The past decade has seen a proliferation of education policy research examining changing formations and networks of policy actors, both within and beyond ‘the state’. Many researchers have sought to understand interactions between governments, think tanks, philanthropies and other policy actors in the development and enactment of education reforms. A common thread of argument in this emerging body of research is that new policy formations and networks are redistributing power and influence across different spatial scales and in new ways (Rizvi and Lingard 2010; Ball 2012; Thompson, Savage and Lingard 2016).As this field of research expands, new and existing terms are being brought forward in education policy studies to help understand these shifts, resulting in significant theoretical and methodological implications. Some commonly-used terms include ‘policy assemblage’, ‘policy networks’, ‘multi-scalar governance’, ‘meta governance’, ‘network governance’ and many others. These terms are often drawn loosely from the fields of political science, public administration and policy studies, and human geography.In this paper, we explore one term in particular that has emerged within this broader field: ‘polycentricity’. Specifically, we focus on the work this term is ‘doing’ in education research. We focus on this term as it is increasingly used by theorists (e.g. Ball & Exley 2010; Savage 2015), but is often not well defined theoretically or methodologically.Our paper starts with a literature review that examines the history of the term from its inception in political science through to its contemporary manifestations. We analyse the genesis of the concept of ‘polycentric governance’ rooted in the works of the American Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom in the 1950s, who developed the term as a means of understanding changing conditions of governance not fitting with the traditional dichotomy of ‘the market’ and ‘the state’. We then discuss the recent utilisation and development of the term in education research to map out how the term is currently being used in this field.In doing so, we analyse dominant trends in terms of how the term is ‘put to work’ in contemporary education policy research, including critical reflections on our own work. We finish by considering some of the new potentials the term opens up, both theoretically and methodologically, and some of the limits and problems that thinking in polycentric terms presents. The paper contributes new ways of conceptualising and researching the governance of education in increasingly complex and changing times.