What Do the CADRE Fellows Have to Say About Their First PI Meeting?

The CADRE Fellows program provided a small number of emerging researchers and developers with the opportunity to attend the 2009 DR-K12 PI meeting and engage in ongoing professional support throughout the year. At the PI meeting, Fellows attended plenary presentations, concurrent sessions, and special interest groups (SIGs). Each Fellow then wrote a brief response to the meeting by posing a thought-provoking challenge or question related to the meeting theme of teacher learning. Your comments and insights to the issues raised by the Fellows’ responses are welcomed and encouraged.

Leigh Arino de la Rubia

During a plenary session of the 2009 DR-K12 PI meeting, a description of the emphases in K-12 education over time described the role of teacher quality in the last decade. Many of the presentations during this year’s meeting emphasized the importance of teacher quality, sharing their groups’ solutions to the teacher quality equation through innovative teacher preparation programs, induction programs, and/or professional development initiatives. In most sessions, there was a noticeable lack of discussion on how these solutions should be implemented with diverse learners, however, with an exception being the “Working in Diverse Contexts” SIG. Why was this the case? A major effort of the National Science Foundation is broadening participation and the DR-K12, IMD, and TPC programs have produced innovative and effective programs through the hard work of many. Each program is a worthy initiative, but how do we seamlessly broaden participation while considering that teachers of highly diverse students often need these programs the most? Not only do these teachers face additional classroom challenges, but they are more likely to be underqualified and have less access to technologies and materials, for example.

The inclusion of diversity in thought, word, and deed on DR-K12 (and other NSF) projects is not just an “urban” or “rural” issue but affects all of us and our future workforce. Why are studies of diverse learners often treated as a “specialty”? Diversity in education refers to more than persons of color; there is a wide diversity of learning styles and pedagogies effective within ethnically homogenous groups. Perhaps we should all be reminded that effectively teaching diverse groups is often a matter of good teaching practice, such as CREDE’s Five Standards for Effective Pedagogy. Essentially, if a best practice works well within a diverse group, it will typically work in any group.

To those who work with majority teachers and mainstream students, I challenge you to seamlessly incorporate and address solutions effective with diverse learners into your programs; it is not as difficult as you may think. For those who currently work with indigenous and/or other non-mainstream students, I challenge you to expand your research through collaboration with others who work with vastly different minority groups. What lessons have been learned through one group that can be applied to the benefit of all diverse groups of teachers and students? For example, the work of Glen Aikenhead with indigenous populations and navigation of the subculture of school science (1996) is highly applicable with groups of diverse urban students. Issues of equity present in precollege science with African-American students (Atwater, 2000) are equally important when teaching students with physical disabilities. If we are all (theoretically) working towards improving teacher quality, we need to emphasize the needs of diverse learners (including teachers) when designing research programs and curricular materials. Diversity means everyone is included rather than just those who are not a part of the mainstream view.

Cynthia D’Angelo

One of the over-arching themes that I noticed during the meeting was an awareness of and desire for good measurements. Some researchers were more focused on measuring student learning in a meaningful way, while others were looking at how we can recognize and foster good teaching. This theme was brought up in a variety of places, from SIG meetings, panel discussions, and observations while walking around the many interesting posters. Even though the specific topics covered differed in each forum, the need for measurable outcomes that could be understood by other educational stakeholders was important for everyone. However, what exactly we are measuring and why was not always well defined or closely examined.

In terms of student learning, what kinds of learning do we want to measure? What do our measurements say about our priorities in learning and research? A few people mentioned the need to consider the types of knowledge and skills that administrators (and therefore teachers) will find valuable so that we can convince practitioners that our work is worthwhile and effective. Although the standards do not necessarily reflect all of these ideas, emphases on 21st century scientific thinking skills and integrating instruction across the STEM disciplines were mentioned over and over again. While measuring student learning, we need to be aware of what our measurements say about knowledge, thinking, and learning, and perhaps need to include, as one participant said, the “messy middle knowledge” that shows how students progress from simple to more-complex thinking. This kind of picture is hard to capture and is something we can definitely work on in the future.

David M. Majerich

While rivers have often been a backdrop for musical, theatrical, song, and dance productions, as well as for literature, no metaphor other than that of a river could better serve to represent the flow of ideas about the innovative research topics shared at the 2009 Discovery Research K-12 Principal Investigator meeting in Washington, D.C. Clearly, the headwaters of the DR-K12 river of research are not static. Our river headwaters consist of freely flowing currents generated from active, thoughtful research and shared discourse about teacher content knowledge, support for teachers in the effective use of new curricula, teacher development, contextual issues, research and evaluation, and policy. A more in-depth study of the river currents reveals that the well-planned individual projects are not detached from others; rather, each is intertwined with other projects that are also rooted in advancing student and teacher learning of STEM disciplines. As future needs become present research concerns, the river flows. As these projects are investigated and results continued to be shared in the DR-K12 community, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it” (A River Runs Through It and Other Stories by Norman Maclean, 2001).

However, changes that a river undergoes may not be immediately observable. The flow of a river is mitigated when obstructions are encountered and dealt with. The flow of research is also mitigated when obstructions are encountered and dealt with. At the DR-K12 meeting, all of the researchers that I encountered were open to discuss their research projects. Rather than conceal their obstructions encountered in their projects, the researchers were generous in sharing their crafts and preliminary results. On the topic of teacher recruitment and retention (which does not appear in the introductory paragraph), Dr. Judith Stull, Temple University SMART project, gave me permission to share her preliminary findings in this reflection: “While participant recruitment into a project is important, retention is equally important if the goal is to generalize the research findings. If there are patterns to participant mortality, the findings can only be generalized to the types of individuals who remain.” She added, “ In the Temple University SMART project we found that having the size of the stipend tied to how long the person has participated rather than what they were being asked to do significantly reduced participant mortality, thereby strengthening our results.” In this project, the research obstruction was identified and dealt with head on. Critical steps were taken to minimize the effects of the obstruction to the ongoing research, and essentially the ecological integrity of the river was nearly restored.

On the same topic, Dr. Janet Carlson, Project Prime, gave me permission to share her preliminary findings. “It is difficult to do meaningful research that will yield generalizable results because districts and schools have many constraints and restraints that inhibit our ability to conduct classroom-based research over time.” She was generous and offered several examples of constraints and restraints such as, “Teaching assignments change from year to year as well as during the year. Science teachers are not in rooms equipped to conduct labs. Teachers have minimal lab supplies. Coaching assignments affect attendance at professional development sessions during the school year. Pressure to teach to the test, when the test does not reflect an inquiry-orientation to science, keep people from participating in studies. District personnel do not understand the nature of rigorous research and will commit to participate when a proposal is written only to make subsequent decisions that make that participation impossible when the proposal is funded.” Obstructions to research like those mentioned by Dr. Carlson can interfere with the flow of her carefully planned research. In this case, the change to the river is rapid, and the researchers took notice.

The types of obstructions that Drs. Stull and Carlson reported independently are not unique to only their projects. Other DR-K12 attendees reported similar obstructions that brought their research plans to an abrupt halt and/or compromised original research schedules. While I was originally assigned to follow the teacher content knowledge strand, I simply could not ignore the recruitment and retention problem that plagued other research programs as well. What strategies are others using to address the recruitment and retention issues in their projects? What obstructions have you faced and how have you minimized the effects on your research? What successes have you celebrated? I turn this over to the DR-K12 community of researchers. Your continued discourse and the dynamic of change will release the talent within the community to keep the DR-K12 river flowing.

I would like to thank Drs. Stull and Carlson for their generosity and assistance in supplying me with their valuable information.

Andrew Morozov

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work on a project funded by the NSF Discovery Research K12 Program, and to participate in the 2009 DR-K12 PI Meeting, organized around the theme of “Building the Knowledge Base of Teacher Learning in STEM Education.” During the months of working on the project, and while attending the conference, I had numerous opportunities to connect and interact in meaningful ways with experts in different areas of STEM education. Over the past year here in Seattle, and for those three November days in Washington, D.C., I was given a chance to assist with challenging and important work, engage in conversations on topics I am interested in, and get to know incredibly smart people who are now part of my professional network. I could not ask for more!

At the risk of appearing evaluative (the idea is constructive/reflective feedback) and over-generalizing from only a small sample of projects, which I had opportunity to observe at the Meeting, I have noted several apparent sources of difficulties with the research and development process, and implementation of DR-K12 projects. First, it is the availability and nature of incentives for project stakeholders outside of the research team that are essential to ensuring sustainability of developed innovations. Second, it is the tension between the systemic and cultural constraints of existing institutional structures and processes, and the possible alternative structures that may be necessary for successful adoption of innovations in ways that are responsive to increasingly more heterogeneous, flexible, and unbounded patterns of inquiry that characterize the 21st century learner. Third, it is the pronounced (albeit by no means unique) pressure on this community to conduct research in a context characterized by ambiguous merits, and the ensuing looseness of the linkage between, the research on teaching quality, and the research on learning – owed in part to the prescriptive flavor of such research, infused by the ongoing vacillation over what the “right” learning outcomes look like, and how, by what means, and for what purposes to assess them. On account of the last point, I believe that the evidence-based approach, championed by the DR-K12 program and reflected in every project I had come across, essentially amounts to validity testing of our construct definitions, hypotheses, and proposed interpretations of the results achieved. Thus construed, my overall impression is that the research carried out within the DR-K12 framework entails tremendous opportunities for discovery and innovation, and ultimately moves us toward higher quality education – for both teachers and learners.

Sytil Murphy

There were several questions and comments asked either by the plenary speakers or audience members in the question/answer sessions that sparked my interest. Suzanne Wilson commented that the “educational system focuses on what it can (or thinks it can) control,” with, in this case, the focus being on controlling teacher (or teaching) quality. An audience member asked how two exceptional teachers with different teaching styles could both be fairly evaluated by the same instrument? Courtney Bell asked, among other things, “how many observations of a class are needed for a stable estimate” of a teacher’s quality?
I have been working on a project, the National Study of Undergraduate Science Education (NSEUS), that has led me to ponder similar questions. One conclusion I have reached (that I am sure none would argue with) is that one classroom observation is not enough. I have attended several classes as part of this project that, had the class gone as planned, would have performed quite well on our instruments (like receiving a high RTOP score), but due to other issues, like classroom management, the lesson did not perform well. Additionally, I have begun to ponder additional, related questions, specific to the RTOP, the instrument the study uses. Is the RTOP a valid instrument at all ages, or are there certain reformed teaching techniques or ideas that are less appropriate for a kindergarten classroom than a middle school or high school classroom? Are all items on the RTOP necessary for all lessons, or can there be a lesson for which a particular item does not make sense? And, if so, how should this be handled?

Because my work involves the RTOP, my thoughts are directed towards it. However, I feel they can be generalized to any instruments and to the broader issue of teacher (or teaching) evaluation raised during the plenary sessions. Therefore, I would like to expand on the questions asked during the plenary sessions: Can teacher (teaching) quality be controlled and, if so, how? How do we evaluate it? Can one instrument be constructed to fairly evaluate all levels, lessons, teaching styles, and disciplines? How do we implement it?

Scott Strother

What I enjoyed most about the 2009 DR-K12 PI Meeting was the cooperative nature of the sessions. Rather than hearing about one research project per session (e.g., the way many conferences are organized), we were immersed in discussions around a topic and how our research addresses that topic. As a CADRE fellow, this allowed me to hear several points of view around a particular body of work, as well as learn about many ongoing projects. Personally, the most important thing that came out of these discussions was realizing how many projects NSF has funded that could inform my own work or ideas for future research in an area in which I had interest.

The Special Interest Group session Algebra K-12 was especially oriented towards sharing ideas around the current and future state of research on algebra. Our goal at the end of the session was to continue our conversation after the meeting. Then we could constantly receive updates on ongoing work and ideas for research needs and possible collaborations. However, we had trouble deciding a format for on-going collaboration and idea sharing. Blogs and email chains often do not work when people do not actively engage with them for any length of time. I want to keep in touch with the group and the new contacts I made in the context of sharing ideas about our work, but what are the best ways to continue this discussion in which people will actively participate?

Benjamin Wiles

Construction of substantial theories of teacher learning guides the development of effective strategies to bolster the knowledge of current and future teachers across the domains of STEM. To impact student learning in a STEM field, teachers must have not only STEM content knowledge but also parallel STEM pedagogical content knowledge. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics have been collectively labeled STEM for many purposes and with good reason; however, these interwoven, but distinctly unique, fields each has an associated characteristic pedagogical content knowledge relative to its own practices, curricula, and philosophies. While science and mathematics are taught by subject specialists beyond the middle grades in most states, technology and engineering are necessarily sub-components of the existing K-12 system. Thus, an over-arching STEM content knowledge and characteristic STEM pedagogical content knowledge may be needed to effectively implement a K-12 STEM curriculum.

To what extent does the interrelationship of the STEM fields (with respect to their own practices and content) relate to an interrelationship between their associated PCKs? Is there an overarching STEM content knowledge that is distinct from the sum of its components? And, furthermore, is there a specific STEM PCK that is related to, but also distinct from, the sum of the PCKs for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics? How should we delineate and facilitate this type of knowledge in teacher training programs and in the K-12 curriculum at large?