From Research to Practice: an interactive approach

By Katrina Grieve

Over the last few months I have been involved in a project to help literacy practitioners apply the results of a research project to their own programs. This has been an interesting process. When I worked in a community-based literacy program in Toronto, I often shelved project reports, thinking I would read them later, or kept them in a huge to-read pile. I was all too often caught up in the day-to-day concerns of running the program, struggling to keep up with the paperwork, and dreaming of a day when we could have the time and mental space to do the work we really wanted to do.

A few years ago, I stepped into the role of researcher and project consultant. I conducted a research project for the Ontario Literacy Coalition on self-management and self-direction, an area sometimes referred to as non-academic outcomes outside of Ontario. The research report, Supporting Learning, Supporting Change, looked at what this area involves and how it affects learning. It brought together broader research on a social view of learning with practitioners' experiences of how adults in literacy programs make progress in their learning and begin to move towards change.

Once the report was written, the questions that worried us were: "How would we get the results of the research out to literacy practitioners?" and "How could we make sure it didn't just sit on another shelf?" The Ontario Literacy Coalition printed a shorter version of the report with highlights from the research findings and distributed it to all its members. It is also available on the web site at However, we felt this was not enough to ensure that literacy programs would use it. The OLC applied for a second phase of the project and received funding from the Ontario Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities and the National Literacy Secretariat.

The second phase of the OLC project is called Self-Management, Self-Direction Part 2: From Research to Practice. I am currently delivering a series of workshops for literacy practitioners in Ontario on how to apply the results of the research to their own programs.  We will offer a total of six workshops in different regions of Ontario and one online workshop as part of this project. In addition, the project includes a working group of five programs that will develop their own approaches to supporting learners' with self-awareness and self-direction.

Rather than creating a tool kit containing a range of activities, we decided to offer workshops to help practitioners through the process of understanding the research findings, considering how it relates to their own program contexts, and exploring possible approaches. We found through the research that there was not a single best practice in supporting learners' in building greater self-awareness and self-direction. Rather, there were many angles from which to approach this area.

Some programs prefer to use a process-oriented approach, building from a life-skills model of problem solving. Others have found arts-based approaches to be particularly effective in helping learners' open up to learning. Many programs have seen the value of hands-on learning opportunities, such as organizing a community event, volunteering, or redecorating the literacy program. The workshops place these examples within a broader framework, stressing the importance of context, meaning and relationships. They encourage programs to use their imagination and experience to create activities and approaches that help learners' build self-awareness and engage them in an ongoing process of action and reflection.

In many cases, workshop participants find that they have many examples of effective activities and approaches from their own programs. The workshops are a source of affirmation of their experience, instincts and knowledge. Practitioners also gain many ideas by sharing these approaches with each other. In fact, some have said to me that it feels like coming out of the closet, naming and validating activities that are so crucial to the learning process, but that have sometimes been challenged as not really part of literacy teaching. The workshops help us state more clearly, "You can't teach literacy in isolation, you have to work with the whole person." 

One of the areas we address in the workshops is the difficult terrain of assessment. How do you assess an area that is so personal? Are we in a position to assess learners' ' level of self-awareness, interpersonal skills or self-direction? Are we placing even more labels on learners' in this way? How do you know if your program's approach is working? We discuss these issues within the context of the research findings, examining the dangers of creating further lists of skills that take us away from a more complex understanding of learning based on context, meaning and relationships. The workshop presents a variety of ways to document progress both from the learners' ' and practitioners' perspectives.

While assessment is an important area to consider, we have to be careful that it does not become an end in itself, limiting the scope of our imagination. As many practitioners report, it is easy to see when someone has made significant progress in this area-they participate more in activities, they interact better with others, their faces light up and they report changes in their daily lives. The challenge is how to support those who see learning as something locked away from them. For now, our focus is on how to support learners' to become more self-aware, gain confidence in their abilities and take steps towards change.

At the conclusion of this project, the Ontario Literacy Coalition will publish a guide to support programs through the ongoing process of planning and improving their own approaches to building self-awareness and self-direction. This is yet another way we are trying to bridge the gap between research and practice.

The dialogue created through these workshops, both among practitioners and between research and practice, has been exciting. I hope that there will be more such opportunities for practitioners to come together to interact and engage with relevant research from the literacy field.

For more information on this project, contact Patricia Brady at the Ontario Literacy Coalition:


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