The Bridge Between Theory and Practice

It’s been wonderful and fascinating–and frustrating–to be based out of the globally-recognized research facility, Utrecht University.

Utrecht University

I’m positioned in the Martinus J. Langeveldgebouw (The Langeveld Building) which houses CAS (Child and Adolescent Studies); in less than a month I’ll be giving a keynote address to the professors, PhD candidates and more about the work I’ve been doing. It’s an intimidating audience. Here’s why:

I’ve been walking this new line between researcher and practitioner since I’ve been here in Utrecht. Mostly, people have been confused: researchers in the halls have asked how my numbers and data sets are coming along (I don’t have them–except the numbers of listeners of the podcast) and teachers I’ve visited wonder how my classes are going (which is when I tell them that I’m just trying to interview individual students). I admire both points of view. The researcher, the people with whom I share the Langeveldgebouw, studies the data and reports on it. That’s all. She will write what the numbers tell her. Often, they are inconclusive. Even seemingly concrete findings, they are forced to admit, depend on many variables. So, if a practitioner reads a research report, it will certainly read that while one researched idea seems to be true, it also depends on a number of variables. Research, it seems, rarely ends in friendly and easy how-to instructions.

The practitioner is stuck in the trenches, too-often ignoring the new research. Sure, the practitioner claims there is no time (and, perhaps, that’s true–perhaps a systemic change is needed to allow [or force] the practitioner to keep reading research), but reading the researcher’s work is vital to the growth of our profession–and, of course, benefits the students. I know this problem very well. Since finishing my Master’s degree in education ten years ago, my attention to research has had to be very intentional. I could go my entire career–easily–without paying attention to new research, only accept the district-provided professional development.

So, the aim of my upcoming keynote is to communicate what both sides need.

  • The researcher must aim toward clear and concise recommendations. The practitioner, I think, will only pay attention if it’s practical and if it’s direct. It’s fine to admit that the recommendation has flaws, but it’s important to be clear when there is enough research to call it a recommendation. Sitting on the fence, to point out that there are many disadvantages as well as advantages to a decision, doesn’t end up getting us  much practical change. It makes the practitioner hesitant to adapt.
  • The practitioner must be ready to change and review. It’s critical to consider that all of our choices are temporary, that best practice is always changing based on the evidence and recommendations found by the researcher. Then, after implementing a new idea, we must be open to rigorous review. We must constantly ask this: “Is it working?” And, if it’s not, we must change again. If it is, we must share our successes with other practitioners.

Here’s the crux: time.

I know teachers. I know they’re already swamped with planning/teaching/assessing curriculum and running extracurriculars groups.

I know researchers. They’re conducting research and writing grants and supervising PhD candidates.

Time stands in the way. It’s grants like this Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching that allows me, I hope, to be a bridge–through the upcoming keynote–where I will have the opportunity to tell researchers what practitioners need. Then, when I get back to West Michigan, I’ll look to share with teachers the need to keep reading research to hone our practice.

Both researchers and practitioners are critical: without the other, neither can be effective.

6 thoughts on “The Bridge Between Theory and Practice

  1. Fulbright award gives the time and support to make a stop in the teaching path to rethink, value and fall in love again with our vocation . Furthermore, stepping out of our zone and town, living abroad teaches so many valuable lessons about our life, culture, country and many more and also in the process we learn to love it all and also fall in love with a new country that will be in our hearts forever. I enjoy a lot that you and your family are loving this. I was in love with Netherlands, Rotterdam was superb and every little town and market.


  2. David, here’s my take. For a practitioner to keep up with research, not only do they need time (to read the research, to figure out how to utilize the research into their practice, and to practice the new information) but they need to be internally motivated to spend that time. My internal motivators are curiosity and my love of self-growth. I want to learn more about teaching and theater because I get bored doing the same old thing all the time. But the educational system in the US doesn’t do well teaching self-motivation or curiosity. So a lot of teachers, besides their lack of time, just don’t have the motivation to research, change, and grow. Outside entities can try to force this with required educational units, but such requirements won’t make the horse drink. Until we start helping people to learn what sparks their joy, and teaching them that it is pleasurable to seek this joy, grow, and change, things are going to stay the way they are.


  3. Definitely what is needed are these bridges. (Researchers also need a more practical sense of what their research tells them. A purely quantitative article with no quantitative is so hard to apply.) In the math circles, Dan Meyer (a teacher who went back for a PhD and leads the teaching side of Desmos) stirred up a fuss this week with his post:

    The dichotomy you’re talking about is at the heart of it. Dan often finds challenging ways to express ideas; “teachers need fewer ideas about teaching” is surely challenging. Does he mean they need a better model for learning? I’d sign up for that. I’m not convinced the answer will come from researchers, who are usually working on a different question. I want to ask teachers what they want to know, and get researchers to respond. And education research should have an abstract and a concrete. The concrete could be what a teacher might gain from this research for their classroom.


  4. Thank you for this post. I understand your point completely as a teacher in a Boston Public School for 13 years. What I have come to realize on my Fulbright in India is that practitioners like myself and researchers need to come together to work on solutions. It seems to me that so much of both practioners and researchers are working in silos. I met with a researcher today and we came up with a plan to work together. I use her research to “test” it on the ground and she uses it in her research to inform her conclusions. Too often we forget to work together.


  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, David! I’d love to talk to you more about this in the lead up to or after your talk. My current answer to the research-practice divide in education is some form of Designed Based Implementation Research (DBIR). (check out the video at As I understand it, a DBIR partnership is basically a long standing, highly collaborative cross institutional space where researchers work with schools/districts (everyone from leadership to teachers) in designing educational environments, in teaching and learning in those environments, in studying that teaching and learning, in iterating on all of that, and in reflecting on the whole process. Bill Penuel who is in that video will be visiting UU in May. I’ve worked a little bit with him and his colleagues in Denver and Boulder on the the Inquiry Hub project at CU. Though the work at Inquiry Hub is mostly focused on high school science teaching and learning, my sense is that the general DBIR model really makes a ton of sense for both researchers hoping for impact and practitioners hoping for more research informed teaching. Thanks again for this post! Fortunately we will get a chance to talk more about this soon.


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