Reflections from the Field: Teacher/Research Collaboration

January 26, 2011 at 8:05 am 3 comments

Posted By Samantha Cutrara

Two questions that THEN/HiER members often ask are: ‘Do historians and history educators work together? Should they?’

From the general vibe of THEN/HiER, the answers usually come out the same: “No. Yes.”

These questions point to the valuable knowledge that historians can share to augment history teaching practice and that valuable practice that can influence a historian’s craft. While this collaboration hasn’t been as fruitful as many want, the question is still out there, flagging to some that there is a missing opportunity.

However, I want to throw out there that there is another party that is missing from these questions: ‘Do education researchers/learning scientists and history teachers work together? Should they?’

While there is a lot of researcher supporting the first two questions, they second two questions are more neglected. There are interviews with history teachers and students, and mini-experiments with teachers and students outside the history classroom, but there is very little research looking at what works or is working on the ground in the symbiotic craziness of the classroom.

“Teaching experiments,” or where a researcher works with a teacher to try out a teaching and learning strategy in the classroom, has been popular in technology, math, and science classes since the early 1990s, but have been less used in history and social studies classes (I would even go so far to venture that they haven’t been used at all, so if you know otherwise let me know!). I’m not necessarily talking about practice-based research, where a history teachers conducts a mini-research exploration while teaching driven by either their own interests or sparked by PD conducted by a historian (although that is also a valuable source of research); I am talking about an in-classroom, cyclical, collaboration between two (or more) parties to produce theoretically grounded research that speaks to both that particular situation and general literature on education practice. In other words, university researchers and teachers working together to explore what works and what doesn’t based on theoretical literature and grounded in real-life classroom practice.

My PhD research is a type of teaching experiment called “Design-Based Research” where I am looking to collaborate with a history teacher on a innovative history interpretation called Historic Space to frame students’ engagement with the historical narrative. Right now I am at the recruitment stage where I am trying to find one or two history teachers to pair with, but the seemingly alien research methodology throws people.

Like any Participatory Action Research project, teaching experiments and/or design-based research has to respect the setting, community, and context that is already in place, in this case the classroom and demands of the curriculum. I recognize that teachers may not want to venture into research participation, let alone collaboration because of the protected nature of the classroom, but aren’t there theoretical questions that teachers want to explore that a university researcher can be an ally in investigating?

For my research, I have been careful to stress that I’m not interested in coming in and saying: “This is what you should do, now I’m going to watch. And judge.” Instead, I want to be a pedagogical collaborator who asks: “This is what the research has shown, what do you think? How would this fit your practice? How do you think it went? Are there any surprises you want to explore further?” and most importantly for my research, asking students: “Do you think that was a successful lesson? In what ways? What else might you as a learner need from this lesson?”

Excitingly, my research has been approved by the Toronto District School Board and it is nice to know that they value this very multifacted research framework (since not all school boards did), now I just need to find a collaborator! So (plug plug plug) if you are or know a teacher in the Toronto District School Board, or even a GTA private school, and may be interested in hearing more about this research, please contact

To end this post, I want complicate the questions I began this post with, and ask instead:

How can researchers make classroom-based research more attractive to teachers?

How can teachers better communicate what kinds of research they need to support them in their practice?

For further information on Design-Based Research and teaching experiments, you can check out:

Barab, S., & Squire, K. (2004). Design-Based Research: Putting a stake in the ground. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(1), 1-14.

Brown, A. L. (1992). Design Experiments: Theoretical and methodological challenges in creating complex interventions in classroom settings. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 2(2), 141-178.

Cobb, P., Confrey, J., diSessa, A., Lehrer, R., & Schauble, L. (2003). Design Experiments in Educational Research. Educational Researcher, 32(1), 9-13. doi: 10.3102/0013189×032001009

Collins, A. (1992). Toward a Design Science of Education. In E. Scanlon & T. O’Shea (Eds.), New Directions in Educational Technology. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Design-BasedResearchCollective. (2003). Design-Based Research: An emerging paradigm for educational inquiry. In C. Hoadley, B. Sandoval, E. Baumgartner, P. Bell, S. Brophy, S. Hsi, D. Joseph, C. H. Orrill, S. Puntambekar & I. Tabak (Eds.), Educational Researcher (Vol. 32, pp. 5-8).

Herrington, J., McKenney, S., Reeves, T., & Oliver, R. (2007). Design-Based Research and Doctoral Students: Guidelines for preparing a dissertation proposal. Paper presented at the World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2007, Vancouver, Canada.

van den Akker, J. et al. (2006). Introducing Educational Design Research. In J. van den Akker, K. Gravemeijer, S. McKenney & N. Nieveen (Eds.), Educational Design Research (pp. 1-8). London: Routledge.

For more information on me, my research, or Historic Space visit


Entry filed under: Research, Secondary School. Tags: , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lindsay Gibson  |  January 26, 2011 at 11:40 am

    Sounds like an interesting research project. I am also planning on using a Design-Based Research framework for my dissertation, although I am shocked at the lack of knowledge and interest in this type of research amongst professors that I had for my coursework. It was helpful to see your bibliography on DBR, I have read all of those articles except for one or two.

    I am hoping that DBR can help me bridge the world between research on historical thinking and teachers’ classroom practice.

    • 2. Samantha Cutrara  |  January 27, 2011 at 11:31 am

      That’s really exciting to hear that someone else is using this framework, because I too was shocked that the Profs in Education couldn’t suggest a framework like this when I told them what I wanted to do. I had to search and search and search until something clicked.
      I would love to hear what you are doing and have a much larger bibliography I can share with you. I have also proposed a paper talking about DBR at CSSE, if you will be around maybe you can share some of your experiences too.

  • 3. Mary Chaktsiris  |  January 30, 2011 at 3:02 pm

    This post raises important questions not only about the nature of current history education and its various states of collaboration (or perhaps non-collaboration) with other disciplines and practices, but also about the practical barriers presented by the facilitation and research into collaboration. These practical barriers seem to be at the heart of the questions Samantha ended her post with: “How can researchers make classroom-based research more attractive to teachers? How can teachers better communicate what kinds of research they need to support them in their practice?”
    These kinds of barriers are, I think, one of the reasons why the research being done by Samantha and Lindsay (among others) is so important. Hopefully, Designed-Based Research will not only bridge the worlds between research on historical thinking and teachers’ classroom practice but also present findings and develop practices that clearly demonstrate why class-room based research is both attractive and rewarding for all parties involved.


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