Charlotte Pezaro

The NSW Education Standards Authority responds to Charlotte Pezaro’s post: Specialist maths and science teachers in primary schools are part – a key part – of the solution

This blog post is a response to Charlotte’s Pezaro’s post Specialist science and maths teachers in primary schools are not the solution

To support the teaching and learning of STEM, and specifically mathematics and science, NSW has taken a number of deliberate actions and decisions.

  • Minimum entry standards have been set for teaching degrees and teaching graduates need to pass literacy and numeracy tests to ensure quality teaching.
  • New K-6 syllabuses in English, Mathematics, Science and Technology, History and Geography have been developed and are currently being taught in schools.
  • Primary teachers working in our schools can specialise in mathematics and science.

This NSW initiative for primary teachers to specialise in mathematics and science does not replicate the high school teaching model.

Primary teaching students completing a specialisation will undertake additional courses in mathematics or science, and in how to teach these subjects.

This gives initial teacher education students the opportunity to undertake a more extensive focus in these areas.

Primary teacher graduates with a STEM specialisation will have broader employment options and be available to lead efforts in primary schools to strengthen student’s knowledge, skills and confidence in mathematics and science from Kindergarten.

These specialists will help give young students more confidence in mathematics and science, so they’re well prepared for high school and future careers.  

The NESA specialisations policy does not compromise preparation of all primary teaching graduates to effectively teach across the key learning areas from K-6.

NESA continues to ensure that all NSW primary teaching degrees require discipline knowledge and pedagogical skill development in each of the key learning areas in primary.

This formal recognition of primary teaching specialisations is one of a suite of measures to enhance the teaching of STEM in NSW schools.

 

Peter Lee is Inspector, Primary Education, at the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA). The NSW Education Standards Authority replaced the Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards NSW (BOSTES) on 1 January 2017.

Specialist science and maths teachers in primary schools are not the solution

The idea to put specialist science and maths teachers into Australian primary schools gained a lot of support after the latest results of international tests were announced. It even became official policy in NSW last year when then Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, announced a plan to deliver hundreds of specialist STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) teachers into NSW classrooms. Well-known mathematicians such as Adam Spencer have also backed the idea. It is indeed a popular idea.

However, I suggest that this strategy is not the solution. I have several reasons for suggesting this. First, the strategy neglects bigger picture issues in the system. Second, this solution has the potential to undermine the strengths of primary education, as well as the relevance and accessibility to science for primary students. And finally, this solution assumes a deficit on the part of primary teachers. If the curriculum is too challenging for teachers to grasp, perhaps it is also too difficult for students. A better response would be to provide primary teachers who need it with the time, funding, and high quality professional development in science.

Our test results are a consequence of systemic failures, including high stakes testing

The results that have been used to justify this strategy include NAPLAN results, and the latest TIMMS results. In the TIMMS results, we can see that scores in science have plateaued. But these results must be very carefully interpreted. As the Director of the Australian Council for Educational Research, Sue Thompson, points out our results demonstrate a long trail of underachieving students, largely representing students from areas of lower socioeconomic status.

This suggests the issue is not so much with the teachers, but with the funding of schools (which may be spent on resources, professional development, release time for planning and so on). We already know that Australia has a very inequitable funding arrangement between schools, with schools in wealthier areas and cohorts generally receiving substantially more funding than those in poorer areas, or with poorer cohorts.

Originally a low-stakes diagnostic test, the publication of school results, and the use of scores to evaluate teachers (informally if not yet formally), has turned NAPLAN into a very high-stakes test, both for students and for teachers. There is building evidence that primary schools and hence teachers have been devoting class time that used to be for teaching science, humanities, technologies, the arts, and scientific and mathematical inquiry and problem solving, to directing students in tasks that will improve their performance on NAPLAN. Further, a lot of teachers’ time out of class is now spent analysing and responding to NAPLAN data, in professional development for NAPLAN, and developing new activities to teach students. It’s time to lower the stakes and return time to classes to focus on science and other subjects.

Further, we must ask questions about what and how both tests measure, and whether this is what we desire from our education system. If our goal is for all students to become expert scientists, the situation is indeed dire. But if our goal is for all students to become confident and skilled consumers of science (scientifically literate) as a part of their active citizenship, then the situation we have now, where primary teachers are generalists, with a broad knowledge in all areas, has greater potential to achieve this.

The strength of primary education lies in its generalist teachers

We often talk about primary teachers as holding general knowledge about all subjects, with expertise in pedagogy. One of the great strengths of a primary education is the opportunity to integrate content across subjects, and be flexible with when, where, and how to teach subjects, capabilities, and key ideas across the school week, term, and year.

This is particularly valuable because learning different content across various lessons builds students’ literacy and numeracy, the very skills that NAPLAN claims to assess. When students read about insects in their reading rotations, increase technical knowledge in their vocabulary and phonics activities, use the data from their latest science investigation in their graphing lessons, or learn to make accurate measurements using different units, they are learning how to work with information and give it meaning. Literacy and numeracy aren’t developed out of context. Science, maths, English texts, history, geography, health, and technologies all provide contexts for students to build these capabilities meaningfully, and demonstrate the value of each area of inquiry for everyday life. This is where a love of the subject, be it science, maths, history, or English literature, can arise.

That opportunity is lost when specialists take students away from their generalist teacher for any subject (yes, even music and physical education).

Further, primary teachers are diverse role models of “everyday people”. In my experience, primary teachers are thoughtful, careful and deliberate about their practice and the children that they work with, and work hard for their students. But to their students, their teacher is an everyday person, someone who can learn and understand all the things they are going to have to learn and understand at school. If their primary school teacher can do it, then so can they!

Whether they intend to, specialist teachers perpetuate beliefs that their subjects are not for everyday people. Students may come to believe that those specialist subjects are for special people, with special interests or aptitudes, or who already love the subject. We already have a pervasive belief throughout the community that science is only for those with a high intellectual quality (and sadly, we have an anti-intellectual backlash, too). This message would be perpetuated by the mere existence of specialist science teachers in schools.

If we want the general community to value science, a generalist teacher best models and teaches that valuing.

Is the Foundation to Year 10 Curriculum too challenging?

The strategy for specialist teachers in primary schools reveals a deficit view of primary teachers. The assumption is that primary teachers are incapable of understanding, or perhaps learning, the basic science included in the Australian Curriculum: Science (Foundation to Year 10). However, this is unreasonable. If what is included in the curriculum is too challenging for grown adults with four-year qualifications in Education (or equivalent) to understand, perhaps we should be questioning the curriculum rather than the teachers.

If it is not too challenging, then the appropriate response would be to provide the time and funding necessary to plan, develop, and deliver high quality science lessons, as well as sustained, high quality professional development for those teachers who are struggling to understand the science necessary to teach it.

Sustained professional development, through universities or by programs like Primary Connections are avenues for improvement. Primary Connections is an excellent program that teachers who are lacking confidence to teach science can use to plan and support their teaching. There are Science Teacher Associations in each state who are willing and ready to deliver high-quality PD to teachers, but are starved for funding and support themselves.

What if science specialists worked alongside teachers? Queensland attempted this model a few years ago, with the Science Spark strategy, but it was ad hoc, and variably effective. There were some schools for which it worked quite well, but in many schools, the Science Spark operated as a specialist teacher, freeing up generalist teachers’ time to concentrate on other lessons, but also giving them permission to forget about science education for a little while. When the Science Spark program ended, most teachers were no better able to teach science than previously. The question remains as to whether there were any positive long-term impacts of this poorly orchestrated scheme. We can do better.

Let’s do this

Let’s identify a fleet of experienced primary teachers; teachers who understand the complexity of a generalist classroom and primary-aged children, and work with them build their ideas of and about science. Let’s also prepare them with coaching skills. Then, as specialists, those teachers can work alongside their colleagues, coaching them as needed to improve their understandings for teaching science.

Let’s also give teachers sufficient time to engage with this strategy, by removing some of the other less necessary demands on their time. Eventually, all of our primary teachers would be scientifically literate, and skilled at teaching science.

 

Charlotte Pezaro is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland (UQ). Her research looks at the role that science classroom argumentation plays in the development of particular cognitive processes, understandings, and values for making decisions. Before beginning her research, Charlotte was a primary school teacher with Education Queensland, teaching in remote, regional and city schools. She shares her experiences and expertise in primary science education in a number of primary education courses at UQ. Charlotte has a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) and a Graduate Bachelor of Education (Primary).

Global Teacher Prize: wonderful acknowledgement or really bad idea?

You couldn’t miss the announcement of the winner of the Global Teacher Prize recently. The prize money was $1 million, which made it a ‘good news’ story for every major news outlet here in Australia and around the world. A Palestinian teacher, who grew up in a refugee camp, won the prize. We had our own Australian contender, Richard Johnson, making the lead up to the announcement of the winner even more exciting for some Australians. The prize also earned its sponsor, the Varkey Foundation, a great deal of publicity.

I am sure the teacher who won this award, Hanan Al Hroub, is outstanding. She has been working in extraordinary circumstances, teaching students who have experienced violence and terror. Using games and stories, she has been helping students to develop pro-social behaviours, with the hope that these will one day lead to the peace she desires for her people.

I know our own Richard Johnson is a fantastic teacher, too. He’s led an excellent primary science program for several years now. This work was recognised in 2013 with the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools. This prize came with some serious cash ($50 000), which is shared equally between the teacher and the school, and is to be used to develop innovative programs and professional development in science education.

Both teachers are truly deserving of recognition, and there is much to be gained from sharing their experiences.

However, I wonder if there is a darker side to awards like the Global Teacher Prize. Prizes like this represent a further incursion of business into education that may have negative repercussions for teachers and schools in the future.

The Global Teacher Prize is sponsored by the Varkey Foundation. I’m concerned that an education company with billion dollar for-profit school expansion plans, which allocates one million to its ‘charitable’ arm for a prize to a teacher, is really just engaging in a covert advertising exercise.

The Varkey Foundation is the not-for-profit charitable arm of GEMS Education, a multi-million dollar global for-profit education group. The founder of the Varkey Foundation is Sunny Varkey, who is also the founder of GEMS Education, which is, according to its website, “the largest employer of British and Indian teachers outside their home countries.” GEMS Education announced three years ago it had “plans to invest up to $1 billion” over five years in for-profit school education around the world. This included investing $200 million in India and building seven new schools in the United Arab Emirates.

The prize received massive publicity all around the world. The Pope announced the winner and Prince William and Bill Clinton sent message of congratulations. Founder of the prize, Sunny Varkey, would have been very pleased with the attention.

However, not everyone has been pleased with GEMS Education, as CNCB reported in 2013: GEMS Education has faced criticism in the past for placing profits before its students following sharp increases in annual tuition and closure of unviable schools. It is part of a wider, contentious debate in many countries around the world about the role of for-profit school models.

The firm runs schools with radically varying price points, ranging from just $750 a year to $40,000 for its top institution. Varkey insisted that the quality of education was the same throughout, and that the price disparities came down to facilities.

At the moment, Australian governments do not allow schools to operate for profit in Australia. I hope that never changes; I believe that a high quality education should be accessible to all Australian citizens, not just those who can pay a high price for it.

The emphasis on the individual teacher as solely deserving of such a large prize is also of concern. Teachers do not work alone; schools are busy places with communities of staff that collaborate to achieve great things with and for their students. Is a teacher’s success solely due to their own efforts?

I strongly believe that teaching is a team effort. Quality teachers encourage and coach each other, and mentor those new to the profession. They work together, sharing their best ideas and successes, and help each other when they face challenges. No longer are we lone dictators of our own little classrooms! These days, working effectively within a team is central to being a successful teacher.

Teaching is not competitive; nor need it be. There is more to be achieved through collaboration, than by competition. Outside of our teaching peers, we work with a host of support, including (but not limited to) teacher aides, administrators, coaches, guidance counsellors, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, literacy and numeracy officers and so on. Is it fair to award such a significant prize to a single individual, when so many others in their school communities support their work too?

Attempts to assign value to the individual for what the group achieves ultimately undermines the work of all teachers. The logic of marketisation that underpins the work of education businesses such as GEMS Education encourages rewarding teachers individually for high performance. Even in their philanthropic mode, edu-businesses propagate this individualising market logic. If one thinks that particularly effective teachers are deserving of special awards, one might also endorse such practices as performance based pay, which is currently undermining quality teaching in parts of the US.

And what about all the other wonderful teachers who are doing wonderful things in their classrooms, every day, too?

What do you think? Is the Global Teacher Prize a good way of recognising the efforts of exemplary teachers like Hanan Al Hroub and Richard Johnson? Or is it the barely disguised, self-interested exercise of a profit-seeking company? I’d love to hear what you think.

PEZAROCharlotte Pezaro is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland (UQ). Her research looks at the role that science classroom argumentation plays in the development of particular cognitive processes, understandings, and values for making decisions. Before beginning her research, Charlotte was a primary school teacher with Education Queensland, teaching in remote, regional and city schools. She shares her experiences and expertise in primary science education in a number of primary education courses at UQ. Charlotte has a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) and a Graduate Bachelor of Education (Primary).

Donnelly and Wiltshire offer ‘expert’ advice on how our teachers should teach, but how expert are they?

My Facebook and Twitter feeds have been awash with irate teachers for a number of months now, as a constant trickle of announcements, leaks and policy statements from our federal and state governments and political parties have grown into what can be viewed as an attack on Australian teachers, curriculum, and public schools.

The most recent trigger for the ire of my teaching friends was an article Australian schools are becoming too ‘kumbaya’ with progressive, new-age fads published on Saturday 20 June in the Daily Telegraph. The authors include statements from Professor Ken Wiltshire and Doctor Kevin Donnelly, who recently undertook a review of the Australian Curriculum at the request of federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne. We are asked to accept their claims, as they are “experts in education.” But are they?

‘Kumbaya’ schools

 The main claim of the article is that “schools are becoming too ‘kumbaya’ and overrun with ‘progressive, new-age fads’ that are hurting our children.” Professor Wiltshire and Dr Donnelly deride contemporary pedagogies (teaching methods) as “wishy-washy” and argue that the “teacher should be up the front, not up the side. This is the problem,” Professor Wiltshire reportedly said. Dr Kevin Donnelly is quoted as saying, “I call it ‘edutainment’ … teachers instead of teaching become guides by the side … You don’t need to go back to the 1950s but the pendulum has moved too far towards ‘care, share, grow’.”

It is appropriate to accept this claim (and the assumptions that underpin it, including the definitions of “teaching,” and “progressive”) if there is sufficient, acceptable, and relevant evidence and reasoning to support it, and limited evidence or incomplete reasoning against it. So what evidence or reasoning is there?

The ‘evidence’ given to support the idea that schools and teachers are ‘failing’

Dubious evidence of the failure of the teaching profession is presented, consisting of cherry-picked and, to me, misrepresented data. The authors of the article inform us that “more than 80 teachers in government schools were sent to remedial classes last year because they were incompetent,” and that “263 teachers in the state’s primary and secondary schools were sacked between 2008 and 2014 — almost one per week — for misconduct or failing an improvement program.” Numbers themselves mean very little however, without knowing how many people make up the population of NSW government-employed teachers; this is how the data are misrepresented. There were 49 000 permanent teachers who met this criteria in 2014, and an unknown number of casual teachers.

With this new information, it is easy to calculate that the 80 teachers on probation represent a maximum of 0.16% of all teachers in the population; an almost negligible proportion. The 263 teachers who were “sacked” constituted a mere 0.5% of the population; hardly cause to declare a crisis. We wonder how many teachers received commendations for their service in the same year? Or how many professionals in other fields and industries were placed on probation or sacked? This evidence is insufficient for the conclusions drawn.

Dr Donnelly presents some reasoning behind his position, arguing, “Schools are suffering… due to the fact that many teachers and administrators got their tertiary education during the “flower power”era. However, this reasoning is dubious. “Many” is an exaggeration, as the late 1960’s and early 1970s were approximately 40 years ago, so Dr Donnelly must be speaking about a minority of the teaching population; those teachers and administrators who are close to retirement age. The majority of teachers have been educated since then.

Also, in the last 45 years there has been an explosion of research and theorisation regarding education, as well as the widely available technology to access them, which allows contemporary teachers to consider and research for themselves what constitutes best practice for their teaching context, and make professional decisions accordingly.

The authors of the article would like us to accept these views as they come from men with expertise. So the question is: should we accept Professor Wiltshire and Dr Donnelly as experts in this instance?

How expert are the ‘experts’?

In today’s society, we are regularly fooled into thinking that those who shout the loudest or have the most money are the most worth listening to (this is evident in the activities of politicians, of mining corporations, and celebrities who give opinions about medical treatments). When we do this, we are using speakers’ volume and wealth as proxies for judging their expertise, and using that expertise as a heuristic (mental shortcut) for deciding whether or not to accept the claims put to us.

Accepting the authority of an expert is something we do all the time; it can be a useful heuristic. There are so many decisions to be made each day in our lives, some of which can be very important and have long-term consequences. For example, we accept the expertise of our General Practitioner in prescribing us medications, for two reasons: our GPs have substantially more experience and understanding of the medical issues than we do, and we do not have the time (or access) to complete the research we would need to do to understand the issue well enough to make the decision for ourselves. Likewise, we accept the expertise of our lawyers when we need legal assistance.

An argument from expert opinion is a form of presumptive reasoning, the practical reasoning we do every day as we seek to make a decision on an issue of importance to us. We reason presumptively when we are forced to build our arguments on the limited information known to us, or when the conditions of the decision are uncertain. This form of reasoning is tentative and easily defeated by challenges from critics, or the discovery of additional information.

Doctor Douglas Walton, a Canadian philosopher in reasoning, has spent much of his life exploring, researching and developing understandings of presumptive reasoning. He suggests that we can accept an argument from expert opinion when the following critical conditions are met:

  • The expert is a credible source
  • The expert’s opinion is regarding the field in which they are an expert
  • The expert is trustworthy
  • The expert’s opinion is consistent with others in his or her field
  • The expert’s opinion is based on evidence

This scheme provides us with a useful framework to analyse the expertise of Professor Wiltshire and Dr Donnelly in teaching and teaching methods, and decide whether it is sufficient to accept their arguments, or not.

Is the expert a credible source?

Professor Wiltshire has credibility that arises from his work on the review of the Australian Curriculum. He has also served as chairs to advisory committees regarding technical and vocational education and training (TVET), and performed a review of the Queensland Curriculum in the past. But I don’t see that these are directly relevant to the comments about classroom teaching made in this article. Questions of experience and qualification when it comes to classroom teaching in schools were asked in email sent to Professor Wiltshire on Wednesday 24 June, but no response was received at the time of publication of this blog post. I am left to wonder then how ‘expert’ the professor’s comments are on pedagogical decisions of classroom teachers and schools.

In response to a blog post written by NSW Primary Teacher and Assistant Principal Corinne Campbell, about the Daily Telegraph article, Dr Donnelly wrote “For what it is worth – taught for 18 years in secondary schools, written 4 books on school education, post graduate degrees in curriculum, undertaken 3 international benchmarking projects comparing curriculum and written over 500 comment pieces, including many for professional journals. Plus past member of the Victorian Board of Studies and on the Year 12 Panel of Examiners for English and a number of state and federal education committees. Maybe I know just a little bit about education.”

His first marker of credibility, having taught for 18 years, seems to be a hypocritical argument; given that Dr Donnelly does not appear to credit the expertise of experienced teachers in his statements to the authors of the Daily Telegraph article. According to this Sydney Morning Herald article Dr Donnelly received his qualification in 1975; this means he is also a teacher who trained in the “flower power” era that he derided as the reason that schools are suffering. Books mean very little when it comes to credentialing expertise.

Donnelly’s opinions are regularly published by free market advocates The Institute for Public Affairs  and conservative magazine Quadrant, among others. However, in my opinion, commentaries mean very little in terms of credibility, as they tend to be tautological, in that the more you publish, the more you are invited to publish. Post-graduate degrees are worthy of consideration, as are Dr Donnelly’s role in benchmarking projects. Dr Donnelly’s last statements indicate some credibility to talk about secondary English education, but this is quite different from primary English teaching, or the teaching of other subject areas.

Further evidence of Dr Donnelly‘s credibility as an expert in education that is commonly presented includes his role as Executive Director of the Education Standards Institute, and Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University (ACU). The Educational Standards Institute is a registered advisory business created by Donnelly with Donnelly as its sole Director, and so he gains no credibility from it. I could find only two peer-reviewed academic papers that list Dr Donnelly as an author here is one, though he has authored an extensive number of commissioned reviews and opinion pieces.

He also has a PhD that was awarded in the early 1990s. I am a PhD Candidate so I know the work necessary to complete a research project of such scope, write a thesis and be awarded the title, but at the same time I wonder whether the research Dr Donnelly undertook for his thesis, The new orthodoxy in English teaching : a critique : an analysis and critical evaluation of the new orthodoxy in the teaching of English as exemplified by the Victorian experience, regarding secondary English teaching and curriculum in the early 1990’s, is generalisable to the contemporary pedagogies used in subjects other than English and at the primary level, or is relevant to the comments made in the Daily Telegraph article.

Are the experts expressing opinions regarding the field in which they are experts?

Professor Wiltshire is an expert predominantly in business and in business policy and governance. The comments presented as his in this article concern the quite different field of pedagogy and theories of teaching and learning.

In the case of Kevin Donnelly, even if we accept that Dr Donnelly is an expert in curriculum, the article concerns pedagogy rather than curriculum, and there is nothing to indicate he has expertise in pedagogy outside of the secondary English classroom.

In my opinion, both Professor Wiltshire and Dr Donnelly have credibility to speak about some aspects of education, but not pedagogy.

Are the experts trustworthy?

The reviewers were employed by the Australian Government to perform a review of the Australian Curriculum, and that review appears to align closely with the views of the minister who employed them to do the review. Perhaps that could make them either trustworthy or untrustworthy depending on how you want to look at it.

However I found no evidence to assume that they are trustworthy or untrustworthy, so my judgment on this criteria is suspended.

Are the opinions of the experts consistent with others in his or her field?

I am sure there will be a range of opinions posted in the comments to this blog post, and I look forward to reading them all. But I daresay that no, in general, the opinions of the two reviewers are not consistent with education experts (be they teachers or researchers). I would guess that the opinions are consistent with those of conservative politicians at the moment.

The article itself is inconsistent. While Donnelly and Wiltshire deride ‘new age’ teaching methodologies and call for a return of the teacher to the front of the room (indicating direct instruction pedagogies), the latter part of the article goes on to talk about the success of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program as “a highly respected worldwide diploma program where students complete a demanding academic course comprised of two languages, mathematics, a science subject, a humanities subject and art, [that] offers another stark juxtaposition with the HSC.”

But according to the IB website, “an IB education aims to transform students and schools as they learn, through dynamic cycles of inquiry, action and reflection. Teachers enable and support students as they develop the approaches to learning they need – for both academic and personal success.”

Inquiry learning, a key pedagogy in the IB curriculum where “teachers are viewed as facilitators and not ‘distributors’ of knowledge’, is what Dr Donnelly has referred to as ‘kumbaya education.’

Are the experts’ opinions based on evidence?

There is no mention in the article that Dr Donnelly or Professor Wiltshire offered sufficient, acceptable, or relevant evidence that contemporary pedagogies are “hurting our children.” The article mentions that recent plateaus in international test scores are the cause for the reviewers’ concern and that “Australia is sliding behind a number of countries in education standards including Singapore, South Korea, Finland and Hong Kong”. But the use of test scores as evidence would give rise to new critical questions, such as whether the tests assess constructs, skills, understandings, or developed characteristics that are the intended outcomes of education, or whether we would prefer different outcomes from education in Australia. Therefore, we should question these claims, and the assumptions upon which they have been based.

What can be demonstrated by a closer examination of the performance of Australian students on international tests (PISA, TIMMS and the like) is that inequity is hurting our children. Analysis informs us that Australia has a high quality education system, and our results in reading, mathematics and science place us consistently among the top performing countries. However, our results also demonstrate widening social stratification. A summary of the research regarding these issues, with links to original papers, is available in this article published on The Conversation last year.

I believe that views attributed to Donnelly and Wiltshire in the Daily Telegraph article promote false narratives of failure: failures of teachers and their decisions regarding pedagogies, failures of schools, and failures of the curriculum they’ve recently reviewed.

The real challenge in Australian education is not ‘progressive new-age fads’ but the growing inequity between rich and poor. I’d like to see the Daily Telegraph publish some expert views about that.

 

Many thanks go to Corinne Campbell for her thoughtful and eloquent contributions to this article.

 

PEZAROCharlotte is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland (UQ). Her research looks at the role that science classroom argumentation plays in the development of particular cognitive processes, understandings, and values for making decisions. Before beginning her research, Charlotte was a primary school teacher with Education Queensland, teaching in remote, regional and city schools. She shares her experiences and expertise in primary science education in a number of primary education courses at UQ. Charlotte has a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) and a Graduate Bachelor of Education (Primary).

Teachers as researchers: what they do, where to find them and how academic researchers can engage with them

Many teachers are making grassroots attempts to read, use, and generate research these days. Educational researchers love this. In turn, they are engaging with teachers, by organising events especially for teachers at educational research conferences and collaborating with teachers in classroom research.

Schools all around Australia are currently hosting research projects involving classroom teachers. But it can be difficult for teachers to engage in research because it takes a lot of time and energy, not just in the classroom but also due to the paperwork and meetings involved.

However, I believe if we don’t work with each other, teachers risk reinventing wheels or becoming trapped within an echo chamber, and researchers risk irrelevance.

There is so much to be gained by collaborating with each other. Together, teachers and researchers can develop a research literate teaching culture. Of course many teachers are already working collectively to improve their access, engagement with, and undertaking of research.

In this post I want to look at what teachers are doing and how researchers might engage with them.

 

Formal and informal research

Educational researchers are often interested in large-scale research questions involving multiple teachers or schools, whereas classroom teachers are often looking to participate in or conduct informal research that is specific to their own classroom context and practice.

Teachers regularly carry out informal research in their daily work in the classroom.

Informal Research

By the nature of their role, teachers are informal researchers. Every day a teacher enters their classroom with a new lesson to try, a new strategy to test, a new thought about how to manage young Harry’s distractibility or Neville’s anxieties, help Ginny understand a difficult Herbology concept, and develop Hermione’s broomstick flying skills.

However we know that teachers with better research skills, who are critically reflexive, and who look outside their own experience will find and evaluate possible solutions to teaching and classroom issues more quickly and efficiently. This can make their teaching more effective.

Looking outside to what others have done is a central part of this process. However, the constant trial and error teachers undertake to improve their classroom teaching is barely spoken about or shared. Usually, it’s undertaken independently, and the results a quiet accomplishment. Sometimes, it’s done collaboratively, and the results are shared with the community of teachers, students and their families. Occasionally, research is undertaken more formally, purposefully, with a broad goal of improving school or system-wide policies or processes.

Formal Research

Formal research is “hard and it is technical and there are a lot of i’s to dot and t’s to cross” (e.g. ethics applications, access to literature, participant recruitment and informed consent, and the difficult work of analysing and interpreting complicated data). It is rigorous, and accountability for validity and reliability are deeply entrenched within the system. With so many hurdles to jump, it can take a long time to complete a formal research project.

 

Teachers’ networks and events

While educational researchers investigate policy impacts and teaching methods, individual teachers often seek more definite and immediate resolutions to context-specific issues. Teachers are seeking what they desire through grassroots networks and events, such as Twitter, Teachmeets, and researchED conferences.

Teachers on Twitter

A small but growing group of teachers are flocking to social media such as Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest to share their resources, experiences and ideas. In particular, Twitter has become the forum for teachers to discuss what works for them, and what doesn’t. We know that this informal research is a normal part of the everyday work of a teacher, and teachers have found that there is much to be gained through the sharing and discussing of such work through social media.

Researchers should also join Twitter. It is a great place to share research and explore teachers’ responses to and incorporation of both formal and informal research into their daily work.

Twitter-synchronous chats

Regular chats such as the #PSTchat (for pre-service teachers) and #AussieED (for Aussie educators) provide structures for productive synchronous conversations on issues that matter to them, including educational research. Regular discussion topics include homework, behaviour management, myths in education (such as learning styles and Brain Gym), NAPLAN, using data, and subject-specific practices and pedagogies. On March 8, hundreds of Australian teachers took to Twitter to discuss “research in education” with #AussieED; the conversation flew fast.

Researchers are not excluded from such discussions, and some do engage, myself included. I aim to be constructive and contribute thoughtfully; these chats are spaces for teachers to share their experiences and ideas, and when I participate, I ensure my contributions are made in the spirit of collegiality, rather than antagonism or authority. I’m always welcomed!

Twitter-curated accounts
Curated accounts such as #EduTweetOz are hosted by a different Aussie educator each week. I was fortunate to be included as a host last year. There are a number of educational researchers on Twitter already.

AARE has an account under @AustAssocResEd . Maybe AARE can curate an account with a different Aussie educational researcher each week?

Blogs

Many teachers are blogging; sharing their experiences, practices, and interpretations of research with each other and the wider world. Some blogs are highly critical of educational research.

(This AARE blog is for educational researchers. It is widely read by teachers, academics, interested members of the public and politicians. Teachers can co-author blog posts with an educational researcher. -Ed)

Here are a few teacher blogs to visit

About Teaching  by Corinne C. (Australian primary teacher)
Classroom Chronicles by Henrietta M. (Australian primary teacher)
Teaching as Learning by Melissa P. (Australian secondary English and Italian teacher)
Teaching of Science  by Ian H. (British secondary science teacher)
Filling the pail  by Greg A. (Australian secondary science teacher)

Teachmeets

Teachmeets are informal meetings between teachers where they discuss and share practice, insights and innovations for teaching effectively. Teachmeets are organised by interested teachers who simply find a space, make a time, and advertise the event. You will often see them mentioned on Twitter. Educational researchers are most welcome at Teachmeets.

Teachmeets do not charge fees for attendance. Some, not all, participants give short presentations (2-7 minutes) and join in break-out sessions. Sometimes guest speakers are specifically invited. Many teachers who attend maintain a blog or engage via Twitter. Educational researchers have been known to present at Teachmeets, however teachers are given priority.

Matt Esterman, one of the teachers instrumental in the Teachmeet movement in Australia, says “each Teachmeet is unique in focus, attendance, context and purpose, and these are affected by the participants themselves, as they shape the Teachmeets as much as the host!

researchED

UK conference series researchED has dipped its toe into Australian waters. The grassroots, teacher-led researchED movement has grown from the dissatisfaction of some teachers in the UK with their access to, engagement with, and inclusion in educational research. Intended aims are to increase teacher engagement with research and research literacy, with the underlying belief that teachers and researchers should collaborate to promote effective practice in education.

Shore School, Sydney, hosted the first Aussie researchED on Saturday 21 February of this year, and the speaker line-up included a wide range of teachers, researchers and policy-makers. The inclusion of Kevin Donnelly in a panel discussion led some teachers and researchers to make the decision to skip the conference. Cognitive psychology researchers are embracing researchED conferences, and are particularly noticeable on the speaker lineups.

Research Leads and teacher research journals

In the UK, researchED and similar movements have led to the establishment of Research Leads in many schools. Research Leads are teachers or administrators who take on the additional role of seeking and disseminating research, delivering ‘evidence-based’ or ‘research-based’ professional development, and guiding UK teachers through action research projects in their schools.

Research Leads meet regularly to share their experiences and learn from the ideas of others. Individual schools around Australia have created similar roles, but these are not yet widespread.

Arising from this, UK teachers have launched a successful Kickstarter fundraiser campaign  to publish their research in a journal, with articles reviewed by a “team of practicing teachers and headteachers”. Glen Gilchrist, the teacher behind this project, is encouraging others to “hacking teacher led research”.

Teacher associations

More established, and most likely to include researchers, teacher associations exist for almost every subject area or teaching community in every state of Australia and at the national level. Associations such as the Science Teachers’ Association of Queensland  (one of eight state members of the Australian Science Teachers’ Association; ASTA) continue to publish a quarterly, non-peer-reviewed journal and host multiple conferences each year.

Conferences are of high quality and include researchers. The journals are excellent channels of communication with teachers, but (in my experience as editor of one such journal) it is difficult to convince researchers to publish in association journals because they are not peer-reviewed or indexed.

 

Join in, but tread lightly

Teachers have created these networks and events to share, engage, collaborate and direct their own research, as well as the formal research available to them. These networks and events serve teachers’ aspirations for their own and their education systems’ improvements in order to achieve better outcomes for their students. For the most part, teacher activities in these networks are productive, collaborative and progressive.

There is space here for researchers to participate and contribute. The inclination might be to jump in, sage on the (Twitter) stage, and make grand pronouncements about what works and what doesn’t; what teachers should and shouldn’t do, and how. But to do this will surely backfire. Teachers have not created these spaces to be told what they’re doing wrong; they get enough of that in the mainstream media and from politicians.

My advice to researchers is tread lightly; be gentle and kind, encouraging and patient. Ask questions, share and offer help and support when it’s sought. You will surely learn a lot in return and could make some very productive connections.

 

PEZAROCharlotte is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland (UQ). Her research looks at the role that science classroom argumentation plays in the development of particular cognitive processes, understandings, and values for making decisions. Before beginning her research, Charlotte was a primary school teacher with Education Queensland, teaching in remote, regional and city schools. She shares her experiences and expertise in primary science education in a number of primary education courses at UQ. Charlotte has a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) and a Graduate Bachelor of Education (Primary).