Collaborating with K-12 schools can be challenging for arts education researchers. With so little instruction time and ever-increasing pressure for schools to perform, a request to take time out of a school day for an intervention or to take a 30-minute survey can sometimes feel like a heavy ask. In addition to the time crunch, many districts also suffer workforce shortages, and staff can be stretched thin or have multiple roles at the school in a single day.
If participants do not understand the motivation behind a research project or feel it is unimportant compared to the day of instruction students might miss, they will be less likely to commit and even less likely to collaborate again in the future. Though there are many barriers to school participation in research projects, lack of communication or understanding need not be among them.
What is plain language?
Plain language is a communication style designed to be direct and easy to comprehend, in order to increase access to information among a wider audience. Using plain language does not mean that information needs to be oversimplified, but ensures that quality research can be accessible to a wide and diverse group of people.
Plain language advocates come from varying fields including healthcare, public policy, and academia, and there exist non-profits such as the Center for Plain Language and international events such as the Three Minute Thesis Competition that specifically advocate for the use of plain language. Though using plain language may sound like an obvious solution, the absence of easily accessible communication can create serious barriers between researcher and participant.
The importance of using plain language in the field
When collaborating with a school or district, it is essential for researchers to communicate plainly what they hope to learn, how and when the intervention will happen, and why the study is more broadly important. For a study to be ethical, participants should feel that they have the tools available to understand the thesis of the research project, and why their participation matters.
This includes parents who are signing the consent forms, and the teachers that agree to both the interruption of their lessons and/or participating in the intervention. It also includes the school principals and cultural institutions that agree to the schools’ participation and help arrange logistics, and the staff at the district office that the researcher may get school administrative data from.
If everyone involved understands what to expect from the intervention and what the schools and participants might gain from taking part in the study, there will be more assurance that a larger numbers of students will participate, and greater levels of investment in ensuring that the field trips and/or surveying go smoothly.
Guidelines for using plain language
Understanding the target audience, choosing accessible vocabulary, and organizing a page to be easy to read are all important elements of using plain language.
Thinking about what and how much information a researcher’s audience needs to get a point across is important for using plain language well. For example, a parent who is looking over a permission form is not necessarily interested in reading academic jargon or an abstract. If there is too much information on a page, they may get frustrated or misunderstand what the permission slip is for. They will likely want to know what their child is consenting to, what the interventions are and when they will happen, who the researchers are and how their child’s personal information will be kept private.
Everyday language is useful in communicating successfully with an audience of school administrators. School administrators put out many fires in a day, and receive just as many emails. When communicating in plain language, a school administrator will better take in information that is clear and to the point. If an email is too cluttered, some important information might get lost – including dates and times of researcher visits to survey in classrooms!
It is also important to organize information in a way that is easy to understand. When disseminating results of a research study, policymakers and participating school leadership should not have to strain to understand overcomplicated information. This includes using adequate white space and easy-to-read fonts like Verdana and Times New Roman, smaller sized paragraphs and organized lists where applicable.
A researcher must also consider what information needs to be presented to which audience. School leadership may not be interested or able to read a full table of statistics on a PowerPoint like an audience at an academic conference might, but would likely get a lot out of a written list of findings and their implications for education policy and best practices.
Plain language matters!
During my undergraduate studies, my Anthropology professors would often remind us, “If the population you are studying does not understand your work or does not find your work valuable to them, why are you doing it?” Ensuring that important information is presented in a way that readers from any background can understand, makes for better relationships, fewer hiccups in the field, and more ethical studies.
Laura Florick is a Research Associate in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.