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Boundary Crossing in a Research-Practice Partnership in the Context of District Change

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This paper highlights the acts of boundary crossing that helped to sustain a long-term research-practice partnership (RPP) as it encountered a major district reorganization that disrupted the partnership’s ongoing joint work.

In RPPs, partners often navigate boundaries related to researchers and practitioners’ differing timelines, languages, and types of expertise, as well as frequent turnover and changing priorities in educational organizations (Coburn & Penuel, 2016). Akkerman and Bakker (2011) define boundaries such as these as “sociocultural differences that arise” when researchers and practitioners engage in joint work. In order to sustain partnership work, key brokers on the research and practice sides engage in “boundary crossing” acts, which can involve re-assertions of the core identity and mission of the partnership, building shared routines for coordinating lines of work, periodically reflecting on the work of partnerships, and transforming the focus or objects of joint work (Akkerman & Bakker; Penuel, Allen, Coburn, & Farrell, 2015; Spinuzzi, 2011).

Data Sources and Methods
We share the boundary crossing acts that emerged from a case study analysis of a school district engaged in a RPP focused on math instruction. Using both theoretical concepts and inductively developed codes, we coded data from 55 interviews and 23 observations involving 31 researchers and district leaders involved in the partnership. We analyzed coded data to identify patterns of association between particular boundary crossing acts and the kinds of challenges or discontinuities encountered, as well as patterns in who enacted them through discourse analysis of subject-object language.

We found that brokers on both the research and practice sides made use of the partnership’s existing routines for coordination to help the partnership survive a major threat to its existence—a district reorganization that shifted district priorities and removed key district leaders from positions of authority.

To sustain the partnership’s aims, researchers and district-side brokers renegotiated the goals of the partnership (objects) and changed the focus, anchored by tools of their joint work. When the district shifted away from a focus on adopted materials that aligned with the partnership’s vision for math instruction, educators helped researchers see the need to shift from co-designing professional development (PD) focused on materials to focusing PD on supporting rich discourse in math.

When meeting together, the partners often used “we” language and saw the most significant boundary as that between the partnership and new district leaders. At the same time, in interviews, both researchers and educators acknowledged their differences from one another and expressed concerns about the partnership’s viability. The common vision of math instruction shared by researchers and district-side brokers served as an important anchor to guide their efforts to sustain the partnership.

This study sheds light on the nature of the work of brokers who navigate multiple boundaries to sustain the partnership in the context of sociocultural differences and major disruptions to the work. It underscores that education leaders who act as brokers fulfill an important role of navigating boundaries between research and practice as well as within an educational organization.


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