In mutual knowledge exchange, offering a space for free discussion and reflection on the challenges of the practical work has already proven to be very important, writes Peter Brandt in his essay. Photo: Shutterstock

Sustainable knowledge transfer requires new ways of collaboration

Essay. The dialogue between research and practice in adult education must start with considering the fundamental differences between both systems, writes Peter Brandt from the DIE.


At first glance, it may seem surprising that the gap between research and practice – which exists in many sciences – is particularly large in adult education (AE), since the educational sciences are a potentially very application-relevant field of research.

At second glance, however, it makes sense that researchers and educational practitioners are a bit ill at ease with each other:

There is a widespread assumption in parts of practice that science provides too little impetus for solving practical problems. This can be considered either as a problem of knowledge (science does not produce knowledge relevant to practice) or as a problem of communication (science does not communicate relevant knowledge properly).

Researchers, on the other hand, seek distance from practice because they do not want to be understood as sub-contractors for solving problems of action; they seek autonomous contributions to theory building.

Luckily, in the wake of the professionalisation of science communication, new ways of transfer have been established that make it much easier to put scientific knowledge into practical contexts.

There is a growing mutual understanding that neither side should expect too much of each other.

Research funding has also recognised a transfer deficit and is devoting increasing attention to transfer into practice and politics. National as well as EU science policies urge research to intensify cooperation with practitioners.

New forms of research have been established – for example design-based research – that involve practitioners in the research process, but at the same time guarantee sufficient methodological quality and thus access to peer-reviewed journals.

Finally – and to me, this seems to be the crucial point – there is a growing mutual understanding that neither side should expect too much of each other.

Sustainable partnership has been missing

Science can offer interpretations and reflexively substantiate the decisions of practice. Data can legitimise practice. But science will never be able to solve the concrete problems of practice.

Conversely, practice will acquire scientific knowledge only limited to the framework of its own practical rationality, and adapt it in a way that may contradict the intentions of the researchers.

Thus, a dialogue between research and practice appears to be a matter of relating the two in a way that takes into consideration the fundamental differences between both systems.

The DIE & DIALOG network

  • The German Institute for Adult Education – Leibniz Centre for Lifelong Learning (DIE) is a publicly funded, non-university research institution.
  • DIE is dedicated to research on continuing education and at the same time to the transfer of its results into practice and politics.
  • In 2020, DIE informed the professional public about the idea of a practice network for research-practice cooperation
  • The DIALOG network has 25 member institutions, including small and large institutions from political education to vocational and in-company training.

Despite some positive developments, what has been missing is a sustainable, larger partnership of continuing education institutes and research institutes. Such a structure – which also relies on personnel stability – seems to me to be an important prerequisite for a new understanding of mutual knowledge transfer.

The “DIALOG Practice Network for Knowledge Transfer and Innovation” is our attempt to fill this gap of mutual knowledge transfer. I developed and established it in 2020 with two colleagues at the German Institute for Adult Education – Leibniz Centre for Lifelong Learning (DIE).

Space for free discussion and reflection

As part of the knowledge exchange, practitioners in our network identify topics and questions to which they hope to find answers. After that, we discuss whether new research is needed or whether faster and more efficient “answers” are possible.

We find it is also important to offer the possibility of disseminating knowledge that already exists but possibly is not sufficiently known.

Offering a space for free discussion and reflection on the challenges of the practical work has already proven to be very important. We as the network managers provide support with materials and moderation of discussion.

The practitioners get to feel like experts in their practice and only receive support from academia where they are unable to make progress on their own. If further research is needed to meet practitioners’ needs, the DIE research departments are invited to redefine them as research questions and to incorporate them in their agendas.

I believe that, especially in this line of research, practical relevance and universal validity are not contradictory.

Of course, researchers also use the network for field entry, and invite member organisations to take part in surveys. Moreover, researchers present project ideas and findings to practitioners and check the response. Are the findings relevant to the realm of practice? Is there a convergence between the research questions of the DIE and the knowledge-related needs of the practice field? Can practitioners’ questions be embedded into research agendas?

If research questions are identified that both practitioners and researchers find relevant, collaborations can be established between individual network members and the DIE for the purpose of research.

In the conception of the network and the call for proposals for taking part in it, special reference was made to the possibility of helping to generate scientific evidence for the effectiveness of interventions as a model institution. The idea is linked to the programme of “evidence-based educational reform” (cf. the “Success-for-all”-programme in the US) and the necessary research on pedagogical interventions.

Growth of mutual trust is a key result

I believe that, especially in this line of research, practical relevance and universal validity are not contradictory. In an ideal world, DIALOG programmes could be examined for their effectiveness and, if they are working well, then transferred to other facilities in the network.

With (targeted) dissemination and (uncontrolled) diffusion, the examples would set a precedent and become an innovation in the everyday practice of adult education. In this way, the model institution would not only be used for research access, but the network itself would become a visible actor in the AE field.

Although it might take years for this process to run its course in the described ideal way, DIALOG already integrates into mutual knowledge exchange several practices that pay off.

The first year’s experiences have proven to be promising, at least regarding the growth of mutual trust. In the coming years, it will be important to nurture this tender little plant.

Further Reading:

  • Bromme, R. (2014) (reprint of: Bern 1992). Der Lehrer als Experte. Zur Psychologie des professionellen Wissens. Münster: Waxmann.
  • Hascher, Tina; Schmitz, Bernhard (Hg.) (2010): Pädagogische Interventionsforschung. Theoretische Grundlagen und empirisches Handlungswissen. Weinheim, München: Juventa
  • Scheidig, Falk (2016): Professionalität politischer Erwachsenenbildung zwischen Theorie und Praxis. Dissertation. Bad Heilbrunn: Klinkhardt. URL (excerpt):
  • Schrader, Josef; Hasselhorn, Marcus; Hetfleisch, Petra; Goeze, Annika (2020): Stichwortbeitrag Implementationsforschung: Wie Wissenschaft zu Verbesserungen im Bildungssystem beitragen kann. In: Z Erziehungswiss 23 (1), S. 9–59. DOI: 10.1007/s11618-020-00927-z.
  • Slavin, Robert E. (2002): Evidence-Based Education Policies: Transforming Educational Practice and Research. In: Educational Researcher 31 (7), S. 15–21.