Collaboration between teachers and university researchers can be challenging yet highly rewarding. In this article we discuss the experiences of science and maths teachers and higher education researchers who are part of the Targeted Initiative on Science and Mathematics Education (TISME), a research programme funded by the Economic and Social Research Council in collaboration with the Institute of Physics, Gatsby and the Association for Science Education.
We found that the benefits and learning derived by participating teachers and researchers were extensive – not only did they lead to improvements in pupils’ engagement and achievement in science and mathematics, but also contributed to teachers’ wider professional learning. Researchers also benefited from working closely with teachers, prompting them to consider how they can make their research more relevant and accessible to practitioners.
TISME is comprised of five research projects focusing on different aspects of science and maths education. The initiative seeks to understand the factors that influence young people’s participation, engagement and achievement in science and mathematics and is looking to identify practical implications for improvement.
Although research is ongoing, early messages include the importance of influential adults on learners’ decisions about pursuing study beyond school, and a general widespread lack of good quality, timely information, advice and guidance about STEM careers. Information about the projects that make up TISME can be found on the website.
The benefits of teaching and research
In February, we brought together teacher and researcher participants in the TISME projects to examine their experiences of collaboration and to explore the benefits and challenges of working together.
Both were positive about their experience. Teachers felt that their engagement with educational research increased as a result. They reported that the research-informed approaches which they had developed were helping them to address some of the key challenges in enhancing participation, engagement and achievement in their science and/or mathematics classrooms.
A pamphlet which summarises their learning and suggests practical ways forward can be found on the TISME website (see further information). Teachers identified a number of specific benefits of research-based approaches. These include:
Professional growth: For example, developing a new appreciation of the relevance of educational research to classroom practice and gaining in confidence. Some teachers had since decided to pursue a Master’s degree.
Changes in classroom practice. For example, teachers developed the way they taught as a result of trialling and evaluating new classroom approaches or by carefully analysing students’ responses to new tasks.
Benefits to students, including improvements in learning, attitudes and participation. Research found measurable improvements in pupils’ attainment and attitudes.
Changes in school contexts. For example, some teachers reported that science and/or maths departments were now working more closely together and that there was more of a “research culture” within their school.
Teachers came from a range of school contexts and had different starting points in terms of their interest and experience of educational research. Some came to the project sceptical about the value of educational research but all who attended the discussion seminar emphasised that they were now convinced about the value of participation.
Teachers participated in the projects in different ways. Some were the subjects of research, others were – accessing research findings and reports. However, many teachers were active participants, carrying out classroom enquiries which they had helped to design through collaboration with university researchers.
Both teachers and researchers agreed that one of the key factors contributing to the success of these collaborations was that the relationships were developed over a sustained period of time (between one and three years).
The benefits for Antonia included reflection time, small group work, analysis of the detail of lessons, and getting new ideas and exchanging opinions with other teachers.
Her students benefited from more engaging lessons and developed “can do” attitudes, improved application of fundamental skills and greater confidence in tackling larger problems. Antonia felt it is important to recognise that not everything works first time, with support from the research team being invaluable in this respect.
Caroline, meanwhile, particularly enjoyed discussing ideas with the researchers and other teachers. Implementing these was often challenging, but rewarding. She gained the confidence to pursue a Master’s degree, to share ideas with colleagues, and to spread new research-based practice across her department.
Teachers reported the value of learning as members of research communities. However, participants also described a range of practical barriers to engaging with research when not involved in a project such as this. These include a lack of confidence and knowledge about where to find research about an area of interest.
The majority also agreed that time is a key constraint. Criticisms were made of much educational research, which teachers perceived to be inaccessible because of its language or location. Teachers felt particularly frustrated by research that they perceive to be irrelevant to their classroom practice. Some suggested that it would also be useful to hear not only about research “success” stories, but also research findings about other teachers’ experiences of “failures”, so as to learn about how to overcome them.
Collaboration between teachers and researchers had benefits for researchers too. It prompted them to consider how they might make their research more relevant and accessible to practitioners, as well as the importance of research having a positive impact in schools. Researchers appreciated that working directly with teachers as co-partners in the research process can help to ensure classroom impact.
Promoting research-based practice
How can school leaders promote and embed research based approaches? One leader commented: “Once teachers see the benefits to themselves and their students it’s a done deal.”
There is a wealth of literature about the value of teachers engaging with research, and compelling testimony by teachers to the impact of such engagement on their professional learning and practice.
TISME teachers report that their professional learning through engagement with research is enabled by schools with cultures that value and support participation in research and in which decision-making and practice is evidence-based at classroom, department and school level. Their recommendations relate to whole-school characteristics.
They suggest that schools wishing to promote research-based approaches can do so by offering:
Time to reflect with other teachers, including from other schools.
Professional development programmes that include research-based elements.
Links with researchers from higher education institutions, which can provide frameworks for enquiry and external perspectives.
Channels of communication.
Teachers described enabling school contexts as characterised by:
An ethos of willingness to talk about and learn from mistakes.
Channels of communication where ideas are shared laterally, not just “top-down”.
There are a range ways in which school leaders and teachers can keep updated about education research to increase the extent to which the professional culture of a school and its policy and practice are research-informed. The internet is the main way that most teachers access research. Websites such as those listed in further information provide easy access to academic research as well as practitioner research.
As discussed above, teachers engaged with research in a range of ways through their participation in the TISME projects. All of these could be offered in a school committed to fostering research-based approaches. Links between schools and higher education institutions can provide valuable support and strengthen the culture of school-based research.
In sum, teachers and researchers working together can constitute powerful and productive research communities – exchanging perspectives, ideas and learning.
The TISME programme will continue to gather and disseminate learning about research-informed approaches, alongside more specific findings about factors that can help schools and policy-makers to influence and encourage greater achievement, understanding and participation in science and mathematics education.
It is clear that many teachers are not yet aware of the range of ways that relevant research can be accessed. Research-based approaches to professional decision-making are more embedded in some schools than others.
There are many different ways that teachers can engage with research – including being active enquirers in their own classrooms. School leaders have a key role in developing cultures where links between research and teaching are valued, supported and embedded.
Sue Sissling is an independent STEM education consultant and Louise Archer is a professor of the sociology of education at King’s College London.
Other useful websites