DEVELOPING BRIEFS THAT BRIDGE THE GAP IN UNDERSTANDING AMONG RESEARCHERS AND PRACTITIONERS/POLICYMAKERS

Jessica Holter | Tennessee Education Research Alliance

Education researchers and those in the practice/policy space often do not speak the same language, making it very challenging to build a shared understanding around the findings and implications of important research studies. Researchers tend to focus on how a particular study advances the field, while practitioners and policymakers often want to know how research can inform specific actions to solve pressing problems. This disconnect is one reason why writing a useful research brief is so difficult. In research-practice partnerships (RPPs), where people from different backgrounds with varying types of expertise must work together to advance the aims of all partners involved, this disconnect is especially challenging — but it’s also the ideal place to develop processes for briefs given the collaborative nature of the work.

At the Tennessee Education Research Alliance (TERA), we’ve been partnering with Jeff Archer of Knowledge Design Partners to experiment with structures and processes that better facilitate partnership interactions to result in research briefs that are both useful and clear to all partners. One process to emerge from this work is the “Initial Interview,” a structured conversation with a researcher about the key takeaways from a specific study, guided by a set of questions designed to prompt the researcher to formulate explanations meant for a policymaker or practitioner audience—such as our partners at the Tennessee Department of Education. These interviews are now a crucial step in our process of writing a non-technical research brief based on a technical paper. Here we share how this process came about and more importantly, how it’s helping us engage multiple audiences with our research more effectively.

Continuous Improvement

The Initial Interviews grew out of a realization that our old process for developing briefs was inefficient, and often trying to those involved. As many RPPs do, we struggled with how to communicate research findings in ways that stay true to what the research actually says but that are also accessible and actionable to those whose on-the-ground work we aim to inform. As a result, early TERA briefs would go through endless cycles of revisions with the researchers as TERA graduate students and staff (tasked with actually writing the brief) worked to tease out the important findings and implications from the associated studies. Even still, some of these early briefs did not connect with policymaker/practitioner audiences or clearly provide the value we had hoped they would.

We realized that a potential solution to this problem was for the researcher and the author of the brief to start talking much earlier in the process. Credit for the idea goes to Amber Ravenell, a former TERA graduate assistant. Assigned to write a brief based on a new analysis by Drs. Jason Grissom and Brendan Bartanen on turnover patterns among teachers of color, Amber asked if she could speak to Dr. Grissom before creating a research brief outline. She felt that if he could clarify a few points she had questions about she’d be in a better position to summarize and support the key points (i.e., the earliest version of the Initial Interview).

The resulting brief, when published, was clear and to the point. As references to the brief made their way through social media and news outlets we were also pleased to see that the message that was picked up was often the message we intended. While we certainly wouldn’t attribute all this success to the process we used to develop the brief – the research itself was noteworthy and significant – this part of the process helped get us where we needed to be, and seemed to be more efficient than what we had done previously.

Codifying the Process

Realizing we were on to something, we decided to codify the technique of the Initial Interview, working with Jeff Archer, who has been helping TERA with its communications and knowledge management since we launched three years ago. A former education journalist, Jeff understands the art of the interview. Together, we developed a line of inquiry to guide our discussions with researchers while keeping the needs of our policymaker and practitioner partners present.

We looked closely at several TERA briefs that seemed to get the most traction, reflected on what made these briefs compelling to TERA’s key audiences (e.g., primarily practitioners at TDOE, but also other important state and district education leaders and policymakers), and asked ourselves and our TDOE partners “What are all the things that we need our research briefs to address?” We reasoned that in contrast to academic journal articles that must lay out the argument for the research and detail the research process itself, what matters to policymakers and practitioners are the new insights that can help them think more productively about how to address particular challenges in their work.

Accordingly, we developed a line of inquiry for the Initial Interviews that is structured around the key takeaways that policymakers or practitioners should understand from a particular study or set of studies. To give an example, a key takeaway from Dr. Grissom’s study on turnover among teachers of color is that turnover among Black teachers is especially high when they are racially isolated – that is, when they have few Black teachers as colleagues. This is an important insight for education leaders looking to diversify the teacher workforce.

Most of the guiding questions we use in the Initial Interviews are aimed at clarifying and supporting these key takeaways. For example, we ask how the researcher would explain both the research process and the findings to a non-research audience. We ask them to explain how big or small a difference is in non-statistical terms, and not just how a result should be interpreted, but also how it might be misinterpreted. We even ask them at this early point what kind of visual representation might best convey a finding to someone who’s unfamiliar with statistics.

This new process also helps ensure that by the time we share the briefs, in draft form, with our partners at the state education department, we’ve already wrestled with how to communicate what’s in them to non-research audiences. This enables our partners to focus their reactions and feedback on possible implications from the research instead of trying to also sort out its meaning.

Building Healthy Habits

In addition to helping us develop better briefs more efficiently, this process is now also guiding us in how we facilitate various conversations between policymakers/practitioners and researchers. Indeed, we have since used many of the same questions to ground other conversations outside of the brief process in ways that lead to the shared understanding we seek: Most recently, several TERA researchers presented their topline research findings to new staff at the state education department, and we made sure they addressed questions we ask in the Initial Interview as they crafted their presentations. We do the same when we’re planning new research with the department—always addressing, for example, why the topic is important to study given the Tennessee context. In this way we’re building a habit of healthy and productive discussions that can bridge the gap in understanding among researchers and their policy and practice-focused audiences.

A Work in Progress

While we have made progress toward actionable products, it would be a stretch to say the answers we get in our interviews are so clear and complete that all we have to do is plug them into our brief template in order to create an excellent product. There’s still lots of back and forth both among the brief author, researcher, and TERA and state department leaders as we massage the text and graphics over time. But because of the Initial Interview, we now start from a better place, and all the massaging is aimed at clarifying the answers to the questions we initially posed. Ultimately, what we hope is that this process and its supporting line of inquiry limits the times in which a researcher shares a methodology or a set of findings that may be confusing or less useful to policymaker or practitioner audiences.

Still, we have a long way to go and more to learn. With each brief and each conversation, we’re continuously learning about what we need to ask, and how to ask it, to prompt the right discussion. We’re improving our techniques and our tools as we go. And we are learning that we still need to better communicate what we’re after, and why, to our researchers and to TERA staff and others who help us in developing briefs.

Your Ideas and Feedback

On that note, as we look to improve, we’d love to hear from other RPPs how they are addressing this challenge. What strategies do you use to facilitate conversations that build a shared understanding among researchers and their partners in your organization? What are you thinking of trying? We shared our tools at a session at the NNERPP Annual Forum this year (you can find them all here, plus the slides from the presentation we did with Jeff Archer from KDP). If you have questions or ideas about them, please let us know (jessica.l.holter@Vanderbilt.edu and jeff@knowledgedesign.org)! The more we exchange, the more we all learn how to build the shared understanding that’s essential for our work.

Jessica Holter is Research Manager at the Tennessee Education Research Alliance

NNERPP | EXTRA is a quarterly magazine produced by the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships  |  nnerpp.rice.edu