Differing perspectives, but a common goal

Insights from conversations and collaborations with early math educators and researchers
Pexels, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
Pexels, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Cognitive scientists and educators are both interested in understanding how children learn and develop. Yet, despite these shared interests and goals, the ‘research-practice gap’ remains a major barrier in the pursuit of interdisciplinary knowledge exchange and creation. The need for an intermediary to translate and apply findings from cognitive science to education has been emphasized by researchers, but this does not seem to have been taken up in practice.

Moreover, dialogue should be bi-directional, with findings from research informing classroom practice, and observations in classrooms motivating the questions researchers pursue. An alternative to having an intermediary translator between research and practice is instead engaging in collaborative projects where researchers and practitioners learn from each other.

At the 2018 meeting of the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society (IMBES), I chaired  a symposium where we shared experiences from working collaboratively with teachers, early childhood educators, parents, and other community partners and to discuss challenges and successes. It was important to the other presenters and me to incorporate the perspectives of our collaborators, but it is difficult for practitioners to attend the conference due to travel distance, timing of the meeting, and expenses. Therefore, we recorded interviews with our collaborators to share as part of our presentations at the conference.

The discussion at the symposium was led by Rene Grimes, who has experience as both a researcher in cognitive science and a math educator. She emphasized that it is necessary for everyone to consider the perspective of those on the opposite side of the research/practice divide in order to maximise successful collaboration. This post summarises the challenges and proposed solutions that came up in the interviews and in the discussion at the symposium.

How did working with practitioners inform the researchers’ perspective?

Collaborating with practitioners helped the researchers tailor the projects to the needs of the practitioners and to better understand how they might benefit most. For example, parents gave feedback on the timing and feasibility of the tips they were given in the parenting intervention project.

“Collaborating with practitioners gives the researchers the opportunity to observe learning and development as it happens ‘in the wild’.”

Furthermore, the researchers who worked in preschool and school classrooms had the opportunity to observe learning and development as it happens “in the wild”. This is useful for informing theories of cognitive development and incorporating factors that are not always assessed in the lab.

How did participating in a research project inform the practitioners’ perspective?

All of the collaborators interviewed reported that participating in the project helped them more easily see opportunities for playful math learning with their young children or students. As a researcher, I found it especially encouraging to see that all of the collaborators became researchers themselves in a sense. They found ways to apply theories or assessment tools from research to explore children’s thinking about mathematics and inform their teaching or parenting. Each of the collaborators welcomed the opportunity to learn about early math cognition and education.

When I asked teachers about research questions they had, one teacher said, “I’m really interested in the children’s state of mind. Are they available to learn? What are the effects if the child is not emotionally ready to learn? How does that affect their math learning? We can now use the tools that you have taught us, and I appreciate that, but that is for the average regular child. You researchers are focusing on one thing, but we teachers are focusing on everything: We also need to consider how emotion is affecting a child to get through the stages of learning.”

“You researchers are focusing on one thing, but we teachers are focusing on everything: We also need to consider how emotion is affecting a child to get through the stages of learning.”

This quote illustrates the difference in perspective and priorities across researchers and practitioners. Researchers are focused narrowly on specific cognitive domains and mechanisms, whereas practitioners work across a variety of domains and with a broad spectrum of children with individual differences and needs.

The success of these collaborative projects according to both the researcher and practitioner partners supports the utility of this approach. The discussion at the symposium highlighted the importance of building and maintaining long-term relationships with those on the opposite side of the research/practice divide in order to incorporate both perspectives into research projects.

This can be challenging due to turn-over in staffing (on the school/community side), and career moves and funding issues on the research side. Researchers should endeavour to tap into the professional knowledge of teachers, parents, and community members through dialogue. Even if we do not share the same perspective and priorities, we do share the desire to understand how children learn and to improve education.

The purpose of the biannual IMBES Conference is to facilitate cross-cultural collaborations in biology, education and the cognitive and developmental sciences. Our objectives are to improve the state of knowledge in and dialogue between education, biology, and the developmental and cognitive sciences; create and develop resources for scientists, practitioners, public policy makers, and the public; and create and identify useful information, research directions, and promising educational practices. The 2018 conference took place in Los Angeles, California.

The author of this blog post, Rebecca Merkley, was among the presenters at the conference.

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