Friday 24 March 2017

The school research champion: Are we asking them to do mission impossible?

Are we asking the school research leads/champions to do mission impossible? Over the last two years I have had the privilege of meeting colleagues from around the world, be it England, Scotland, Sweden, Australia and the USA, who are attempting to embed the systematic use of evidence within their schools.  However, the more I both talk to school research champions and read about knowledge brokering, the more am I inclined to the view that we may be asking the individual school research champion to do the impossible.  If not the impossible, maybe we are asking the school research lead to have a range of skills which are highly unlikely to be found in a single individual.   Instead, maybe we should be thinking in terms of ‘teams of champions’ who together have a diverse range of knowledge, skills and experience, and who are able to deal with all aspects of the role of a school research champion/knowledge broker.    So over the rest of this post, I will draw heavily upon the work of (Kislov et al., 2016) who explored the challenges faced by knowledge brokers within a health care setting, to help us understand the ‘impossibility’ of the school research champion’s job.  In doing so, we will:
  • Describe what we mean by a knowledge broker
  • Explain the different aspects of the role of the knowledge broker
  • Examine the tensions between different aspects of knowledge brokering
  • Consider the tensions between different types and sources of knowledge
  • Look at the the tensions resulting from the ‘in-between’ position of brokers
  • Note the unintended consequences of knowledge brokering
A future post will explore: how those tensions can be managed by adopting a team-based approach to (One final point, during the rest of this post I will be using the terms knowledge broker and school research champion/lead, synonymously).

What do we mean by the term ‘knowledge broker’?

(Kislov et al., 2016) describe knowledge brokers as:

… individuals that bridge a gap in the social structure and help knowledge flow across that gap by enabling translation, co-ordination and alignment between different perspectives and facilitating transaction between previously separate practices. (p107)

Different aspects of the role of the knowledge broker

(Kislov et al., 2016) state that knowledge brokering is a multi-dimensional process which includes three separate tasks.

Information management involves identifying analysing, packaging and spreading research evidence and other forms of codified knowledge, such as data from quality improvement projects, in order to inform policy and practice decisions of research users.

Linkage and exchange enables the interaction co-ordination and exchanges of ideas between different professional groups such as policy makers, researchers, managers, doctors and other clinicians (and in the case of education CEOs of MATs, headteachers, teachers and teaching assistants)

Capacity building implies using knowledge to develop capacity in the health care (education)  system to utilize research evidence and, ultimately enact positive changes by improving services (schools) and patient (pupil) outcomes.  (p108)  Amended by the author .

Table 1 (Kislov et al., 2016) p108 attempts to capture aspects of knowledge brokering role and the skills required for their realisation.

Information management
Linkage and exchange
Capacity building

Generic skills
·      Understanding the cultures of both the research and decision-making environments
·      Ability to establish credibility
·      Ability to assess the context of implementation
·      Communication skills
·      Problem-solving skills
·      Project management skills

Specific skills
·      Searching and retrieving evidence
·      Appraising evidence
·      Synthesizing evidence
·      IT skills
·      Tailoring resources to local needs
·      Mediation skills
·      Negotiation skills
·      Networking skills
·      Interpersonal skills
·      Stakeholder management and influencing skills
·      Teaching skills
·      Mentoring skills
·      Facilitation skills
·      Change management skills
·      Improvement skills

Examining the tensions between different aspects of knowledge brokering

As (Kislov et al., 2016) note in an ideal world the different elements of knowledge brokering would complement one another.   However, both linkage and capacity building, which are both difficult to measure, may get less attention that information management.    Kislov et al argue that within a capacity building role knowledge brokers may switch from ‘facilitating’ – helping others to mobilise evidence – to doing – when they implement change on their own.  So in the case of the school research lead/champion – they may find it much easier to conduct an inquiry into some aspect of the school, rather than bringing about changes in teachers’ capacity to use different sources of knowledge and evidence.  Indeed, with capacity building there may be a tension between activities which create the impression of building capacity – say journal clubs, seminars and visiting speakers – and activities which build genuine capacity to increase teacher use of research.

Considering the tensions between different types and sources of knowledge

(Kislov et al., 2016) cite the work of (Gabbay and May, 2004) who argues that doctors rather than relying on clinical guidelines in their decision-making, use ‘mindlines’ – collectively constructed, internaliszed, tacit guidelines, which are are mainly informed by their own clinical experience, as well as by informal interactions with with peers, patients, local opinion leaders and pharmaceutical representatives (p108).

So in the context of the school research champion, it will not be enough for them to be ‘research literate,’ they will also need to have good pedagogical knowledge to understand how the research impacts on the work of teachers.  They will also have to have excellent managerial skills, as they will need to link different people within the school, be it teaching assistants, teachers, heads of department and members of senior leadership teams.  The school research champion will also have to be aware of the context and have ‘situational’ knowledge and be able to identify the ‘school as it is’ rather than the ‘school they would want.’   In other words, the school research champion will need to be aware of the willingness to participate in knowledge management and the priorities of the school, which may at this time lend itself to a significant use of research evidence.

(Kislov et al., 2016) go onto note that the requirement to weigh up different sources of evidence poses a number of practical questions.
  • How does the school research champion take into account both the written evidence – eg the EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit – and the tacit knowledge of teachers?
  • What skills are most important for the school research champion?
  • Do school research champions have a vested interest in working with external partners on say – EEF trials – which may not have the same priority for classroom teachers 
The tensions resulting from the ‘in-between’ position of brokers

(Kislov et al., 2016) note that the in-between intermediary position of the knowledge brokers enable them to bridge gaps between previously separated communities of practice, be it researchers and teachers.  School research champions may also sit between the school senior leadership team and teachers, and may be seen as someone who has a ‘foot in both camps’. 

Nevertheless, as (Kislov et al., 2016) note this ‘in-betweenness’ across creates a number of tensions, which have important implication for school research champions.
  • There is a risk that school research champions being seen as being more interested in research and theory rather than the practical needs of school teachers
  • There is a risk that school research champions are seen as neither part of the senior leadership team or the mainstream teaching staff.
  • There is a risk that that knowledge mobilisation and brokering within schools has a low priority, with insufficient resources being made available to support the brokering process.  This may lead to a focus on low effort/low impact activities, which get perceived to make little difference to the either the school or more importantly, pupil outcomes.
Unintended consequences

(Kislov et al., 2016) note that are a number of unintended consequences of allocating the role of school research champion to particular individual.
  1. How the role of school research champion is performed is contingent upon the school research champions knowledge, skills, experiences, preferences and values.
  2. It may be difficult to recruit individuals with the right skills set, especially research literacy.
  3. School research champions may seen the role as a ‘stepping stone’ to senior leadership
  4. Sustainability may also be weakened if ‘knowledge’ is seen narrowly as research evidence – as this compromise the credibility of ‘research use’ if practitioner expertise is largely ignored. 
(Kislov et al., 2016) go onto state:

All these factors can lead to a situation where the brokered evidence is made available (transferred or translated) to knowledge recipients without being taken up (mobilised or implemented) in practice.  In other words, knowledge brokers may be at risk of failing to broker knowledge, with the latter being lost in the ‘in-between’ world. p110
To conclude

As (Kislov et al., 2016) note - is it  reasonable to expect anyone individual to have all the skills necessary to be a successful school research champion, cope with the different types of knowledge, build connections both within and outside of the school, and at the same time maintain their credibility with diverse audiences – be it researchers, senior leadership or teaching colleagues.  Even if such colleagues do exist, are there enough of them to go round England’s 20,000 plus schools, probably not.  So in my next post, I will look at how we can address this issue by using a team-based approach to knowledge brokering within schools.


GABBAY, J. & MAY, A. L. 2004. Evidence based guidelines or collectively constructed “mindlines?” Ethnographic study of knowledge management in primary care. BMJ, 329, 1013.

KISLOV, R., WILSON, P. & BOADEN, R. 2016. The ‘dark side’of knowledge brokering. Journal of Health Services Research & Policy, 1355819616653981.


  1. Thank you Sharing Knowledge.

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  2. Hello really such a great post admin keep posting such a interesting posts thanks for sharing this blog.
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  3. Research needs to be embedded in a school's culture and systems if it is to be successful - that way it will be shared by many and the research expertise becomes shared. Yes, there is a danger of research expertise being diluted but that risk can be mitigated by sessions that focus on improving the necessary skills.
    Rob Robson