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Problems of Practice

What are key considerations when launching a researcher-practitioner partnership?

Key Takeaways

  • Researchers can be found in many places right in your community, among your own staff, parents/families, non-profit organizations, and local universities.
  • Clear, shared expectations are the foundation of a successful partnership. Partners should explicitly set and review expectations together.
  • Open, regular communication about the partnership itself, as well as the measurement work being done, doesn’t have to be overwhelming or needlessly time-consuming. Consider the type of communication that best fits the need at the time, and plan a variety of communication frequencies and modes.
Three people talking with each other at meeting room table


Determining if you need a researcher or practitioner partner is a key step to ensuring successful measurement to inform and improve blended learning practices**. However, starting a new partnership can be daunting. Adding one more thing to an already lengthy “to-do” list isn’t very motivating, especially when you’re not sure where to even begin.

TLA recently concluded two researcher-practitioner partnerships (RPPs), with Distinctive Schools and Leadership Public Schools (LPS). You can read about the lessons we learned from those partnerships and the findings from LPS’ Navigate Math initiative.

Fortunately, entering into an RPP can often help you get more things done. These are three simple steps to setting up a partnership that will work for you, whether you are the practitioner or the researcher.

Where to begin?

Educators and researchers typically encounter each other infrequently. The people working to gather evidence, particularly formal researchers, are often not working continuously with those closest to implementation. Because of this, neither group knows exactly where to turn when they need input from the other group. So, where should you look when you have a need to engage in a researcher-practitioner partnership?

Contrary to popular belief, school systems do not need large-scale, long, expensive, randomized control trials to answer the questions they have of their data. Educators can start by searching within, and making opportunities openly known to, their local community. With any luck, education researchers – such as staff members pursuing graduate degrees – may exist amongst current staff. Failing that, there may be education researchers among the parents of their students or on their school board. Local education nonprofits – both service providers and philanthropies – may also be a source of education research capacity. Local colleges and universities, especially those that house teacher training programs, are replete with education researchers. Much like universities, private research organizations are filled with education researchers. If you do not have access to any of these sources locally or regionally, there are even companies that engage in partnerships like these nationally. In a few cases, the developers of educational technology software that you use in your school provide support like this (and you might even already be paying for it!).

On the flip side, researchers can also usually find local practitioner partners. Starting with nearby schools increases the chances that your research interests and the school’s research needs are aligned. Often, it is helpful to identify the school system’s office or department of research (if there is one) to see if the system has an Institutional Review Board (IRB) or any other external research processes and procedures. Finally, talking with district and campus leaders about the research you do may unearth alignment between your interests and their needs.

How to manage the work?

One of the keys to a well-functioning partnership is mutually understood, shared expectations. Partners should be explicit at the outset of any project launch about their expectations of roles, responsibilities, effort, and compensation (whatever form that may take). TLA and LPS chose to document these shared expectations through a work plan that was developed early in the partnership. While this work plan is simple, we were careful to discuss in what form and how to share findings, lessons learned, and other content developed through the partnership.

It is likely that both researchers and practitioners will want to share their work with different audiences, so publications and media should include both “academic” ones like journals as well as “practice” ones like blogs and whitepapers. Presentations, for example, can occur at both research- and practice-oriented conferences. In our RPPs with Distinctive and LPS, meeting the expectations of both partners included sharing the tools we developed and the findings from the projects. The teams agreed that all project outputs would be reviewed and approved by both partners, released under an open license (CC BY), and that each partner would be attributed on all public documentation.

Ongoing routines

RPPs require ongoing, consistent communications to be successful. Partners should identify and agree on methods of communication, answering shared questions like: “how will we communicate between scheduled conversations?”, “will we use email or adopt a project management tool like Basecamp, Asana, or Slack?”, and “who needs to be included on which communications, and when?” Project leads should also consider formats for organizing and sharing knowledge (e.g., through a shared folder). A “before action review” process can include these questions and others that set both expectations and procedures for communication throughout the project.


Meetings, in particular, are an integral, though sometimes loathed, aspect of communication within partnerships. In order to make your meetings productive, consider all of the different avenues available to you. Communications and meetings can take place in person or online, through working meetings or status updates, and can be primarily for decision-making or for information sharing. Each of these meeting types has different value at different points in a project. In addition to setting times for sharing work, open communication involves developing processes for sharing or accessing data across partners, answering each others’ questions, as well as surfacing and resolving challenges within the partnership. In our RPP with Distinctive Schools, one of the tools we used for open communication was a meeting agenda that always included one to three key goals for the meeting, lessons learned from the discussion, and concluded with a reflection and restating of next steps from each meeting participant.

Take it further

After you've launched a researcher-practitioner partnership, you may want to establish a formal process for continuously improving the partnership itself. This should be determined with your research partner and should include mechanisms for revisiting your measurement goals and routines. After a measurement project (or stage) ends, conduct an end-of-project review and document lessons learned so that the next project/stage can benefit.

Additional resources

You might find the following resources helpful in funding or otherwise supporting your measurement to improve and inform teaching and learning practices: