Where Is the Research in Inclusive Innovation? - Digital Promise

Where Is the Research in Inclusive Innovation?

Three young students gather around a tablet at school.

October 21, 2020 | By

As the lead researcher on our Inclusive Innovation team, I’ve been asked this question several times recently: Where is the research in inclusive innovation? With our Inclusive Innovation model, how must we rethink our research approach to put equity first, in process and results?

At the heart of Inclusive Innovation is the principle that people from communities that have been marginalized—those often intended as beneficiaries of innovations but usually left out of the design and development process—lead, participate in, and benefit from the innovation.

First and foremost, then, we intend the research embedded in the Inclusive Innovation model to serve the communities’ efforts in defining a priority challenge and designing solutions shaped by what is becoming known as context expertise. Context expertise is understood as intimate knowledge, gained by lived experience, of a substantive challenge and the factors that make solutions to the challenge locally workable.

While we expect these efforts to be informed by extant research and solutions already in the marketplace, persistent educational inequities demonstrate the inadequacies of most current policies and innovations to serve marginalized communities. Most current approaches are not serving those they intend to, especially those from marginalized communities, and we must explore new and refined processes such as Inclusive Innovation that place a primacy on context expertise.

A closer look at equity-driven research

This conception of research sounds deceptively simple on the surface, but that simplicity conceals the complexity just below.

Many researchers driven by concerns about the relevance, applicability, and utility of their research in educational practice are engaging in long-term partnerships with district systems and practitioner teams. Networked improvement communities, such as the Carnegie Math Pathways NIC and the Building a Teaching Effectiveness Network, and research-practice partnerships, such as those in the National Network for Education Research-Practice Partnerships (NNERPP), the Research Alliance for NYC Schools, and the UChicago Consortium on School Research, are just several well-known examples.

Our efforts at starting with communities’ expressed goals, perspectives on systemic education challenges, and desired outcomes move beyond applying research to practice—which is essential but in our view, lacks depth of contextualized experiences beyond the district system—to truly serve the needs of a community’s learners.

We have also recently seen more resources and thought pieces shared that critique how traditional research approaches uphold white dominant norms. While equity-driven scholars, advocates, and activists have long been calling for change, their voices are starting to be heard and heeded a bit more broadly. The charge to researchers to remedy typical research approaches includes:

Rethinking research under Inclusive Innovation

In our research work under the newly launched Center for Inclusive Innovation, we will go beyond lessons from practice-minded research and put in place research activities that displace white-dominant norms that are harmful to historically marginalized communities. Taking a learning stance, we are grappling with some key questions and considerations arising from our model of Inclusive Innovation, for example:

  • How do we as researchers earn trust with community members as partners and co-leaders in research, and reconcile traditional approaches to data collection and research with the harm they have inflicted on marginalized communities in the past?
  • How do we rethink what it means to be a researcher as community members co-lead and fully participate in each phase of research?
  • How do those with lived experience challenge us to think differently about the data that are collected?
  • How do we make use of new data collection methods that place community needs and community benefits at the center in an environment that usually prioritizes efficiency, consistency, and reliability across contexts, above particularity, exploration, and understanding of complexity?
  • How do we broaden the definition of data to include forms of knowing that are based on oral traditions, are richly contextualized by connections among community members, and leverage community assets? And what does it look like to use these data in research?
  • What types of outcomes will communities we serve prioritize, and how do we measure those outcomes? As Ken Shelton recently remarked in a keynote address to the League of Innovative Schools, the only question we should be asking is, “And how are the children?” Comprehensive and inexpensive data likely are not readily available for the most important outcome of children’s well-being.
  • What kinds of progress indicators will support communities’ design, development, and implementation of solutions addressing the priority challenges they identify? Interim and annual achievement tests in reading and math, which are readily available, are likely too distant from many solutions that communities co-design and implement, and would not necessarily overlap with the outcomes desired by the community. This problem is not new in practical research, but one which will need to be addressed head-on.

In short, we are re-examining questions every research project must answer: Who has expertise? What counts as data and evidence? Who decides? Who defines the outcomes, collects the data, and analyzes and gives it meaning, and how do these processes amplify the voices of those with context expertise?

As we embark on these efforts, we invite collaboration and thought partnership with communities and with fellow researchers striving to enact inclusive and equitable practices led by communities and driven by their needs. Above all, we are grateful for the opportunity to work and co-design with communities to build this new education research field.

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