Tuesday, September 26, 2017

In Between Research, Practice, and Theory

Habitat Series by Alois Kronschlaeger

I have had a long, strong, although not necessarily steadily-worked, interest in a closer connection between theory, research and practice in schools and museums. I’m not sure where this came from although I do recall that in graduate school the separation of these three areas felt artificial and unproductive to a young, inquiring mind.

Action Research
A seminal experience I had before I worked in museums was working in professional development with the Madison (WI) school district. In my last few years, I facilitated several groups of K-12 grade teachers engaged in year-long action research projects. Teachers in these action research groups spent the school year questioning, observing, introducing new strategies, reflecting, and changing their practice in areas of importance to them. They were invigorated by formulating research questions that mattered to them and critiquing their own classroom practice in order to change it. Modest as it was, these studies laid the foundation for a 25-year action research program in the Madison schools.

Sometimes called collaborative (or participatory) action research, this interactive inquiry into one’s practice is a reflective, collaborative process with a goal of a deeper understanding of practice and change. It moves through stages of looking at current practice, planning and gathering information, taking action, critical reflection on the findings, changing practice, and informing subsequent inquiry. When teachers, or designers, direct their inquiry into their own practice, a new space between research and practice opens, bringing context and relevance to research and experimentation in daily practice.  

Moving into museum work, I carried a strong sense of what pursuing an extended inquiry with others could do for a community of learners and for growing a museum. Along the way I found some practices and a few projects using this approach–just enough to keep the possibility alive.

In an early project at Minnesota Children’s Museum we used action research to investigate exhibit safety. With its rapid, iterative inquiry process, prototyping also brought research and practice together Sometimes small research studies around museum practices (design, visitor experience, interaction, learning, or play) were grounded in learning frameworks. Three children’s museums used action research to continue investigating results of an exploratory study on play at their museums. I have also come across museum proefessionals exploring questions of practice using action research, here and here.

Museums introduced me to documentation, a practice developed in the Municipal Schools in Reggio Emilia. A shared, iterative, reflective process, documentation is both a way of working (practice) and researching that starts at the beginning of a project, not its conclusion. The 4-step process begins with generating hypotheses about what teachers think they might find through the exploration. Observation takes many forms: mental (and written) notes, photos, video, transcriptions of remarks and conversations, drawings, and material explorations. Interpretation reviews and reflects on the collected record of children’s thinking, individually and with colleagues, in a generative way. Relaunch considers the most significant elements that appear to have advanced the learning process and where children's explorations might go next. Part of the daily life of the school, documentation is intent on getting at the deeper structure of learning in this setting.

From my experience, documentation inspires more than a few people working in museums. Yet, because it is a challenging practice to adapt to museum settings, documentation-inspired approaches tend to be practiced at a small scale and in limited ways. What documentation offers, and, I believe, will be increasingly appreciated, is an open flow between research, practice, and theory with discipline and possibility.

Research Practice Partnerships
A recent article in Curator, Research and Practice: One Way, Two Way, No Way, or New Way? by Bronwyn Bevan, encourages me to hope for more and stronger working connections between research, practice, and theory. Bevan, a Senior Research Scientist at the University of Washington, Seattle, sees an opportunity for museums to contribute to research about learning in informal learning settings and to inhabit a larger role in the learning ecosystem. Her brief review of old ways of conceptualizing the relationship between research and practice notes the persistent dualism around them and the limited use of research in practice. A new cultural model that deeply integrates the perspectives of research and practice is one, she suggests, that co-creates knowledge through jointly negotiated research-practice partnerships, (RPP’s). Bevan describes several approaches to RPP’s including Relating Research to Practice with a set of excellent briefs summarizing research studies for raising practitioners’ awareness of research and theoretical assumptions.

Bevan’s concern with theory helps bring this more challenging piece into a closer relationship with both research and practice. Educators and designers do work with theoretical assumptions and draw on their working theories about program design, instructional strategies, the use of materials, or staff interactions in even small action research studies. Often, however, theory is in the background (or simply missing) from discussion and thinking around practice and research in museums. Theory is needed to inform conceptualizations about meaning making, place, the role of objects, engagement, etc. in these settings. Bringing theory into framing research questions and approaches more deliberately means that research findings are more likely to be useful in that specific context as well as contribute to a broader understanding of practices across contexts.

Many of the 7 characteristics of RPP’s that Bevan identifies align with qualities of action research and documentation. These are long-term explorations concerned with a pressing problem of practice and use iterative processes that test, revisit, and inform practice. These approaches engage practitioners in habits of inquiry and reflection through observing their own and others’ work to deepen and develop everyday practice. Because the questions emerge from those most involved and their particular context, the thinking, discussion, and findings have relevance to the work and setting at hand. As collaborative efforts they build shared language and understanding across teams, museums, and networks.

Possible Encounters
Integrating the perspectives of researcher, practitioner, and theory maker allows us to step closer to theory, research, and practice and to explore possible encounters among them. These usually separate endeavors become 3 reciprocal, productive practices. Daily practice is stretched and strengthened by a deeper involvement with research and awareness of theory. Research findings are integrated into a team’s practice and supporting processes. Seemingly inaccessible theory-making presents itself as a tool at multiple scales and becomes an on-going practice like research. Ultimately, daily practice is not just a by-product of research, but is, in its own way, the ultimate objective. Any one of the 3 is a starting point for museums becoming better at their practice, deepening understanding, and building knowledge.

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