Research-Practice Partnerships

people around a table for a meetingIn this month’s Spotlight, three projects share insights on their partnerships between researchers and practitioners to innovate and improve STEM teaching and learning, including their formation, the strategies and features they leverage to support equitable work together, and how they've addressed common challenges. The Spotlight also includes a collection of resources for those who would like to learn more about this approach to education research.

In this Spotlight:

Featured Projects

CAREER: Expanding Latinxs' Opportunities to Develop Complex Thinking in Secondary Science Classrooms through a Research-Practice Partnership

PI: Hosun Kang
STEM Disciplines: Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Earth Sciences
Grade Levels: 7-12
Target Audience: Teachers, teacher leaders

Project Description: This is a partnership project with a school district that aims to transform science teaching and learning at schools toward a more equitable, just, and sustainable future. The team consists of 20 secondary science teachers, five teacher leaders, and university researchers. Each team co-designs and enacts a set of justice-centered curriculum and assessments that facilitate students’ civic engagement. Employing participatory design research, we study both the new possibility of science learning for minoritized students and the processes of building the partnership.

Partnership Formation: The partnership with the school district was brokered by a teacher leader who taught a course in the teacher education program. Researchers leveraged the existing relationship with the teacher. The teacher introduced the researcher (PI) to the superintendent of the school district.

Partnership Strengths: We have weekly meetings with the district partners who are in charge of the professional learning of science teachers in the district. Most decisions are made together through the conversation between the researchers and district partners. In addition, the researchers interacted with district partners informally through texting or lunch or after the PD, which is very important to build and strengthen the relationships. In addition, the researchers deliberately recognized district partners’ contributions verbally during the weekly meeting, invited them to the advisory board meetings, or invited them as the co-author of the conference presentation. Finally, the researchers created spaces to listen to the district’s initiative, priorities, and concerns at the beginning of the year while setting the goals together or at the end of the year through the interview with the district partners. The team discusses how to address the district’s needs and concerns through the project activities.

Challenges: The most challenging aspects of developing and sustaining a mutually beneficial partnership are developing deep and trusting relationships. It is all about relationships! It takes additional time and care, which is invisible and not recognized in the former merit review system.

Methodology: This project employs participatory design research (Bang & Vossoughi, 2016).

Findings: Teacher researchers of our team analyzed students’ civic engagement projects. We developed a framework for guiding students’ civic actions. The team will present the work at the upcoming conference.

Product(s): We created a newsletter to share the work with school administrators and district leaders.

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Co-Designing for Statewide Alignment of a Vision for High Quality Mathematics Instruction

PIs: Katherine Mawhinney, Allison McCulloch, Catherine Schwartz, Peter Wilson | Co-PI: Michelle Stephan
STEM Disciplines: Mathematics
Grade Levels: K-12
Target Audience: We are intentionally targeting all audiences including teachers, instructional leaders, school and district administrators, leaders from our state education agency, and the broader community. However, we do emphasize district/school math leaders/coaches as important conduits in the overall system as they work directly with students, teachers, and administrators.

Project Description: This project aims to test the conjecture that developing a shared vision of high quality, equitable mathematics instruction (HQEMI) is foundational to the successful implementation of STEM education innovations. Since 2016, our research practice partnership of state, district and school-based leaders, mathematics teachers, and researchers has engaged in design-based implementation research to iteratively co-design instructional resources that promote a shared, state-wide vision of HQEMI. Currently, we are building upon this work by investigating the visions of HQEMI held by educators at different levels of a state educational system, the extent to which those visions are shared, and how the visions mediate and are mediated by collaborative design and uptake of resources that support a coherent vision of HQEMI.

Partnership Formation: We are unusual in that we are a state-wide research practice partnership—meaning our partners include our State Department of Public Instruction, educational researchers from multiple universities and teachers / leaders from districts across the state. Our partnership officially formed back in 2016 as a reaction to the quick adoption and implementation expectations of new state math standards. The original formation was built from a grassroots movement from district level math leaders wanting to ensure that teachers had the support they needed to implement the new standards. It was formed around a mission of “we are not doing this to our teachers again!”, meaning an expectation of significant shifts in classroom practice with little to no support. Our current DRK-12 project leveraged and extended this existing partnership. We are now working with co-design teams, each with its own steering committee. These groups are comprised of educators of various role types, who are from various districts all across the state, and who were chosen from a larger group of applicants.

Partnership Strengths: The work of our partnership is driven by our diverse group of educators’ desire to meet our state mathematical community’s needs. It is a true partnership despite the fact that we all hold different roles and reside in different regions, but because we see all partners as belonging to one community. This perspective of everyone belonging to one community and the relationships that have built trusting connections among practitioners and researchers, are strengths of the project.

Our work cannot be separate from the existing organizations that impact and influence mathematics education within the state if it is to be beneficial to all. Thus, our working community includes colleagues from the State Department of Public Instruction, the North Carolina Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and the North Carolina Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators. This inclusion refers to consistent communication, collaboration in professional settings, and even co-designing.

Working on a shared problem of practice positions the project to produce outcomes that are beneficial to all. Beginning by analyzing response data gathered from regional listening sessions that took place all across the state, practitioners and researchers collaborated in co-design teams to well-define a shared problem of practice through a structured design thinking process. Co-design teams continued from there to create research-based tools for a statewide audience that could be put to work in addressing the identified problems of practice.

Challenges: For a state-level partnership, two significant challenges are understanding and working across fast-moving sociopolitical landscapes and working to impact diverse local contexts. Strategies to address the challenges include stakeholder representation and focusing on designing for adaptation and use in various contexts. To the former, the project leaders worked to ensure that co-design teams represented a variety of school-system-types, role-types, and regions. An additional challenge was that we had a limited number of co-designers that the project could support, so we have invited those not selected to participate in other ways. Designing for diverse local contexts has required that co-designers think beyond their own contexts. The utilization of a design process that begins with developing empathy for the recipients of the designs and includes prototyping and testing has helped to address this second challenge.

Methodology: Beginning the co-design work by generating a problem of practice was a new experience for all collaborators in the partnership. Engaging together in this new way has required reliance on broad theories of design, communities of practice, and systems thinking. We characterize the approach as design-based implementation research, in the sense that we are engaging with nested, hierarchical systems to ensure that the solutions designed by the teams resonate, travel, and are useful in different contexts and at different levels of a state system.

Findings: This project intends to speak broadly and generally to implementing education innovation at scale and the considerations and expectations to be addressed within that process. We have experienced the fact that both designing for HQEMI and implementing those designs are subject to the systems within which educators are working. The infrastructures that currently exist or the lack of sufficient infrastructures can hinder or enhance the broad efforts to innovate.

Statewide educational improvement efforts are likely to encounter discontinuities, or interruptions in interactions, as individuals from various communities come together to negotiate meaning, action, and resolution. These discontinuities can be leveraged as learning opportunities for a community of practice.

It is possible to design objects that become boundary objects. These boundary objects are taken up by different communities of practices as a shared artifact that provides meaning within and across communities.

Products: Navigating to the website, one can find the most recent work of the co-design teams at each of the K-5, 6-8, and 9-12 grade bands’ resource links. The resources that have been co-designed are distinct across the groups since each group chose a different problem of practice (highlighted in brief below). The resources on the website and mentioned here are the most current designs being offered by each co-design team.

  • K-5: Seeing that all education stakeholders need access to networking and learning experiences about high quality, equitable mathematics instruction so that each and every student can flourish, the K-5 co-design team is hosting a professional development experience in the spring of 2024. Teams of district educators will gather to develop a shared vision of conceptual understanding and procedural fluency in whole number operations and to develop an enactment plan for their district that will support each and every student .
  • 6-8: The middle grades co-design team acknowledged that instructional leaders in the state have not been equipped to support the mathematical flourishing of each and every student and in particular, those students from minoritized populations. This co-design team is in the process of hosting a book club event, reading What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey. This study of how trauma can impact the brain is one part of a collection of professional learning resources that are designed to build instructional leader’s empathy, mathematical growth mindsets, and knowledge of high quality, equitable teaching practices.
  • 9-12: Acknowledging that it is not the case that each and every high school student in the state is flourishing mathematically, the 9-12 group set out to design tools that would impact mathematics discourse in the classroom and develop confident mathematics learners. The co-designers are creating resources that share nine discourse moves, highlighting one move each month. The monthly toolkit includes a discourse brief that highlights what the discourse move is, why it is important, what the teacher and student are doing during the move, an example of the move in action, and sentence starters for students. This brief is also accompanied by presentation slides to support the creation of a professional learning experience around each discourse move and a guide of administrators in supporting their teachers’ implementation of the moves within their classrooms.

Recommended Reading on Research-Practice Partnerships:

  • Guiding Research
    • Cobb, P. Jackson, K. Henrick, E, Smith, T.M, and the Mist Team (2018). Systems for instructional improvement: Creating coherence from the classroom to the district office. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
    • Coburn, C. (2003). Rethinking scale: Moving beyond numbers to deep and lasting change. Educational Researcher, 32(6), 3-12.
    • Penuel, W.R. & Gallagher, D.J. (2017). Creating research-practice partnerships in education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
    • Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge University Press. Wenger-Trayner, E. & Wenger-Trayner, B. (2020). Learning to make a difference: Value creation in social learning spaces. Cambridge University Press.
  • Research Products
    • Wilson, P., McCulloch, A., Fisher, C., Holl-Cross, C., & Oriowo, O. (2022) Systemic coherence through a shared vision of mathematics instruction. In Bateiha, S. and Cobbs. G. (Eds.). Proceedings of the 49th annual meeting of the Research Council on Mathematics Learning.
    • McCulloch, A., Mawhinney, K., Holl-Cross, C., Wonsavage, P. & Wilson, P.H. (2022). Professional learning at scale: Designing a boundary object. In A. Kischka, E. Dryer, R. Jones, J. Lovett, J. Strayer, & S. Drown (Eds.), Proceedings of the 44th annual meeting of the North American Chapter of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education (pp. 991 - 969), Middle Tennessee State University: Nashville, TN.
    • Mawhinney, K., Schwartz, C., Wilson, P.H., Stephan, M., McCulloch, A., Adefope, O., Fisher, C., Holl-Cross, C., & Oriowo, O. (2022). Co-designing for statewide alignment of a vision for high quality mathematics instruction. In A. Kischka, E. Dryer, R. Jones, J. Lovett, J. Strayer, & S. Drown (Eds.), Proceedings of the 44th annual meeting of the North American Chapter of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education (p. 994), Middle Tennessee State University: Nashville, TN.
    • Oriowo, O., Fisher, C., & Wilson, P.H. (2002). Systemic Barriers to Collaboratively Designing for High Quality Mathematics Instruction. In A. Kischka, E. Dryer, R. Jones, J. Lovett, J. Strayer, & S. Drown (Eds.), Proceedings of the 44th annual meeting of the North American Chapter of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education (p. 544), Middle Tennessee State University: Nashville, TN.
    • Stephan, M., Schwartz, C.S., & Mawhinney, K. (2022). How do teachers and districts implement statewide co-designed instructional frameworks? In A. Kischka, E. Dryer, R. Jones, J. Lovett, J. Strayer, & S. Drown (Eds.),Proceedings of the 44th annual meeting of the North American Chapter of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education (pp. 210 - 214), Middle Tennessee State University: Nashville, TN.
  • Co-Design Products:

Screenshot of Student looking at StarLogo Nova platform.

Designing Computational Modeling Curricula across Science Subjects to Study How Repeated Engagement Impacts Student Learning throughout High School (Collaborative Research)

PIs: Luke Conlin, Margaret Harrison, Eric Klopfer, Aditi Wagh | Other Project Members: Daniel Wendel, Emma Anderson, Ilana Schoenfeld, Jennifer Elisabeth Mesiner
STEM Disciplines: Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Environmental Sciences
Grade Levels: 9-12
Target Audience: High school students

Project Description: DC-Models is an RPP between the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), Salem State University and the Scheller Teacher Education Program (STEP) at MIT. The project aims to address two problems of practice in DCPS high schools: A lack of access to computing and computer science education for all students, and a lack of access to NGSS-based curricular resources and PD for teachers. DC-Models is addressing these problems through 4 components: 1) Designing computational modeling units for four science subjects. The district wants to engage HS students in computational modeling (CM) through mandated Science classes to provide all students access to computational thinking (CT) education.; 2) Provide all HS science teachers access to PD to implement the units; 3) Do research around design of the curricula and PD, and study how it impacts students and teachers; student learning; and, 4) Build capacity for CM in HS science courses across the district by anchoring the project in a design collaborative with multiple stakeholders. The project also addresses a gap in the research literature by examining longitudinal effects of students' repeated computational modeling experiences over time across multiple STEM disciplines. Within its first year, the project has impacted X teachers and Y high school students.

Partnership Formation: The DC-Models project was initiated by a STEM administrator in the DC district. The administrator had participated in PD training for the BioGraph curriculum (funded by two DRK-12s: DRL 1019228; 1721003; PIs: Susan Yoon & Eric Klopfer) which integrated computational modeling into high school biology classes, and reached out to access curricula from the project. While they were pleased with the modeling in BioGraph, they expressed a desire for students to engage with a wider range of computational practices. They also wanted to open up opportunities for students to engage in these practices in more subject areas so a greater number of students could participate. The STEP lab invited the district to collaborate on a larger partnership to develop computational modeling curricula across 4 science subjects and provide professional development for teachers to teach the units in their class.

Partnership Strengths: This RPP is supported by a group of design partner teachers who bring a lot of pedagogical expertise in their subject areas and interest in realizing the goals of the project. Our design partner teachers have been willing to critique our developing curricula and test it out in their classrooms so we can collaboratively refine the materials. The RPP is also supported by strong buy-in from the district administrators, which makes doing research in classrooms from a distance possible. In having support from both administrators and teachers we are able to do research and develop curricular materials that can be used across schools in the district. Teachers have the support to shift their pedagogical practices while the administrators are able to give voice to the larger goals of the districts for student learning experiences. It is a privilege to work so deeply with a district. 

Challenges: One of the biggest challenges on this project is that the two research institutions are not local to the school district. This has necessitated developing local partners to support data collection in classrooms. To do this, we worked to recruit research assistants from local institutions including the University of Maryland. In not being local we have also had to be creative with how we are implementing teacher PD where the instructors are often a face on a computer while the participants are co-located.  This has forced us to work harder at creating community, trust, and strong relationships with all of the teachers.

Methodology: Using a design-based implementation research paradigm (Penuel & Fishman, 2012), DC-Models is collaboratively designing and developing curricular materials that integrate computational modeling into four science subject areas. As an RPP and DBIR study, the project’s commitment is to solve the problems of practice previously identified from “the perspective of those ultimately responsible for it” (Penuel & Fishman, 2012, p.297). This means that we aim to support the district in its vision of using CM as a vehicle to enact NGSS and integrate CT into science classrooms for all students. Our research questions are designed to address DC’s problems of practice. Methodologically, DC-Models is a longitudinal study using mixed methods to examine multiple streams of data to examine how repeated exposure to computational modeling across science subjects shifts how students engage with science and computational modeling over the years. Data include pre-post course assessments, unit-specific pre-post assessments, teacher interviews, and video data of classroom interactions.

Findings: In year 1, the first Biology and Physics curriculum units were implemented by eight teachers across four schools.  Students showed learning gains pre-post on assessments of NGSS and computational modeling learning objectives. In a pilot study of one physics teacher’s classes, a paired-samples t-test indicates that students scored significantly higher after instruction with the DC-Models unit (Mean(pre) = 2.188±1.243; Mean(post) = 3.439±1.570), t(56) = 5.066, p < .001.  A significant gender gap in performance was found before instruction, but was no longer significant after instruction with the DC-Models unit.

Recommended Reading on Research-Practice Partnerships:

  • Johnson, R., Severance, S., Penuel, W. R., & Leary, H. (2016). Teachers, tasks, and tensions: Lessons from a research–practice partnership. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 19(2), 169–185.

Additional Projects

We invite you to explore a sample of the other recently awarded and active work that include research-practice partnerships in the DRK-12 portfolio.

Related Resources