Encyclopedia of Teacher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Connecting Research, Policy, and Practice to Promote Inclusive Education

  • Amanda WatkinsEmail author
  • Verity Donnelly
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_38-1


European countries Educational policy Collaborative research Learning communities Inclusive education ecosystem 


The interconnection of educational research and classroom practice in the field of inclusive education is a critical issue being debated in many European countries. Educational research that involves practitioners – including teachers, school leaders, and other school team members – and professional researchers working in collaboration is mutually beneficial to all groups.

The question of how practitioners and researchers can be effectively supported to engage in interconnected, collaborative research is important for both school-based personnel and research teams. It is, however, also a key question for educational policy makers if research is to support wider educational change and development.

This paper considers policy, research, and practice and uses an ecosystem of support structures and processes for inclusive education (European Agency 2017a, b) to consider the interconnections between them. It explores these mutually supportive dimensions with a particular focus on developing and sustaining more inclusive education systems.

The Importance of Connecting Educational Research and Classroom Practice

The arguments for increasing the interconnections between the dimensions of educational research and classroom practice in inclusive education are clear and well communicated. Over the past decades, the idea of reaching across professional boundaries and finding new ways of thinking about and conducting research in education has grown. Both researchers and practitioners have recognized the need to move away from research “conducted on schools” to action research conducted “by and with researchers and practitioners” who have shared questions and lines of enquiry (see, e.g., Carr and Kemmis 1986).

However, it can be argued that in many European countries, educational “practice” and educational research and “theory” still operate as separate entities – inhabiting different professional worlds. Over the past two decades, many academics have suggested that the reconciliation of educational research or “theory” and school-based practice is essential for the improvement of education generally and inclusive education in particular.

Research from across different country contexts suggests that teachers and school teams are most effective in supporting all learners – including those facing barriers to their learning – when they use an evidence-based approach to change and develop their practice. Researchers also need to consider the perspectives and participation of practitioners.

Building on this, there is also a recognized need to develop policy to support partnership experiences between researchers and teachers in order to address what many people see as a long-standing and traditional separation between “academia” and classroom practice (Farley-Ripple et al. 2018).

Policy Connections to Educational Research and Classroom Practice

One obvious way for research and classroom practice to become further aligned is for more systematic collaboration to take place between schools and research institutions and classroom teachers and professional researchers. Collaboration between schools and research institutions can be seen as an important element of the wider school improvement and raising achievement for all agenda (European Agency 2017b).

The 2017 UNESCO Guide for Ensuring Equity and Inclusion in Education argues that school-level practice developments for inclusive education require: “bringing together practitioners’ ideas, the insights of students and their families, and the knowledge of academic researchers so as to challenge assumptions, stimulate new thinking within a school, and encourage experimentation with creative schemes for engaging learners” (UNESCO 2017, p. 36).

Such connections can be facilitated through appropriate educational policy that facilitates two-way communication flows (see Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Interconnections between practice, research, and policy

To develop policy that supports collaborative research, the interconnections between the three dimensions of practice, research, and policy must be clear. Work from the European and global levels indicates that school improvement processes aimed at developing more equitable school systems for all learners can only be successful if local school-level efforts are linked with evidence-based (i.e., research informed) strategies for tackling inequalities, as well as the various national policies impacting upon inclusive education.

It can be seen that educational policy should not just support interconnections between research and practice but should also be a driver for collaboration between school and research teams that aims to improve school-level practice for all stakeholders. For mutually beneficial interconnections between research and practice to be initiated and sustained, there must be clear and coherent policy goals within established national level programs to increase collaborative research between school-based and other research teams, such as those from higher education or local/regional support teams.

However, a major challenge in many countries is overcoming a “silo approach” to educational research. Silo approaches – or a compartmentalization of action and lack of cooperation between different sectors (European Agency 2017c) – can be seen within the research community, but also at the policy level with educational research being subject to differing requirements from different ministries. In many European countries, educational research is a shared concern of a number of ministries, such as the ministry responsible for school-level education and the ministry for higher education and/or research. This division of responsibility can result in funding policy and research focus and practice gaps if there are not effective and established procedures for interministerial cooperation.

There is a real possibility for collaborative education research to “fall between the gap” of two policy systems – school education and higher education/research – if the positive engagement of policy makers from all relevant sectors is not secured.

As the Conclusions of the European Council of Education Ministers of February 2017 argues:

Education and training cannot be seen in isolation from social, political, historical, environmental and economic aspects. The primary role of education and training policy should be cooperatively complemented and supported by other policy spheres in order to achieve a high quality education for all. (pp. 4–5)

These arguments regarding interconnected policies for education generally apply in particular to policies guiding educational research.

Developing Policy, Practice, and Research as Mutually Supporting Dimensions

Harris and Jones (2013) argue that improvement in educational systems is unlikely to occur without some form of “infrastructure for change” that connects people together in a meaningful, productive, and compelling way.

System capacity building requires policy direction underpinned by the use of research evidence that supports the identification of the most effective levers for system improvement and a change management process that is underpinned by a clear evidence-based theory of action.

Three potential levers to drive reform in education systems have been identified by Hopkins et al. (2014). These can be supported by the three dimensions of practice, research, and policy (as shown in Table 1).
Table 1

Change levers mapped onto the three dimensions

Change lever …

Requires …

Strategy that combines system factors in innovative ways

Meaningful research evidence that can be used to inform both policy and practice

Learning principles that underpin raising achievement

Evidence-informed policy that actively facilitates and supports collaboration between researchers and school teams to benefit all stakeholders

Intelligent implementation that requires action, reflection, and refinement

Educational policies that are guided by both practice requirements and research findings, linked to monitoring and evaluation mechanisms that focus upon “what matters” for practice

For the levers for change to be effectively implemented, the three dimensions of practice, research, and policy must interconnect. This should ensure a comprehensive, mutually supportive approach to the improvement of educational systems (see Fig. 2):
  • The dimension of practice must be effectively supported by the dimensions of research and policy so that school teams can be enabled to reflect deeply and collectively as learning communities on the effectiveness of the experiences and learning opportunities that they are offering to children and families.

  • The dimension of research must be effectively supported by the dimensions of practice and policy so that professional researchers focus collaborative educational research on the challenges faced by policy makers and practitioners working to provide a high-quality inclusive education for all learners.

  • The dimension of policy must be effectively informed by the dimensions of practice and research so that policy makers are enabled to engage in evidenced-based policy making.
    Fig. 2

    Mutually supporting dimensions of collaborative practice, research, and policy

Connections Within a Wider Ecosystem of Inclusive Education

The connections between policy, research, and practice are key for all educational development, but must be considered critical for moving toward more inclusive education.

In order to facilitate such connections, all stakeholders should approach school improvement through a framework that aims to improve support for all learners, within a wider, multilevel system for inclusive education. This approach has been developed and used in work by the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education (the Agency) – in projects on inclusive early childhood education and raising achievement for all learners and also in an audit of the system of inclusive education in Iceland (European Agency 2017a, b, c).

Agency work uses an ecosystem model to set out the main elements that policy makers, researchers, and practitioners should consider collaboratively at different system levels in order to ensure the development of an inclusive education system. The model sets out structures and processes that influence the participation and inclusion of all learners. This includes interactions between children and the immediate social and physical environment (the micro-system of school and home) as well as the indirect impact of the wider community on those interactions (meso- and exo-systems). It also sets out macrolevel (country and international) social, cultural, and legislative contexts that also influence the processes at the micro-system level.

Improvements in inclusive education can be better achieved if all stakeholders – policy makers, researchers, and practitioners – consider the relevance of all these systems on the learning, engagement, and well-being of all learners. By connecting key stakeholders, research should also serve as a vehicle for developing a common understanding of key ideas and knowledge exchange between school-/local-level practitioners and local/national decision-makers. This should inform policy decisions and support monitoring, evaluation, and quality assurance processes. An effective feedback mechanism is needed across system levels to inform future research and further development of school practice.

With regard to collaborative research specifically, the following elements should be considered within an ecosystem model:
  1. 1.

    At the macro-system level, there is a need for proactive inclusive educational policies. Such polices should be cross-sectoral and have the aim of supporting and promoting collaborative research and practice involving families, schools, and communities. Such policies should themselves be guided by findings from educational research and should take a research-based approach to evaluating policy outcomes and results.

  2. 2.

    At the exo-system level, there is a need for formal structures for collaborative and interdisciplinary research. These should include programs and formal initiatives within which collaborative research could be implemented. Such structures should be guided by practice and policy requirements and questions and have the aim of generating findings and evidence to effectively support policy and practice change and development.

  3. 3.

    At the meso-system level, school leaders can promote links with other local schools and involvement with universities or local area support staff to share relevant research and consider implications for practice. This is an important strategy in building knowledge and increasing capacity and capability toward inclusive practice.

  4. 4.

    At the microlevel, teachers can put evidence-based principles into practice in innovative ways to directly address challenges they experience in creating inclusive classrooms. With support from colleagues, they can become discriminating consumers of research as well as more effective researchers, reflecting on their own practice.


In this way, the ecosystem model can support a better understanding of the interconnections between policy, research, and practice in the different dimensions and levels of countries’ educational systems. The model can inform the actions necessary to ensure that collaborative research is at the heart of an improvement process that develops and sustains more inclusive education systems.

Concluding Comments

Increasingly education policy in European counties is moving beyond the debates of “if” or “why” inclusive education should be an aim for countries’ work, to a consideration of the necessary policy and practice conditions for making inclusive education a reality for all learners.

The Communication “School development and excellent teaching for a great start in life” (European Commission 2017) outlines the need for concrete action in European countries to bridge the gap between policy and practice in inclusive education. This involves developing better and more inclusive schools, supporting excellent teaching and learning, and enabling more effective, equitable, and efficient provision through improved governance.

Across Europe, inclusive education systems are now seen as evolutionary – developments in policy impact upon practice and research and developments in educational practice and research lead to further changes in policy. Most sustainable shifts in policy thinking and school-level practice have been supported and guided by collaborative research which is meaningful for all stakeholder groups.

The ecosystem model shows how embedding the interconnections between practice, research, and policy in all developments is essential. It is also fundamental for ensuring that United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4 – ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all – is met for all learners.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive EducationOdenseDenmark

Section editors and affiliations

  • Paul Bartolo

There are no affiliations available