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March 1, 1993
Vol. 50
No. 6

Teacher-Researcher Collaborations: Resolving the Tensions

Instructional Strategies
All participants in a project come to the table with preconceived notions about what the work will be like. The partners in this collaboration were no different when they began work on Thinking Mathematics.
The collaborative's goal was to unite teachers and researchers in extended, face-to-face dialogue that would translate mathematics research into professional development materials for teachers. Teachers played an increasingly prominent role in the process, and, over time, they became the primary decision makers about content, style, and the nature of the training activities. Reaching that point, however, involved extensive work in bringing two communities of educators together.

About the Project

For the last decade, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has supported an Educational Research and Dissemination Program (ER&D) that brings teachers together to consider recent research findings. In the last five years, AFT has taken one step further by collaborating with the Learning Research Development Center (LRDC) at the University of Pittsburgh on a National Science Foundation-supported project called Thinking Mathematics.
Five expert teachers, Visiting Practitioners, worked with LRDC researchers in developing and piloting professional development materials for teachers. Their goal was to bring together the best of what is known about mathematics learning and instruction from both clinical practice and research and to put this knowledge in a form that could be readily shared with other teachers.
The five Visiting Practitioners read research, talked with researchers, implemented ideas in classrooms, conversed with colleagues, reflected on these experiences, and synthesized what was learned. The collaboration produced materials that synthesize new knowledge about math instruction and learning at the elementary grade levels in the areas of counting, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and problem solving (Bodenhausen et al. 1993, Gill and Grover 1993).
  • build on students' intuitive knowledge;
  • establish a strong number sense through counting and estimation;
  • base instruction on situational story problems;
  • use manipulatives to represent the problem situation;
  • accept multiple correct solutions, and sometimes answers;
  • require students to explain and justify their thinking;
  • use a variety of teaching strategies;
  • balance conceptual and procedural learning;
  • use ongoing assessment to guide instruction; and
  • adjust the timeline for introducing new topics.

Identifying Participants

Though the partnership had expected that the ideal teacher for this collaboration would be one with extensive math knowledge, it turned out this was not a primary requisite. The authors of the Thinking Mathematics volumes had diverse mathematical backgrounds. Though advanced math knowledge was an important resource, a teacher's ability to relate instructional experiences to the research was just as critical. “Intellectual flexibility” was also important. Teachers and researchers alike challenged preconceived notions about instruction and examined new ideas based on well-established clinical knowledge.
The collaborative consciously searched for teachers with certain experiences to participate in the project, but it did not consciously search for “ideal” researchers in the same way. The research group began with those who had the time, interest, and expertise for the tasks at hand. They were involved largely because of their knowledge about mathematics research, and several of them had practical classroom experience. Yet direct teaching experience or prior experience working with teachers turned out to be less critical than the ability to talk with the teachers. Researchers needed to be able to recognize and support the teachers' clinical knowledge base and to speak to them without jargon.

Two Cultures

This collaboration united two different cultures: teachers and researchers. At an institutional level, establishing and planning for program goals occurred with relative ease. But at the teacher and researcher level—where the real work was carried out—the task was more challenging. Researchers and teachers shared the common purpose of improving mathematics instruction and learning, but initially this was not sufficient in bridging the gap.
For example, teachers and researchers value different types of knowledge bases. Initially, the teachers were faced with a research-dominated culture that emphasized a systematic gathering of knowledge, formal examination of experience, and professional criticism (Cuban 1992). This was in sharp contrast to their usual world where action, concrete knowledge, and the ability to work in actual educational settings are highly valued (Cuban 1992, p. 8).
The dialogue among the researchers and teachers initially began with the researchers assuming the role of primary sources of knowledge. Teachers had little opportunity to share their clinical knowledge, and they were reluctant to share their own experiences in the classroom to voice support or challenges.
Another cultural mismatch that surfaced in the initial years of the partnership included day-to-day functioning. Researchers operate in highly flexible environments; teachers' organizational climates are highly structured. Researchers consciously devote time to activities such as peer interaction and self-reflection. Teachers routinely operate within a tightly constrained schedule of classes that provides little opportunity to interact with peers, much less take time for formal, systematic reflection on classroom activities.
In the Thinking Mathematics collaboration, this difference was not only apparent in the contrasting ways in which the participants spent their working hours but also in how they structured their thinking about the goals and products of the collaboration. The researchers were much more comfortable in exploring possible products of the collaboration; the teachers were often inclined to ask, “What should the products look like?”, “What does the collaboration want?”, or “When?”
Part of being “culturally sensitive” is understanding the values and rewards of a given community. Researchers are known primarily by their “degrees and publications” (Cuban 1992). The nature of the collaborative's work was such that it did not permit individual researchers to readily pursue their own research interests. Given this, the opportunity for traditional academic rewards was modest.
In contrast, the teachers gained rewards personally important to them. They are disseminating project information at various ER&D sites, serving on national policy and grants panels, and presenting Thinking Mathematics to a variety of practitioner and research groups.

Redefining the Process

At the start of the collaboration, the researchers viewed their task as “empowering” teachers. The researchers believed they would build capacities for reading and interpreting educational mathematics research and, in the process, demystify the information. The project leadership assumed that research would get through the door of the classroom and be used by teachers only if it was first clarified (and, implicitly, simplified).
Though the collaboration had defined a process by which expert practitioners would “translate” research, this process initially failed to tap into teachers' clinical experience (Leinhardt and Grover 1990). It became clear that the translation process placed teachers at a disadvantage that constrained meaningful dialogue and their status as equal partners with researchers (Leinhardt and Grover 1990). Teachers had assumed the role of student, responsible for mastering the body of extensive research knowledge that was offered to them. This left little time for them to critically examine and interpret the research. Their clinical knowledge was bypassed.
The partnership restructured its processes in the second year so teachers modeled their clinical expertise through exemplary lessons. Clearly the collaborative's work required the critical, interpretive skills of both researchers and teachers, and negotiating the successful sharing of power among researchers and teachers became critical. Regularly scheduled planning meetings became valuable tools, and the teachers assumed a variety of leadership roles including product refinement and development, leading workshop sessions, presenting to school boards and locals, writing papers for national conferences, and serving as editors for The Right Angle, the project's quarterly newsletter.
Though the collaboration began its work with assumptions about how the process would proceed, the partnership quickly discovered that many of its assumptions about roles, relationships, and incentives needed to be reexamined to achieve worthwhile collaboration. The partners refined their processes and roles to create a reasonable balance between the worlds of researchers and teachers. As one Visiting Practitioner observed, “We discuss it with the researchers, but we are the ones, the classroom teachers, these are our ideas. This is what we are drawing from the research. We are making the decisions. We will share information with the researchers and ask them what they think. We will collaborate and come to a consensus.”

Bickel, W.E., and R. A. Hattrup. (Winter 1991–92). “A Case Study of Institutional Collaboration to Enhance Knowledge Use: Restructuring Practitioner-Researcher Dialogue in Education.” Knowledge and Policy: The International Journal of Knowledge Transfer and Utilization 4, 4: 56–78.

Bodenhausen, J., N. Denhart, A. Gill, M. Miller, B. Grover, L. Resnick, G. Leinhardt, V. Bill, M. Rauth, and L. Billups. (1993). Thinking Mathematics, Volume 1: Foundations. Washington D.C.: American Federation of Teachers.

Cuban, L. (1992). “Managing Dilemmas While Building Professional Communities.” Educational Researcher 21, 1: 4–11.

Gill, A. and B. W. Grover, eds. (1993). Thinking Mathematics: Volume 2. Extensions. Washington, D.C.: American Federation of Teachers.

Leinhardt, G., and B. W. Grover. (April 1990). “Interpreting Research for Practice: A Case of Collaboration.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Boston, Mass.

Leinhardt, G., R. Putnam, and R. A. Hattrup, eds. (1992). Analysis of Arithmetic for Mathematics Teaching. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (1989). Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics. Reston, Va.: NCTM.

End Notes

1 This article is based on a documentation effort undertaken to chronicle the development of the collaboration between the LRDC and the AFT and the teachers and researchers involved (see Bickel and Hattrup 1991–92).

Rosemary A. Hattrup has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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