The Research-Practice Divide is Real. Here's How To Overcome It.

Research Practice Divide
The research practice divide is an ongoing problem in education. Professor Torrey Trust shares tips on how teachers and researchers might work together to solve it. (Image credit: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

All too often education research is chronically absent from the classroom. According to a 2019 survey, only about 16 percent of teachers use research to inform their practice decisions. 

Torrey Trust, professor of Learning Technology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, devotes time to understanding the causes of the research-practice divide and has developed strategies that classroom educators and researchers can implement to overcome it. 

Here are some key takeaways from that work. 

Why Is There a Research-Practice Divide?  

“Far too often scholars conduct research in K-12 schools as ‘outside experts’ who come in and collect data and analyze it,” Trust says. “They rarely collaborate with K-12 teachers during the research process. Then, they take that data from K-12 schools and publish their work in top-tier scholarly journals, which often hide research articles behind paywalls that K-12 teachers do not have access to or cannot afford.” 

These papers are then presented at academic conferences for other scholars, not K-12 teachers, Trust says. 

On the other side of the equation, while teachers do receive some training in analyzing research, they often don’t have the time to sift through jargon-filled articles. 

“I really think there is a need for teacher-education programs to incorporate opportunities for current and future teachers to learn how to critically read and examine research,” she says. “Otherwise, we end up with schools promoting things like growth mindset, grit, and learning styles, and making purchasing decisions without realizing the research on these topics is fallible." 

What Can Teachers Do Right Now to Bridge The Research-Practice Divide? 

“I'd recommend that K-12 teachers select a topic they are interested in, like maybe ChatGPT in education, then go to Google Scholar and setup an alert to get an email when a new study is published on that topic,” Trust says. “I do this for several topics and it's amazing to have the research just pop up in my inbox rather than having to go look for it.” 

Trust adds that educators can learn a lot even if they just read the titles and abstracts that are included in the Google Scholar Alert emails.

Beyond this, more can be done to support teachers as they try to stay on top of the latest research. “I think that educators need time, training, and support to learn how to critically read research and determine if/how to change their practice based on the research they read,” she says. “This could be done in research-based professional learning communities within schools or districts.” 

What Can Researchers Do?  

While there are many different steps researchers can take to better disseminate their work, the first step Trust advises is also the easiest. “Write titles and abstracts for journal articles that are easy to understand,” she says. “Oftentimes, K-12 teachers just look at those two aspects of a journal, especially if it is behind a paywall. I see far too many research articles published with super-long, jargony titles that do not sound appealing at all to read, but actually have really important information for teachers.” 

Next, Trust suggests researchers look for ways to present their work at conferences that K-12 teachers attend, such as ISTE, NSTA, NCTE, and CUE, as well as through webinars. They should also promote their work on social media and by writing practitioner-focused articles or blog posts. 

“I try to publish my work in at least one top-tier journal because it's looked highly upon by my colleagues and university, and then I try to write either a practitioner-oriented journal article, an open access journal article that all K-12 teachers have access to, or a blog or other type of post to share the work broadly,” she says. “I know a lot of scholars don't like self-promoting, but it is really essential to get their work out more broadly.” 

What Are Other Ways to Foster More Collaboration Between Classroom Teachers and Researchers? 

Because education is so context-specific, even a “proven” teaching method might not work in certain instances. 

“For example, a new digital tool works, but only in a class where all students have Chromebooks and high-speed wifi at home,” Trust says. “So, even if a research study says something works, it might not work for every K-12 teacher. That can be a point of frustration if K-12 teachers are turning to research for advice.” 

She adds, “I think, to remedy this, we need all K-12 teachers to become active researchers who collect data from their own classes and work with scholars at local universities to analyze, make sense of, and publish the data. This keeps K-12 teachers in the loop, empowers them to become researchers, and starts to bridge the research-practice divide.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.