Sparking knowledge: Educators and researchers making a difference together

Ever been asked to participate in a survey or study about early childhood and found yourself making excuses not to do it? You’re busy, right? It’s just another thing. But before placing that invitation in the bin, pause. It could be a chance to be part of something bigger than your own daily practice and the group of children you work with. The returns on investment might surprise you, says DR KELLY JOHNSTON, lecturer in STEM in early childhood.

Everyone gains when educators are actively involved in research projects. The benefits for the educators and the academics involved in the research are significant as is the flow-on effect for young children and the broader community. Research allows new ideas and information to be shared in a two-way process. Participation can spark educators’ interest, reflection and provide ideas for new practices. Educators also provide valuable insights and perspectives that deepen understanding of contemporary practice.

Connecting research and practice

Literature on early childhood theory and practice tells us that there is a longstanding disconnect between research conducted at an academic level and early childhood practitioners understandings and practice (Groundwater-Smith & Mockler, 2006). A key reason has been the inaccessibility of research publications for early childhood educators. Students and educators need to pay, subscribe or have university library membership to access most articles and even when they do, articles can be complex in format and couched in academic language that seems remote from everyday practice (Johnston, Highfield & Hadley, 2018).

What can research look like?

There are many different types of research that educators can be involved in. Online surveys are an accessible way for educators to share their knowledge and perspectives. Other research approaches include interactions with researchers, such as observation of practices or interviews with the research teams. There are also research approaches that result in the development of deeper learning relationships with the researchers, such as being involved in action research projects where the educators lead their own investigations that aligns with the researcher’s overarching project. Common to all of these approaches to research is a synergy of learning, where the researchers learn from the data collected from or with educators, and educators are inspired to think about different perspectives and ideas.

Educator perspectives

It keeps us thinking and makes us critically reflect … [on] our practices, beliefs and values’Kylie, Director.

Kylie O’Connell is director of a long day care centre where the staff participated in case-study research with a University. In the initial stages of the study, educators were involved in piloting or testing surveys. Educator feedback was used to redevelop the surveys and helped to ensure that the design was accessible for educators, family members and pre-service teachers. Future involvement in the study for educators at the service will include observation of practice and discussing their beliefs on how infants and toddlers experience math in their play and everyday routines. From an educator perspective, Kylie explained that involvement in research is a way for to keep up with current thinking and knowledge in the field and to make connections with their practice. For educators at her service research participation is not seen as passive, but rather a process of working alongside the researchers. Involvement in research sparks new ideas, new interests and encourages critical reflection.

How research works best

You may have to wait some time between active participation and seeing the findings analysed or written up as results from research are not usually immediately available. However, the value begins long before results are in. The experiences that take place during the research process often start professional conversations and inspire new ideas for practice at the centre. It might become a launching point for further reading or investigations.

When participation involves working with a researcher in more in-depth ways, even greater opportunities for co-learning are possible. Exchanging and growing ideas together allows educator and researcher to share the role of ‘more-knowledgeable other’. Professor Peter Moss emphasises the importance of hearing the voices of early childhood educators, whom he notes are pivotal in shaping more socially just and sustainable outcomes. He identifies the need for several changes including more opportunities for educator voices to be heard. Participation in research can support this process, creating opportunity for ‘democratic dialogue’ (Rönnerman, 2015) where all educators have equal opportunity to take part and be heard and where equity in collaboration is promoted and valued.


Groundwater-Smith S., & Mockler, N. (2006). Research that counts: Practitioner and the academy. Review of Australian Educational Research, 2(6), 105-117

Johnston, K., Highfield, K., & Hadley, F. (2018). Supporting young children as digital citizens: The importance of shared understandings of technology to support integration in play-based learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 49(5), 896-910. Doi: 10.1111/bjt.12664

Rönnerman, K. (2015). Developing collaboration using mind maps in practitioner research in Sweden. In L. Newman and C. Woodrow (Eds.) Practitioner research in early childhood: International perspectives (pp. 70-86). London: SAGE publications.

Kelly Johnston'
Dr Kelly Johnston is an Adjunct Fellow with the School of Education at Macquarie University. She specialises in young children's experiences with digital technology, with a particular interest in digital citizenship and digital wellbeing.

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