Developing and Using Research Briefs for Professional Development

Posted by Amy Busey on October 6, 2014

The R+P Collaboratory is working to bridge the gap between research and practice through a range of networked activities. One strand of activities takes place in the context of adaptation sites, where R+P Collaboratory staff partner and collaborate with researchers and practitioners involved in educational improvement efforts as they develop and refine models for connecting research and practice. The following case describes an approach used in one such adaptation site to explicitly integrate research into the professional development program. We describe the processes used to identify and summarize relevant literature; strategies for facilitating engagement with and reflection on this research; and questions that emerged that will guide future efforts to enhance practitioner engagement with research.

In the focal area of Interactive Technologies, our early adaptation site activities involved collaboration with an existing improvement effort that aimed to build sustainable infrastructure for strengthening science education across several rural New England districts. In exploratory conversation with the adaptation site’s leadership, we identified several opportunities for exchange around research and practice that would be of mutual benefit to both their goals for improvement and the goals of the R+P Collaboratory. The site’s ongoing work took on multiple forms and involved several strategies, one of which aimed to build the capacity of a cohort of middle and high school science teacher leaders to act as resources to one another as well as colleagues in their respective schools and districts. In our conversations around this strand of work, our adaptation site partners expressed interest in a) using video-based professional development as a means for teachers to examine and develop strategies around problems of practice, and b) involving teacher leaders in the co-design of the professional development program. Together, we considered the tools and experiences that could support teacher leaders’ engagement around the question: What can research tell us about successful models and elements of video-based professional development?

Research Briefs

In order to provide the research on which to base these conversations, we developed a strategy for identifying empirical literature and a format for summarizing the selected studies that reflected our mutual goals and the rapid-response nature of our collaboration.

As we began to hone in on video-based professional development as a topic of interest, we took an initial step of submitting a request to the reference desk service offered by our region’s federal educational laboratory—REL Northeast & Islands: “What do we know about the effectiveness and use of video in professional development? What research exists? How have they been used in STEM PD?” The REL searched a broad range of websites and online databases (e.g., ERIC, Google Scholar, federally funded research programs) to identify relevant, peer reviewed, and publically available studies published in the last 10 years. In addition, they identified several other studies that seemed particularly relevant but were not included in the official results because they weren’t available without subscription. Collaboratory staff supplemented this initial set by consulting with colleagues familiar with this area, and scanning online databases for additional literature. These activities resulted in a set of 14 articles that featured a range of models and purposes for video use in professional development. We examined each of these more closely with the following questions in mind:

  • How relevant are the research questions and findings to the question posed by the adaptation site?
  • Does the research have direct implications for practice?
  • Will teachers be able to easily synthesize the concepts in the research?
  • Will teachers at different grade levels find the research helpful?

Of the 14 studies, five were identified as being most relevant to the identified interest and needs identified by the adaptation site and meeting minimum requirements criteria for empirical research. We summarized the selected studies in a format intended to highlight key concepts, research goals and activities, findings, conclusions, and implications. We used the authors’ original language where possible, as our intent was not to translate or synthesize. Rather, we saw value in enabling participants to engage in this process themselves.

Professional Development Strategies

Teachers often have reservations about new pedagogical strategies introduced during professional development sessions. Having little time to read the supporting research, they frequently question how a new technique will improve their teaching and their students’ learning. It is important then to bring the research supporting the new practice to teachers’ attention in order to facilitate their uptake of the innovation. Research briefsprovide a simple and straightforward way to bring existing research to teachers during professional development about new techniques and strategies.

To accompany the research briefs at this particular adaptation site, one of the Collaboratory team members led a professional development session to facilitate the teacher leaders’ synthesis of the research, with the goal of having teacher leaders co-design their own professional development incorporating video that is based on both their identified needs and their reflections on the research. At a weekend professional development session, teachers were asked to read the research briefs on video-based PD and to highlight important ideas, activities, data, or findings contained in the briefs. Several pieces of chart paper, one for each research brief, were then placed around the room. Groups of teachers were assigned a particular brief and were given the task of discussing the brief and then writing on the chart paper those things they highlighted as important or interesting.

Next, the teachers engaged in a “gallery walk,” reading all of the information their peers listed about each brief on the chart paper. As they did this, the teachers reflected on the design of their own video-based PD experience and marked which ideas they found useful and would want to incorporate, which they thought were not helpful and would never use in their PD design, and the ideas about which they were ambivalent. After taking stock of their answers, not everyone was in agreement about what they would use, might use, or never use in their PD work. This was followed by a lively discussion about people’s choices, disagreements, and reasoning. This activity helped lay the foundation for these teachers in planning their own professional development sessions.

While this was the approach that the Collaboratory team took, there are several different ways in which briefs can be employed through professional development. For example, while examining the scientific practice of modeling, teachers might engage in a discussion of the various kinds of models they use in their instruction and why they employ those particular models. This discussion could be followed with reading and discussing a research brief about the different kinds of modeling and which ones have been found to be the most effective for learning a particular science concept. As an additional strategy for using briefs, after engaging in a hands-on investigation where they must build a model or use a model to learn about a science concept, teachers could read a research brief that describes the different purposes for which scientists use models and focus specifically on how models can be used to explain a scientific phenomenon. Yet another way to use briefs in a professional development session is after viewing a classroom video-clip. After viewing a classroom video-clip in which a teacher implements a lesson where students build models to explain a science concept, teachers discuss individual student’s understanding of the concept based on their models. Next, teachers read and discuss a research brief describing that one important quality of models is that they are revisable. Because models show how events, things, properties and ideas are related to one another, students need to test out these relationships. As a result of readings, activities, discussions, and experiments, students then make changes to their models over time. While not meant to be exhaustive, these are just a few examples of how to incorporate research in the form of a brief into professional development.

Looking Ahead

Our early adaptation site work was on-going and iterative. We were explicit in using input from the site leadership team and teacher leaders to inform our activities, and throughout the course of building our relationship, we laid the groundwork for, and engaged in, cultural exchange between researchers and practitioners. These initial activities also raised questions for us that we continue to consider in our current work. For example:

  • Once teachers have the opportunity to engage with research, what on-going support is needed for them to be able to incorporate what they’ve learned into their practice?
  • What is the appropriate level or “grain size” of the research that is being incorporated into our work with teachers? The smaller the grain size is, the more readily it is digested and applied.
  • The bigger the grain size, the more teachers it could potentially inform.
  • What research products and formats are most useful for the practitioners?
  • How might we support practitioners in finding, interpreting, and applying research on their own?
  • How can we best support an improvement effort that engages teachers in their own testing of instructional strategies?
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