‘Pracademic’: Just another made-up edu-word?

IPDA conference virtual presentation – with Trista Holloweck and Paul Campbell

While the idea of the scholar-practitioner is not new, and the term ‘pracademic’ has been smattered in research literature across various fields, the concept of the pracademic is only recently beginning to gain traction in the education community. It remains scarcely documented and has not yet been comprehensively theorised. So, is the term ‘pracademic’ just another made-up edu-word, a senseless attempt to label and divide educators along research-practice lines, or a concept worthy of inquiry and elaboration?

In my view, the notions of pracademic and pracademia are worthy of exploration. In some ways, all educators are pracademics, whether that be scholars who engage practitioners in their research, or practitioners who engage with research and those working in the academe. It can include the myriad of collaborations and interactions between those operating mostly in schools and those operating mostly in universities. Yet, much scholarship still fails to make it to those working in schools, and the expertise and wisdom of practitioners is still often missing from research and policy conversations about education.

Pracademia might be seen as a space or spaces; or as a stance, a deliberate situatedness in the grey, messy in-between space. It encompasses a way of being that embraces the bridging or knotting together of research and practice in ways that engage with multiple stakeholders or influence in multiple directions.

In my book Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference on Schools
(2020), I explored my own positionality as a pracademic, after hearing myself labelled as such by Professors Andy Hargreaves and Christian van Nieuwerburgh. I wrote in the Introduction:

“The unique perspective I bring to the field of professional learning is one of boundary-spanning teacher-leader-researcher who works to bridge the gap between research and practice. In the structure and writing of this book I model the way that I bring the lens of practising teacher and school leader to research, and bring a research lens to my daily work. I connect the dots between scholarly and practical domains, to operate in the space (or as the bridge) between the world of education research and that of classroom and school. This bridging work brings a research lens to schools, where teachers and school leaders enact theory into practice, tempered by their wisdom of practice and the emotional and human elements of education that shape their behaviours each day.”

In the Foreword to that book, Andy Hargreaves also described the emerging pracademic voice in education:

“Deborah Netolicky is part of a new breed of thought leader in education known as the pracademic. My autocorrect function on my laptop sometimes translates this as paramedic!! In fact, the two words and the worlds they capture are not all that far apart. … Pracademics span the worlds of research and practice. … the pracademic is here to stay, and Deborah Netolicky is providing us with an excellent example of what we can uniquely learn from this new kind of voice that has come onto the modern educational landscape.”

Moving beyond that book, and those reflections, led to more conversations with other pracademics, and further conversation around pracademic spaces, identities and behaviours. At the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement in January, my ‘extreme speech’ on the main stage explored pracademic identity, and I was part of a symposium on pracademia—with Trista Holloweck, Paul Campbell, Leyton Schnellert and Danette Parsley as discussant—titled ‘Pracademics: Exploring the tensions and opportunities of boundary-spanners who straddle the worlds of academia and practice’.

Now, as these conversations continue, tensions and complexities around pracademia in eduction continue to bubble up. Trista, Paul and I are now editing a Special Issue of the Journal of Professional Capital and Community on ‘Pracademia: Exploring the possibilities, power and politics of boundary-spanners straddling the worlds of practice and scholarship’. Yesterday, we presented some of our thinking at the virtual International Professional Development Association conference. Questions with which we engaged include:

  • What is a pracademic and who decides?
  • What does it mean to be a pracademic in different educational spaces?
  • What issues and/or tensions arise in the complex negotiation of the dual worlds of practice and scholarship?
  • What role do identity and belonging play in pracademia?
  • What does pracademia offer the field of education? 
  • Is the term limiting or empowering, divisive or productive?

We also shared three metaphors we are playing with that represent the ways in which we are defining the concept of pracademia with all its plurality, complexity and multiplicity.

Watch this space as this work continues to grow.

Building a school research culture

source: pixabay.com @ninocare

This year has been my first in a new role, the oddly titled ‘Dean of Research and Pedagogy’. I have a broad portfolio, including such things as pedagogy from PK-12 and overseeing the work of the Library, but two major aspects of the role are:

  • Building a professional learning culture of continual improvement, data generation and analysis. This includes overseeing the professional learning agenda and staff development, overseeing teacher action research projects, supporting our staff doing post-graduate study, leadership development, coaching teachers and leaders, and refining performance and growth processes.
  • Research innovation and support. This is about disseminating and building a body of research that promotes quality pedagogy and teacher improvement, executing evidence-based strategic initiatives, and working to develop a data analytics culture.

I sat down at the beginning of 2017 to map out how I was going to address these aspects of my role. What was the underlying strategy? What were the deliverables? Who were the key stakeholders? At the end of each year, how might I know I had been successful? What evidence of my own influence might I see if I was being successful in nudging the ever-nebulous school culture?

I wrote a two-year strategic plan (a working document that I revisit regularly) and put some measures for myself in place.

What follows is not my plan or those measures, but the kinds of things I have tried this year in my attempt at developing the research culture of the school.

  1. Harnessing internal and external expertise

As I explained in this recent blog post, staff development can include coaching, mentoring, consulting, courses, conferences and regular opportunities for goal setting and performance review. It includes collaborative learning experiences and those that occur over time. It includes harnessing both external and internal expertise.

This year a new initiative related to my role was called the Leadership Forum, a once-per-term cheese-and-wine event dreamt up and co-launched with the Director of Strategy. All of our school leaders, from Coaches and Year Co-ordinators to Heads of Faculty and the Executive, are invited each term to an early evening of cheese, wine, and connecting around leadership. This is an opportunity to connect the strategy of the school with the operational and relational work of our leaders.

The first Forum of the year was run by myself and the Director of Strategy, in which we took leaders through a process of reflecting upon research findings on effective school leadership, and then worked with them to set goals for themselves and their teams, aligned with the strategy of the organisation. For the second forum, we welcomed Professor Dylan Wiliam. For the third we ran a panel of three principals who spoke openly about their journeys of school leadership. And this final term, we welcomed Professor Pasi Sahlberg. This Forum provides one example of a way to engage teachers and leaders in current conversations around education, and with research and researchers.

Bringing experts into the school, and having them speak to our context, meant that their words and points connected more strongly with the people in the room. Also, staff enjoyed the collaborative experience of hearing them speak, together, so conversations have continued well after each presentation finished. Creating these kinds of crucibles of collaboration, and following up with books or articles that build upon the presentations, has been one way to nudge people’s thinking, especially when presenters are provocative or challenging.

  1. Research reports

I have published six of what I call the ‘Research Report’ to staff this year. The report is intended to provide all staff access to current thinking, research, and writing, around education. Across the year the report provides resources (from academic and theoretical, to popular and easily accessible) relevant to our specific school context, including to various sub-schools, faculties, and strategic priorities. The selected readings are a small selection rather than a comprehensive collection. Staff are encouraged to dip in and out according to their personal and professional interests.

I have been interested to note those people who have provided positive feedback about the report; many are non-teaching staff—from the Bursar to the administration staff—who have appreciated being able to immerse themselves in, or dip into, educational thinking, and have this shared in an accessible way. Making research accessible to all democratises the community and empowers everyone to have conversations around education. It has incited many corridor conversations, as well as more formal ones.

  1. Publishing on school platforms

Research is partly about communication and dissemination. In a school environment it is important that research can be made accessible for the community.

This year, on the school blog, I have written about things such as measuring success in education, professional conversations, and digital learning. In these posts I have referenced research in order to model how research can inform the thinking of educators and schools.

I was interviewed for the school podcast around the question, ‘What makes a great teacher?’, and I’ve written for and presented at other forums, in school and nationally.

Communicating in blogs, podcasts, and presentations, allows research to become alive and humanised.

  1. Keeping the staff professional reading library current

I am a card-carrying member of The Book Depository and have ordered plenty of resources for the professional reading library at school, in order to provide staff with the opportunity to engage with current research. At the end of each term, I promote a selection of books by emailing about them and placing them on a red trolley for the end-of-term staff morning tea in the Library.

I remind staff that professional reading can be counted as an informal professional learning activity under our Teacher Registration Board Professional Learning Activities Policy, so they can log it as part of their 20 professional learning hours per year for teacher registration.

  1. Keeping myself current

I could not do this role without keeping myself up to date with research. My adjunct position at a university helps to keep me current (as I have access to research literature behind the pay wall). It also allows me to do thorough literature reviews, such as those I have completed this year on digital learning and school libraries. I now have staff asking me to find current research literature for them to inform the work they are doing.

  1. Collaboration

It should go without saying that none of this happens without collaboration with a web of stakeholders. Relationships are key in this role. There’s no point me being in my office, reading away like the nerd I am, if no one is engaging with me or the work. Much of my day is spent in formal meetings or informal conversations.

One of the indicators of my success is when people seek me out, such as for individual coaching around career or professional development or a staff issue, to work with a team around a problem of practice, to generate data to gauge their impact, or to help with a Masters dissertation or PhD application.

One challenge to anyone in this kind of Research Lead role is the reality of the lives of teachers and school leaders. Educators are busy, pressed on from all angles, constantly rushing to their next class, to mark their next assignment, to jump through the next accountability hoop. Leisurely time and space to sit back and drink from the fire hose of current research literature is a fantasy. In addition, as this Deans for Impact blog post explains, teachers have deeply held sets of cultural and personal beliefs about learning and about how to best serve their students.

Engaging in research, and in discussions and explorations about research, can help teachers to interrogate those beliefs and bring together science, evidence, and systematic thinking with their praxis (wisdom of practice). We should value teachers’ lived experiences of lessons, relationships, students, and bringing content to life through pedagogy. We can also work to incrementally develop school cultures in which research becomes a part of ‘the way we do things around here’.