RPPforCS Theme Study: Teacher Roles

Welcome! This is a theme study on the variety of roles teachers play in Research-Practice Partnerships on computer science education. This is a living document and will be updated as the RPP projects develop over time. (The current edition was published on September 17, 2019.)

Research practice partnerships offer not only a new methodological focus, but a chance for motivated teachers to critically engage in research to inform their own practice as well as impacting the broader CS education community–providing a chance to cultivate teacher leaders through engagement. (For more information about teacher leadership in general, we recommend “Teacher Leadership: Toward a New Conceptual Framework” by Harrison Berg and Zoellick, and “Defining Teacher Leadership: A framework” by Cheung, Reinhardt, Stone, and Warren Little.) The definition of the “practice partner” varies in the https://www.csforall.org/projects_and_programs/rppforcs/ landscape of research practice partnerships funded by the CSforALL: Research Practice Partnership program at the National Science Foundation. Teachers are often considered to be desirable practice partners, but within the RPPforCS community they may not always be in leadership roles within RPP projects. In this theme study we explore the perspective of principal investigators regarding the roles played by teachers and teacher leaders in the RPPforCS projects and how those roles are shaped by the contributions that teachers add to the partnerships as well as the constraints their full time positions as teachers impose on their participation.

The Role of Teachers in RPPs: Big Ideas

The increased participation and leadership role of teachers in research projects creates new challenges, and new opportunities for researchers. The value placed on practitioner leadership and the involvement of teachers in a Computer Science Research Practice Partnership creates a persistent tension between wanting to involve teachers in crucial and integral ways, and not wanting to exploit the work of teachers or ask for too much.

For this theme study, interviews were conducted with the principal investigator who would be characterized as the researcher of five different research projects in the RPPforCS cohort. The projects ranged in both size and geographic location.

Anonymous information on each of five interviewed projects

Three key themes emerged from the conversations, highlighting both the benefits and challenges to walking the tightrope of engaging teachers in RPPforCS:

  1. Teachers occupy a central place in the critical feedback loop of an RPP project, providing expertise in computer science pedagogies as well as larger project interventions which are iteratively developed to address the specific student populations the teachers serve.
  2. Teachers find it difficult to expend effort until a project can pay them for that effort. Projects therefore accept the reality that teachers have a limited ability to participate in the earliest formative activities of an emerging research-practice partnership–namely proposal writing.
    1. A significant advantage that longer running partnerships have over RPPforCS projects in their nascent stage: pre-existing RPPs have established relationships with local computer science teachers and other teachers that are building pedagogical strategies to teach computer science. Research Practice Partnerships that have done previous projects together can incorporate teacher insights and points of view from previous projects and work together when conceiving of new grant supported research.
    2. Another budgetary constraint comes into play as novel opportunities come up during the funded project to get teachers more involved–if paying for this additional teacher time was not budgeted for, it is difficult for teachers to take advantage of the opportunities.
  3. The goal of teacher engagement in the research-practice partnership is not to transform a teacher into a researcher–the goal is to foster and grow teacher leaders that participate in research in a variety of ways. As such, the more successful RPPforCS projects who experienced robust and sustained teacher involvement created specific scaffolds to make participation in grant activities (such as webinars, conference presentations, and data collection) meaningful to teachers– getting the greatest possible value of the teacher’s voice and expertise.

Teachers in the Feedback Loop:

A key aspect of a research practice partnership is the feedback provided by the practitioners at every stage. Early on, practitioners help define the problem of practice, offer insight into the implementation as the project continues, and finally helps shape the narrative of dissemination to include other practitioners. Teachers can be a key expert in the RPP team, offering insight based upon community knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and the experience implementing the research intervention.

In this section, we examine examples of feedback from teachers that shifted the efforts of projects, and also the mechanisms by which that feedback was obtained.

One example of critical feedback comes from project 2, where they set out to create a self-paced suite of digital tools that would allow students to progress through an existing CT-infused curriculum. Teachers were brought in to co-design the technology and pilot these tools in their classrooms, serving students with cognitive differences. Teachers were engaged in an emerging co-design process during the first year. Because teachers were engaged in the design phase, the projects got critical feedback about the tools they were designing. During the design process, teachers were honest about what was going to work in classrooms and what they would really need to succeed with their students, the early ideas of a self-paced suite were abandoned, and the funds for these resources were re-allocated to creating prototype interactives based upon the feedback provided by the teachers. Teachers brought previous experience with using interactives with their students to the larger team, informing the PI’s, whose background was in educational technology, on what would work best in the teachers’ context.

Groups of teachers in project 2 worked in several grant-initiated Professional Learning Communities alongside the PIs. Each PLC had a PI who was a game developer and a PI with experience in Universal Design for Learning working with a group of teachers. Each PLC group worked iteratively to infuse Computational Thinking interactives into the sixth grade technology curriculum and the seventh grade biology curriculum.

Teachers can make critical thought partners, not only contributing to the adjustment of curriculum materials, and providing feedback to a project, but also in playing a leadership role with other teachers in professional learning networks, professional development workshops, or even other grant activities. Project 1 noted that engagement with the grant increased when they empowered the first cohort of involved teachers to recruit the second cohort of teachers, resulting in positive recruitment outcomes. Cohort 1 teachers are also acting as leaders to help co-lead professional development for Cohort 2 teachers.

Similarly, in project 3, teachers are not only the subjects of PD, but also lead that PD for newer cohorts. Exit tickets were continuously taken from teachers after their professional development, which researchers and teacher leaders worked together to unpack feedback and incorporate it into future professional development to make sure that teacher voice informed the project actions. In addition to exit tickets, project 3 also included notebooks in all of the project kits, and asked teachers to reflect and make notes during implementation about their experiences in the field. These notebooks are then reviewed for topics to be discussed in research interviews and for the ongoing iterative development of the kits.

Teacher, and in general practitioner, schedules and constraints also can shift project actions. Based upon feedback that frequent weather instability caused difficulties with scheduled activities in the fall, Project 3 moved PD to the spring so lesson plans could occur over 4 compact days early in the semester to avoid the hurricane season.

In the project 4, teachers were crucial in providing feedback around bridging the gap between the curricular topics in ECS and alignment to the state standards–ECS just didn’t provide enough content for a day to day implementation for teachers in this state. This project drew crucial feedback from teachers on three different professional development models, as well as through surveys, interviews, and informal formative conversation. The PIs from project 4 stressed that teachers are powerful voices to move the research questions forward, but it is important to learn how to reach out in the right way that makes sense for teachers, therefore a diverse set of tools can be useful to get a complete picture of teacher experiences.

In each of these examples, the teachers provided critical feedback that shifted curriculum, approach, or schedule to best meet the needs of the project. This feedback was collected in many ways, for example surveys, exit tickets from professional development, focus groups, conversations, or prompted reflection in notebook entries. In all cases, the feedback was requested and collected purposefully in order to inform the project.

Acknowledging Teacher Efforts

Teachers already have full-time positions when they join a research project, and participating in research is not often something that is valued in the teacher review process. The efforts teachers expend are in addition to an existing job, and balancing the expertise they bring with their need to be recognized for their efforts is important.

When the National Science Foundation issued the CS for All funding solicitation with a focus on encouraging Research Practice Partnerships, this encapsulated an intention to include practitioner voice in each stage of the computer science education research process. This expectation presents a difficulty when it comes to the writing of grant proposals. As grant-writing is necessarily an un-funded activity, teachers can’t be compensated for contributing to that effort. Although in a long-term research practice partnership, teachers could be key co-authors of subsequent proposals needed to support the partnership over time and address critical problems, in formative partnerships engaging the teachers prior to funding can be difficult and a high involvement of practitioners at such an early stage may be an unrealistic expectation.

In four of the projects (P1, P2, P4, and P5), teachers were not a large part of the grant writing phase. P1 and P4 were unable to engage teachers because of the lack of existing teachers in the area, and a respect for the teachers’ time and effort. P4 explicitly discussed the desire not to “be exploitative” in their relationship by asking the teachers to participate early on.

P2 and P5 did not involve the teachers in the grant writing process, but did make sure to include them in the partnership. P2 engaged the district coordinator of technology education as a co-PI on the grant and P5 established a state-wide NIC ensuring that teacher voice was a critical element of the project.

Although teachers could not always participate in the original grant writing process, in long term RPPs that span multiple funding opportunities, teachers play an increasing role in the project definition and formation. For example, in Project 3, there were no teachers involved in the initially funded project, because the partnership was new and the PIs did not know the teachers to include. However, some teachers from the current funded project consulted on development on a subsequent grant proposal that is under review.

Projects also recognized teachers for their ongoing participation, not just leadership activities. Project 1 had teachers involved in both training and cohort activities during the first year of the grant. Teachers were paid their “per session rate” for up to five hours per month to participate in in-person meetings, monthly webex meetings, slack, and for informal, grant related activities like mentoring students and holding afterschool clubs.

These examples offer a picture of teaching professionals who are already operating at maximum capacity. The CSforALL: Research Practice Partnership grant timeline also makes it difficult to work with teachers during their reduced workload in the summer as grant preparation meetings happened in the fall, and grants were due in the late winter. It may be the case that some of these projects become sustainable partnerships, like project 3, where the ongoing work of the partnership includes the formative activities for subsequent grants.

Encouraging Prominent Teachers:

In addition to assuming active roles within the grant, teachers’ participation in RPPs can also set them up to lead in larger communities of practice. Earlier, we shared examples of within-project leadership by teachers, but teachers can also use their experience with grant activities to grow their own professional networks and self confidence. In the interviews, several PIs gave examples of teachers growing as leaders outside the grant project.

In project 3, experienced teachers were intentionally centered as leaders and facilitators of professional development, rather than leveraging college professors to facilitate. Teachers applied to participate in the grant project as multi-disciplinary teams from a given school, rather than as individuals. Out of the first cohort of 120 teachers in summer 2018, 60 returned as teacher leaders and facilitators for cohort 2. The project uses teachers to help co-design the professional development. Teachers are provided a draft PD description and are asked to make changes based upon their experience. By providing a draft PD description, teachers have a starting point for the conceptual knowledge to be shared and this is an example of scaffolding in the co-design process. Like project 2, project 3 sought to infuse CT into other classroom content and used monthly webinars, and in person workshops for professional development.

In these examples projects provide opportunities for teachers to lead both within and outside of the project activities. Recognizing the opportunities for teacher leadership, and providing thoughtful scaffolding where needed can help improve teacher agency and support the quality of the partnership over time.

Teacher Leadership and Voice:

National Science Foundation grants are research grants, and therefore it is often assumed that the leadership team of such a project will be comprised of researchers. In a research practice partnership, practitioners should be critical leadership partners in the work. By definition, a research practice partnership is focused on solving a critical problem of practice; an RPP tests interventions not in a lab, but in real world environments such as classrooms. Teachers bring expertise about this practice environment, and through participating in RPPs can be supported in their growth as teacher leaders in the larger community.

In some RPPs, Teachers are not just involved in the execution of the grant activities, but also in the dissemination of outcomes and interventions to other practitioners as well. RPPs offer a unique opportunity to bridge the research-practice gap by using the authentic voice of participating teachers to share research interventions and outcomes (Lagemann, 2002).

Two projects, project 1 and project 2, both used teacher-practitioner conferences to dissemination results through the voice of teachers. Three teachers presented an overview of project data from Project 1 at a local CSTA meeting in the winter about the project, with their time and travel paid for. Teachers from Project 2 co-applied with the PI’s on the grant to present their results at NSTA.

Teacher leadership for dissemination comes not only in sharing the data, but also in the authentically sharing the best practices that are tested, or discovered during the project. In project 5, not only were teachers narrowing down the scope of work, but they were further authoring CS teaching videos and resources for a broader statewide audience.

Cultivating Teacher Leaders through Engagement

In this theme study we have explored how teachers are playing important roles in 5 research practice partnerships that are a part of the RPPforCS project. Teacher leaders are fundamentally executors, facing challenges every day and executing high quality instruction, community participation, ongoing professional growth and development for themselves and their peers, and participating in a school community. It can be tempting to fall into the deficit narrative of teachers - we have a deficit of teachers with CS education knowledge and training - but experienced teachers bring a wealth of practical knowledge to the classroom and can contribute meaningfully to RPPs. In fact, teachers involved in the five projects we interviewed for this studied participated in all of the following ways:

  • Project design/grant prep
  • Start-up - team formation and implementation strategy
  • Initial activity design
  • Initial activities - often Professional Development
  • Feedback from Professional Development (singularly or as a Professional Learning Community)
  • Feedback from the classroom (singularly or as a Professional Learning Community)
  • Engagement in research design
  • Data collectors
  • Data interpreters
  • Sense-makers
  • Re-design
  • Dissemination

Teachers can participate in many parts of the research cycle, but they need to have each research-related experience scaffolded so it is clear that the teacher’s wealth of knowledge involving classroom dynamics and crafting content knowledge strategy for the pedagogical setting are centered. (See “What the Hell is This, and Who the Hell Are You?” By Farrell, Harrison, and Coburn for more information about how researchers work with teachers in RPPs.) Although many current CS teachers do not hold a computer science degree, it is possible for them to teach high school level computer science, especially Advanced Placement CS Principles course material. Teachers can translate the computer science for students if they are supported in building confidence and an ability to authentically motivate the CS content in lessons.

It is important for PI’s to plan to be “nimble” to the extent possible when working collaboratively with teachers on a CS RPP. Teachers have many competing priorities on their time, and occasionally the needs of students in the classroom must be prioritized over grant activities. When teachers become the sole implementor responsible for a given product, such as a pedagogy video, a project becomes susceptible to completion challenges, as a number of unanticipated asks on teacher time can come from outside sources.

Additionally, there is a heavy coordination lift during the teacher orientation phase of a project, that having additional staff allocated specifically for this kind of project management oversight would be incredibly helpful in addressing. When teachers are tasked with a major grant deliverable, a higher level of project management attention will necessarily be required to scaffold and shepherd the deliverable into completion.

Coordinating the meaningful involvement in grant activities, beyond the participant experience, of large numbers of teachers is a heavy managerial lift. Projects that had the benefit of a project or program manager or coordinator benefited from the additional management capacity, while projects that had no such staff member had PI’s that were challenged by meeting the coordination demand on top of their other grant and professional activities.

Overall, teacher participation in RPPs brings a wealth of expertise and knowledge to project teams and an important mechanism for real-time feedback on the effects of the tested intervention.


Lagemann, E. C. (2002). An elusive science: The troubling history of education research. University of Chicago Press.

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