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About Spanning Boundaries

About SB: About

What is Spanning Boundaries

Spanning Boundaries (SB) is a project whose goal is to continue to bridge the academic-practitioner divide. It is an attempt to curate and create knowledge and deliver it to a broad audience of individuals interested in creating a better American education system. This includes students, teachers, and practitioners in formal leadership roles; higher ed professors working with students whose current or future positions will impact the world of education; non-profit organizations supporting the work of schools and school districts; and for-profit companies developing products to enhance the PK-20 space. On the SB site, you will find a podcast, two monthly newsletters, turnkey resources for practitioners, a blog, and more. 

Why “Spanning Boundaries”

Much has been written about the concept of the boundary object [1]. Boundary objects are tools for cross-disciplinary collaboration that bridge distinct social and cultural worlds [2]. They take multiple forms—in this case, a digital forum (the Spanning Boundaries website)—and they perform at least three types of work: “they motivate collaboration, they allow participants to work across different types of boundaries, and they constitute the fundamental infrastructure of [...] activity” [3}.

Much has also been written about the concept of the boundary spanner (or boundary crosser) [4]. Spanning Boundaries is my attempt to act as a boundary spanner in order to build a stronger bridge between PK-20 researchers and PK-20 practitioners and organizational leaders. These two groups operate in similar circles and focus on similar problems, yet they remain untethered in critical ways. Research does not always make its way into the hands of practitioners, and when it does, it is not always easy to digest or apply. PK20 practitioners and leaders interested in challenging traditional schooling structures can benefit from an increased “depth” of interaction with quality research and researchers, yet they do not always have access to these resources and populations [5].

Research-Practice Partnerships (RPPs) are an increasingly popular approach to address this divide [6], yet they are hard to scale. The SB project is a modified version of an RPP. I have considerable experience reading academic research; I have extensive classroom teaching experience; and I have experience infusing research into virtual and on-site professional learning workshops intended to build organizational capacity to implement strategic initiatives. I am hoping that this diversity of knowledge and skills will allow me to serve as a conduit between two worlds, illuminating problems faced by PK-20 practitioners (that academics might be interested in researching) and infusing more theory into the work of classroom teachers and organizational leaders.

RPPs require “joint work” across boundaries [7]. Two key words, “joint” and “work”, highlight the complex and emergent nature of this endeavor. This site should act as a catalyst for new forms of collaboration—a process that requires an investment from all participating stakeholders. It is a bridge that is meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive [8]. As I explain in the intro to the first edition of each newsletter, what you will find on this site is not an exact recipe to follow but rather a set of ideas that can be strung together with other ideas to create new systems of learning for all students. Academic research does not (and should not) provide a proverbial silver bullet—what you will find here is not a solution to whatever problem you might be trying to solve in your school or district [10]. What works in one situation often does work in another [11]., yet this does not suggest that knowledge about what works in one situation cannot be used to inform the work being done in another. And that is how research should be used—to inform analysis and action.

Applying the information from the various resources on this site to inform analysis and action requires you to actively make sense of these resources. Why? Because boundary objects are dynamic and relational [12] They are dynamic because they can change—there is no essential characteristic to the objects we design. Research summaries and podcasts on the SB site are static once published, yet the format and nature of the content are flexible. Boundary objects are also relational because their interpretation and function can differ from person to person—how one practitioner interacts with the material may differ from a peer in a similar role. Our pre-existing beliefs and subsequent behavior shapes the way we use tech just as the tech itself shapes our belief systems—in short, it is a co-constitutive process.

As a boundary spanner, my role is to be flexible, to learn, and to accommodate the unique contextual needs of both practitioners and researchers in order to create a more sustainable and applicable bridge across social and cultural worlds. Yet this cannot happen without your support. What you think about the research, how it both relates and does not relate to the work you are doing, what you might do with these theories, how these theories connect to the practical experiences you have each day—this is work that you can do to elevate the purpose of this project. It is also critical information that you can share to contribute to the collaborative essence of SB.

Why “Fishing For Problems”

Beista et al. write that “the rhetorical power of the idea of ‘what works’ — and similar notions such as evidence-based practice or evidence-informed teaching — should not make us forget that things never work in an abstract sense, and never work in a vacuum. Alongside asking ‘What works’? one should also ask ‘What does it work for’” [13].

The first question—what works?—implies that educational research should be focused on solving problems. Yet as the authors suggest, 

“research should also identify problems, problematise what is not seen as a problem, and in that sense cause problems. [...] Educational research that operates in a problem-posing rather than a problem-solving mode is, in this regard, not just research on or about or for education, but is, in a sense, itself a form of education [emphasis added] as it tries to exchange mindsets and common perceptions, tries to expose hidden assumptions, and tries to engage in ongoing conversations about what is valuable and worthwhile in education and society more generally” [14].

This project is an attempt not to find what works, but rather to infuse theory into the K12 space in order to support practitioners and organizational leaders in identifying their “why”—a process that requires the elevation of the often ignored yet critical notion of judgment and value (Biesta). My theory of action is founded on a belief that making “the why” explicit—often through self-reflection—can begin to support what the authors call “problem posing.” Why did something work? Did it work for everyone? What can I learn from both my successes and my failures? How can I begin to translate this data into information, information into knowledge, knowledge into problem posing, and problem posing into action that benefits all students? And finally, do I view education as a “thoroughly more and political practice, one that needs to be subject to continuous demoractic contestation and deliberation” [15]? 


[1] See Akkerman, S., & Bruining, T. (2016). Multilevel boundary crossing in a professional development school partnership. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 25(2), 240-284.; Akkerman, S. F., & Bakker, A. (2011). Boundary crossing and boundary objects. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 132-169.; Carlile, P. R. (2002). A pragmatic view of knowledge and boundaries: Boundary objects in new product development. Organization Science, 13(4), 442-455.$05.00.; Nicolini, D., Mengis, J., & Swan, J. (2012). Understanding the role of objects in cross-disciplinary collaboration. Organization Science, 23(3), 612-629.; Penuel, W. R., Allen, A-R., Coburn, C. E., & Farrell, C. (2015). Conceptualizing research-practice partnerships as joint work at boundaries. Journal of education for students placed at risk, 20(2015), 182-197.; Star, L.S. (2010). This is not a boundary object: Reflections on the origin of a concept. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 35(5), 601-617.; Star, S. L., & Griesemer, J. R. (1989). Institutional ecology, ‘translations’ and boundary objects: Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley’s museum of vertebrate zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science, 19(3), 387-420.

[2] See Penuel et al. 2015.

[3] See Nicolini et al. 2012, p. 612.

[4] See endnote 1. See also Engestrom, Y., & Sannino, A. Studies of expansive learning: Foundations, findings, and future challenges. Educational Research Review, 5(2010), 1-24.; Hubers, M. D., Poortman, C., Schildkamp, K., & Pieters, J. M. (2019). Spreading the word: Boundary crossers building collective capacity for data use. Teachers College Record, 121(1).

[5] Coburn, C. E. (2003). Rethinking scale: Moving beyond depth of numbers to deep and lasting change. Educational Researcher, 32(6), 3-12. See also Farley-Ripple, E., May, H., Karpyn, A., Tilley, K., & McDonough, K. (2018). Rethinking connections between research and practice in education: A conceptual framework. Educational Researcher, 47(4), 235-245.

[6] See Farley-Ripple et al. 2018. Penuel et al. 2015.

[7] Penuel et al. 2015.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Tucker, M. (2019). Leading high-performance school systems: Lessons from the world’s best. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

[10] Biesta, G., Filippakou, O., Wainwright, E., Aldridge, D. (2019). Why educational research should not just solve problems, but should cause them as well. British Educational Research Journal, 45(1), 1-4. 

[11] See Biesta, G. (2007). Why “what works” won’t work: Evidence-based practice and the democratic deficit in educational research. Educational Theory, 57(1), 1-22.; Biesta, G. J. J. (2010). Why ‘what works’ still won’t work: From evidence-based education to value-based education. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 29(2010), 491-503.

[12] Nicolini et al. 2012. See also Quick, K. S., & Feldman, M. S. (2014). Boundaries as junctures: Collaborative boundary work for building efficient resilience. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 24(3), 673-695.

[13] Biesta et al. 2019, p. 2.

[14] Biesta et al. 2019, p. 3.

[15] Biesta 2007, p. 1.

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