Mistrust: An Obstacle Standing in Between Research and Practice

Mistrust: An Obstacle Standing in Between Research and Practice

The journey of evidence-based practices to the summit of classroom implementations is arduous, and sometimes unpredictable. Multiple barriers and hazards stand in the road from identification of researchable needs to demonstration of classroom impact. The barriers include: environmental contexts, intervention characteristics, research designs, ineffective professional development, and mutual distrust[1][2]. Of them all, perhaps mistrust is a critical reason for the persistent and historic gap between researchers and practitioners[3].  It certainly influences researcher-practitioner relationships in ways that are not helpful.

Of the many sources of researcher-practitioner distrust, one arises from the very different goals and schema the communities bring to their interactions. Researchers often address theoretical questions that are not directly linked to problems of practice. Practitioners want answers to concrete problems they face in their classrooms today, this week, this month, this year. When they meet, researchers and practitioners often talk past each other as happens in the encounters of people from very different cultures. Researchers are frustrated that practitioners seem not to appreciate the power of evidence-based generalizations. Practitioners think researchers fail to see that generalities don’t apply to daily challenges of teaching.

Although sharing, communicating, and implementing are mutual responsibilities of both communities, researchers must hold themselves accountable for building trust of practitioners in evidence-based practices. Researchers might benefit from thinking of schools as small cultures, and relate to teachers as observantly and sensitively as they would to those from a unfamiliar culture and language group. Some practical suggestions researchers might use to build trust are:

  • Cultivate and maintain relationships: As researchers, school-based practitioners may view us as “outsiders,” entering their protected spheres only to relay abstract information that may or may not be useful to them. Barriers to familiarity and trust can be broken down by having ongoing interactions and engagement with practitioners prior to research requests and throughout implementation, as well as follow-up. Attend a school event or engage frequently via email or social media, in an effort to increase visibility and familiarity.
  • Identify key contacts: There is often a chain of command within large school districts and universities, therefore identifying the go-to people is key to overall communications and navigation of structures.
  • Assume good intent: Another barrier of research to practice is translation. School-based practitioners may not fully understand the means and/or use of any given intervention, which may result in the rejection of an idea or intervention. This should not be viewed as an unwillingness to cooperate or welcome new ideas, but rather an opportunity to translate your research in more classroom-applicable terms.
  • Establish credibility: Show that you understand the school you are working with and understand their needs.
  • Stay present during transitions: You may have been familiar with the 2015-2016 school administration, but now the principal, assistant principal and guidance counselor have left. Maintaining trust in an environment where players constantly change poses a touch challenge. Stay present when the new administrative personnel arrive and indicate to your contacts leaving that you want to maintain a relationship with the school/district. Old administrative personnel can help broker new relationships.

Bridging gaps between research and practice require human solutions, more than theoretical convictions and methodological virtuosity. The road from research evidence to classroom use is navigated by multiple, continuous acts of artful implementation. No matter how powerful a research finding is, it must be fitted to many different local contexts. Researchers engaging with practitioners insures better fits will be made. In addition to the satisfaction of seeing their research made use of, working in trustful relationships with practitioners creates opportunities for researchers to discover new research puzzles to investigate.

To learn more about the 5 ways to build trust, check out our tip sheet!


[1] Foster, R. (2014). Barriers and Enablers to Evidence-Based Practices. Kairaranga. 15: 50-58.

[2] Glasgow, R. E., & Emmons, K. M. (2007). How can we increase translation of research into practice? Types of evidence needed. Annual Review of Public Health, 28, 413-433. doi: 10.1146/annurev.publhealth.28.021496.144145.

[3] Neal, J. W., Neal, Z. P., Kornbluh, M., Mills, K. J. and Lawlor, J. A. (2015), Brokering the Research–Practice Gap: A typology. American Journal of Community Psychology, 56: 422–435. doi:10.1007/s10464-015-9745-8

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