Volume 8, Issue C ::: November 2006
Effective Research Dissemination: Lessons from NCSALL
by Cristine Smith, Mary Beth Bingman, & Kaye Beall
The National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) conducts and shares its research with the goal of having an impact on the quality of instruction and service to adult learners. Over the past 10 years, we at NCSALL have tried a variety of approaches to disseminating our research in ways that will help us reach this goal. In this article we revisit our journey and share some lessons we learned; we hope you will learn from them, too.
When NCSALL started in 1996, we knew it would be a few years before we would have actual NCSALL research findings to report. This gave us the opportunity to cultivate the interest of adult basic education (ABE) teachers and program administrators in research and what it could offer. It also gave us the time to introduce and build excitement about what NCSALL was studying. Remember that back in 1996, many ABE programs and practitioners had little access to Internet or e-mail, electronic discussion lists were just beginning, wikis were not invented yet, and federal legislation did not prioritize the use of scientific research. The world was a different place.
Cultivating Critical Consumers
We began by producing this publication, Focus on Basics, a magazine that, as it states in the indicia, "is dedicated to connecting research with practice, to connecting teachers with research and researchers with the reality of the classroom, and by doing so, making adult basic education research relevant to the field." The opening letter from the editor urged practitioners to become voracious and critical consumers of research and researchers to seek practitioner input at every step of the research process (Garner, 1997). The very first issue was about how to read different kinds of research critically. To build an audience for NCSALL research findings, subsequent issues introduced the studies that were in process. We made the publication available to programs via each state's director of adult basic education and posted it on the NCSALL Web site. To put into practice our ideal of bringing together researchers and practitioners, we convened via telephone an editorial board of five or six different researchers, teachers, professional development providers, and program administrators for each issue.
In addition to producing and actively disseminating a publication that reviewed research and connected it to practice, we also wanted an initiative with practitioners themselves serving as the link between research and practice. So from 1996 through 2001, we experimented with a research and development effort, the Practitioner Dissemination and Research Network (PDRN). Operating in 14 states (New England, the mid-Atlantic, and the Southeast), the heart of the PDRN was a practitioner leader in each state: an ABE or English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) teacher or program administrator who would provide information about research to others in his or her state. Practitioner leaders presented at conferences and wrote for state newsletters, providing information about NCSALL and the research in progress.
By the second year of the PDRN, the practitioner leaders realized that playing the role of spokesperson for NCSALL made them uncomfortable because they felt they needed to memorize information about NCSALL's many research studies, so we changed tactics. We trained the practitioner leaders to do their own classroom research on adult student persistence, a topic being studied by a NCSALL research team. This proved to be engaging and worthwhile for the practitioner leaders and for the NCSALL researchers; we convened them on several occasions to learn about each others' research. The practitioners' research results enhanced and informed the findings of the university-based researchers, leading to mutual respect between the two groups. Another asset was that the practitioner leaders found that conducting their own research helped them feel like researchers and professionals, feelings they valued highly (Smith et al., 2002).
However, while we were starting to break down walls between research and practice, the PDRN was reaching only a small number of practitioners in 14 states. Although practitioner leaders went to state conferences and presented confidently about their own and the corresponding NCSALL research on the topic of adult student persistence, this wasn't helping the many practitioners who still did not even know that NCSALL existed. For wider dissemination, even within the 14 states, we needed training that practitioner leaders could lead. Therefore, we wrote study circle guides, which trainers could use to lead groups of eight to 15 teachers and program administrators in reading NCSALL research reports, briefs, and articles from Focus on Basics before discussing the findings and how they could be applied in the participants' classrooms and programs. The practitioner leaders piloted the three-session study circles on NCSALL research topics such as adult student persistence, health and literacy, and accountability.
In NCSALL's fifth year, we evaluated PDRN (Smith et al., 2002), asking NCSALL researchers, practitioner leaders, dissemination staff, and PDRN-states' Department of Education staff about the efforts to connect research and practice.
We learned that:
- Practitioners and researchers who conducted and then shared research on the same topic helped practitioners understand the research and the research process and gave the researchers new understanding of practice.
- Professional development activities, such as study circles, were well-liked. Teachers and program administrators reported that professional development activities helped them access, understand, judge, and use research better than they had before.
- While NCSALL made some progress in research influencing practice, we had little impact with enabling research to influence state and federal policy.
- Connecting practice and research requires an infrastructure that supports practitioners to conduct research and to attend study circles about research, and this would require systematic efforts and policy support at the program, state, and national levels.
The PDRN taught us that practitioners did want to use research, but that they needed support and systems to do so. With the refunding of NCSALL in 2001, we applied what we had learned from the PDRN to create a national model for research dissemination. Our goals for the Connecting Practice, Policy, and Research (CPPR) initiative were:
- To work with partners to build a national system that connects research, practice, and policy;
- To create a flexible system to account for differences among states;
- To develop mechanisms for reviewing all adult basic, literacy, and language research (not just research conducted by NCSALL) and creating appropriate professional development activities and other "tools" for helping practitioners to access, understand, judge, and use the findings from such research; and
- To provide a systematic way for practitioners and state policymakers to have input into a national research agenda, so problems faced in the field would be the problems researchers would be funded to tackle.
NCSALL decided to focus on the state, program, and practitioner aspect of the system, working with states to learn what would help or hinder them. We also continued to pilot and develop professional development tools, such as a training workshop to help practitioners conduct their own practitioner research, self-explanatory seminars and self-study courses that could be accessed from NCSALL's Web site and used by staff in programs, and, with the National Institute for Literacy (the Institute), videos of researchers and practitioners discussing the applicability of specific research findings. We created teaching materials that ABE teachers could use to help students understand what reading really is and why going beyond the GED to post-secondary education is critical for economic success. We helped state and professional development staff in Arizona, California, Colorado, and Louisiana train study circle facilitators. We continued to develop study circles on topics on which NCSALL had conducted research, including reading instruction, adult multiple intelligence theory and practice, adult development theory, and authentic/contextualized instruction.
Experimenting with new ways to connect practitioners and researchers, NCSALL researchers from Oregon came together over the course of a year with practitioners from California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming. The researchers presented their findings from research with beginning-level adult ESOL students, and the practitioners later presented their experiences trying out the new instructional methods indicated by that research. We organized sessions focused on research findings at major conferences such as COABE and ProLiteracy Worldwide and collaborated with California to develop a three-day meeting in which researchers and practitioners examined the practical applications of NCSALL research, which will be repeated in 2006. With the Institute, the National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium, and state ABE directors, we led workshops on the terms "evidence-based practice" and "scientifically based research." Last, but not least, we created a sourcebook for ABE program administrators in which the findings from most of the NCSALL research are presented in a way that enables readers to consider the implications of the findings for their programs.
Synthesizing the Experience
After 10 years of dissemination, including five years of learning from the CPPR initiative, we believe strongly that:
- Dissemination must start with a focus on practitioners and an understanding of how practitioners view research. Most practitioners start by being interested in an issue or problem they face in their work, not by being interested in research in general.
- Researchers and dissemination staff alone cannot disseminate findings from research. No single researcher or research center can expect to reach the thousands of practitioners across the country. Adult educators need a range of publications, tools, and activities, and assistance from professional development staff who can help practitioners access, understand, judge, and use research. See Figure 1 below.
- Research-based changes in practice are not possible without policies, funding, and structures that support practitioners to make such changes. Teachers need research information, time to prepare new strategies, and funding to share ideas and experiences with other teachers. Program administrators need the freedom and funding to give these supports to teachers. Change cannot be achieved only at the teacher or classroom level. An intensive and long-term systemic change process, supported at the federal level, is needed.
- Dissemination is cyclical, not linear. Helping practitioners and policy makers access, understand, judge, and use research is easier when the research questions come from the field rather than from the researchers. However, this is easier said than done. Adult education does not yet have a systematic mechanism through which stakeholders can generate questions as part of a continually evolving research agenda. Such a mechanism would include the elements illustrated below in Figure 2.
Where Are We Now?
After a decade of conducting and reflecting upon dissemination, we believe more than ever that practitioners have to be at the heart of research dissemination efforts. ABE needs a unique system of connecting research and practice that takes this into account. Only with such a system will research have an impact on the quality of instruction and service to adult learners.
In March, 2007, NCSALL will end. The research is winding down and final reports are being written. They will be available on the Web site, http://www.ncsall.net, along with NCSALL's other publications. The CPPR is all but over, and the Focus on Basics issue you are currently reading is the last. While we were not able to create a national system for connecting research, policy and practice, we did create a gold-standard publication for practitioners, as well as teaching and training materials that practitioners and professional developers can continue to use.
Garner, B. (1997). "Dear reader." Focus on Basics, 1(A), 2.
Smith, C., Bingman, M. B., Hofer, J., Medina, P., & Practitioner Leaders (2002). Connecting Practitioners and Researchers: An Evaluation of NCSALL's Practitoner Dissemination and Research Network. NCSALLReports #22. Boston: National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy. Retrieved August 1, 2006, from
About the Authors
Cristine Smith is Deputy Director of NCSALL and co-directed NCSALL's dissemination efforts. She is currently a Visiting Associate Professor, focused on adult literacy, at the Center for International Education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Beth Bingman is Associate Director of the Center for Literacy Studies at the University of Tennessee. She is Coordinator of NCSALL's Connecting Practice, Policy, and Research initiative and was Principal Investigator of NCSALL studies on assessment of outcomes. Beth previously worked as an adult literacy teacher and program director.
Kaye Beall is the Outreach Coordinator for the NCSALL Connecting Practice, Policy, and Research initiative at World Education. Kaye has worked in adult literacy since 1980, serving as an instructor, program director, GED examiner, consultant, program development director, and training coordinator.