Q&A with DeMarzo Lecture Speaker: Dr. William Penuel

February 01, 2018

We are excited to welcome guest lecturer, Dr. William Penuel to the 2018 DeMarzo Lecture on Teaching Excellence on Thursday, February 15th at 3:30 pm at the Bloustein School. Dr. Penuel is a Professor of Learning Sciences and Human Development at the University of Colorado Boulder. His talk will focus on Building a Coherent and Equitable System of Assessments in Science in a District: A Partnership Approach.

Q. Your current research examines conditions needed to implement rigorous, responsive, and equitable teaching practices in STEM education. What inspired this line of research?

A. I think it’s seeing both the potential of more ambitious instructional approaches to reach all students and also the challenges of supporting implementation of those practices in real educational systems that are turbulent, and where change is constant, and where gap between these ambitious practices and current practice is so great. My research really tries to address what it takes to close those gaps and implement ambitious instructional practices in those school systems.

Q. Historically, what are some of the challenges associated with improving system level outcomes in STEM education in school districts?

A. One is this gap between teaching practice and what the reform vision anticipates. With that also comes a lot of learning needs for teachers; but there’s also the incoherence of the system itself and the messages it sends teachers about what they ought to be doing in their classrooms. There are many different sources of guidance that come from different places: their principals, school district offices, and the state. It’s kind of on teachers to learn how to make sense of that. So when a new reform comes along, you’re just one voice among many, and not always pointing in the same direction.

Q. Why is a research-practice partnership approach necessary and what were some of the unexpected outcomes of this partnership approach?

A. One thing about a partnership is that, when you think about implementation, change is one of the primary problems to be solved. In traditional research, researchers aren’t there to actually help or think about implementation. That’s the educational system’s problem. Often times, it can really be beneficial to have the research partners around to help with that kind of problem solving, including making revisions to reform designs to make them more easily implementable. The other reason that a partnership is a very necessary approach to see through a reform is that environments are constantly changing in ways that affect the viability of your design. It is necessary to be in continuous work within research and practice to be the most effective.

Q. What are some of the elements of design-based implementation research that ensure a greater degree of success when scaling up to bring about systemic change in partner districts?

A. Well one is that when we think about the problem we are trying to solve and goals we are trying to formulate in terms of improvement, we do them collaboratively in terms of research and practice. We try to include community members and family members to define goals and problems to be solved. That really helps us because, oftentimes, solutions or designs for reform are not clear with who has those problems, or it’s the people who are implementing it that don’t actually see it as a problem. So the first thing in getting things right is engaging in a collaborative process in defining what the problem is. That is not something we often do in research. The problem gets assigned by gaps in the literature or by policy and policy documents that might come at a national level. Then the other part of design-based implementation is that we commit to collaborative design. So the collaboration doesn’t end with the problem definition. It also continues into designing solutions and that ensures a solution that’s usable, and again, accountable to the needs and problems of practice.

Q. What were some of the challenges that you faced when implementing this partnership approach in Denver Public Schools?

A. Well we don’t implement a partnership, we implemented specific innovations. One thing to note about a research partnership that’s different is that we’re not centered on a specific intervention, but around a set of goals like improving student-centered teaching for all students and we seek interventions of different kinds to accomplish that goal. So that’s the first really big shift that we see, that we engage in projects that support those goals. Many of the challenges exist whether you are working in a RPP (research practice partnerships) or not. An RPP usually just works in part of a school system; the leaders don’t have authority to make every consequential decision for teachers. So, you can’t address the incoherence of all the messages teachers receive on typical problems of partnerships, and we had our fair share during that 11-year partnership, coming from people in the district who aren’t directly involved in working with us. Typically, people say that those things aren’t a problem, but synchronizing the time schedules of research and practice is a pretty big problem in those partnerships. They work on different time scales. Unless researchers can attend to and be more responsive to the practice, it’s hard to stay relevant.

Q. What were some your success stories while developing a more coherent and equitable system of classroom and district-based assessments of students in science?

A. In one of our early projects, we wanted to integrate better assessments into the curriculum of science in the middle grades. We were able to, in that case, really support teachers across the district in improving their assessment practice to be aligned with more ambitious goals for the students. Right now, and this is what my talk will explain, we’re in the process of updating next generation science standards aligned curriculum & assessment system and professional development for teachers. And this year we will be able to have the ambitious goal of scaling to 80% of our schools in the district with that approach.

Q. Are these results replicable in other areas of education e.g. the language arts, other grade levels?

A. They are, but we shouldn’t have any delusions about how hard the replication of anything is in education. Replication of a RPP means people forming and maintaining partnerships that focus on those specific areas. Fortunately, districts are kind of used to this. They often gain multiple partnerships with external partners. Some are instruction providers and others are professional development providers. For coherence, it’s important for a school district to make sure they have external partners lined up and pointing towards the same goal.

Q. What is your vision for this work i.e. what do you hope will be some outcomes in the next 10-20 years as a result?

A. I’d really like to see universities, among other things, preparing more scholars to engage in equity-focused research inside research practice partnerships. To do that, we have to prepare scholars differently. Bringing new skill sets to them, like for example, collaborative problem finding. Right now, the graduate student curriculum doesn’t involve that kind of skill set. Other skill sets that are important to develop are how to organize collaborative design processes and how to actually develop and use implementation to inform ongoing challenges to implementation.

RSVP for this year’s DeMarzo Lecture by clicking here. We look forward to seeing you there!

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