“When was the last time you were at a gathering and the ‘subjects’ of a study talked about it in glowing terms, because the research helped the practical work?”—Rami Nashashibi¹
At Education First, we work closely with systems leaders to address some of the biggest issues in public education. And all too often, we see these leaders and researchers design research questions and processes without engaging people with the greatest proximity to the problems they are trying to solve—namely, students and teachers. This lack of engagement can enable a researcher’s bias to creep into their processes and perpetuate existing gaps between practice and research.
We believe there’s a better way to conduct research. For our research for Heeding the Call for Change: Centering Equity in Social & Emotional Learning (SEL), we sought to co-conduct research with students and teachers so that their experience directly shaped the findings and built a bridge between research and practice. We formed a group of seven students, educators, family members and non-profit leaders from the SEL space across the nation to share their experience and expertise related to SEL and provide ongoing feedback on blind spots and biases throughout the research process². Whereas surveys or focus groups can capture input from people like students and teachers, an advisory group creates the space for those same people to provide their input and directly shape the research. Working alongside people proximate to the problem is a step toward restoring communities as experts and addressing the power dynamics often found within research processes.
Forming the Advisory Group
We formed the advisory group using equity-centered guiding principles. First, we identified voices and groups of people often not included in SEL research; in this case, that included out-of-school providers/nonprofit staff, educators, families of school-aged youth and students. We then created a list of individuals and organizations to participate in the advisory group and conducted 30 minute calls to build relationships, share the purpose of the advisory group and discuss their prior experiences and their hopes for the advisory group. Lastly, we compensated each member for their time and expertise.
The Advisory Group’s Work
After we finalized the advisory group members, we convened the advisory group three times throughout the research process. Advisory group members completed one to two hours of pre-work for each meeting (e.g., reading articles, reviewing research and editing findings) and completed a feedback survey to inform the design and agenda for future meetings.
Throughout the course of the three meetings, advisory group members provided input and feedback; they brainstormed ways in which SEL perpetuates inequalities, provided insights into how students and teachers experience SEL policies and practices, and reviewed our findings and recommendations.
Each of these three meetings led to fruitful discussions, meaningful relationship building and impacted the report in the following ways:
- A wider variety of identities and experiences: Though our research team held many different identities, we were several degrees removed from the classroom and did not have any Black researchers. The advisory group members spoke from the very perspectives that we lacked and helped to ensure that the report represented a wide range of lived experiences. For example, high school and college students on the advisory group shared their experiences of being students in COVID-era schooling; they expressed the heightened value of relationships with teachers given the difficulties they witnessed.
- Current real world examples: The advisory group members spoke to the research in practical ways by providing real world examples of topics. For example, an advisory group member brought to life the concept of “stakeholder engagement” by speaking about how they regularly held events with community members to inform the redesign of school policies and procedures.
- Contextualized feedback: Given the advisory group members’ day to day work and experiences, they were able to provide feedback on the research by drawing from their respective unique contexts. This allowed us to see which parts of the research aligned with what practitioners and students were actually seeing in schools and their communities. For example, when we asked the advisory group to reflect on our hypothesis that it is important to bridge in-school and out-of-school SEL, a nonprofit leader shared her experience collaborating on a SEL grant with a local school district.
In addition, advisory group members reflected on how this experience helped them build relationships with one another and learn new skills and content knowledge.
“In the last few minutes that I was talking, I noticed that I think [another student] in the chat said that she knew exactly what I was talking about…it made me feel less alone.”—Student
“I’m glad to be able to be here with you guys and hear from all of you because we all are coming from different places and…it’s so fulfilling to know that other people are feeling the same things that I’m feeling and are willing to talk about it.”—Student
“I feel like I learned so much and just got a lot of tangible things that I can actually take and do something with so I really appreciate you putting this together and allowing us to participate and learn from one another.”—Practitioner
We sought to use an equity-based approach to our research through engaging this advisory group. In the future, we hope to further challenge inequities in research processes and methods by working alongside system leaders, students, teachers and families.