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Associate Professor DeLeon Gray, Doctoral Students Outline Path for Communally Engaged Educational Psychology in New Publication

NC State College of Education Associate Professor DeLeon Gray

NC State College of Education Associate Professor DeLeon Gray, along with several of his mentees from the College of Education and Michigan State University, are hoping to provide guidance for educational psychologists engaging in community-focused work through a concept they call a communal philosophy of engagement. 

Gray is the lead author of “Communally engaged educational psychology: A philosophy of engagement,” which was published in Educational Psychologist and offers guidance for educational psychologists who want to advance equity-focused school policies and practices through engaged scholarship. Alexandra A. Lee and Brooke Harris-Thomas, of Michigan State University, and Joanna Ali and Kia Allah, who are earning doctoral degrees in the College of Education, are all co-authors. 

“We’re doing two things in this paper. First, we’re providing guidance to graduate students and early-career professionals who seek to employ culturally sensitive methods when engaging with people from historically marginalized communities. The second thing we are doing is signaling to prospective educational psychology graduate students from diverse backgrounds that work like this is possible in our field,” Gray said. 

Gray, whose own research has focused on community-engaged scholarship through the creation of his iScholar program, sees graduate students as the target audience for this new work, as they have not yet been trained in traditional educational psychology research methods, and don’t have to do very much “unlearning.” He believes the next generation of educational psychologists is well-positioned to help the field evolve to serve historically marginalized communities better. 

In serving these communities, Gray and his co-authors outline a series of four phases of communal engagement to guide equity-focused initiatives in classrooms, schools and communities: Building a tribe, identifying pockets of affirmation, establishing communal incubators and leveraging existing networks to spread stories that emerge from partnership activities. 

None of this can happen, however, without first building trust within the community. 

This can be difficult, Gray said, because some communities may not have faith in the research process as a result of negative experiences from those who came before. However, when researchers are able to establish that trust with the schools or communities they hope to engage, the relationship can become mutually beneficial. 

“When trust is there, you get access to a lot more information that helps you properly plan a study and properly design for impact within a particular community. They can also provide you with information about additional ways that your work could be impactful inside the school,” Gray said. “So, you waste a lot less time, and you have a lot more to show for your time when it comes to data, when it comes to the impact on students’ trajectories, and when it comes to the community being able to vouch for the quality of engagement that you provide them and how much you affirm them.”

To help build that trust and show schools and communities that researchers have their best interests at heart, Gray and his co-authors note that it’s important to include the voices and perspectives of stakeholders as much as possible in the research process, allowing them to present at conferences and become a part of the project team to foster a sense of belonging. 

To promote the inclusion of stakeholders and the decentralization of researchers in the field, Gray and his co-authors remixed Eric Anderman’s “Ten Policy and Practice Outreach Challenges for Educational Psychologists.

For example, the original Ten Challenges suggest that scholars present research to practitioners through workshops while Gray’s revamped version recommends that researchers collaborate and partner with practitioners to design, develop and co-facilitate workshops. Additionally, while the original Ten Challenges suggest that researchers write articles for practitioner-oriented journals and inform legislators about research findings, the remixed version proposed in the article suggests researchers instead use innovative approaches to tell the stories of educational psychology and develop grassroots approaches that support educators in advocating for the research-based insights that have worked in their classrooms.

“I think the original challenges mostly focused on elevating the insights of educational psychologists to policymakers and practitioners, but if we’re to do things in ways that are authentic and meaningful to the people who we are ultimately trying to serve, their insights are what we have to elevate, and we have to use our research expertise and our knowledge of why they’re being negatively impacted by the status quo to help fuel the change they want to see in their communities,” Gray said. 

Updating these Ten Challenges to reflect a more communally-engaged approach was of particular significance to Gray, as Anderman, the author of the original, was his graduate advisor during his time as a graduate student at The Ohio State University, and still is one of his most cherished mentors.

“I’m deeply inspired by those original challenges. However, when I started to pivot in my own work, when I became a faculty member and my work became a lot more centered around partnership and community engagement, I realized that there are a lot of ways that we could take these challenges further if we wanted to elevate the community and elevate their insights to policy makers,” he said. 

Cooking Up a Plan for Communally Engaged Educational Psychology

As Gray hopes this new paper will help to influence a new generation of educational psychologists to engage in community-centric work, there are several lessons he teaches his own graduate students in the College of Education that he believes would be helpful for other graduate students to know.

Gray relies on the following two cooking metaphors to help them appreciate the value of community engaged work:

  1. Skillet vs. Crock Pot

As graduate students and ultimately tenure-track faculty members at research universities, Gray acknowledges that new educational psychologists often face a pressure to produce scholarly work that does not necessarily facilitate the process of building trust and developing partnerships in communities. To address this conflict, Gray teaches his students the “Skillet and Crock Pot Philosophy.” 

“There are going to be projects that need to move fast because you are operating on limited time in graduate school. You need to produce and show that you can publish and engage in scholarly discourse. But then there are other ideas that are really rich and important and that’s where your communally engaged work comes in,” he said. “You can’t rush that, so you have to allow that to [metaphorically] be in a crock pot. Food in the crock pot tends to come out richer, and it’s of a certain elevated quality compared to food that’s cooked quicker in the skillet, but you need both.” 

  1. The “Top Chef” Approach

On the TV show “Top Chef,” contestants are given a set of ingredients that they must use to make an outstanding dish. Similarly, educational psychologists engaging with communities need to work with what they are given. 

Every partnership with each different school or community will look different and scholars need to account for that in their research plan. Additionally, a partnership with the same school can change over time and opportunities for data collection and interpretation likely won’t look the same in 2024 as it did in 2018, Gray said. 

“You can’t have a full agenda of everything that you want to accomplish prior to engaging with the community. They help set the agenda, they help establish what you have access to in terms of information and they help develop the story because it should be co-developed as you go along. Stretch yourself to learn new methods that are most appropriate for making sense of the unique forms of data that you have access to with each partnership iteration. Let the community push you to a new stage of mastery with respect to data collection, analysis and interpretation. Ask, ‘What methods does the situation call for?,’” he said.