Kenneth G. Tobin

City University of New York (CUNY)
2004 DTS Award

Dr. Kenneth G. Tobin
Presidential Professor, Urban Education
City University of New York (CUNY)

Dr. Tobin's Homepage

NSF Award Recognition


Jeanne L. Narum, Director, Project Kaleidoscope, interviewing Dr. Kenneth G. Tobin.

If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab - the environment in which you work with students - what impression would s/he leave with?

My research and teaching are very much aligned with my twin passions of science education and urban education, thus a visitor would have to follow me to many different settings. My research is situated in science classes in public schools in Philadelphia and New York City, and my approach is to include in my research the goals and perspectives of K-12 students and their teachers and to collaborate with them as co-researchers. At the same time, I participate in their classes as a co-teacher, a collaborative approach that necessitates my presence and active participation in the teaching and learning of science in elementary, middle, and high school classes.

We use a variety of data resources to learn from this collaborative research: video and audio recorders to obtain digitized records of interactions that occur during learning; and collecting and studying artifacts from classrooms in which we undertake our research. Beyond class time, we discuss what happened with teachers and students; then, the visitor would see that in our research lab, we do intensive analyses of data resources, using digital media and software tools that allow us to study discourse and video images intensively. Thus, just as the teaching is collaborative, so too is the analysis and interpretation. Our collective goal is to obtain insights into how the quality of science education can be improved in public schools in urban areas.

My teaching at the university level involves doctoral students specializing in science, mathematics, and technology in the urban education program. I encourage each of the students to be involved in ongoing research. The content of my classes builds around readings of relevant research and theory and the research and teaching experiences of my students. A visitor to a class would see at least ½ of the time spent in class involving small group discussions in which students advance their learning through discussions with peers. During the rest of the time, I lead discussions, ensuring that the students interact and remain actively involved. It is important that students come to class well-prepared; my expectation is that they all read continuously between classes and participate in research in urban schools.

What brought you to an interest in "advancing the frontiers of education" and to connecting your research to that work?

As a high school science teacher, I began graduate studies in physics and realized a deep interest in studying how teachers could mediate the learning of science. I was intrigued how teachers could use their oral skills, including the duration of silent pauses, to stimulate thinking and learning. In 1973 I began a study of science teachers and teaching that extends to the present day. This research has crossed international boundaries, extending from kindergarten through college. As a science teacher, I have always closely connected my learning of science and doing of science to my roles in teaching science. Hence the connections were automatic for me since my primary motivation to learn more science was to become a better teacher. Then, when I became a science teacher educator (in 1974) it was imperative that my research agenda would include foci on learning to teach science as well as on the teaching and learning of science.

In this 30-year period of continuous research, I have used a variety of research methods: statistical analyses of quasi-experimental studies, ethnographies, and intensive case studies that have utilized mixed methods. With a primary interest in science teacher education, it was imperative that my research also include doing research on the teaching and learning of college science, especially collaborative work with colleagues from science departments.

Were there risks in doing this? What were they? What made you persevere? How have you documented the successes of your educational efforts?

The greatest risks for my research in science education have involved the uses of different theoretical frameworks and methodologies. Whereas it was very apparent to me what needed to be done at each step in a continuous program of research that has extended beyond 30 years, colleagues often were not ready for the changes nor aware of the need for them.

For example, in 1984 it was apparent that quasi-experiments were not producing answers to the "big questions" that needed to be addressed by education researchers. Although my research projects had been very productive and were well accepted among peers, it was very apparent to me that after each study there were more questions that needed to be addressed. In answering four to five central questions I would complete a study with solid answers to those questions, but find that I had 15-20 new questions to study. It was not as if these questions were unimportant – just that there were larger questions that needed to be addressed that seemed beyond the methods and theories I used to inform my research. Mainly for those reasons in 1984 I switched to using ethnography in my research and gradually focused on intensive studies of fewer teachers. At the same time I began to consciously reject the use of positivism as an underpinning to my research and pioneered the uses of constructivism and other social and cultural theories as foundations for my scholarship.

The risks for me came from three directions.

First, journal editors and reviewers were sometimes threatened by what they considered to be radical changes; at times, responses were even antagonistic. Over the years I managed to get my research published in major science education outlets; however, I was surprised by the hostility from some quarters.

Then, this situation was mirrored initially in panels associated with proposals to undertake research in science education. It was easier to obtain funding that involved large samples and statistical analyses, especially if quasi experiments were involved. To some extent this trend reflected the inclusion in peer review panels of scientists with histories of doing research on the natural world where positivism and quantitative studies were familiar and accepted ways of doing research.

Finally, collaborations with colleagues from the sciences were difficult because of my rejection of positivism as a useful way to think about science, and especially about teaching and learning science and doing research in science education. Initially some colleagues were alienated by my approaches to research and science teacher education, and lengthy collaborations were necessary for new (and stronger) alliances to be forged.

I have documented what I have learned from my ongoing research in science education in articles, papers delivered at national and international meetings, and books for different audiences. Not only do I write for audiences of scholars, but increasingly, I am writing for parents and the community and for beginning teacher education students. In this way there is an increasing likelihood that my research and scholarship will affect education positively throughout the world.

What connections have been of most value in pursuing these efforts, within your campus community as well as in the broader professional communities to which you belong?

The creation of collaborative forms of research in classrooms has been extremely rewarding. Initially, the focus was on finding ways to get teachers collaborating in studies of teaching and learning. Over the years, many of these teachers have become stellar researchers and now have their own research programs and foci. What was especially rewarding was that our research had immediate catalytic effects in the classrooms in which we undertook research. Hence the dissemination of what we learned extended beyond the conventional means of publishing and presenting at professional meetings.

The rewards increased by an order of magnitude when we adopted the practice of including students as researchers in our studies. We selected those students who were identified by their teachers as being at risk of failure and of dropping out of school. Over the years, most of the students with whom we have been involved have not only remained in school, but have fashioned ambitious goals, with many going to college – some into science-oriented studies. While we do not claim that their involvement with us caused these changes, we have studied their lives to the extent that we are confident that their involvement with us as student researchers created contexts in which they built knowledge, skills, interests, and social networks that supported different and more meaningful lifestyles.

Within the U.S. universities in which I have taught, collaborative activities I have undertaken with colleagues from science departments have been extremely rewarding. For example, at Florida State University we undertook a huge graduate degree program for elementary teachers in Miami. Scientists from several departments rallied to create new courses and fresh ways of teaching and delivering science to teachers in this large urban school district. When I was at the University of Pennsylvania, I was involved with colleagues from the chemistry department in a degree program that initially focused on teachers of chemistry in urban areas in the Delaware Valley. Once again the scientists took the lead in developing new inquiry-oriented courses and were leaders in carefully evaluating the quality of the teaching and learning in ongoing ways that spanned many years. There was widespread support for the collaboration. It was heartening to see leading research scientists make such time-consuming and significant contributions to science teacher education.

In a 30-year period of time, I have only encountered one instance of a dean (who became a provost) being an active opponent to collaboration of faculty in education with faculty in the sciences. This person officially informed collaborators (all tenured faculty) that their involvement in education-focused activities was a sign that they were not putting sufficient effort into their research in the sciences. His official stance made it difficult for some of my colleagues to obtain merit salary increases, sabbatical leave and promotion at this university. To their credit most persevered despite the short sighted practices of a powerful figure in the university.

For faculty at an early career stage, it is difficult to figure out how to balance responsibilities for research and teaching while having a personal life; any advice - for them and for faculty at any stage?

It has always struck me as odd that faculty never miss a class (or rarely do so), yet will often pass up on research commitments and scheduled reading and writing. Even though research productivity is rewarded and expected for promotion, tenure and many aspects of professional advancement, it is the case that many faculty will only schedule their teaching.

My advice is to block out time every day for writing and also for doing research. Just as teaching commitments get scheduled and the commitments usually have to be met – so too should writing, reading, and researching be scheduled, with those commitments taking priority over any unscheduled activities. I am not advocating a lack of flexibility but a priority system that is aligned with the reward structure of universities. In my case, I write early in the morning and do not relish interruptions in those times when I am doing my writing. Because of the nature of my research I will either be in schools or in my labs – and hence I am not accessible at these times. If colleagues or students want to schedule meetings when I am scheduled for other professional activities, then I am as inaccessible as when I am teaching.

What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and education?

The recognition that research on the teaching and learning of science is central to the continuance and enhancement of science is an essential first step. It seems highly desirable for provosts and deans to be explicit about the value of scientists in departments and colleges of science participating in research and other scholarly activities in education – as their primary scholarly activities. If senior administrators are explicit about the institutional value placed on scholarship in education, then reward structures can be changed to reflect those institutional priorities. It seems unlikely that changes will occur unless the stance of senior administrator/scholars is visible, explicit and encompassing of the implications for the reward structure.

What can be done at the national level to encourage and support efforts like yours and those of many other leading agents of change on campuses across the country?

There seem to be many fine sources of funding from NSF especially to support the types of activities that I do and value. Examples include the Centers for Learning and Teaching, the Math-Science Partnerships, and Teaching across the Professional Continuum. Given the scope of the demand I think that these are under-funded. Also, the panel review system, which is a feature of the NSF system, needs careful attention to ensure that each proposal gets "peer-review." I have experienced many funded projects that seem to have passed muster, and yet, are not well planned and surely are not well enacted. At the same time there are projects that were proposed by solid scholars that are not funded, and hence, are not as well supported as they might be. The national challenge is to get the resources and projects into the hands of those who can get the job done in ways that enhance the quality of science education. Even though agencies emphasize evaluation, my sense is that the yield is not what it could be.

Please tell us about the project that you will be undertaking as part of the DTS award. How can others be involved with and/or continue to be informed about your work?

My DTS project kick-starts my research and scholarly activities in New York City public schools and universities. There are three foci for my activities, each of which builds on my ongoing research in large urban school districts on the east coast.

Four science teachers have agreed to collaborate as teacher researchers in a study of the teaching and learning of science in urban high schools. Each of these teachers will use students as researchers in their own classrooms and will employ a variety of resources to address issues that are central to the roles and successes of teachers and students in science classrooms. The studies are ethnographic in nature, but have a catalytic goal in that what is intended to be learned will improve the quality of learning throughout the school, school district, and nation. In one instance, the primary focus is on teaching out of field. In this instance, a policy directive to teach physics first resulted in the science teacher having to teach physics to a grade eight class even though his background is in biology. In the same study, the teacher is African American and most of his students are also African American and from home conditions of relative poverty. Hence, equity issues are a concern and we will also examine the ways in which this teacher interacts with his students and the equipment and materials so as to produce learning environments that align with the social and cultural capital of students.

The other teachers involved in collaborative research differ from the first in the level of their teaching (one teaches senior high school, one is a middle school teacher and the other is an elementary teacher). Also, they differ in their ethnicity and/or gender. One is a female African American, one is Hispanic and one is from the Middle East. Over the four-year period of this award I will gradually expand the number of participating teachers, while retaining the four that initially joined the project.

I will continue to collaborate with science teachers, school administrators, and students at a large urban high school in Philadelphia. Three science teachers from the school and an assistant professor will collaborate with a group of student teachers (high school students) to improve the quality of science education throughout a charter (i.e., a school within a school) for urban youth who have an expressed interest in science and mathematics. However, since this is a neighborhood school consisting of nearly all African American youth and since more than 90 percent of them live in condition of poverty, there are equity issues on which our research will focus.

Then, I am working collaboratively with two female science educators from universities in New York City (Queens College and New York University). One is undertaking collaborative research with teacher and student researchers in an elementary school and the other in a high school. The two researchers will employ similar methodologies and theoretical frameworks for their research, and we will meet regularly to support one another. My goal is to assist them to become established scholars and gain support for their research, thereby establishing their position as scholars in science education.

My third focus area involves establishing a council for science education within the City University of New York (CUNY) and collaborating with scientists with the goal of improving the quality of the teaching and learning of science in the constituent colleges of CUNY. These efforts will be supported by collaborative research with colleagues, initially from Hunter College, Queens College, and Lehman College. Regular feedback on our research in college science classrooms will be provided for the teachers and students in the classes we study and to a wider community through an ongoing seminar program that focuses on college science education. I hope to involve other DTS scholars in this seminar program so that other scientists can learn of their scholarly contributions to the field of science education.