Knowledge mobilization is a term used to indicate moving knowledge into active use. It looks at connecting research with practical applications. It’s a term that has been used for almost 50 years, but is starting to gain popularity in education as we look at how we can use the large body of education research in practical applications in the classroom. Knowledge mobilization also leads us to look at how we can create partnerships between researchers and users, in this case, educators.
In education, researchers are recognizing how complex it is to implement research in the classroom and how many different factors are involved. Dr. Jonathan Sharples created the term “knowledge mobilization ecosystem,” demonstrating that in education we need an entire structure and environment to effectively apply research.
As we consider how knowledge mobilization happens in the classroom, we must start by gathering information about how it is currently being done, what works and what needs to change.
A group of researchers and professors from Concordia University and the University of Montreal have begun the research by asking exactly these questions. Larysa V. Lysenko, Philip C. Abrami, Robert M. Bernard, and Christian Dagenais used an online survey to question 1,153 Canadian educators about how they use research in the classroom, what is effective, and what the barriers are to application.
Three Ways to Use Research
In developing the study, Lysenko and her colleagues identified three ways that research can be mobilized and brought into the classroom. They created questions with a focus on these three approaches because they wanted to know how knowledge mobilization is being done in order to see what is working.
With an instrumental use of research, concrete practices are applied in the classroom. If a teacher reads research supporting the use of computers to teach math, and then goes into the classroom, loads the program, and directs the students to use the computers for their math lesson, that teacher has applied an instrumental use of the research.
Conceptual use of research indicates a change in understanding or thinking about an issue. There is not a direct change in the day-to-day classroom, but there is a change in thinking. If a teacher reads a study about learning styles and begins thinking about why their individual students act the way they do in the classroom, they are making a conceptual application. The teacher might not go into the classroom the next day and completely change what they are doing, but they will be thinking about a group of students as visual learners and another group as auditory learners, which might influence their teaching as they continue.
A symbolic use of research is using it to influence decisions or support decisions that have been made. If a team of teachers is making changes to their curriculum, they can symbolically use research at any point. Somebody who feels strongly about a certain change might show up to the meeting with research that supports their position. After making all the desired changes, the team will symbolically use research to explain their choices to outsiders.
In identifying these ways of using research, Lysenko et al are not trying to identify or claim that one is better than the other. They simply want to understand how the research is applied.
Factors that Influence Research Use
In addition to how the research is applied, Lysenko and her colleagues considered the idea of the “knowledge mobilization ecosystem.” They used this idea to identify the factors that influence whether and how teachers use research. The factors that influence research use are:
1. How the teacher viewed the quality of the research findings
2. The teacher’s ability to use the research in a variety of ways
3. The school’s culture and encouragement of research
4. The awareness of research and its findings at a variety of levels
Lysenko et al designed the survey to identify where these factors were influencing educators as part of the evaluation of what works and what does not work.
Lysenko and her colleagues created an online survey which they sent to educators across Canada at both elementary and secondary schools. The survey had a series of close-ended questions to gather quantitative research. They were followed by open-ended questions that allowed the respondents to comment and allowed the researchers to gather qualitative data.
They received 1,153 viable responses, of which 82.1% were teachers with the rest being administrators and professional staff. Participants primarily worked in the public school system (96.3%), with 77% working in primary schools and 33% in secondary schools. Another large majority (90%) worked in suburban and rural areas. Forty-six percent of respondents worked in schools of 150-500 students.
Results of the Survey
As we connect the results of the survey to knowledge mobilization, we want to know how research is being actively used, what works, and what needs to change. While the close-ended questions provide a broad set of information for us, the most interesting information comes from the open-ended questions that allowed respondents to comment.
What we learn through the survey is that the primary way research is gathered is through colleagues. The participants reported that casual chats with their colleagues lead to new ideas that they then incorporated into their own classrooms. The practical classroom application is an instrumental use of research, and 76.3% reported incorporating the research directly in their classrooms.
Outside of colleagues, the survey respondents revealed that they turn to the internet to gather research. While this could lead to scholarly research, many are turning to blogs and social media for research-based information.
Lysenko and her colleagues expressed concern about both of these methods of gathering research. They acknowledge that there can be good ideas in these areas, but they are concerned that research is not being accurately represented.
As they discussed how to use research in the classroom, many of the study participants discussed what is not working. They first expressed criticism of the research itself. They view it as irrelevant, inaccessible both in readability and physical accessibility, and not applicable.
The second way knowledge mobilization is not working is in components of the ecosystem. The participants expressed a need for support and encouragement from their schools to use research. They also expressed the desire for the school community to have an attitude of incorporating research-based practices. Time was also described as a pivotal factor in the ecosystem as teachers need time to find research, read and understand it, and plan how to apply it.
The survey allowed participants to discuss what they currently do and what is not working. Lysenko and her colleagues discussed what needs to change for effective knowledge mobilization.
First, they shared a positive outcome of the survey, the discovery that teachers do value research and want to use it more. They also determined three ways researchers, school systems, and teachers can make changes to improve knowledge mobilization.
1. Training in how to read and understand research as part of teacher training programs. Training programs need to put more emphasis on gathering current research and interpreting the findings. They also need to help future teachers work research into practical applications in the classroom.
2. Making research-based information easily accessible. This suggestion includes creating a public resource where research can be accessed by all teachers. It also includes making the research readable and including suggestions for application.
3. Specific institutional support for teachers, including access to research with suggestions on how to implement it, professional development, sharing experiences of incorporating research, and administrative support for the time needed.
What Does It Mean for Teachers?
As we consider how this research applies to us and our classrooms individually, there are several things that we want to consider. First, what are our own attitudes toward research and knowledge mobilization? And second, how do we overcome the barriers to applying the research in our classrooms?
As teachers, you already know the barriers to applying research in your classroom. But what changes can you make as an individual make or help your school to make so that we can move toward more effective knowledge mobilization? What can your colleagues do to help? What technologies can assist you? And how can we use research to make learning the best experience possible for our students?