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Ivory Tower University Researchers: Making Valuable Contributions to Classroom Practice

Learnings from Singapore

In this second installment of our “Learnings from Singapore” blog post mini-series, we focus on the critically important role that university researchers can play in improving classroom practice. The story today is not based in theory, but, rather, our story today is rooted firmly in empirical fact: Over the last six years we have observed, first-hand, how university researchers – so-called members of the Ivory Tower – did positively impact classroom practice.

(Reminder: in this mini-series we describe lessons we learned while working – we have been visiting Singapore four times per year – with administrators, teachers, IT, administrative, & instructional staff, university researchers, parents and students in grades 3 and 4 at Nan Chiau Primary School (NCPS) over last six years.)

The key point is this:

University researchers played a critical role in supporting NCPS teachers, in content-area-A, as the teachers changed their practice from a direct-instruction, memorize-memorize-memorize, pedagogy, to an inquiry-oriented, conversation-conversation-conversation, pedagogy. 

(By “content-area-A” we mean one of the four standard content areas taught in primary school: science, language arts (AKA: English; FYI: English is the national language of Singapore), math, and social studies. In our story, the specific content-areas weren’t at issue; it’s only important to the story to know that there were two content-areas – and thus two departments – at the Nan Chiau Primary School (NCPS) that we studied.)

During the first three years of the project (2009-2011), university researchers:

  • Developed the curriculum materials that the teachers used. The teachers were not curriculum developers, and, what’s more, they had been successful in using the direct-instruction method. But the teachers were willing to give the new inquiry-oriented curriculum & pedagogy a try!
  • Carried out in-classroom modeling for teachers of inquiry instructional practices. Since one of the researchers was an experienced classroom teacher, that researcher felt confident going into a teacher’s room and enacting a lesson, thereby modeling for the teacher, the kinds of instructional practices that go along with an inquiry pedagogy.
  • Participated in teacher meetings where curriculum and pedagogy were discussed. The teachers in content-area-A agreed to meet once a week for 1.5 hours to discuss various issues that were arising as they implemented the inquiry curriculum and pedagogy. The researchers attended and participated in those sessions.
  • Provided feedback to the teachers, based on analyses of student artifacts, on student performance. The researchers examined the artifacts produced by the students using the mobile devices and provided the teachers with information on the progress of the various students.
  • Helped transition curriculum development to the teachers. Finally, the researchers worked to bow out of being so central and helped the teachers take ownership themselves for the curriculum development process.

Starting in year 4 (2012) of the project, then, the researchers’ roles changed. The researchers were able to focus more on the analyses of student artifacts but they still continued to participate fully in teacher meetings.  

There were two factors that distinguished the university researchers involved in the Nan Chiau project:

  1. One of the university researchers had been a classroom teacher. Thus, the teachers at Nan Chiau saw the university researcher as a kindred spirit. While the Nan Chiau teachers were at times skeptical and uncomfortable with the new curriculum and new practices, they still were willing to give “the new” a go since it originated from a fellow classroom teacher.
  2. The university researchers had offices in the school. While the university researchers attended meetings at their home University (National Institute of Education), they spent the lion’s share of their time at Nan Chiau Primary School. They were assigned full-time to Nan Chiau.

Now, another group of university researchers were involved with teachers in content-area-B. However, the impact of this second group on the teachers’ practices was minimal!  Why?

  • No member of this research group had been a classroom teacher.
  • The university researchers spent minimal time actually at the school. They didn’t write curriculum. They didn’t do classroom modeling. Rather, they came in to administer surveys to the students and on occasion met with the teachers to provide feedback on the analysis of the surveys.  This group of university researchers were involved in multiple projects at multiple schools.

While the university researchers for content-area-B were, without question, fine individuals and excellent academic researchers, they simply were not engaged with the teachers at Nan Chiau.

The take-away from this story?  The Ivory Tower can positively impact classroom practice if:

  1. The Ivory Tower researchers have credibility, i.e., classroom experience, and
  2. The Ivory Tower researchers leave their Ivory Tower offices and live with the teachers and students they are studying.

While it is not impossible to find Ivory Tower researchers with classroom experience – though, that wasn’t the case for content-area-B – it is most uncommon for researchers to virtually live with “their” teachers and students.

Is No. 2 a necessary condition, then, for university researchers to have a positive impact on classroom practice? You tell us! Please, write in and tell us stories where Ivory Tower-types impacted your classrooms.

Today’s story is incomplete: Why were the Ivory Tower types housed at Nan Chiau? Leadership! Aha! We’ve gone on long enough for this week; we will address the lessons we learned about the role of leadership in another Learnings from Singapore blog post.

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