. We’d love to hear from you.
[i] Goldacre, B. (2013) Building evidence into education. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/news/building-evidence-into-education
[ii] Lysenko, L. V., Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Dagenais, C., & Janosz, M. (2014). Educational research in educational practice: Predictors of use. Canadian Journal of Education/Revue canadienne de l’education, 37(2), 1-26.
[iii] Ward, V. (2017). Why, whose, what and how? A framework for knowledge mobilisers. Evidence & Policy, 13(3), 477-497.
[iv] Levin, B. (2013). To know is not enough: research knowledge and its use. Review of Education, 1, 2–31.
About the Authors:
Joel Malin (@JoelMalin) is Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University-Oxford, Ohio. He is very interested in understanding and enhancing the connections between research, policy, and educational practice. He can be reached at malinjr@MiamiOH.edu.
Vijay K. Paralkar is a PhD student in the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University-Oxford, Ohio. His interests in academics, research, and practice include college student wellness, deliberative policies and practices in education, and improving college teaching and learning. He can be reached at paralkvk@miamiOH.edu.