Ten Simple Rules for Being a Good Educational Research Partner

This is a companion to last year's rules for academic-industry research partnerships.

Half a century ago, C.P. Snow decried the gulf between the two cultures of science and humanities; today, there is just as great a divide between researchers and practitioners in education. This is particularly frustrating to those of us who work in free-range settings such as grassroots get-into-coding initiatives, since we would be able to adopt new ideas more quickly than teachers in institutional settings, if only we knew what to adopt. I hope these ten simple rules will help to bridge this gulf, or at least mitigate the frustration it creates.

If You Do Education Research

1. Remember that teachers have to teach.

In the time it takes a researcher to write a grant proposal, most teachers have to deliver dozens of lessons. They cannot simply put students on hold (as much as they may sometimes want to), and they cannot give your work more than a few scattered hours of attention. Discuss timescales and time loads with your in-school partners early, and be understanding about both.

2. Ask, then tell.

One of the fundamental rules of teaching is, "You are not your learners." If you are a researcher, it is just as important for you to remember that you are not like your research subjects. Before you design a study or begin a round of interviews, take some time to get to know the teachers and students you will be working with, to find out what their actual problems are, and to learn what they would consider a solution.

3. Value action over insight.

Most teachers' goal is not to understand the world, but to change it, so "we know X" is much less useful to them than "we can do Y". When presenting your findings, you should therefore focus on how someone might act on it. One way to do this is to add slides titled, "What Difference Does It Make?" at strategic points in your presentations. If you can't think of what to put on them, you may want to rethink the focus of your research.

Equally, understanding doesn't have to be complete in order to be actionable. You may need to hedge conclusions with qualifiers in order to get your work past Reviewer #3, but those "maybes" and "howevers" can and should be omitted if they don't change what teachers should try next. When in doubt, never hesitate to sacrifice detail for clarity.

4. Publish in open-access venues.

Research is of no use to teachers who cannot easily find it and read it. "Easily" is the key word here: Jimmy Wales may never actually have said, "Open information drives out closed," but with so much freely available on the Internet, any paywall or login barrier put between you and your hoped-for audience will send most people elsewhere. More importantly, these barriers send a clear signal that you do not care if practitioners read your work or not.

If You Are a Teacher

5. Remember that researchers have to publish.

Researchers are not given grants or tenure for doing things that are "merely useful"; they are rewarded and promoted for publishing, publishing, and publishing. For all the jokes practitioners make about the ivory tower, academic life is hard, uncertain, and poorly paid. People do it for the love of new knowledge; respect their priorities, and try to be understanding about their arcane rituals.

6. Remember that researchers have to do many other things as well.

Academic researchers are almost always multi-tasking, and many of those tasks are things they've never been trained to do. As students, they juggle several courses at once (which effectively means that they answer to several bosses who don't communicate with each other). Later, they are responsible for teaching, writing grant proposals, and administrative duties. Collectively, this mean that their "work week" is only a few hours long, and that they will often appear to move at a snail's pace. Be as sympathetic as you can–they are even less happy with the situation than you are.

7. Do your reading.

H.L. Mencken wrote, "There is always a well-known solution to every human problem---neat, plausible, and wrong." Your problem is almost certainly one of those, and is almost certainly more complex than you first realize. While researchers should sacrifice detail for clarity, you should make an effort to grasp at least some of that detail so that you don't waste time reinventing wheels and so that your research partner can think, work, and talk at full speed.

8. Don't overstate what has been learned.

The "maybes" and "howevers" that researchers are so fond of do sometimes matter; if your research partner has found that spaced practice in athletics seems to reduce the amount of peer aggression in adolescents, do not embarrass them by claiming that they have discovered a cure for bullying.

For Both

9. Apologize in advance for the state of your data.

Files' names and locations, the meanings of column headers in tables, how those tables relate to one another, how missing values are represented and handles: everything that has made sense to you for years will suddenly seem a little foolish when you have to explain it to someone else. Apologize in advance, and then forgive yourself, because no matter how bad your data is, theirs may well be worse.

10. Apologize in advance for your institution's rules.

Individual schools and universities may be small, but both are always part of something larger, and as James Scott pointed out in Seeing Like a State, large institutions always favor uniformity over productivity. There will inevitably be times when you and your collaborators know what the right thing to do is, and aren't allowed to do it. Take a deep breath, re-watch Terry Gilliam's Brazil, and remind yourself that this too shall pass.


An old proverb says, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." Teachers and researchers can each do great things on their own, but both are better able to solve big problems–problems that really matter–if they find ways to work together.

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