How to be a Marco Polo of education research, policy and practice

By Melissa Mouthaan and José Manuel Torres
Education Analysts at the OECD

Key insights:

  Education research, policy and practice are often disconnected and isolated from each other.

– We need stronger incentives to promote engagement and dialogue across these domains.

– To bridge the gaps, we need to foster a culture of collaboration through “learning” and “leading” to improve education.

Education research, policy and practice are often seen as separate worlds that do not interact much. There are many reasons for this divide. Different goals, values, methods and languages can shift these worlds apart. These divisions raise a fundamental question: is this separation beneficial or could a more integrated approach lead to better outcomes?

Stay in your lane?

At first glance, the argument for keeping these worlds separate seems compelling. Teachers, armed with specialised pedagogical training, should focus on the classroom, where their expertise directly impacts students. Researchers should concentrate on producing high-quality studies. Policy makers, meanwhile, need to balance the needs and interests of different stakeholders and make decisions.

However, evidence suggests that this siloed approach is unsatisfactory. For example, just 30% of education systems that responded to the Strengthening the Impact of Education Research policy survey are satisfied with the extent to which practitioners use research. What education systems need are more Marco Polos – the famous 13th century merchant – to help bridge divides between research, policy and practice in the same way he pioneered interactions between Europe and Asia.

Greater collaboration and communication between these communities would have many benefits. Teachers can enhance their practices by accessing the latest research findings. This would require them having research literacy and time to engage with the findings. Researchers can learn about the challenges that teachers and policy makers face to gain a better understanding of their needs and tailor their projects. Policy makers can have greater engagement with both groups to design and evaluate effective and equitable policies.

We need the right incentives

Education research, policy making and classroom practice all share a common goal – improving student learning. However, this overarching goal may become lost as other forces come into play. Researchers may prioritise publishing in prestigious journals over practical impact, and policy makers may favour short-term strategies due to political pressures. Teachers may not have the time or access to use research in their professional development.

One way to develop common ground is to create incentives. We know that policy makers and practitioners are often genuinely motivated to engage with research. However, intrinsic motivation alone is insufficient, while researchers need structural incentives that encourage them to engage wider audiences for their research. For example, researchers could be evaluated not only by the number and quality of their publications, but also by the impact and reach of their research on policy and practice. The Research Excellence Frameworks that have been developed in the UK and Australia are examples of initial efforts to engage wider audiences. These kinds of incentives should be woven into the fabric of the education system to encourage research-policy-practice collaboration.

Learning together by leading

Changing long-established practices, structures and cultures is no easy feat. And while there is no magic formula to greater collaboration, a “learning and leading” approach seems promising.

“Learning” involves developing individual skills – such as Marco Polo developing his diplomatic skills while he was the Chinese Khan’s foreign emissary – but also collective capacity for research engagement within organisations. Setting expectations and standards for research literacy skills development within organisations and among individuals is a crucial first step.

Equally important is leadership. Leaders must send strong signals that using research to inform decisions is paramount. They can lead by example, openly sharing their own learning processes. Again, this is much like Marco Polo, who may not have been the first European to reach China but was the first to leave a detailed chronicle of his journey, inspiring many other travellers to explore the world.

Finally, education systems must continue to examine ways of bridging divides between these communities. Genuine and effective partnerships of researchers, policy makers and practitioners require allocated funding, dedicated time and a shared vision for systematically using research to improve educational outcomes. By working together, we can become the Marco Polo’s of education, charting a course toward more effective learning experiences for all.

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