EAPRIL, In English

Boundary-crossing competences of educators and researchers in working on educational issues


About 25 years ago, I was conducting my doctoral research (Van den Berg 1992) with the aim of learning how basic education for adults had taken shape – after all of the relatively diverse precursors had merged – and how the environment, the organisation, and the supply of education were related. I spent a week each in 17 different institutions, during which time I conducted archival research, class observations and interviews. During the course of one academic year, I experienced the ins and outs of basic education, including the work pressure and commotion of the weeks preceding the summer holidays. One team that I observed called me a week after my visit because my interviews had created quite a stir. The underlying tensions between the precursors had suddenly become clearly visible, and the team did not want to leave for the summer holidays on that note. They had organised an extra team day in order to re-open a discussion, and they asked me to attend. In this way, they would have an independent observer and rapporteur, and I would gather supplemental material for my research. I had never before witnessed how the act of conducting research could have such a direct impact on practice, and how educators could immediately make use of this impact in a constructive manner.

Over the following years, the relationships between research, educational innovation, and teacher professionalisation remained of exceptional interest to me. How are knowledge from research and knowledge from practice interrelated? When and how do research inquiry and practitioner inquiry help educators achieve further professional development? How can research contribute to the improvement of the teaching profession with regard to learning and development? For example, Van den Berg and De Bruijn (2009) conducted a traditional literature review on competence-based education and reviewed documented practitioner knowledge on the subject. There appeared to be striking similaries between the two types of knowledge, the scienctific literature being more rigourous and the practitioner knowledge being more current. Van den Berg and De Bruyn (2009) suggested a research agenda that combined the two.

Another example is the reflection made by Van den Berg and Streumer (2011) on a Workplace Learning Breakthrough Project. They proposed that the relationship between research and practice has yet to be precisely determined in practice-based research. Both the willingness and competence of researchers and teaching professionals to collaborate on urgent issues appear to be particularly important factors for success. In retrospect on the Breakthrough Project, Van den Berg and Streumer (2011) determined that the process of conducting the study has rested primarily with the researchers, that the scientific quality of the research could nevertheless be questioned, and that the study had contributed less than had been hoped to changes in practice. Perhaps more patience is required, because the reality of workplaces is just too complex to grasp within the space of a three-year project (Van den Berg & Streumer 2011).

I am constantly searching for ways to collaborate with others to arrive at answers to the types of questions indicated above, as well as for ways to make these answers productive in research and educational practice. I am interested in educators and researchers ‘jumping in’ to apply these questions to real cases and working on them collaboratively. This article elaborates on this theme of ‘jumping in’. The discussion presented is based on a theoretical framework that is currently being developed (Van den Berg, 2016) for a research programme in the Netherlands, at Aeres Wageningen University of Applied Sciences. This programme aims at enhancing our understanding of the course of collaboration between educators and researchers on issues related to learning and development, as well as our understanding of how participants can improve their collaboration. The conceptual framework presented forms the basis for the empirical research agenda of the initiated programme.

This article will begin by introducing the theoretical background of this study. Second, the central question and methodology will be presented. Third, the resulting framework will be described in three parts, namely: a) the nature of problems, b) the concept of research competence and c) the concept of transdisciplinary competence. The article will end off by drawing conclusions and offering a sketch of the research programme initiated.

Theoretical background: Complex educator-researcher relationships

Knowledge and innovative competence are becoming increasingly important in society (OECD 2002; Onderwijsraad 2014; Rijksoverheid 2015). This is consequently changing the demands that are imposed on professionals. Routine skills are becoming less important, while non-routine skills and cross-disciplinary competences are playing an increasingly important role (OECD 2013). Analytical, investigative and reflective competences may serve as examples of this. For professionals, such qualities are important for optimal performance. For organisations, they are essential to improving responsiveness, innovation, and productivity (Volberda, Jansen, Tempelaar & Heij 2011; Onderwijsraad 2014, 9).

These changes call for increasing interaction of organisations on the one hand (enterprises, firms, non-commercial institutes), and research institutes on the other hand, and thereby of both practitioners and researchers. In narrowing the bandwidth of organisations to the domain of education and teacher education, the need for inquiry and research in educational institutes becomes explicit. And, addressing questions about learning and development by working in a systematic, inquiry-based manner (if possible in collaboration with external partners such as related organisations and researchers) appears to offer exceptional opportunities for realising sustainable improvements in our teaching practices (see, for example, Schenke 2015). At the same time, experience shows that persistence is also at play. Boundary crossing by practitioners and researchers has proven to be quite complicated, even when conditions appear favourable. Partners in innovation projects fail to complete their learning cycles, and research often fails to make the desired contribution to practice (Den Boer & Teurlings 2015; Schenke 2015; Van den Berg 2013).

The development of inquiry- and research-based education is subject to several inevitable challenges. For example, researchers still argue that their findings are not used to the extent that they should be, while educators argue that research is too often engaged in stating the obvious (‘bashing in open doors’), in addition to being reported in an inaccessible manner and containing no concrete guidelines for application (Broekkamp & Van Hout-Wolters 2006; Onderwijsraad 2006; Onderwijsraad 2011; Teurlings et al. 2011). Strengthening the usability and application of research requires more intervention than merely adding usability requirements to studies, imposing research duties on educators, expanding the research capacity in schools, and enhancing the findability and accessibility of research. Even if everyone endorses the importance of research and works to bridge ‘the gap’ between research and teaching practice, the practices of researchers and educators will not come together automatically.

The linear Research-Development-Diffusion (RDD) model of knowledge development followed by development work, diffusion, and application is being increasingly supplemented by alternative models, such as practice-based research in professional learning communities, knowledge-based workplaces, and academic workplaces. As advocated by Gibbons et al. (1994), this involves supplementing knowledge development by researchers in the traditional scientific method (Mode 1) with interactive researcher-practitioner knowledge development (Mode 2). Approaches like the Ecologically and Transdisciplinarily Inspired (ETI) research approach (De Jong, De Beus, Richardson & Ruijters 2013) further elaborate on this thinking. In this approach, researchers and practitioners engage in transdisciplinary collaboration in order to understand and resolve professional issues. Both practical and scientific knowledge have a voice in knowledge development, and all partners involved in the conversation learn from this (cf. De Jong 2015, 43-57). It is therefore a way of contributing to the general knowledge base (theory), as well as to practice.

Although interactive approaches such as Mode 2 and ETI are clearly on the rise, RDD thinking continues to hold a prominent place in our systems, including the associated processes of agenda-setting, funding, and accountability. This is not only the case in education, but also in other domains. Wehrens (2013) studied academic workplaces in healthcare. He proposes that we open a discussion concerning the practice of speaking in terms of ‘bridging the gap’. The image of a gap can reinforce the perception of research and practice as two separate worlds with completely different logics, motivations, and routines, thereby needlessly complicating the process of building bridges. The boundary traffic is actually more intense and fertile than could be expected, based on the image of two separate worlds. The perspective of mutual knowledge development entails looking at what does exist – the boundary practice, the bridge and, particularly, the traffic (active dialogue and negotiation on issues that belong on the agenda) – instead of looking at what does not exist (the void of the gap).

Crossing one’s ‘own’ boundaries and searching for cooperation is expected to result in more suitable and applicable answers to professional questions such as those in educational or healthcare practice (Akkerman & Bakker 2011; Akkerman & Bakker 2012). In particular, the interactive models of practice-based research (Mode 2, ETI) call for specific boundary-crossing competences of both researchers and practitioners. Exchanging information and using and reinforcing each other’s insights, instruments or other qualities requires attention to differences in culture and pace, mutual interests, and trust, as well as the relationship between factors at play both within and beyond the research-practice partnership. This attention should ensure the proper conditions for exchanging information and for using and reinforcing one another’s insights, instruments, or other qualities (Coburn, Penuel & Geil 2013; Ruijters 2016). Interactive research also calls for balancing the research role and the practice role, which demands both role stability and role development (De Bruijn & Westerhuis 2013). Andriessen (2014) introduced the concept of research competence as a specific quality needed for highly-educated professionals (in general, not only in the educational field). These individuals need to think and work from an inquiring stance, utilise existing research, and must be able to conduct small-scale research themselves. For practice-based researchers, Andriessen (2014) points to the scientific rigour and practical relevance of their work as necessary qualities. Further elaboration on these insights is required to more precisely define boundary-crossing competences.

Central question and methodology

As should be clear from this discussion, much work remains for practitioners and researchers in their joint efforts to clarify professional issues and contribute to solutions. To this end, we should also ask ourselves several questions and determine our position. For example, as educators, what views do we have on teacher-research and practice-based research? Do we ever discuss these views with researchers? How willing are we to acknowledge our prejudices and compare them with the opinions of others? Are we sufficiently open to findings from research? What do we need in order to convert information from research into guidelines for action in our own practice? As researchers, we should be asking ourselves questions too, for example, about our views on the contribution of research to educational practice. Would we be willing and able to make our research primarily dependent upon the issues with which schools are struggling?

In the interest of enhancing our understanding of the course of collaboration between educators and researchers on issues related to learning and development, as well as our understanding of how such collaboration can be improved, Aeres Wageningen University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands initiated a research programme focused on the following central question: How can boundary practices between educators and researchers be reinforced? In this research programme, educators can be both teachers and teacher educators. Researchers in this field can be both (internal) teacher-researchers and (external) practice-based researchers.

The first step in the research programme is a conceptual study. During 2015, three intertwining processes took place: a) reading snowball-sampled literature, b) a (narrative) examination of, and reflection on, earlier publications by the author and c) a discussion of preliminary results of the study with both educators and researchers. These processes led to the gradual emergence of the conceptual framework as presented in the results. The conceptual study started from the key concept of research competence as formulated by Andriessen (2014). As Andriessen states, higher-educated professionals should be able to work with an inquiring stance, utilise existing research, and conduct research themselves. What concepts form the basis for this set of three subconcepts? What research on it is available? What specific features belong to research competence in the educational domain? Next, shifting the perspective: if practitioners need research competence, what do (practice-based) researchers need? They, too, need research competence, of course, but what more? Under this line of thinking, the concept of transdisciplinary competence emerged and was developed. Finally, now that we have these two competences, what kinds of professional issues will benefit from this? This third concept of professional issues is the first to be addressed in the next paragraph.

Three types of educational issues; three possible roles of research

The nature of professional issues concerning learning and development is important for the contribution that research can make to the resolution of such issues. The manner in which these issues can best be addressed depends primarily upon their relative simplicity or complexity, as well as upon the clarity of the solution. Three types of issues can be distinguished as follows:

Simple educational issues
Simple issues, in which both the actual issue and its solution are clear, demand substantive expertise in order to improve existing rules and support behavioural change. Schein (2005) refers to this as the ‘expert model’. These types of issues generally lend themselves well to informative learning (Kegan, 2009), as is the case with learning from a book and applying the knowledge gained.

In such cases, the role of research could consist of evaluating whether the solution is actually sufficient, or whether unexpected circumstances complicate the situation. In most cases, however, conscious reflection, discussion with colleagues and students, and possibly engaging in a mutual search for potential improvements should suffice (compare the concepts of ‘reflection-in-action’ and ‘reflection-on-action’ as defined by Schön 1987). How do I proceed in supervising my students today? What has the team meeting achieved?

Complicated educational issues
In general, when referring to complicated issues, the issue is clear, but the solution is not. Such situations require diagnoses and remedies, as outlined in Schein’s (2005) doctor-patient model. In educational contexts, this concerns issues such as: Does our curriculum offer students sufficient flexibility? How can we improve the correspondence between interim formative assessments and final assessments? In these situations, ‘the right solution’ is developed through behavioural prescriptions and tools. The learning is assimilative (Illeris 2010).

Research can help create an overview of existing solutions, as well as test these solutions. In many cases, however, it is enough for educators to adopt an inquiry-based approach. Commonly-used tools in this regard include the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle (Deming 1996), Contexts-Interventions-Mechanisms-Outcomes (CIMO) logic (Denyer, Tranfield & Van Aken 2008), and Lesson Study (De Weert & Logtenberg 2011). Attention to teacher inquiry is also reflected in concepts centring on the use of available data, including result-oriented working methods, evidence-informed education, and Positive Behaviour Support (see for example Bruggink & Harinck 2012; Schildkamp 2012).

Complex and persistent educational issues
Complexity and persistency apply to situations in which the core of the problem is not particularly clear and/or in which no solution is immediately evident. For example, how can we optimise teaching and learning in hybrid configurations of school, the workplace, and virtual environments? Such contexts call for a path in which the issue can be dissected and possible solutions explored. It is conceivable that such situations demand fundamentally different ways of looking, thinking, and acting (so: transitions). Issues that require ‘only’ the replacement of old routines entail accommodative learning (Illeris 2010). If more extensive changes are necessary, transformative learning is needed: instead of calling for expanding our knowledge and competences, such situations require us to change the nature of our knowledge and competences across the entire scale (Kegan 2009; Illeris 2010).

Research can support the learning needed in a variety of ways: it can be used to describe and clarify the issue, to offer perspectives, to identify possible explanations, to mention and compare possible solutions, to conduct experiments and to monitor processes. In this way, research could fit well with efforts to build sustainable development in education and schools. Both processes proceed in an iterative manner, and both are characterised by a relatively slow pace. The interaction could be described as a continuous process in which research helps to improve our understanding of practice and to support school development, which in turn serves as a source of theory development (Schenke 2015, 80-81).

Research as careful ‘slow’ thinking on educational issues
So, in broad terms, different types of research are suited to educators’ professional problems of different levels of complexity. Particularly for complex and persistent issues, it may be helpful for educators and researchers to start working together. Nevertheless, people have a natural tendency to simplify issues to such an extent that existing routines will suffice to address them (Kahneman 2011). The urge to think from within existing patterns can cause us to opt for quick solutions. For example, to counteract student absence, we might be tempted to either introduce a mandatory attendance policy, create registration systems, or report to parents instead of adopting an inquiry approach that would require more time and transformation. One consequence of our preference for existing patterns could also be that we would opt for a traditional, linear research approach, whereas interactive research would presumably yield more sustainable benefits. However, if an issue concerning learning and development does call for the type of slow thinking that is known as research, the educators and researchers involved should be equipped to collaborate successfully. The following text addresses the next two primary concepts in this regard: the boundary-crossing qualities of research competence and transdisciplinary competence.

The research competence of educators

Research competence is the overarching term for various elements that serve as characteristics of professionals such as educators, i.e. a) possessing an inquiring stance and the competence to think and work from within this attitude, b) being able to apply knowledge from available research to one’s own professional practice and c) being able to independently design and conduct small-scale, practice-based research (Andriessen 2014). In addition to these three elements of research competence, there is another overarching element that applies specifically to educators. This special characteristic is that educators- even more than other professionals – support others in the process of learning, including in the development of research competence (Nijenhuis et al. 2015; OOB 2015).

Figure 1: Elements of educators’ research competence
Figure 1: Elements of educators’ research competence

Research competence is an integral part of our professionalism, and it should thus always be seen in relation to other qualities that make us who we are and what we do: our professional identity. The four elements of research competence represented in Figure 1 can be described as follows.

Inquiring stance
First, an inquiring stance can be defined as having an open attitude, being curious, being critical, and wanting to understand, support, justify, build, concede and innovate (Bruggink & Harinck 2012; Losse & Nahuis 2015; Van der Rijst 2009). Although competences in research and reflection do not necessarily constitute a component of an inquiring stance, these are important ‘tools’ for its application and thus its contribution to the assignment of meaning and the competence to improve action (Bruggink & Harinck 2012, 50-52). On the other hand, an inquiring stance can be seen as a prerequisite for conducting research (Van der Rijst 2009). We could argue that, without an inquiring stance, research would remain limited to a trick, a mechanical procedure that is not fuelled by any curiosity about answers to the issues being investigated.

For relatively simple issues, an inquiring stance is manifest in asking reflective questions, engaging in discussion with colleagues and students and possibly in collaborating to identify opportunities for improvement. In this case, the inquiring stance is thus the attitude of reflective practitioners, who build delays into their actions. For more complex issues, behaviour based on an inquiring stance is not merely reflective, but also more inquisitive. In studies by Bruggink and Harinck (2012) and by Greve, Munneke and Andriessen (2015), this is summarised through the terms ‘inquiry-based learning’ and ‘proper examination’. Finally, for issues that are complicated and persistent, an inquiring stance is evident in the methodical application of research competences. In this regard, we refer to practitioner research (by educators), practice-based research (by researchers), and everything in between.

Applying research
The second element of research competence, applying research in one’s own professional practice, contributes to keeping the vocational field up to date. It entails modernisation and innovation based on existing research rather than according to intuition and experience. Some research knowledge has been included in manuals, and some remains for current and aspiring educators to read on their own in scientific publications and to use in their actions.

As argued by the Netherlands Educational Council (Onderwijsraad 2006, 9), research can ‘yield a reliable judgement concerning the suitability of methods and approaches, thus preventing the protracted ideological discussions and “trial and error” in practice.’ The Council does not advocate the wholesale adoption of evidence-based education, but a phased and differentiated approach. Depending upon the state of knowledge in a given field, this is expected to generate a systematic process of exploratory research, development work, and practical experience that will ultimately produce an overview of what works, as well as why and how it works. Only then can hard experiments with control groups be justified (Onderwijsraad 2006). This approach could be compared to the model elaborated on by Van Yperen, Veerman and Bijl (2013), who distinguish four levels of evidential value (applied to the context of youth services): 1) descriptive evidential value, which demonstrates the potential of interventions; 2) theoretical support for promising interventions; 3) indicative evidential value, based on well-defined interventions that have proven effective and 4) causal evidential value, which demonstrates the efficacy of interventions. This model does justice to the notions of practice-based evidence and evidence-based practice, two movements in which the four-level model of evidentiary value can help realise the interaction between practice and evidence (Van Yperen et al. 2013).

The consideration of the possibilities of ‘applying research’ can be of relevance to any type of professional issue as described above. Nevertheless, building on available research as a foundation for individual actions is not commonplace. Negative connotations sometimes stick to evidence-based working methods. The concept is associated with hard evidence and a linear approach to research that would lead to prescriptions for action set in stone for educators, without allowing room for their own practical wisdom. This negative connotation threatens to allow ‘fast thinking’ to take precedence over the desire for innovation. One effect could be the absence of motivation on the part of educators to start working with research outcomes. It could potentially be beneficial to encourage them to develop an inquiring stance, thus making them curious about the outcomes of research. At the same time, they would also become more critical and less likely to accept research outcomes as irrefutable truths. Instead, they would be more likely to see such results as a supplement to their practical knowledge and as a potential foundation upon which to base their own actions (Enthoven & Oostdam 2014; Verbeek & Wassink 2014).

Conducting research
Conducting (small-scale, practice-based) research – the third element of research competence – refers to targeted, reproducible, and systematic data collection (Cochran-Smit & Lytle 2009; Ponte 2012; Zwart, Smit & Admiraal 2014). It entails a research cycle in which methodological rules are followed in order to clarify an issue; to map literature; to design a research approach; to collect, process, and analyse data; to describe results; to derive conclusions; to make recommendations, and to report on all of these actions. Conducting research can contribute to insight into their own actions, the process of building on insights from others, the development of knowledge of their own changing profession, the professional development of educators, and to the quality and development of their work practice (Admiraal, Smit & Zwart 2013; Bruggink & Harinck 2012; Ros et al. 2013; Van den Bergh & Ros 2015; Van Veen, Zwart, Meirink & Verloop 2010; Vanassche & Kelchterman 2014). Conducting research also lends itself to the reinforcement of an inquiring stance and to the acquisition of knowledge and skills with regard to conducting research (Van der Linden 2012). Conducting research is furthermore an effective learning strategy that contributes to self-directed learning. Research skills and study skills overlap to a large extent (Geerdink 2010).

In their international literature survey of peer-reviewed research published by teachers, Admiraal, Smit and Zwart (2013) distinguish four types of teacher research: action research, lesson study, self-study, and design-based research. The results of the studied teacher research appear to be increased teacher knowledge, greater use of research in practice, an increased capacity for critical thinking, and increased self-confidence as teachers. ‘Most importantly, however, participation in research appears to be a meaningful form of professional development for teachers’ (Admiraal, Smit & Zwart 2013, 25, translated). The authors observe that few of the studies they examined contributed to the generation of scientific knowledge concerning education, even though such results could be expected, given their selection criteria (that is: peer-reviewed and published research). The scope of teacher research thus apparently remains limited to the knowledge base within the field of educational practice. It could be discussed whether this ‘limitation’ really is a pity or if it is more than worth the trouble, in light of the often-painstaking effects of research conducted by outsiders in practice.

Supporting the development of research competence
Fourth and finally, the element of supporting others in the development of their research competence applies to both teacher educators and educators elsewhere in the domain of education. The most efficient manner of reinforcing the research competence of students is not yet clear (Bruggink & Harinck 2012). For several years, teacher-training programmes in the Netherlands have been active to gain insight into this matter and to build attention to research competence into the curriculum. In addition to this curriculum development, supporting the development of research competence implies demands on teacher trainers. They must possess research competence and serve as inspiring examples (Geerdink 2010, 73) and must be able to transfer research competence. This is more easily accomplished when the learning environment has a culture of research (Van der Linden 2012). An increasing number of teacher trainers have been developing themselves in this field. Many personnel advertisements currently call for teachers with research experience, and researchers are regularly invited to give guest lectures or to assess research. The greatest challenge is to assign teachers, teacher-researchers, research teachers, and researchers in such a way as to ensure balance at both the individual and team level in terms of subject content, teaching competences, and research competence. At the same time, integral attention to research competence is needed in both the curriculum and in vocational preparation.

Professional issues and research competence
Reflecting on the conceptual framework presented thus far, differences in the complexity of issues as described earlier can be related to the various elements of research competence. Consideration of the possibilities of ‘applying research’ can be relevant to any type of issue. The dimensions ‘working from within an inquiring stance’ and ‘conducting research’ nevertheless form a sliding scale that corresponds to the growing complexity of issues, in which explicit research knowledge and competences play an increasingly important role (see also Enthoven & Oostdam 2014).

Transdisciplinary competence

The second type of boundary-crossing qualities in working (together) as educators and researchers on professional issues is the competence to collaborate and engage in mutual learning across theoretical and practical boundaries. This transdisciplinary competence consists primarily of the three elements shown in Figure 2 and summarised in the following:

Figure 2: Elements of transdisciplinary competence
Figure 2: Elements of transdisciplinary competence

Good research?
With regard to educational research (and social sciences in general), a vast amount of methodological textbooks consider the different parts of research processes, such as problem definition, theorising, research planning, data collection, et cetera. All parts should contribute to rigorous research expressed in terms of validity and reliability. However, that which is considered as valid and reliable differs between methodological approaches and is related to epistemological beliefs. Anderson and Herr (1999) have formulated several alternatives for practitioner research and practice-based research in addition to, or in replacement of, existing interpretations of the concept of validity. They distinguish between result validity (the research contributes to the solution of the problem), process validity (the research approach corresponds to the manner of development within the organisation), democratic validity (the stakeholders are involved in the research), catalytic validity (the stakeholders feel that the research provides additional insight for improving practice) and dialogical validity (the research includes sufficient exchange between stakeholders) (Anderson & Herr 1999). These alternatives concern the mutual efforts of researchers and practitioners, as well as research conducted by practitioners. Directly related to this is the usability of the research in the development of professional practices.

In teacher research and practice-based research, both scientific rigour (see above) and interaction are significant and critical dimensions. So, the quality of teacher research and practice-based research is determined by 1) the degree of ‘simply good research‘ (valid and reliable) and 2) the degree of mutual knowledge development in interactive research (Akkerman, Bronkhorst & Zitter 2013; Andriessen 2014; Butter & Verhagen 2014; De Bruijn & Westerhuis 2013; De Jong et al. 2013; Den Boer et al. 2011; Ros & Vermeulen 2011; Ruijters 2016; Teurlings et al. 2011; Van de Ven 2007; Vanassche & Kelchterman 2014). The first aspect is addressed in the above; the second aspect is elaborated on in the following. The consideration and combination of both dimensions is involved in any research, and requires researchers and educators to explain the choices that they have made.

Interactive research
The engagement of researchers and educators in interactive collaboration on research (the second element of transdisciplinary competence) extends from addressing the professional issue up to and including valorisation, all with input in the form of both practical and theoretical knowledge (De Jong et al. 2013; De Jong 2015; Ellström 2008; Gibbons et al. 1994). Practical relevance thus takes on an integral form within this process of mutual knowledge development. This entails a specific responsibility for researchers. They must do more than ‘simply conducting good research’ for scientific relevance. They must also address the issue through dialogue with practitioners, with the goal of developing the practice. This is engaged research, which takes into account its potential effects on the surroundings. It is research whose positive influence on practice is regarded as being of equal importance to its implications for science. Involving educators and other stakeholders in all phases of the research process poses a challenge to the usual standards and criteria for success in scientific research (Edwards 2002; Rickinson, Sebba & Edwards 2011; Van de Ven 2007; Verbeek & Wassink 2014). Besides, as we have seen in the above, these standards are also discussed in such scientific research.

In order to allow interactive research to be useful and contribute to the actual development of practice, teacher-researchers and practice-based researchers should possess the following six qualities. First, they should possess a development-based stance. In other words, they should work from within the ambition and willingness to understand the complex field of practice and to contribute to the development of this practice. Contributing to change calls for researchers to broaden their perspectives beyond issues that are considered important in the field of science to include issues that are important to practice (Schenke 2015). It also implies that they must go beyond collecting information, making diagnoses and proposing remedies, adopting instead a primary focus on increasing the learning capacity of the parties who are raising the issue to be investigated. Schein (2005) refers to this as ‘the role of process consultant’, as distinguished from that of the substantive consultant (expert model or doctor-patient model).

A second quality regarding interactive researchers is that they should be able to clarify issues or topics systematically in collaboration with practitioners, in addition to sharpening them to reveal the core. In this iterative form of issue articulation, they should actively value practical knowledge, a third quality. This calls for researchers to do justice to the complexity of practice and to observe it in a holistic manner, taking various perspectives into account, as well as insights from the various disciplines (Fortuin 2015; Spelt 2015). Researchers should be able to guide practitioners in their efforts to consider the past, present, and future of an issue, as well as its context. They should also help practitioners recognise any ‘problems behind the problem’. For example, what is at hand if a new educational tool does not bring about the expected outcomes? Is the design of the tool inadequate? Is the tool only suited for specific types of students? Is the tool adequate but not being implemented because teachers do not know how to use it or do not actually support the tool? The path of clarification and sharpening to reveal the core (the definition of the professional issue) is an art unto itself. It has characteristics of short-term and long-term research, based on explorations in and with the field of practice, with a short-cyclical character and a continuously-shifting perspective (Butter 2015; Butter & Verhagen 2014; Heikkinen 2014; Schein 2005). As researchers, we possess certain substantive expertise (which is often the reason we are asked), and this acts as a filter on our lens (the theoretical framework). Discoveries in the documentation concerning the issue and in conversations with stakeholders concerning their practical knowledge help us arrive at ideas for delving into certain research literature, probing more deeply into these aspects in subsequent conversations. Such issue-articulating conversations should also include discussion about the extent to which the resolution of the issue that has been defined will actually require research (or follow-up research), or whether other activities might be preferable. In other words, the analyses in the initial phase could lead to the conclusion that something other than research is needed in order to continue the process, thus possibly concluding the collaboration. If it becomes clear that research would be desirable in order to support the development of educational practice, however, the professional issue should be developed into a research question, based on insights from previous research.

Interactive research also imposes demands on the design of the study (De Jong et al. 2013; Gibbons et al. 1994; Rickinson, Sebba & Edwards 2011). For this reason, researchers should have a fourth interactive quality: the quality of designing and conducting studies with practitioners, with an appropriate role for these practitioners that ranges from respondent to sounding board to co-researcher, and from outsider to active participant. Views concerning the distribution of roles between researchers and practitioners will need to be discussed and adjusted repeatedly, against the background of the interaction demanded by the professional issue. Based on the results of his study on collaboration between school managers, teachers, and researchers in research and development projects in secondary schools, Schenke (2015) advocates collaboration from the start (the original professional issue) up to and including the consideration of the implications of the research results for the field of educational practice. Schenke concludes that, in a collaborative project, the boundary practice that emerges and the learning mechanisms that occur are determined by the mutual reasons for collaborating, the division of tasks amongst those involved and the manner of communication. More boundary traffic (e.g. an active data-collection role for educators or the involvement of researchers in considering school development) increases the presence of transformative learning mechanisms. It also increases the likelihood that new routines will emerge in the school (e.g. more teacher inquiry with regard to school development) and amongst the researchers (e.g. more transdisciplinary working methods).

The fifth quality researchers need in interactive research is the ability to provide explicit clarification of research activities, outcomes and returns, both during and after the study. This entails 1) statements concerning the usability of the research for the educational field. Usable research is perceived as relevant, understandable, acceptable, ethical, plausible, legitimate, inspiring, insightful, and applicable. 2) Resolutions for professional issues in the form of guidelines for action and instruments.

Sixth and finally, interactive research involves implementation, innovation and valorisation competence. This concerns the competence of researchers in providing proper guidance to the educational field throughout and following the research, in addition to inspiring educators in the development of new behaviour and the use of new instruments in their professional practices.

Teaching about research
Returning to the three elements of transdisciplinary competence, the third element teaching about research will now be addressed. This element of integrating research and development into education includes supervising the development of research competence, transdisciplinary competence, and the role development of both practitioners and researchers. Teaching can help researchers level with the field of educational practice. It can make them more likely to be accepted, and it can be seen as enhancing the legitimacy of their roles as practitioner-researchers and practice-based researchers. At the same time, researchers who teach could contribute to the development of practice through the process of their teaching. Conducting research with students, giving lectures (or guest lectures), supervising or assessing student research – all of these activities are examples of boundary practices in which research can enhance teaching. According to Visser-Wijnveen (2013), this can occur through 1) the reinforcement of the inquiring stance of students, 2) imparting knowledge to students with regard to a subject area or discipline, 3) helping students become familiar with the phenomenon of research and 4) contributing to the recruitment of research competences in students. Conversely, teaching can enhance research: through input from students, through reflection by researchers on their teaching roles, and through the broadening of the research focus as a result of the specific approach demanded by teaching (Visser-Wijnveen 2013).

Research competence of both researchers and and educators
Reflecting on the concept of research competence in collaborative work on educational issues, everything that applies to researchers in this regard also applies to educators. Learning how to cope with professional issues (including the issue of developing research and transdisciplinary competence) in current practice within the system of higher professional education is one type of ‘jumping in’ for researchers, educators, and students. It is accompanied by a certain amount of interdisciplinary role development for all parties involved, not in a temporary boundary practice between professionals, but as a new interpretation of the role of professionals. Schenke (2015) observes that the development of transdisciplinary competence emerges through active participation in an inquiry-based, transdisciplinary project. The deliberate design of the intensive interaction between researchers and educators can support both the role and process of professional development. In the same vein, the deliberate design of limited boundary traffic can support professional role stability. Fortuin (2015) reaches a similar conclusion in the context of teaching and learning boundary-crossing skills in environmental science education.


This article has presented a developing conceptual framework for a research programme aimed at enhancing our understanding of the course of collaboration between educators and researchers on issues related to learning and development, as well as our understanding of how participants can improve their collaboration. This framework builds on a) snowball-sampled literature, b) the author’s earlier publications and c) discussions with both educators and researchers. The resulting conceptual framework for studying the boundary crossing of educators and researchers working on educational issues forms the basis for the empirical research agenda of the programme initiated.

Three concepts have been discussed. First, the nature of educational issues is relevant to determine the role research can have in clarifying and solving the issue. Relatively simple issues primarily call for professional reflection. Complicated issues mainly need more thorough practitioner inquiry. In complex and persistent issues, explicit research knowledge and competences play an increasingly important role. Collaboration between educators and researchers can help clarify the issue and find solutions. This collaboration calls for specific competences of partipants. In that regard, the second concept of research competence has been further discussed. Educators (and researchers) with research competence 1) think and work from an inquiring stance, 2) utilise existing research 3) conduct research themselves and 4) supervise the development of the research competence of students. The third and final concept is transdisciplinary competence. Researchers (and educators) with this competence 1) conduct good research, 2) engage in interactive collaboration on research, and 3) teach about research.

Discussion and topics for further research

It is argued that both researchers and educators need research competence and transdisciplinary competence for crossing their ‘own’ boundaries in a new culture of collaboration on educational issues. These two concepts enhance our understanding of the course of collaboration between practitioners and researchers on professional issues. They also enhance our understanding of balancing the roles of both practitioner and researcher, for example as a teacher-researcher. The framework suggests that collaboration and high boundary-crossing competences result in better understanding and solving educational issues. However, empirical research is required to validate these concepts, their interplay and revenues. It may be argued that preferred contexts to proceed in investigating boundary-crossing collaboration on educational issues should be the ones in which research, educational degree programmes and the vocational field converge, as well as those in which Mode 2 and the ETI perspective are (or can be) addressed. How do participants interact? What roles do they take? What do they learn? However, other contexts are equally important to address when testing the framework. For example, if research competence and transdisciplinary competence are low, it could be stated that sufficient ground for interactive research is lacking and that it would be more appropriate to choose a more traditional RDD-configuration. Different kinds of dialogical activities in boundary crossing (e.g. Akkerman & Bakker 2011, 2012 bring up identification, coordination, reflection, and transformation as learning mechanisms) could demand different types of competences. Thinking about this, one could say that developing research and transdisciplinary competence enlarges the range of dialogical activities and learning mechanisms that are possible in interaction.

In constructing an empirical research agenda, several other options can also be mentioned. Building on the elaboration of the concept of research competence with the aim of envisioning challenges in working on educational issues, questions for empirical research include the following: How do practitioners, researchers, and students view the components of research competence? How are these components interrelated? How does research competence relate to other qualities of practitioners? What does working in the field of education (student learning, team functioning) demand with regard to the research competence of teachers? What does their research competence contribute, and to whom or to what (for example, students, themselves, their teams, further education, the vocational field, society), and what exactly does this contribution entail? What are the conditions for developing and using research competence?

Building on the elaboration of transdisciplinary competence, questions for empirical research include the following: What views do researchers have concerning practitioner research and practice-based research? What do practitioners think of this? How do practitioner-researchers and practice-based researchers realise their roles; what conditions are addressed, and what benefits do they realise? To what extent, on what points, and in what way do researchers want to develop themselves in their roles? What do practitioners perceive that researchers need with regard to role development?

Another research topic is the role of teacher leaders (educators who supervise teams in the inquiry-based and systematic improvement of educational quality) and what is needed to equip them for this role. Studies on innovation projects in the field of education have indicated that inquiry-based learning and practitioner inquiry are currently not being addressed to any great extent (Den Boer & Teurlings 2014; Van den Berg 2013). There is evidence of a positive relationship between the research competence of educators and the quality of education, although the available research on this point remains relatively sketchy and fragmented (for example, see Imants 2010; Ros et al. 2013; Snoek 2014; Van den Berg et al. 2011). Teachers who are involved in practitioner inquiry could serve as inquiring, transdisciplinary educator-leaders in their teams, largely by contributing to the process of mutual working and learning for the purpose of quality improvement (see, for example, Castelijns, Koster & Vermeulen 2009; Verbiest 2012; Verbiest 2014). Results from a study by Van den Bergh and Ros (2015) in Dutch training schools for the university for teacher education reveal that not every school manager is aware that research constitutes an important part of any Master’s programme. The positioning of Master’s-level teachers (and teachers-in-training) at both the school and supra-school levels could be improved through actions such as having them lead research groups (with supervision by an experienced researcher or teacher-researcher). In addition to research competence, teacher leaders should possess team and leadership qualities, including a belief in their own competences, as well as those of the team. Formal and informal recognition for teacher leaders, the willingness to engage in mutual practitioner inquiry within teams, a clear vision on the management of practitioner inquiry, and a culture of inquiry within schools are indispensable to the successful introduction of practitioner inquiry, as directed towards the quality of education (Krüger 2010; Snoek 2014; Van den Bergh & Ros 2015; Van der Zwaard 2014).

Whatever the choices made in further research on research and transdisciplinary competence, it would be counterproductive to make these without addressing professional issues and taking the ownership of practitioners and other stakeholders into account.

This article is adapted from Van den Berg (2016).


Dr Niek van den Berg, Professor of Applied Sciences, Aeres Wageningen University of Applied Sciences (Netherlands), n.van.den.berg(at)aeres.nl

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