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August 22, 2019
Vol. 14
No. 34

Putting Applied Research to Work in Your School or District

Leadership of schools and districts through applied research means that you invite colleagues, staff members, and other educational stakeholders to think and strategize together in focused and emergent ways. Engaging in applied research within communities of practice that examine themselves and their organization by taking an inquiry stance on their practice empowers education leaders, and the educators they lead, to "speak back" to top-down policies with viable alternatives that are based in locally collected and analyzed data.

What Is Applied Research

Primary goals of applied research include solving problems of practice and supporting effective professional development in real-world settings. Applied research involves a series of interconnected processes that inform one another, as indicated by the bidirectional arrows in Figure 1. These processes do not necessarily occur in a sequential order and often overlap or occur simultaneously.

Figure 1. The Elements of Applied Research

For more details about our applied research approach, see our book Applied Research for Sustainable Change: A Guide for Education Leaders (Harvard Education Press, 2019).

Steps of Applied Research

Applied research projects begin with a question, problem, or timely topic. A research topic can develop in multiple ways. For example, one high school principal, Damon, noticed that 16 percent of students were consistently late to school. Once you have the topic, your research can follow a familiar (though iterative) pattern.

Form a Research Team

To help Damon better understand tardiness, he reached out to teachers he thought would be interested (and have time) to learn more about this issue. Together, he and four teachers (who were chosen in part because they represented different subjects, years of experience, and social identities) met frequently and operated as a community of practice—that is, an engaged group of colleagues working together to improve a part of their institutional practice or environment. The team worked to understand the causes of students' lateness and to learn from the students and families what could support them to be on time. This same issue could be developed into a research project by a district leadership team. Either way, for this research to be sustainable more than a few people should be conducting the research so that it's genuinely a collaboration in which the work, insights, and recommendations are cogenerated.

Develop Research Questions

The research team begins by collaboratively developing research questions it will answer through the research. While doing this, the team reviews existing knowledge to better understand the issues. Existing knowledge includes school-based data and documents, scholarly literature, prior research, relevant news, and social media. The team can review existing knowledge a research project, not just at the beginning. Having multiple team members allows for simultaneous review and sharing of these sources, which cuts down on any one individual's searching and reading time. After the team develops the research questions and reviews relevant research, it's time to design an applied research project that answers your guiding questions.

Design Research and Collect Data

The choice of research participants—meaning the individuals you will interview, survey, observe, or otherwise connect to the data collected for the study—is a design decision to discuss as a group. The team must plan for considerations both representational (which stakeholder groups to include or exclude and why) and ethical (what constitutes confidentiality and how to ensure it) during research design. Which individuals and groups will be included? How many from each group and why? What perspectives are marginal and need to be centralized? Where is there nuanced experience? Who are the outliers and what can we learn from them? A range of decisions go into applied research design, including
  • The types of data to be collected (such as interviews, focus groups, surveys, observational field notes, student and teacher work, and existing quantitative metrics).
  • The timeline for collecting data (such as one month, one semester, or an entire year).
  • A plan for analyzing data (such as dividing up the data into manageable chunks, discussing themes that emerge from the data).
  • Strategies for validating data (such as having multiple data sources and multiple interviewers).
  • The types of research participants (such as what constituencies are important to understanding a diversity of perspectives on the issue).
In addition, the team decides the scope of the research in terms of which methods to choose for which groups, who develops the data collection protocols, is there a need for interview training by someone in the group with prior research experience? These decisions happen as a group so that you get requisite input and buy-in from multiple perspectives.

Analyze Processes and Disseminate Findings

After collecting and analyzing data as a group (analytic tasks are also divided for sake of time), the team discusses themes and learnings in full, often in multiple professional development sessions. Then, the team presents a summary of the findings in a report or presentation, ideally to the whole community, and invites relevant stakeholders to help determine action steps based on the research results. Knowledge sharing within broader stakeholder groups is a main way that the work of these teams becomes visible. Structuring professional and community development activities around the findings is one way to feed the learning from applied research back into the organization. This kind of knowledge transfer is vital so that the learning is neither shelved nor minimally shared.

Why You Should Try Applied Research

Damon and his applied research team were able to develop collaborative solutions to their school's tardiness problem based on local data, in this case from specifically engaging with students and families. By demonstrating a willingness to listen to these stakeholders, Damon noticed that students and families seemed more receptive to participating in other aspects of the school because they knew their ideas would be taken seriously.
Conducting applied research helps education leaders make contextually relevant and informed decisions that lead to more holistic and effective approaches to student learning, psychosocial development, capacity building, and professional development in schools and districts so that the strategies better meet the needs of students, teachers, staff, and communities. Educational leaders' ability to model critical self-reflection through collaborative research leads to positive changes in school and district culture that have a ripple effect on transparency, collaboration, and relational trust. This, in turn, contributes to your credibility, professionalism, and efficacy as a leader.

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