May 14, 2014

Connecting Research with Practice

by Emily Davis

Emily E. Davis is a junior concentrating in Cognitive Science. In this post, she reflects on some of the obvious and not-so-obvious challenges of connecting research with practice.

When I joined the “Baby Brains” group, one of the three smaller work groups that make up the Healthy Early Childhood Development TRI-Lab, I was surely not expecting that the majority of our work would revolve around event planning.

However, this semester has provided me with valuable insight into how to connect academics and community practitioners in the field of early childhood development. Working with my team to develop a symposium on the issue of executive function skills in children has allowed me to see some of the barriers that exist.

These barriers start with the basic logistics of the event. One of the questions that has inspired the most debate within our group, and one that we still do not have an answer for, is where the event should be held. If we hold the symposium on Brown’s campus, we worry that community members will not attend because of the lack of parking; but, if the event is held elsewhere in Providence, students might not be willing to make the trek off of College Hill.

See our problem?

In a meeting that we had with representatives from the Rhode Island Department of Education, to gain advice on topics for our symposium, what I heard stressed again and again was to make the issue of executive functions relevant for education professionals. Specifically, my notes say “concrete examples of how executive functions manifest in the classroom.”

Do you know what executive functions are? I think of how my mom, an elementary school teacher, and I can’t imagine she does. If you’ve read this far without knowing what I’m talking about, let me explain. “Executive Functions” is a term for a collection of skills including working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility. Executive Functions allow us to control our behavior and make decisions in complicated situations.

The challenge is to educate people like my mom on this topic while also making the symposium worthwhile for researchers who are already very knowledgeable about executive functions. We want to show working professionals the importance of executive function skills without oversimplifying the issue by propagating myths: “Do _______ every day with your students and their executive functioning will soar through the roof!”

The most obvious answer would be to have separate workshops where those working professionals who know little to nothing about executive functions can learn more, those who have some knowledge can learn about possible intervention opportunities, and those who research the issue on a daily basis can… talk amongst themselves?

No, that’s not going to work. In order to truly connect research and practice, we need to create spaces for academics and education leaders in Providence to form meaningful partnerships that will lead to future collaboration.

The ideal outcome would be interventions designed to improve executive function skills in children that would also allow the academics to collect valuable data from these children to further their research.

We still have a lot of work ahead of us in designing this symposium, but I am excited by the challenges and think we can pull it off. We look forward to seeing you at the symposium on October 2nd, 2014 (location TBA!).

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