The Use of a Practitioner-Research Strategy, Cases,

in A Large-Scale Teacher Enhancement Project

(Maryland Collaborative for Teacher Preparation, MCTP)

J. Randy McGinnis

University of Maryland, College Park

A demonstration session presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Education of Teachers in Science, Costa Mesa, California, January 18-21, 2001. This research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation’s Collaboratives for Excellence in Teacher Preparation Program (CETP), DUE 9814650 and 9814650.

Introduction and Overview

The use of practitioner-research is increasingly advocated as a self-reflective tool that can promote teacher development. Educational theorists such as Hollingsworth (1997) define practitioner-research as a broadly defined research methodology that enables those who teach to reflect in a systematic manner on their own teaching. In science education, theorists such as Collins & Spiegel (1997) have promoted one form of practitioner research, action research that connects historically with the research genre promoted by Kurt Lewin (1946) and Stephen Corey (1953). They stated that the goal of action research was to advance theory and needed social changes. Action research typically is a problem-oriented research methodology that is conducted in four discrete steps by the practitioner: planning, enacting, observing the plan, and reflection (Carr & Kemmis, 1986). Another form of practitioner-research less common in science education is known as "cases" (Far West Laboratory, 1991). Cases are candid, dramatic, highly readable accounts of events or a series of events in teaching. These cases offer a snapshot of teaching that are deliberately designed to provoke discussion. In this session, I exhibit samples of teaching/mentoring cases (written by new teachers, mentor teachers, and a faculty science methods professor) conducted within one NSF-funded teacher enhancement program (CETP), the Maryland Collaborative for Teacher Preparation (MCTP).


The CETP is a NSF funded statewide undergraduate program for teacher candidates who aspire to become specialist mathematics and science upper elementary or middle level teachers. While CETP candidates are indistinguishable generally in level of academic achievement from other elementary teacher candidates with concentrations in mathematics and science they do distinguish themselves from all other candidates by taking 36 hours of mathematics and science courses (18 hours of each discipline). In many cases, the content courses (open to all teacher candidates) have been reformed to conform to the CETP program goal. Mathematics courses are distributed across four areas: algebra/number, probability and statistics, geometry, and calculus. Science courses are distributed across three areas: physical science, biological science, and earth and space science. Non-CEPT elementary teacher candidates who choose to emphasize mathematics (only) must earn 18 credits in mathematics and 8 in science. Candidates with a science (only) emphasis must earn 18 credits in science and 11 in mathematics. Candidates who choose not to emphasize either mathematics or science are required to earn a total of 11 credits in mathematics and 8 in science as well as 18 in their chosen field.

The goal of the CETP is to promote the development of teachers who are confident teaching mathematics and science, who can make connections between and among the disciplines, and who can provide an exciting and challenging learning environment for students of diverse backgrounds (University of Maryland System, 1993). As such, goals include: (a) introduce future teachers to standards-based models of mathematics and science instruction; (b) provide courses and field experiences that integrate mathematics and science. In practice, the CETP undergraduate classes are taught by faculty in mathematics, science, and education, who strive to diminish faculty lecture while emphasizing student-based problem-solving in cross-disciplinary mathematical and scientific applications.

The Research Interest

A fundamental assumption of the CETP is that changes in pre-secondary level mathematics and science educational practices require reform within the undergraduate mathematics and science subject matter and education classes teacher candidates take throughout their teacher preparation programs (NSF, 1993). A critical need currently is to document, interpret, and evaluate reform-efforts being conducted in science teacher education (undergraduate and in the workplace). This session demonstrates the use of one form of practitioner-research, the ‘cases’ strategy, that permits the participants (high quality, reform-prepared, new specialist mathematics and science teachers, mentor teachers, and a science methods professor) to engage in retrospective reflections on their teaching experiences. My goal as a researcher (and as a practitioner) is to present the participants’ voices in a manner that begins the interpretative journey (Peshkin, 2000) of crafting a "useful or interesting" (Becker, as quoted in Peshkin, 2000, p. 9) depiction of how they see their professional lives unfolding. Attached as an appendix are representative MCTP new teacher teaching cases. They serve as conversation referents in the session.


Carr, W., & Kemmis, S. (1986). Becoming critical: Education, knowledge and action research. London: Falmer.

Collin, A., & Spiegel, S. A. (1997). So you want to do action research? In J. McDonald & P. Gilmer (Eds.), Science in the Elementary School Classroom, pp. 61-72. Florida: SERVE.

Corey, S. (1953). Action research to improve school practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Far West Laboratory (1991). Case Methods: A knowledge brief on effective teaching. San Francisco, CA: Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development.

Hollingsworth, S. (Ed.). (1997). International action research: A casebook for educational reform. Washington, D.C.: Falmer Press.

Lewin, K. (1946). Action research and minority problems. Journal of Social Issues, 2, 3. 34-46.

National Science Foundation (1993). Proceedings of the National Science Foundation Workshop on the role of faculty from scientific disciplines in the undergraduate education of future science and mathematics teachers. (NSF 93-108). Washington, DC: National Science Foundation.

Peskhin, A. (2000, December). The nature of interpretation in qualitative research. Educational Researcher, 29(9), 5-9.

Shulman, J. (1992). Revealing the Mysteries of teacher-written cases: Opening the black box. Journal of Teacher Education.

University of Maryland System (1993). Special teachers for elementary and middle school science and mathematics: A proposal submitted to the National Science Foundation Teacher Preparation and Enhancement Program. Unpublished manuscript.

Appendix: Representative MCTP New Teacher Teaching Cases

Case #1.

Jessica Phelan

When I first heard about the opportunity to write this account of my first year teaching as a new MCTP teacher, I knew that I had more to say than would ever fit onto three pages. I went into my first year with all sorts of ideas about how I wanted my classroom to look, and how I wanted to teach. I learned a great deal in college, and felt that I was well prepared to jump right in. I was excited, and eager for the first day of school to come.

I learned right away that things do not always go as you intend them too. Let me first talk a little about my teaching assignment. I was hired to work at a beautiful, newly renovated middle school in a very affluent neighborhood. After my interview I was given a tour of the school, and could not imagine working in a more wonderful building. Of course when the principal asked me into her office after the tour, and offered me a job at the school, I jumped at the opportunity. This was in spite of the fact that I would have three preps (Earth Science, Math 8+, and Math 6).

When I went into my first day of work (a week before the students arrived), I was informed that I had a new assignment. My new schedule required me to teach Earth Science, Math 8+, and Life Science, each in a different classroom. Life Science is not a subject that I felt at all comfortable teaching, but I was assured by the science team leader that she would provide me with all the lessons and copies that I would need. I was also apprehensive about sharing a classroom with three other teachers. I would be in each classroom no more than two periods a day, so it really felt more like I was "borrowing" the rooms than sharing them. My visions of the ideal classroom setting would have to be put off, at least for a year.

The first day of school is really a blur to me now. Mostly I can remember having to weave through the hallways to get to my next classes (which of course were on opposite sides of the building, and on different floors). The most difficult thing for me was remembering where I was supposed to be at what time. I went with a positive attitude, knowing that things could only get easier. I couldn't have been more wrong.

My first two months of teaching really killed me. I wanted so badly to incorporate all of the strategies that I had learned through MCTP. I really wanted all of my lessons to be hands-on and meaningful. I tried to incorporate math into science lessons, and science into math lessons, so much that my students would often say, "This isn't science class, this is math class," or vice versa. I also wanted to incorporate technology into my lessons, but dragging six computers into a classroom where you will only teach one period just didn't seem like an efficient use of time. Taking a class to the library to use the computers was virtually impossible, because teachers sign up for the lab six months in advance and then stay there for two or more weeks at a time. I would get to school at 7am and often stay until 7pm planning lessons, gathering materials, writing e-mails to parents, and grading. All the while, seeing other teachers leaving the building as soon as the afternoon bell rang.

It didn't take long before all of this began to seem very unfair. Here I was, the newest teacher at the school, with the hardest schedule, and no one wanted to help me. I will be honest in saying that Life Science was not my priority. I usually made my plans for Life Science after I had already planned for everything else and by that time worksheets and book reading seamed like a pretty good idea. I did feel bad for the kids in the class, because I knew that I wasn't a very good Life Science teacher. I know that I will have many of them again this coming year in Earth Science, and I will make it up to them.

I found early on that the only way I would ever survive the year was to be very organized, to have a set schedule, and to work quickly. I made Friday my planning day. I would not leave work on Friday until I had planned the coming week for all three classes. I would get all of my copies and overheads together. Everything had a folder. Friday was also the day that I collected warm-ups and journals. I would stay late to grade them, make comments, and enter them into the computer grading system. Only rarely would I take any work home with me. I felt that after an exhausting week, I deserved a break.

I can say that I was fortunate to teach Earth Science with two great teachers. The three of us had to plan lessons together because we shared classrooms. Luckily we had very similar ideas about teaching. We developed a lot of lab experiences, and performance assessments. The students probably hated us because we made them write so much. We stressed the scientific method, and required the students to do formal lab write-ups of many of the labs that they did in class. Weekly journal assignments were mandatory in my class. Sometimes I would assign the students a topic to write about, and other times I would let them write about an Earth Science topic of there choice. I found that journals were really a great way to differentiate learning. Some students would write a paragraph about the weather that week, and others would do research on the Internet and turn in three pages, in great detail, about what they had learned. This really helped me to understand the individual students and their abilities, and I learned a lot from reading the journals. I never graded the journals; I only gave credit for completeness, and wrote comments to the students.

Each quarter the students had a major project in Earth Science. The first quarter they worked in pairs to build solar ovens. For the second quarter, each student completed an individual project on a self-selected gem or mineral. Students chose a mineral after a field trip to the Smithsonian's gem and mineral exhibit. They had the choice of creating a poster or brochure, writing a report, or developing a power point presentation. The third quarter project was to "invent" a fossil from a particular time period in the Earth's history, and write an article explaining the time period and the fossil for a scientific magazine. A parent verbally attacked me at a conference, in front of the principal, for assigning this project. The parent thought that it was a ridiculous waste of time, and suggested that I make the students memorize the time periods and their dates. The fourth quarter project was to design a weather board game that incorporated weather vocabulary. The students brought their games to class and played them together. The final exam in the class was a scavenger hunt. The students were given a list of 50 items either to collect or create, each item related to something we had studied during the year. On the day of the final exam they presented their collections museum style. I am happy to say that everyone passed the final exam with a C or better!

When it came to teaching Math 8+, I was entirely on my own. The other Math 8+ teachers had been teaching for many years, and were very set in their ways. They did not assign projects, or group work, and they relied heavily on the textbook and worksheets. While inventing lessons for math was a lot of work, I really enjoyed the independence. Math was the one class that I really felt was mine.

In Montgomery County, students have to take ISM's. These are short quizzes that must be passed after each new concept is taught. They are never ending. At the beginning of the year I received reports on each of my students showing their progress on the ISM's. Not surprisingly, about 90% of my students were below grade level. In many cases, because their seventh grade teachers never gave the required ISM's. As an eighth grade teacher, it was my responsibility to get them on grade level before they went off to high school. The ISM's became a major focus in my classroom. The ISM objectives became my classroom objectives, and the ISM's became my quizzes.

The ISM's were a daunting task, but I tried not to let them dictate everything that I did in math class. One learning strategy that I thought worked really well was the use of round the clock learning buddies. The students got a worksheet with a picture of a clock, and they had to make appointments with a different person for each hour. They kept this sheet in their notebook for the entire year. I would say, "Meet with your 4 o'clock buddy," and the students would move and work with that person. This gave them some choice in selecting partners, but it also assured that they learned to work with lots of different people, and the shy kids always had someone to work with

I assigned projects each quarter in math class, and I tried to do a lot of hands on work that incorporated science. Sometimes we would do experiments to generate and analyze data for relationships between variables. We went outside to measure shadows and related this to the height of tall objects during a unit on similar triangles and indirect measure. Students created tessellation artwork, and studied M.C. Escher in our geometry unit. During the probability unit we played a lot of games, and students worked in groups on a probability scavenger hunt for which they had to find items from school, home, and the community that related to probability. Sometimes I did resort to worksheets, but in all I was very happy with what we accomplished in Math 8+.

Life Science is not a subject that I want to spend much time writing about. Worksheets were common, as were textbooks. We did complete quite a few prepared lab packets, and the students created hyper studio presentations on endangered species. The trip to the National Zoo was probably the high point of the year in Life Science.

I can honestly say that my first year teaching has changed me in ways that I never thought it would. I came into teaching with so many ideas, but no idea of how things really work. I have learned to be organized, and I have learned to work quickly. Most importantly though, I have learned that one person alone can't do everything. I am not the perfect teacher, no one is. Teaching is an ongoing learning experience. Each year I will learn new things and grow as a teacher. I will continue to set goals for myself, but I will not make myself crazy trying to attain them.

Next year I will be teaching both Earth Science and Math 8+, no more Life Science (at least that's what they say now). I will already have lots of great lessons from last year, and I will add more (and use fewer worksheets). I still will not have my own classroom, but I know that one day I will, and it will be wonderful.

Case #2.

Kristina Clark

I started my teaching career as a new MCTP teacher in a fourth grade classroom toward the end of the school year. The school that I teach at is in the Inner city of Jacksonville, Florida. This past school year I had twenty-two students in my classroom. I was very excited to have my first teaching assignment and I had so many good ideas saved up from my MCTP courses at the University of Maryland.

When it grew closer to the end of the year, the buzz of the Science Fair rang through the hallways. In a lot of the classrooms there were challenges with behavior. With these problems in mind some of the other teachers decided not to do Science Fair projects with their students. Actually most of the teachers decided not to participate in the Science Fair. I heard many excuses why the other teachers were not going to participate. Some teachers said, "It is too much work. The students will not do the work. The class will not behave long enough to do the projects." At times my students' behavior problems made me question whether I should try to do Science Fair projects with my class. I knew that it would be a lot of work, but I also knew that it would be very meaningful for my students and they would learn a lot from it.

The students were very unknowledgeable about how to do Science Fair projects so I knew that it would be very time consuming. This really did not bother me, because I knew it was going to be a very educational experience and some teachers were not teaching their students science at all or very little.

First, we had to establish rules to follow during our lab work for the science fair projects. The whole class was apart of the rule making, as well as, the consequence making. Next, we had to discuss that when the students are working with a group everyone has responsibilities so the task can be accomplished. We discussed all the jobs that are involved with group work. We also discussed ways of dealing with differences of opinions and working out problems.

I started off with a class project so I could model to the class the steps to follow throughout the project and the way to present the project. I was prepared to do the project with the class because I did the same project in my methods class, which Dr. McGinnis was, the Instructor. That is also one of the reasons I decided to do the Science projects with the students because I was prepared. I have determined that the most important aspect and time consuming part of teaching is the actual preparation for the lessons. Usually the more meaningful the lesson, the more preparation and work required. Luckily, I did a lot of preparing for my class in the MCTP program.

The class project involved testing the quality of different brands of paper towels. The class discussed how they would need to test the paper towels to determine if the quality would meet their needs. We decided that the paper towels would need to be absorbent because we need to soak up spills. The towels would need to be durable so many windows can be washed and the paper towels will be long lasting. The students also decided the paper towels should be strong so the towels will not tear apart easily.

After discussing the qualities the paper towels need to have, the students decided on a question to investigate. The students voted and came up with the question, "Which paper towel has the greatest quality?" Then, students brought in paper towels and we had four different brands to test. The students observed the texture, thickness, and differences of the paper towels. The students recorded their individual or group hypothesis and we recorded the class majority hypothesis.

The students continued by designing ways to test the variables they had identified earlier. After, designing the experiments, we set up stations around the room so everyone could get a chance to test the paper towels. Then, we compiled the results and plotted the data on our class charts.

After all the experimenting, cleaning up, and recording we discussed what we discovered. The students wrote their conclusions and we also wrote a conclusion for our class display board. At the end of our class project we had all of our information up on our display board. We reviewed the steps to follow for a Science Fair project and the important elements of the display board. I left the class project display board up so the students could use it as a reference for their own boards. I also gave the students some handouts that outlined everything that we discussed throughout the class project to use as references.

I gathered up a bunch of books with ideas for science fair projects. The students spent a few days in their groups looking at the books and trying to decide what they wanted to investigate. The students worked cooperatively in their groups to complete their projects. Of course there were a few students that were not able to stay on task and work in the group so they had to do an alternative assignment.

There were five groups of three or four students each. Throughout the whole process the students were graded by, their group members, the class, and their teacher. The students graded each other's participation in the groups, the class graded the group presentations, and I graded the final project.

The students made connections between math and science throughout their hard work on their projects. The students measured, calculated, recorded, charted, invested, observed, questioned, guessed, discovered and so much more. Most of the knowledge the students learned was from their experiments, investigations, researching, probing, and combined ideas of their group and class.

The students infused the use of technology with their projects because we were able to use computers to make our charts, record data, and type reports. The use of the computers aloud the students to make more professional looking projects and it also made the students take more pride in their work.

The projects were definitely an example of teaching for understanding in mathematics and science. The students would have to have an understanding of mathematics and science to be able to investigate their questions for their projects. When a student lacked the knowledge I observed the other students in the group explaining and helping the unknowledgeable student to understand. So the students used the combined knowledge of their group to get the job done.

The students took great pride of their work and we shared the projects on the morning-televised announcements. I think the key that made everything go so well is that every student had a big responsibility. They took pride in what they were responsible for and did not want to let their group down. It was a lot of work in the fact that I had to get all the materials that were needed for the experiments. Some of the students were able to supply their own materials but I helped the other students who needed it. I had to be very organized so all materials were available when needed and the reference sources were abundant.

The most important step of the whole process was the initial introduction explaining how we will work together and what will happen if we can not do that. So no matter how time consuming it maybe jobs need to be defined, rules need to be established along with consequences & rewards, and methods need to be discussed to solve problems. Rules not only need to be established, but followed, and enforced.

I didn't become a teacher because I thought it was an easy job or to become a millionaire. I became a teacher because I wanted to make a difference in student's lives. I wanted to make learning interesting, exciting, and valuable to the students. When the students understand the meaning behind the work they are more motivated to do the work. It is so wonderful to be a witness to a child's creativity, self-determination, and improved self-esteem.

I really enjoyed the whole science fair experience hard work and all. I sometimes think its because I am a new teacher full of ideas and energy. I sure hope that some day I'm not the teacher saying I'm not going to do that in my class because its too much work and my students can't do it. Your students will only do what you think they can do. Students live up to high expectations.