AERA Member Jenny Rankin Discusses How Education Researchers Can Share Their Findings Widely
 
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September 2018

The following Q&A is one in an occasional series of conversations with scholars and policy and opinion leaders with an interest in and commitment to education research.

Jenny Grant Rankin, Ph.D., taught a professional development course at the 2017 and 2018 AERA Annual Meetings on how scholars can best share their research with multiple audiences. Rankin teaches this topic each year in the Post Doc Masterclass at University of Cambridge, and her latest book is Sharing Your Education Expertise with the World: Make Research Resonate and Widen Your Impact. She can be reached at DrJRankin@gmail.com.

Q. Why is it important for education researchers to share their work outside of the usual outlets like journals and research conferences?

A. If you discovered an easy way for dyslexic students to read, yet that way was never taught to dyslexics, the societal benefit of your discovery would be questionable. Sure, you want to advance future research and an academic body of knowledge, but those goals are meager compared to the chance to benefit lives with your findings. When education researchers restrict their communication to outlets that mainly reach other researchers, they augment the scholarly community’s understanding but do little to directly impact students. Those interacting with learners daily—such as teachers, administrators, and parents—need to know your discoveries in order to improve their practice accordingly. Policymakers (and the public and media whose discourse influences policy) need to know your findings to make decisions in the best interest of kids. In many cases, students, whose ability to self-advocate is often underappreciated, need to learn of your developments as well.

Also, don’t underestimate what audiences outside our field can do with knowledge you share. For example, imagine you’ve learned something groundbreaking about the need for students to have elderly loved ones in their lives. The Alliance for Audited Media tells us AARP The Magazine and AARP Bulletin dominate the world’s circulation rankings with 24 million readers apiece (the next closest noncommercial magazine is Better Homes & Gardens, with fewer than eight million subscribers). These AARP publications aren’t academic journals, but writing a single article for them would lend you the power to reach millions of elderly folks who could apply your teachings to changing children’s lives. On a similar note, you can reach thousands or even millions by delivering a TED Talk, being interviewed on NPR, or nabbing countless other opportunities. Mainstream venues have a long history of sparking ideas and change.

Q. What can researchers do to better present/translate their findings for broader, non-academic audiences?

A. Though these tips also apply to researcher audiences, they are especially important for those not proficient in scholar-speak: Get out from behind the lectern. Leverage images more than text in your slides. Embed your findings in a story (more on that below). Skip jargon or define any you deem unavoidable. Be selective in what you share so as not to overload your audience or bury your core message.

With all that in mind, cater your presentation to your audience’s needs, and adjust your delivery based on attendee feedback. Even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went off-script at the March on Washington in order to move listeners; his famous “I have a dream” line wasn’t even written into what he planned to say. Eleven minutes into King’s planned speech, Mahalia Jackson shouted from the crowd, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!” King recognized his audience needed that valuable message, so he spontaneously launched into the “I have a dream” description, giving the millions watching exactly what they needed to hear, and offering what became the most remembered words from that speech (and arguably any other). If you have an audience of parents, they want to know how your findings can help their kids. If you have an audience of teachers, they want to know how their instruction should look in light of leading findings. Adjust what you share and how you share it to match what your audience needs.

Q. What advice would you give to researchers presenting at conferences and other similar events, so that those who hear about a finding or concept tell others about it? 

A. If we played the telephone game, where a message is whispered from person to person, which message would have an easier time traveling accurately: “Students are five times more likely to pass a class after the teacher visits their home” or “A mixed methods study on how teacher visits to students’ homes influenced academic outcomes as examined in randomized experiments in New York’s urban, suburban, and rural schools rendered results that blah blah blah…”? The former is more spread-friendly, because it’s packaged neatly and in a compelling way.

When presenting at conferences and similar events, researchers often bask in the minutia of their studies (what was the sample size? how was it funded? etc.) yet fail to thwack the audience with the study’s value and essence, packaged like a home run baseball that everyone wants to catch and toss around with those they encounter. Consider how we are all familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Dweck’s “growth mindset,” and Bloom’s Taxonomy. The first is illustrated as a pyramid that’s easy to draw and recall, the second is a term more succinct than “belief that one can acquire any ability with enough effort and study,” yet still telling, and the last is a classification that’s easy to reference. Far fewer of us would know of these developments if they were only housed within lengthy expositions.

Communicating a concept’s value (how it can help students) is important, but making an idea spread-worthy involves more than just having an idea with merit. Researchers should identify the core, concise message they want to share, make sure that message shines in the presentation, and package that message in an image, phrase, classification, figurative description, tool, or other condensed format that renders it easy to pass to others.

Q. How can researchers communicate their findings in publicly accessible ways while making sure their findings are not oversimplified or misconstrued?

A. Some simplification is needed to make research accessible, so simplify the findings yourself rather than rambling in academic-speak that leaves journalists or an audience to craft their own synopses. For example, rather than cram all important details into your delivery, make your big picture (e.g., what your idea looks like—such as how it manifests in students—and its value) clear and unforgettable to lay a strong foundation. Refer to a succinct list of main talking points to ensure you repeat key ideas, including important cautions (like why your finding doesn’t mean something people might want it to mean). Provide these talking points in writing so journalists or the audience can refer to them later, and direct everyone to where more details can be found (a reference sheet online, an organization with related resources, a book that guides readers through implementation, etc.).

Q. What are some options researchers might not know about when it comes to connecting to non-academic audiences?

A. Check out the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) Knowledge Hub for resources and help sharing research with policymakers and practitioners. Check out the Center for Research Use in Education (CRUE) for resources and help sharing research with practitioners. There are tools and tricks that enable researchers to share widely without sacrificing time spent on their actual research or practice. For example, just adding #TellEWA to a tweet about something you’ve published immediately lets the Education Writers Association (EWA) know about it and potentially share it with its 3,000+ journalists in the field as an “EWA Story of the Week.” You can register with free databases, such as Public Insight Network (PIN) and SourceSearch, that reporters use when finding experts to book on television and radio. Examples like these abound.

Q. What emerging trend(s) in how people communicate should researchers be aware as they think about how to their share their work more broadly?

A. Storytelling has long been an effective way to share important information (Little Red Riding Hood taught us to not talk to strangers, a tortoise and hare taught us the value of diligence, and countless other such stories stand the test of time and beg to be retold, carrying their lessons with them). Researchers are increasingly using storytelling when disseminating findings, and audiences are increasingly expecting to be engaged. Since you study education, you know that engaging your audience is a premise of good teaching. When you communicate through stories that carry your messages, your audience is more likely to care about, remember, spread, and apply your findings to help students. Consider an example:

When I answered this interview’s second question, the most important message I wanted to get across was the need to cater one’s presentation to the audience’s needs (something requiring flexibility). If I merely mentioned, “cater your presentation to your audience’s needs, no matter what,” the tip would be forgettable. I thus told a short story about Dr. King that embodied the tip. The story worked well for several reasons: (1) It is impossible for audience members to retell the story without simultaneously communicating the message I wanted to spread (success is achieved when speakers remain flexible and cater to audience needs); (2) You are likely to remember the story (and thus its message) because it is surprising, is interesting, and involves an extreme outcome (perhaps the most powerful speech in history); (3) You are likely to share the story with others (when King’s name comes up, can you really resist saying, “Did you know that King never planned to say, ‘I have a dream’ in his speech?”); (4) The story is easy to picture (this aids memory); (5) Memory of the story (and thus of the tip embedded within it) is likely to be triggered regularly, such as by MLK Day and other times we are reminded of Dr. King; (6) The story is short, which helps it fit within tight word count requirements when writing and makes the story easy to tell to others. The fact that the story builds on the audience’s preexisting knowledge (you already knew who MLK was and how influential his “I have a dream” proclamation was) helps the story to stay short.

Your story need not meet all the criteria listed above, but aiming for that list is good practice. Researchers tell stories of what inspired their study, how they solved a mystery (i.e., problem) over the course of their study, how their study affected a student’s life, and more. Such narratives move audiences to care about the finer study details shared afterward or waiting elsewhere.

 
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