Building an effective community of practice

Students and teachers collaborating

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Although there is a great deal of chemical education research going on around the world, there remains a significant disconnect between researchers and practitioners. One reason for this is that teachers and researchers belong to different communities of practice, whose goals and day-to-day activities differ widely. In this article, Sevian and colleagues outline the role of collaborative professional development in bridging the gap by bringing researchers and teachers together to design, implement and evaluate a research project which is essentially embedded in the teaching of a topic.

The research team involved teachers at both middle and high school level alongside university-based researchers. This ensured that the teachers were truly immersed in a professional development activity, in contrast to the typical situation where CPD is ‘done’ to them ‘by’ external providers. The design-based approach outlined investigated students’ abilities to apply chemical thinking in solving authentic problems through a collection of formative assessments used in the classroom. These instruments, which doubled up as research tools to map levels of sophistication in chemical thinking, tracked students’ learning progression as they considered problems such as the evaluation of which fuels impart the least damage to the planet. The data collected was of value to the teachers in developing their classroom pedagogy as well as to the research in evaluating the impact of the interventions.

The project development was supported by monthly team meetings in which the teachers had an integral role in guiding the development of the research, and determining new goals for the research and new directions for papers. The article presents strong evidence that engagement with the project benefited teachers in terms of their classroom practice and knowledge of the relevant pedagogies. Middle school teachers felt that they gained from their interaction with high school teachers, who had greater theoretical understanding and confidence. The high school teachers reported increased confidence in interpreting and dealing with students’ misconceptions as a result of using the research instruments and the evaluation of the data collected. The researchers also benefited, noting that each member of the team brought a perspective that was needed to ensure the success of the project. This seems to be a genuinely effective method for building a community of practice that traverses traditional divides, with many valuable lessons for those seeking similar outcomes.