Children benefit most when academics have a genuine synergy with front line teachers and practitioners. It takes a unique combination of learning science and the art of human interactions to maximise learning. I have recognised the need for this collaboration for many years, but only recently have I been able to witness its true effect on teacher and learning.
When I began my career as a teacher, I was quickly overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task ahead of me. After studying education for four years, I thought I had learned everything that I needed to know in order to be a great teacher. I took courses on theory, practice, classroom management, and methods. I had completed four practical experiences across Boston public and private school systems. But after my first few days of real teaching, I yearned for even 30 minutes with my professors, to reflect with them on the multitude of challenges and complexities that had already arisen in such a short time in the classroom. In short, I was in over my head, and I needed help from the experts. Instead, I relied on mediocre professional development opportunities, and the advice and guidance of my peers.
Fast forward three years, I returned to graduate school to study international educational policy. I had dreamed of returning to studies, and to finally find time to reflect on the issues that I had encountered in the classroom over the past few years. But during this time, I mourned the loss of ‘practice’. I struggled to engage in theoretical conversations about how things ‘should be’ when the subject of those conversations — the day-to-day reality of kids and teachers — felt miles away. Even the research that I conducted felt distanced from the pupils and schools behind the numbers. I came to resent my time as a graduate student, and the invisible barrier that seemed to divide academia from classroom realities.
I now work for Bridge International Academies, an organisation that operates or supports nearly 1,500 schools in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia, and India. In my role as the Director of Learning Innovation, I find myself for the first time meaningfully engaging in both research and the minute-to-minute experience of pupils and teachers in classrooms. Throughout this vacillation between research and practice during my career, I found myself constantly running up against this barrier between the two. As a practitioner, I lacked access to the people who were best positioned to support the work that I was doing. And not insignificantly, I lacked access to the journals that housed the research that could take my work to the next level. As a student, I missed the feeling that what I did mattered to actual children. The theoretical conversations rang hollow, and I had no concrete avenue through which I could meaningfully contribute to the work happening outside the walls of my academic institution.
When I stepped into my new role at Bridge, it was clear to me that we needed to tear down this barrier between practitioners and academics. We could no longer forge ahead without the expert guidance of economists and experts in the field. To do so, with the education of hundreds of thousands of pupils in the balance, would be hubris. But the avenue through which this collaboration might occur was not clear. For too long, we have accepted a status-quo in which practitioners ‘do’ and academics ‘evaluate’.
For two years, we at Bridge have been crafting and honing a platform to conduct randomised A/B testing of instructional design interventions within classrooms. By randomising different teacher guides to different teacher tablets, we are able to measure the impact of small tests of change within our instructional design programme. We rely on digitally-programmed assessments and teacher-entered data to measure the outcomes. This allows us to build in multiple, large-scale RCTs as part of our ongoing programme evaluation system in a responsive, cost-effective manner.
This programme provided the pretext to build these partnerships with academics. We had the system to conduct the evaluations themselves. But we required additional expertise to thoughtfully design the studies and analyse the data. As an organisation, we reached out to our networks and explored interest in partnerships. I also reached out to leaders in the field of research design, instructional design, and cognitive science. I was overwhelmed by academics’ sheer generosity with their time. Everyone from associate professors all the way to professors emeritus accepted my invitations for a 30 minute chat about the intersections of our work and their line of research. Sometimes, the conversation ended there. Other times, the conversation continued. And in some special cases, the collaboration blossomed.
I do not name these partners, out of respect for their privacy. But I can say that their partnership has been invaluable to our work on behalf of hundreds of thousands of children living in low-income communities. These academic partners support our innovation work in a huge variety of ways. They act as thought-partners to generate and hone proposals for new studies. They advise us on study design before launching a study, in order to maximise statistical power and ensure balanced samples. They recommend systems for improved data reliability, such as using a teacher exchange to invigilate and mark exams. They randomise schools and pupils, in order to ensure a lack of bias in the execution of the randomisation process. Finally, and most importantly, they analyse the data at the conclusion of the study, providing a level of nuance and sophistication beyond what I would have been able to achieve on my own.
Recently, we gathered as a team of academics and practitioners to discuss the outcomes of six recently-completed RCTs. The conversation was vibrant, open, and honest. We genuinely worked in partnership to explore outcomes, generate next steps, identify hypotheses for the things that we found. My colleague and I left this meeting two hours later with a more clear-eyed understanding of the ways in which we can improve pupil learning outcomes in our schools. And it is our hope that in addition to sharing the outcomes with us, our partners will publish this work and share the takeaways with other academics and practitioners engaging with similar challenges.
The global learning crisis is real everyday life for one-in-two children. We must be clear-eyed about our opportunities, but also about the limitations of individual groups to solve the crisis. Academics alone cannot solve the crisis through evaluations and publication of best practices. Nor can practitioners, working dedicatedly for pupils within their networks but having no visible impact on their neighbouring schools. But together, the synergy of research and practice can accelerate learning outcomes not only for pupils being supported by a single organisation, but for all pupils around the world.
Authored by Tim Sullivan, Director of Learning Innovation at Bridge International Academies.