Exploring the concept of a semi-permeable curriculum: Mixed audience masterclasses in teacher education

Authors: Bregje de Vries, Ilona Schouwenaars, Martine Derks & Wim Folker.


Vocational education needs to find ways to constantly update curricula to raise professionals who can face new theories and practices. In this paper, a multiple case study is presented which explores how mixed audience masterclasses can contribute to a semi-permeable curriculum defined as ‘an open-ended core curriculum with a firm base in evergreen content around which flexible elements about new content can evolve’. Six masterclasses on innovative topics in which pre- and in-service teachers learned collaboratively, were designed and evaluated. Positive findings on the educators’, teachers’ and students’ awareness of, experiences with, and appreciations of the masterclasses indicate the potential of mixed audience masterclasses. Several conditions under which they can become successful emerged, such as administrative support, and explicit design of mixed audience interactions. It is concluded that improvement of the design and implementation of the mixed audience masterclasses could further contribute to realizing a semi-permeable curriculum that offers new professional topics to teachers in all stages of their career.

Introduction to the problem

Because of education constantly changing, teacher education is in constant need of renewing its curriculum to prepare its students for emerging practices (Barnes & Solomon, 2014; Burstow & Maguire, 2014). Teacher education is not the only field facing this need. Shay (2016) explains that higher education in general is confronted with a ‘cross-fire of expectations’ to keep up with change. Through the years, this cross-fire has been mentioned in many domains, such as medical education, finance, and computer sciences (e.g., Churchill, Bowser & Preece, 2016; Jones, Higgs, De Angelis & Prideaux, 2001; Russell, 2007). It raises the question how vocational education curricula can be made more flexible in order to be able to adjust in time to new ideas and practices in the work fields. In other words, the question is what vocational education curricula should look like to be future sensitive and easily adaptable?

Due to the rapid developments in professional domains, vocational education has been confronted with yet another question: how it can contribute to the professional development of in-service professionals. In case of the educational field, the question is how teacher education institutes can contribute to the need for continuing professional development of in-service teachers working in schools. Bachelor and master degrees in vocational education and teacher education have become starting certificates rather than diplomas that last forever. In order to keep up with innovations and improvements, it is deemed necessary that in-service teachers participate in professional development programs that address both individual and organizational needs, and offer a variety of flexible activities to facilitate theory-practice discourses (e.g. Burstow & Maguire, 2014; Garet et al., 2001). Teacher education seems to hold many good cards to provide such programs: they have the network and the expertise. And over the past years, several developments in teacher education already contributed to the professional development of in-service teachers. For instance, schools and teacher education institutes have built school-university networks in which they prepare pre-service teachers and conduct research together (e.g. Baumfield & Butterworth, 2007; Benade, Hubbard & Lamb, 2017; Smith & Ulvik, 2014). This collaboration has increased awareness of a need for professional development of in-service teachers. Therefore, teacher education institutes increasingly feel responsible for offering professional development programs for in-service teachers as well.

In this paper, the central question addressed is how the teacher education curriculum can become more flexible in its structure and content in order to become future sensitive and easily adaptable to emerging theories and practices, and provide up to date programs for both pre-service and in-service teachers. To answer this question, we introduce the concept of a semi-permeable curriculum, and explore how it can contribute to teacher education in particular, and vocational education in general.

Theoretical background

In general, educational designers have frequently suggested that design products should be flexible and adaptable for sustainable implementation. Brown (2009) argues that so-called Adaptive Instructional Materials (AIM) have three characteristics: (1) they consist of building blocks; (2) the building blocks consist of reusable resources and actively support customization; and (3) materials are easily accessible. Brown concludes that “the three characteristics taken together optimally support different modes of use by being sufficiently open-ended to accommodate flexible use, yet sufficiently constrained to provide coherence and meaning with respect to its intended uses (p. 32).” Further, as Barab and Luehmann (2003) put it: “The core challenge is not to design some “correct” version of curricula or assessment that will be implemented “wholecloth” by willing teachers, but to develop flexible support structures that facilitate local adaptation and ownership of each curriculum” (p. 456). Many case studies have been conducted which illustrate that educational renewal is positively supported by design products that allow teachers and educators to make local adaptations (e.g., De Vries, Schouwenaars & Stokhof, 2017; Linn et al., 2003; Squire et al., 2003).

Additional to the micro level of curriculum design there is a well-expressed need to create flexibility at the meso level of higher education curricula that concerns the entire curriculum instead of one subject or school year (Van den Akker, 2013). In earlier years, many pleas and efforts to make higher education curricula flexible at meso level can be found. For instance, as early as 1986 Van Eijl argued that “more flexibility allows for a faster updating of the curriculum, better accessibility of the courses to different groups of students and a better adjustment to developments in the labour market and the needs of society” (p. 450). The solution explored ever since is modular programming, and designers of modular curricula have been in search of the ideal scope of modules to optimize their function as building blocks (Lucena, 2003; Snyder, Herer & Moore, 2011). Moreover, educational designers have explored ways to enlarge the flexibility of such a modular system in an online repository (Churchill, Bowser & Preece, 2016; Cook & Dupras, 2003), and have developed software that produces dynamic routings to address differentiated needs (Snyder, Herer & Moore, 2011). The belief is that modularization supports an external orientation towards the work field (e.g., Hubbal & Burt, 2004; Nieuwenhuis, 1993). In addition, it is expected to promote interdisciplinarity by combining modules from different domains in larger units (Hubbal & Burt, 2004; Lucena, 2003). The flexibility and adaptability at the school level have been given vivid names such as ‘living curriculum’ (Churchill, Bowser & Preece, 2016), and ‘dynamic curriculum’ (Derks, 2016; Hughes & Tan, 2012) to express its ambition to become future sensitive and adaptable to changes in the work field and society on the one hand, and needs of different groups of learners and stakeholders on the other.

Besides creating modular programs, it is suggested that embedding close encounters of theory and practice is a key issue to increase future sensitivity and flexibility at the meso level of curriculum design. Palonen et al. (2014) suggest to put so-called ‘knowledge practices’ at the center of learning. Likewise, Grossman et al. (2009) put a stake in the ground for letting teacher education evolve around ‘core practices’ which represent current issues of professional behavior from the work field around which creativity, adaptive expertise and metacognition are demanded to solve a problem and develop professional skills. Others have suggested to make vocational education research-based to improve the research-practice nexus by implementing authentic research projects within curricula (e.g., Vereijken et al., 2017; Van der Rijst, 2017). All the suggestions in general lead to the creation of regional school-university networks and communities of practice in which teachers in all stages of their careers come together with teacher educators and researchers in projects and programs. As a result, initial and post-initial professional development become intertwined (e.g., Derks, 2016; Timmermans, 2012). Lifelong learning has been mentioned as a framework (e.g., Iredale, 2018). Moreover, dialogue is often viewed to be an essential part of continuing professional development because in interaction professionals with different backgrounds can explicate and share their knowledge and questions and learn with and from each other (e.g., Crafton & Kaiser, 2011).

In this paper, we seek to build on those early efforts to make curricula more future-sensitive at higher levels of curriculum design by introducing the concept of a semi-permeable curriculum, defined as ‘an open-ended core curriculum with a firm base in evergreen content and timeless competencies, around which flexible elements about new content can evolve’ (De Vries, 2016). A semi-permeable curriculum provides an open-ended format at the meso level of curriculum design. It consists of a fixed backbone, surrounded by varying options around innovative knowledge practices. The modular system is taken as a starting point for building dynamic and differing routings for groups of learners. Some modules are obligatory and in fixed order whereas others are a matter of choice through which any kind of student, being a pre-service student or an in-service teacher, can deepen or broaden his/her knowledge and skills. At the meso level of curriculum design a semi-permeable curriculum gains strength by being able to include including varying work formats ranging from lectures to collaborative design and research projects. The variety improves the freedom of choice people have to work and learn in ever-changing settings and groupings. Overall, a semi-permeable curriculum strives to provide both freedom in the structure as well as the offered content and work formats.

Mixed audience masterclasses can be considered as one work format that could help turn a curriculum into a semi-permeable one. We define mixed audience masterclasses as ‘small groups of learners with mixed backgrounds gathering around authentic situations and experiences that are reflected upon by an expert, and a community of fellow learners (cf. Atkinson, Watermeyer & Delamont, 2013; Doherty, 2007). They could contribute to the semi-permeability of a curriculum because they can easily and radically change their content, and connect theory with practice by inviting experts and learners with different backgrounds to come together. Furthermore, they do not radically need to change the structure of the curriculum since fixed time slots can be reserved for the masterclasses. This makes them easily implementable from an organizational perspective. Finally, because they are rather isolated from the core curriculum on basic competencies, they can be planned in such a way that they become accessible for both students as well as in-service teachers.

Hardly any evidence can be found in the research literature on processes and effects of mixed audience work formats, but some case studies have reported positive experiences. For instance, Roback (2003) concludes: “I hadn’t anticipated (but was excited to see) the improved quality of interaction in class sections resulting from a mixed audience. I found that class questions operated on many different levels, all of which enhanced the learning atmosphere in the class” (p. 10). Similarly, Godfrey (1998) concludes that differences in prior knowledge and expectations of mixed audiences gave students a variety of experiences but at the same time demands explicit attention. Both case studies take place in other domains than teacher education, a statistics course and a software engineering course respectively, on which we seek to build with the present study.

In the remainder of this paper, an explorative study on mixed audience masterclasses in the educational field is presented which seeks to answer the following research questions: (1) How does the design of the masterclasses invite a learning dialogue between audiences? (intended curriculum); (2) To what extent can a learning dialogue between audiences be observed during the masterclasses (implemented curriculum)? (3) How do participants appreciate the mixed audience in the masterclasses? (attained curriculum).


Design of the study

The study was organized as a multiple case study of six masterclasses in two subsequent years and ran from 2015 until 2017. The study took place at a teacher education institute for primary education in the Netherlands. As the institute is located at a university of applied sciences, it collaborates with primary schools in its region in a university-school network. A significant part of its curriculum takes place at the workplace, and practice-based research is conducted within the network by teachers, students and with the support from experts and researchers. The mixed masterclasses are offered to the schools present in the network and invite their in-service teachers to join pre-service teacher students at the teacher institute. The six mixed masterclasses were part of a larger list of masterclasses that were not mixed. Pre-service teacher students could choose from the whole list, whereas in-service teachers could only subscribe to the mixed audience masterclasses. The masterclasses consisted of two or three meetings of two hours each. In between, the participants worked on a practical assignment.


Three groups of participants were involved in the masterclasses: (1) teacher educators, hereafter called ‘educators’, who designed and gave the masterclasses, often in collaboration with experts from research institutes or consultancy; (2) pre-service student teachers in their first or second year, hereafter called ‘students’; and (3) in-service teachers with varying years of experience, hereafter called ‘teachers’. The teachers could be mentors of students, but not necessarily of the students who participated in the masterclasses. Table 1 gives an overview of types and numbers of participants.

Table 1: Overview of (subscribed and) present participants in the 6 masterclasses
Masterclass Students Teachers Total 
Total (114) 91 (29) 15 (143) 106 
MC 1 Urban education (22) 9  (5) 3 (27) 12 
MC 2 Talented (9) 8 (8) 3 (14) 11 
MC 3 Values in teaching (19) 16 (3) 3 (22) 19 
MC 4 Bilingual education (20) 19 (3) 3 (23) 22 
MC 5 Programming with kids (13) 13 (3) 1 (16) 14 
MC 6 Urban Education (31) 26 (7) 2 (38) 28 

Students had to follow two masterclasses as part of their bachelor program, and subscribed through the regular student administration system. Teachers enrolled in as much mixed audience masterclasses they wanted as part of their personal development programs. All students and teachers participating in this study participated in one masterclass only. As Table 1 shows more students than teachers enrolled. This could be explained by the fact that participation was obligatory for students whereas teachers voluntarily subscribed. In addition, the numbers of students and teachers dropped significantly after subscription. In case of the teachers the small number affected the mixed nature of the masterclasses.

Instruments and procedure

Data were collected during all meetings of all six masterclasses with a mix of quantitative and qualitative instruments: collection of design products, interviews, observations, and a short questionnaire. Before the start of the masterclass, design products were collected (e.g., setup, powerpoints), and interviews with the coordinating educators were held to collect expectations and background information on the design. During the meetings, an observation protocol was used by which we collected information on (1) number, type and location of participants by drawing a map of how they were seated in the classroom, (2) the lesson structure by noting the time and the (sub)activity, and (3) interaction patterns by noting who was talking to whom about what. At the closure of the last meeting, a questionnaire was used to measure if students (N=78, 13 missing) and teachers (N=14, 1 missing) had been aware of the mixed nature, and how they experienced and appreciated it. Items were formulated as five-scale Likert items, and measured three constructs: awareness of, experience with, and appreciation of (6 items per construct). After the last meeting short semi-structured interviews with an approximate length of fifteen minutes were held with some volunteering students (N=5) and teachers (N=13) in separate small groups to ask about their opinions in more detail. The interview protocol addressed their experience with a mixed audience, their appreciation of the mixed audience in terms of what it contributed to a mixed audience interaction and their learning, and their evaluation of the setup of the masterclass in light of supporting mixed audience interaction. In the weeks after the masterclass, final semi-structured interviews with the coordinating educators (N=6; approx. length 30‒60 minutes) were held to reflect on the mixed nature of the masterclasses.


The data were stored digitally. All interviews were transcribed. Analysis took place in four steps. First, the designs were analyzed for their overall structure and explicit activities/moments aimed at (mixed audience) interaction. Then, the observations were analyzed by segmenting the observed dialogue in the masterclass into dialogue patterns with a beginning, middle and end, and summarizing for all the segments if an IRF pattern (e.g., question-answer-feedback) or an IDRF pattern (dialogue comprising more extended discussion) occurred. Furthermore, the speakers in the segments were coded as either educators, students or teachers to see if and when interaction between mixed audiences took place. Next, the questionnaire data were stored in SPSS and descriptive analysis was conducted summarizing the participants’ scores on the constructs by calculating means and standard deviations. Third, the interview segments were coded and categorized as saying something related to awareness/expectation, experiences/perceptions of what happened, and appreciations. Taken together, the data gave an overview of the design and implementation of each masterclass. Finally, the within-case analyses were synthesized in a cross-case summary of findings on the design, the interaction, and the awareness, experiences and appreciations as expressed by the participants. In the next section, we report the main findings from this cross-case analysis, illustrated by excerpts taken from the individual masterclasses.


We report on the outcomes of the study in three parts. First, we present findings on the designs and expectations of the educators. Then, we present findings on the meetings of the masterclasses both from the observations and reported experiences from the interviews and questionnaire. Thirdly, we present the participants reflections by reporting on their appreciations of the masterclasses as expressed in the questionnaire and interviews.

Intended curriculum: Designs and expectations

The masterclasses were designed by mixed teams of educators, experts and reseachers. The general starting point for all masterclasses was to design a masterclass that inspired by presenting new theory and practice, provided room for gaining new experiences in the practical assignment, and encouraged reflective dialogue on those experiences. All the masterclasses focused on presenting new information in the first meeting, collecting experiences between the first and the second meeting, and reflective dialogue on experiences in the second and third meetings. The design products illustrate this general setup. The powerpoints of the first meeting are extensive, provide new theories and practical examples, and aim at short dialogues between educators/experts and the participants. In the second and third meetings, the powerpoints are limited in size, mainly show procedural information, and more frequently aim at encouraging dialogue between the participants. The worksheets and products that the participants bring with them are put more central. Overall, the design products reveal their focus on interactivity by explicitly encouraging collaboration between participants, for instance: ‘discuss with your neighbour’, ‘work together with someone who has the same idea’, ‘form groups of three for discussing a case’, and ‘think-pair-share’. The examples show that although the focus is on interactivity, the educators did not explicity design mixed interactions between students and teachers. From analyzing the design products, one can not derive that we have entered a mixed audience masterclass. Only in one case, the sheets reveal an exercise in the first meeting aimed at making explicit the differences between the participants with respect to their prior knowledge and expectations.

Although the design products and materials do not reveal the mixed nature of the audience, we know from the interviews with the coordinating educators that they were well aware of the mixed nature, and expressed mixed feelings about it. For example:

“Difficult, such a diverse audience. First year students of whom I do not know what brings them here. Are they interested, are they gifted themselves, what are the questions they have. [ …] I need to look for ‘somewhere inbetween’ teachers with practical experiences, and first year students who just got acquainted with the topic. We struggled with this in the design of the masterclass. I will make that explicit at the start of the masterclass. I do think it is a positive thing, a richness encouraging an open mind. Getting to know different cases.” [ MC1]

“I had very positive expectations, an interesting starting point to let students and teachers meet […] It did not change the content of the masterclass, I did think again about the work formats, and that not all teachers would go sit together. That it will really mix.” [MC3]

Some first experiences led to incidental adjustments in the design of next meeting(s). For instance, MC2 added theoretical input in the second meeting based on expressed needs of participants, MC1 adjusted the home assignment for two participants who wanted to do the assignment in an informal learning environment, and MC1 and MC4 adjusted the content to specific prior knowledge and questions of the teachers.

Implemented curriculum: Interaction processes

In most meetings the classroom is organized in small groups. Only in MC3 the participants are seated as in a bus, and in MC4 and MC5 they sit in a square. At the start of the first meetings, most educators explicitly invite the participants to mix as they get seated. As it turns out, however, most students and teachers seat themselves in non-mixed groups. In the following meetings, the educators do not address mixed seats again at the start. During these follow-up meetings, the participants do mix during group discussions, as far as this is possible given the low number of teachers present in most masterclasses.

Most educators explicitly pay attention to the mixed audience at the beginning of the first meeting. The educator of MC1 mentions the challenge she felt to address different kinds of participants with one masterclass. Most educators start the masterclass with getting to know each other: who is present, what is their background and what are their expectations for this masterclass. In most masterclasses, getting to know each other is a short exercise in which not even all participants tell their stories. In MC1 and MC4, more extensive activities take place in the form of a quiz that makes visible different thoughts and backgrounds of participants. The educators emphasize the equality of all input and backgrounds.

In relation to the general setup, all masterclasses run as planned. The first meeting puts an accent on inspiring and informing, and the next meeting(s) on sharing experiences and reflective dialogues. All meetings are highly interactive taking the form of plenary questioning and answering, and group discussions. Most often, the dialogue is started by the educator(s) with a question or statement, to which the participants react. Although the participants also start to react on each other’s input, overall the initiating and mediating role of the educator(s) remains strong, dialogues remain rather short after which new input is provided by the educator(s). Most dialogues follow a classical IRF pattern in which the educator initiates, the participants respond, the educator gives feedback on the response, and moves on to the next question or topic. To a lesser extent, IDRF patterns emerged in which whole group discussions occured in a more extensive way. In the second and third meetings, IDRF pattters have been observed more often than in the first meeting. The following observation excerpt illustrates an IDRF pattern occurring in MC6 when the whole group discusses the meaning and appearance of ‘underwater behaviour’ from a socio-dynamic perspective. E is one of the educators, T1 is a teacher and S1234 are students:

“E asks to mention underwater behaviour of children they know of.
T1 answers; S1 and S2 also provide an answer.
S1 and S2 explain they do not fully understand the question.
E explains and rephrases: which behaviour do chilren sometimes show which is not conform the values of the classroom, but is left unspoken.
S1 mentions quick glances and mimics of children.
S3 asks: what do you do, how do you talk about it with your children?
S4 adds: is it necessary to discuss such behaviours?
T1: in my experience each group has implicit rules, you see it, but you cannot get a grip on it
S3: but I think you should make it explicit and discuss it, because it is often negative behaviour. But then again, we just concluded a few minutes ago that we should ignore negative behaviour?
E refines: sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t, sometimes you get back to it later
S1: we sometimes address such things by role playing, without names or so, and ask the children: how does this feel for you.”

The excerpt illustrates a discussion in which the educator initiated the topic, but after that the teacher and students start discussing the topic amongst each other, building on each other’s thoughts and experiences. In the second and third meetings, IDRF patters occurred frequently in smaller settings. In those meetings, small group discussions dominated the meeting. In the first meeting, the students did not bring in experiences since often they didn’t have any yet. This changed in the follow up meetings: by the assignment the students have gained some early experiences that they can reflect on. The educators noticed the impact of the students having collected fresh experiences. As one educator put it:

“During the second meeting knowledge sharing was central. And although this occurred to be complicated in the first meeting, this time they really entered a conversation with each other. The students felt more secure. Teachers and students started sharing knowledge with each other.” [MC4]

Summarized, it was observed that in all meetings interactivity was frequent. The interactivity changed after the first meeting, since the participants started working in groups more. But overall, the presence of the educator(s) was dominant in IRF patterns although some examples of IDRF were observed as well. The educators reflected on the interactivity in the masterclasses as being hard work, needing many interventions to maintain the conversation, and address both groups of participants:

“I planned sharing knowledge in small groups. This needed intervention from my side, because all the teachers sat together. In the plenary discussion that followed they dominated the conversation by sharing ‘how it went at their school’. Then I explicitly asked the students: how do you perceive all this, how do you experience it at your school? This intervention was really necessary, to help students take their part because teachers tend to react quickly on each other’s situations and students get forgotten.” [MC2]

The opposite of teachers dominating the conversation was also observed. In some cases the teachers withdrew from the conversation because they were too aware of the differences in experience between them and the students, and did not want to take too much space at the cost of the students. Even more, some teachers felt responsible for the students’ learning (rather than for their own!). Both teachers and educators confirmed this observation in the interviews:

“I noticed that teachers found it interesting, but at the same time were holding back, as if they thought let the students think for a while. A real dissapointment. They kept holding on to the tutor-student relationship.” [educator, MC2]

“The first meeting I felt awkward. Inclined to tell a lot, but then you think no let the students provide input first, because they are still learning. So I kept silent at that moment.” [teacher, MC3]

“It is so much fun to notice that students develop their ideas, even if I think that they might not work that well in practice. I do not say that on prupose, because I think they need to experience it themselves and see why it does or doesn’t work.” [teacher, MC5]

Attained curriculum: Awareness and appreciations

When designing the masterclasses, the educators were very much aware of the mixed audience, being in favor of creating such a rich learning environment, but also feeling anxious at the same time if and how to satisfy all the participants. To what extent and how were the students and teachers aware of the mixed nature of the masterclasses, and experienced and appreciated it? In general, the participants were moderately aware of the mixed audience during the meetings (M=2.91, SD=0.41). The extent to which they experience the mixed nature is also rather moderate (M=3.20, SD=0.40). The dominating finding here is that the number of teachers present was so low that many participants indicated they did not always experience a mixed audience. Unless this low presence of teachers, the questionnaire and interviews indicate that the participants do appreciate (the thought of) the mixed nature (M=3.23, SD=0.38). Both students and teachers explain that they learn from each other:

“Students talk about they think, teachers share experiences. I recognize from their stories they have different contact with parents, real contact that I cannot have yet as a student teacher. I can finetune my own experience by what I have heard.” [student, MC1]

“Students say we can simply do it like this, we can solve this. By experience I know that things run differently, but I do like it, a fresh view on the matter.” [teacher MC3]

Although both groups appreciate the mixed audience, they perceive different gains: students say they hear new things, and can collect real examples by hearing the examples from teachers while teachers explained that they become more aware of the knowledge and experience they have collected during the years. One of the educators confirmed this finding from the questionnaire as follows:

“I think it is really nice for students to hear so many stories from practice, to hear what experienced teachers struggle with. That there will be challenges no matter how experienced a teacher you are. At the other side, I think it is really nice for teachers to see where they come from, to become aware of what they can do already. And the importance to keep developing your skills.” [educator, MC1]

Although both students and teachers perceive knowledge gains, the interviews revealed that for some students the level of the masterclass was too high, whereas some teachers felt there was more in it for the students than for them because much information was not new to them. This finding shows the importance of addressing the participants in the right ‘zone of proximal development’ to really contribute to professional development at any stage. It can also explain for the fact that teachers sometimes stayed in their role of being a tutor, as we have indicated above.

Conclusion and reflection

In this paper, we posed the following research questions: (1) How does the design of the masterclasses invite a learning dialogue between audiences? (intentional curriculum); (2) To what extent can a learning dialogue between audiences be observed during the masterclasses (implemented curriculum)? (3) How do participants appreciate the mixed audience character of the masterclasses? (attained curriculum). By answering the questions we hope to gain first insight in if and how mixed audience masterclasses could possibly contribute to building a semi-permeable curriculum, which we defined as a future sensitive curriculum that can easily manipulate flexible elements around a fixed core curriculum, seeks the intertwinement of theory and practice, and provides a learning environment for professionals at all stages of their careers. In an answer to the first question, we saw that the design products and materials revealed a focus on interactivity and dialogical learning in either whole class or small group discussions. At the same time, the awareness of a mixed audience was not explicitly taken into account in the designs, which did not specify the different backgrounds of the participants for instance. The intended curriculum, therefore, was not pervaded with a mixed audience yet. What did we see in the implemented curriculum? In answer to the second research question, we conclude that most of the masterclasses addressed the mixed audience to a certain extent. We saw that the start of the first meeting in many cases was used to get to know each other in some way, and to express different backgrounds, experiences and questions in the group. But in several masterclasses this was a rather short exercise, in which not all participants were invited or took the chance to express themselves. In only two masterclasses an effective work format such as a quiz was implemented to make visible the mixed audience. Furthermore, we saw that the interactivity in the masterclasses was high, but the mixed character low for several reasons: the participants did not mix up physically by sitting next to each other or in mixed groups, and much of the dialogue was initiated and maintained by the educator(s) in short IRF patterns. In some cases, especially in the second and third meetings, we did find mixed IDRF conversations in which the participants co-constructed the dialogue from their different backgrounds, and educators took less dominant roles. However, we also noticed that at such “mixed moments”, their roles as tutors in the larger school-university network now sometimes prevented the teachers to put their own needs before the students’ ones even while they were not the mentors of the students participating in the masterclass. Overall, for the time being we conclude that the mixed audience masterclasses were positively evaluated by all the participants. The educators believed in the concept, and teachers and students appreciated the idea although they also indicated to be only moderately aware of the fact that there was a mixed audience.

The pitfall of this study is coming with its explorative nature. We have tried to explore and discover the merits of a new work format, mixed audience masterclasses, which seeks to combine already existing collaboration in a school-university network with fresh ideas about learning together. Being used to being the tutors of students in the workplace, we now invited the tutors to become learners themselves together with pre-service students! We saw that many of the teachers who subscribed dropped out before the masterclasses had even started. Maybe becoming a student amongst students contributed to their dropping out? The teachers who did participate confirmed they had to overcome some feelings of ‘being misplaced’ when they entered the classroom filled with groups of students. Their first inclination was to either return to their cars, or enter the classroom and team up with the few faces they recognized as “being teachers just like me”. Another simple reason that could explain for the dropouts is the back office of the teacher institute, not being used to facilitating subscriptions from outside the institute. The teachers who did show up all explained they subscribed early in the school year, received one confirmation email from the institute, and then never heard from it again. This puts rather high demands on people’s awareness of approaching data, and a sense of urgence. The teacher institute also struggled with the internal registration of students choosing from many options, which could explain for the students who subscribed but never showed up. All in all, the low number of teachers in the masterclasses hampered the exploration of mixing up audiences. The present study indicates the format is promising, but follow-up evaluations are necessary to look for its benefits more extensively. In next cycles of design and evaluation, the outcomes of this study further suggest that the participants’ awareness of the mixed nature of the masterclasses could be raised in order to make the participants more responsible for the process of learning with and from each other. At the same time, the awareness should be fed by explicit elements in the design of the masterclasses. The outcomes suggest that educators should be supported to define design principles for working with mixed audiences, which translate into work formats that explicitly address and use existing differences between participants when it comes to backgrounds and experiences, questions and needs. A design tool such as Van den Akker’s (2003) spider web, which guides micro designing of lesson structures and materials, could be helpful. The spider web discerns nine design issues that need to be addressed in any design: goals, content, activities, teacher role, sources/materials, grouping, context, time allocations, and ways of assessment and feedback. Some of these issues have appeared to be important to realize an effective mixed audience learning environment. For instance, we saw that people do not mix naturally. In the design, interventions to fysically mix audiences should be present (context, grouping). In addition, articulating prior knowledge and learning needs should be part of the design of a mixed audience masterclass, and dialogue activities could guide the constructive comparison and complementarity of the knowledge and questions present. This implies interventions related to content and activities, and should affect the role of the educator (guiding and following the discussion rather than instructing and dominating it) as well as help teachers and students to become equal partners in learning.

As a final reflection, we would like to address the main question raised in this paper, if and how mixed audience masterclasses contribute to a semi-permeable curriculum. We think that our first experiences with the mixed audience masterclasses positively support the expectation that they could contribute to future sensitivity, an improved theory-practice nexus, and lifelong learning. At this stage, educators, teachers and students favor the mixed setting, and recognize several benefits of the encounter. The educational field is full of innovations that need to be introduced and explored by any teacher no matter in which stage of career development (s)he is, and the masterclasses provide room for that in the curriculum. The presented study shows the potential of putting pre- and in-service teachers together around such themes in easy to adapt masterclasses. At the same time, it also reveals several conditions in both the organization and design of the mixed audience masterclasses that are necessary to create new relationships between the mixed audiences for the benefit of all. With the masterclasses we have only begun to see how mixed audience formats, of which a masterclass is only one possibility, could contribute to a flexible and future sensitive professional learning program that starts with initial education but is implemented across all stages of teachers’ careers’.

Practical implications

Now we get back where we started. Almost any profession nowadays deals with rapidly evolving new theories, practices, techniques and strategies. Raising professionals for the future is a design problem recognized by many faculties of (higher) vocational education. As we have argued before, the demands on vocational education are diverse and high, and since we often cannot foretell what will be needed in a profession in the (near) future exactly, curriculum design has to become as flexible as possible to be able to adapt just in time and continuously. In this light, others have presented solutions under the heading of ‘modularization’ (Lucena, 2003; Snyder, Herer & Moore, 2011), ‘living curriculum’ (Churchill, Bowser & Preece, 2016), or dynamic curriculum (Derks, 2016; Hughes & Tan, 2012). The presentation of the concept of a semi-permeable curriculum in this paper seeks to contribute to this quest. Finally, by emphasizing that curricular puzzles need to be worked out at all levels of curriculum design, from nano and micro lessons to meso and macro structures, we suggest that across all those levels, the concept of semi-permeability could be further explored to give further expression to the fact that some parts in a professional field remain evergreen and should be seen as part of a core curriculum, whereas other parts of the curriculum will be fed and constituted by recent developments in either theory or practice that are deemed important in the near future, and may become evergreen elements in time. We hope the concept inspires educational designers and educators to embrace the quest for balance between old and new. Moreover, we hope it inspires many professionals in each stage of their career to embrace lifelong learning and enter the semi-permeable curriculum to learn together.


Bregje de Vries, PhD, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU), The Netherlands
Ilona Schouwenaars, M.Sc., University of Applied Sciences Arnhem en Nijmegen (HAN), The Netherlands
Martine Derks, M.Sc., University of Applied Sciences Arnhem en Nijmegen (HAN), The Netherlands
Wim Folker, M.Sc., Director of SKPCPO Delta, Arnhem, The Netherlands

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Bridging the research-to-practice gap in education: the design principles of mode-2 research innovating teacher education


Current changes in society address new demands on professionals’ ability to respond to new and changing circumstances quickly and adequately (Coonen, 2006; Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012; 2002; OCW/EZ, 2009). This implies the necessity of continuous development to improve professional performance throughout the entire career. This general professional demand has consequences for teacher education (Darling-Hammond & Foundation, 2008; Scheerens, 2010). To support this lifelong professional learning, the development of an inquiry-based attitude (hereinafter: IA) is specifically recommended as a goal in teacher education (e.g. Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009). In Dutch teacher education at both initial and post-initial level, it is assumed that IA will allow teachers to create new knowledge of practice continuously with the aim to develop themselves as a professional and to improve their school context (Onderwijsraad, 2014). To be able to get more understanding about IA as a developable goal in teacher education, Meijer, Geijsel, Kuijpers, Boei and Vrieling (2016) conducted a multiannual empirical study and refined IA from an ill-defined global concept into a concept with reliable and valid characteristics. Their results indicated IA as a concept with two dimensions: an internal reflective dimension and an external knowledge-sourcing dimension. The internal dimension concerns intentional actions to acquire new professional modes of understanding and behaviour. The external dimension concerns intentional actions to gain new information and knowledge from relevant knowledge-sources. Our goal in this study was to create knowledge to support teacher educators’ in their pedagogical approaches to stimulate their students’ IA. However, the transfer of results from educational research into educational practice has proven to be complex (e.g.Broekkamp & van Hout-Wolters, 2007; OCW, 2011). To help bridge this gap, practice-based scientific mode-2 research design is presented as a research method that can help (Martens, Kessels, De Laat, & Ros, 2012). The assumption in this method is that partnership between researchers and practitioners will contribute to creating meaningful, generalisable knowledge and contribute to the transfer of this knowledge into practice. We therefore used this research design in our two-year follow-up study. In partnership with educators, we designed, tested and redesigned a professional development programme and we conducted a multiple case study. In this study (Meijer, Kuijpers, Boei, Vrieling, & Geijsel, in press) we gained insight into specific characteristics of professional development interventions that encourage teacher educators’ deep learning in stimulating IA-development of their students.

To our knowledge, there are few studies that provide specific insight into the design of practice-based scientific mode-2 research (hereinafter: mode-2 research) or into the actual impact of this methodology. To contribute to an understanding of how mode-2 research can help to bridge the gap between educational research and practice, this conceptual paper will reflect on how the partnership between the researcher and five educators resulted in creating practice-based scientific knowledge, professionalising teacher educators and simultaneously contributed to innovating teacher education practice. With this reflection, we aim to contribute to the development of mode-2 research as promoted in a research manifest on practice based scientific research (Martens et al., 2012). The study we are reflecting on is summarised in Table 1 and Table 2.

In what follows we first describe mode-2 research as a relatively new mode in social science and the general scientific requirements and usability criteria our research had to meet. Secondly, we report researchers role; recruiting practitioners and organising research meetings. Thirdly, we reflect from theoretical perspectives as to how and why our approach affected educators’ professional development and brought innovation to teaching practice. In conclusion, we present our working hypothesis on design principles in mode-2 research and discuss its complexity in design and the demands researchers must meet to monitor and facilitate simultaneously the quality of the research process and the learning of the practitioners.

Table 1. Process display of the mode-2 study we are reflecting on
Table 1. Process display of the mode-2 study we are reflecting on

1. Mode-2 research

Traditional methods of knowledge production and dissemination are the subject of debate in social science. Current scientific knowledge production does not transfer to practice adequately and opinions differ regarding the measures that should be taken to close the gap (Broekkamp & van Hout-Wolters, 2007). To bridge this gap, fundamental changes are suggested as a new research mode with regard to the interaction between science and society (Nowotny, Scott, & Gibbons, 2001). Social science production, in which socially robust knowledge is produced by social interventions in the context of application, was labelled by Gibbons et al. (1994) as Mode-2 research. Martens et al. (2012) promote this mode-2 research as an alternative to traditional educational research, in which randomised controlled trials still seem to be the golden standard. This, despite the fact that the complexity in educational research makes it impossible to control all variables (Cochran-Smith & Zeichner, 2010). Research based on randomised controlled trials aims to prove universal causal patterns in teaching and disparages the need for a stronger body of knowledge with practical, context-related relevance. The lack of knowledge with practical relevance is seen as one of the causes of the gap between science and practice. Hargreaves (1999) therefore even urged teachers to produce the knowledge they need by themselves. Martens et al. (2012) assume that research for which the questions are provided by practice – a partnership between researchers and practitioners – will contribute to creating meaningful, generalisable knowledge. From the perspective of learning, they argue that if practitioners participate in the knowledge creation process while participating in a practice-based scientific educational research in their own context, practical relevant knowledge will not only be created but it will also support the transfer of scientific knowledge into practice. Bronkhorst, Meijer, Koster, Akkerman and Vermunt (2013) found that collaboration with educators enabled the researcher to benefit from their expertise and that researchers’ position as a learner and researchers’ appreciation of the partnership impacts educators’ engagement ‘agency’ in the research . This means being an ‘agent’ and ‘owner’ instead being an ‘instrument’ or in other words ‘a tool for the researcher’ (p. 93). They found also that, compared to other research designs, collaboration supported the experience of research as an integrated part of everyday practice, which is also one of the goals in teacher education (Onderwijsraad, 2014). Researchers’ support of practitioner agency is thus seen as important because the more agency, the greater the chance that a solution will be found for the problem being researched (Bolhuis, Kools, Joosten-ten Brinke, Mathijsen, & Krol, 2012; Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009) and this will, as stated before, support the transfer of knowledge into practice.

1.1. Scientific requirements

Creating socially robust and practice-based educational scientific knowledge, under mode-2 conditions, has to meet the same generally accepted scientific standards as any other scientific research (Martens et al., 2012; Ros et al., 2012). However in mode-2 research, the relevance of the knowledge created is rooted in the (educational) context, in which the ‘problem’ occurred (Martens et al., 2012; Nowotny et al., 2001). A characteristic in this process of ‘local’ knowledge creation is to strive for external validity (i.e. generalisable insights) beyond the locus of knowledge production. Because practice-based research often works with small populations, it means that an attempt must be made, fitting within this type of search, to maximise generalisability without affecting the usability of the knowledge for the context in which the research took place (Ros et al., 2012; Verschuren, 2009). Furthermore, mode-2 research must be carried out in the wording of the scientific criteria that relate to the internal validity; controllability; cumulativeness and ethical aspects. The research must also meet the usability criteria with a view to the practice (Martens et al., 2012; Ros et al., 2012). The usability criteria define that the results must be accessible and understandable for the field of education; the results must be perceived as relevant and legitimate and the research must provide handles to improve educational practice.

1.2. Meeting scientific requirements in our study

In our two-year mode-2 research, we have secured internal validity by conducting it in the educational context in which the issue occurred. The study was executed in collaboration with an expert group of five teacher educators as co-researchers (Meijer et al., in press). The research process was characterised by iterative cycles of design, evaluation and redesign (McKenney & Reeves, 2013) and consisted of two phases: (1) a preparatory phase of designing, testing, evaluating and improving a theory-based professional development programme and (2) a main study phase in which the designed development programme was carried out. To build a strong partnership between the researcher and the participating practitioners, we followed Eri’s (2013) advice and involved them in constructing the design, and not only in testing the design, with the aim of supporting practitioners’ agency and ownership in the subject of the study.

To create generalisable knowledge we conducted the research as a parallel multiple case study (Swanborn, 2010) in four different teacher training courses. Four fairly homogeneous groups of teacher educators on four different teacher training courses at Bachelor and Master level at a professional university in the Netherlands were followed. The study resulted in clarification of the active ingredients of the designed interventions that supported the targeted development. We found that aligned ‘self-study’ interventions at personal, peer, and group level, guided by a trained facilitator, supported the aimed learning (Meijer et al., in press). To be able to reflect on this research from the perspective of partnership between researchers and teacher educators as co-researchers (hereinafter: expert group), we recorded and transcribed the research meetings (see table 2) with the expert group.

To meet the usability criteria we described our process of scientific knowledge construction and associated ethical aspects in a scientific publication and shared the results in the locus of the research. The way in which we further comply with the usability requirements is in fact seen in the focus of this reflective paper. In it, we look at how our collaboration with practitioners in the role of co-researcher resulted in socially robust scientific knowledge which contributed to professional development and is being implemented in practice. It should be noted that this implementation took place outside the scope of this research. This is because of the time that this implementation process took. In fact, the implementation process is still underway two years after the completion of this research.

2. Partnership between researcher and teacher educators in our study

The collaboration between practitioners and researchers is argued as a thriving force in developing new practices and educational change. To reflect on this assumption from our own research experience we will first successively report researchers role; recruiting practitioners and the research meetings between researcher and practitioners. Subsequently, in section 3, we will reflect on how our partnership between researcher and practitioners contributed to bridging the gap between science and practice. We reflect from theoretical perspectives on transfer of learning and development; practitioners’ knowledge creation and innovation and organisational learning.

2.1. Researcher

For mode-2 research it is important that the researcher(s) has coaching and consultancy skills in addition to research expertise and is able find balance between the relevance for the participating practitioners and the precision required by in scientific research (Martens et al., 2012). The researcher in this study (i.e. the first author) conducted research in her own professional context. She has an extensive experience as a teacher educator, trained supervisor/coach and is also responsible for the design of the professional Masters’ curriculum in the faculty where this research was conducted. This dialectic and simultaneous relationship between being a scholar and practitioner is an increasing phenomenon in educational research (Cochran-Smith, 2005). Before starting, and while conducting our research, the interwoven roles of the researcher were an explicit object of attention and reflection.

2.2. Recruiting the Practitioners

As pointed out above, besides creating practice-based scientific knowledge, the professional development of the collaborating practitioners is also one of the goals of mode-2 research. For this reason, we firstly based our research design on two preconditions in teacher-professionalisation, as reported by Van Veen, Zwart, Meirink and Verloop (2010): the subject of our study was in line with school policy and the participants were facilitated adequately by the management. Secondly, we decided to use the model of a professional learning community because this supports professional development (Lunenberg, Dengerink, & Korthagen, 2014; Van Veen et al., 2010), it supports innovation processes (Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012; Mourshed, Chijioke, & Barber, 2010) and it supports collaboration in designing, experimenting and re-designing (McKenney & Reeves, 2013; Van den Akker, Gravemeijer, McKenney, & Nieveen, 2006).

To recruit practitioners as co-designers and co-researchers in our research project, we organised a meeting with five experienced educators who were proposed by the management for practical reasons such as availability. We presented our research goal, basic design principles and the requirements that the participants had to meet. By being clear about our expectations of the participants’ qualities and commitment, we aimed to avoid drop-out on account of disappointment (e.g. Walk, Greenspan, Crossley, & Handy, 2015). First we presented our research goal as designing and redesigning a professional development programme based on theory and on practitioners’ knowledge and exploring which specific intervention characteristics support teacher educators’ professional development in stimulating students’ IA (Meijer et al., in press). We explained the importance of commitment in participating in a professional learning community during a two- year educational design-research within their own context. We also explained the importance of being an experienced teacher educator since we needed expert knowledge in designing a professional development programme. Experience was also important considering the plan that in the second phase of the study, the participants themselves would offer the designed programme to colleagues, and therefore we assumed that their credibility as a teacher educator should be beyond doubt. Furthermore, we highlighted the importance of being motivated to contribute to generalisable and reliable practice-based scientific knowledge by systematically, inimitably and accurately questioning their own practice. They also had to enjoy designing and redesigning interventions with the aim of improving them. Finally, we explained that they had to demonstrate commitment to participating in all the research meetings planned over the two years. Collaborating on this planning was presented as the first step in our partnership.

This meeting resulted in the voluntary participation of all five experienced (8-18 years) educators (hereinafter: expert group) aged between 43-58 and all female. They were facilitated with 90 hours of extra ‘professional development’ time over the two years, in addition to the standard annual time.

2.3. Research meetings

Before reflecting on ‘our’ partnership, we will give a short chronological overview of the research meetings between the researcher and the expert group (See Table 2, Overview of research meetings). All meetings can be characterised as ‘reflective dialogues’ (Mezirow & Taylor, 2009) between the researcher and the practitioners. Based on the practitioners’ wishes, we aligned our planning with the rhythm of our educational year. This meant no meetings during the busiest periods and not at the start and end of the year. The period between the meetings varied between two or three weeks.

Table 2. Overview of research meetings
Table 2. Overview of research meetings

3. Transfer of scientific knowledge into practice

To understand how collaboration with practitioners supported the transfer of scientific knowledge into practice, we firstly need to understand the underlying theories on the transfer of learning and professional development. Secondly, we need to comprehend the theories of practitioners’ knowledge creation and thirdly, we need to understand the theories of innovation and organisational learning. In these next sections, we will reflect – through the lenses of these theories – on our research journey, and illustrate our experiences with some vignettes.

3.1. Transfer of learning

The “changed and more experienced person is the major outcome of learning” (Jarvis, 2006, p. 132) is an important goal in mode-2 practice-based scientific educational research. In our research design, this learning concerned the development of teacher educators who participated as co-researchers. Since researchers in mode-2 research have to guide the participants’ learning and the transfer of this learning into educational practice, we built our research design on knowledge of learning theories in which the transfer of learning is a key concept.

Transfer of learning, and its underlying mechanisms, is still one of the most important educational research themes of the 21st century (e.g. Lobato, 2006). Thorndike (1906) introduced the concept of transfer and stated that the transfer of what is learned is dependent on the extent to which the new situations are the same as the original learning context. Thorndike conducted various empirical experiments and found that if an individual learns something in task A, it can be of benefit in task B if there are similarities between the two tasks. Although Thorndike’s view about transfer appeared to have been around for a century, later follow-up research showed that people can abstract things they have learned previously and subsequently apply this knowledge in contexts that are not obvious (e.g. Tomic & Kingma, 1988). However the transfer is stronger the more the contexts are alike. According to Piaget (1974), transfer occurs only if a measurement comes to the fore to show that what was learned had a demonstrable effect on the cognitive structure (knowing more) and that this knowledge can be operationalised in new situations. Piaget refers to this form of transfer as accomodating, by which he meant the capacity to adjust or transform familar strategies when a problem cannot (or can no longer) be resolved using the available tools and familiar methods. If this succeeds, previously acquired knowledge and insight is demonstrably transformed to a higher level.

The theory of the transfer of knowledge to other contexts was further illuminated by Branson and Schwarz (1999) in their AERA award winning review of research into transfer. They described Thorndike’s original view on transfer as the ‘Direct application theory of transfer’ which means that a person can apply previous learning directly to a new setting or problem. Based on their review, Branson and Schwarz proposed an alternative view of transfer that broadens this traditional concept by “including an emphasis on people’s ‘preparation for future learning’” (p. 68). They explicated the implications of this view for educational practices and elaborated Broudy’s (1977) instructional procedures with the aim of supporting the ability to adapt existing knowledge, assumptions and beliefs to new situations. Bransford and Schwartz highlight that people “actively interact” with their environment to adapt to new situations “if things don’t work, effective learners revise” (Bransford & Schwartz, p. 83) (See for example vignette 1). This so-called active transfer involves openness to others’ ideas and perspectives and seeking multiple viewpoints that are also important as a characteristic of critical reflection.

Vignette 1: Effective learners revise if things don’t work
Vignette 1: Effective learners revise if things don’t work

From the perspective of transfer, Illeris (2003, 2004, 2007; 2009) analyses leading theories of learning and differentiates four different learning types and looks at them in relation to their transfer capabilities. It is about mechanical learning, assimilating, accommodating and transforming. Each learning type is activated in different contexts, aims for different learning outcomes and varies according to the amount of energy learning requires. His learning theory rests on three different dimensions and two inseparable processes. He differentiates the cognitive (content), emotional (motivation) and social (interaction) dimension as well as the internal acquisition process in which new impulses are linked to earlier learning outcomes and the external interaction process that plays out between the learner, the teaching material and the social environment. According to Illeris (2014), professional learning already includes a change in practitioners’ work identity, the level of transformative learning. This happens only when the learner experiences a change in their own mental models with a perceivable impact on bringing about a change in attitude or behaviour. The individual then looks at the reality differently and also acts differently than previously (see for example vignette 2).

Vignette 2: Transformative learning
Vignette 2: Transformative learning
3.1.1. Supporting Practitioners’ Transformative Learning

To facilitate transformative learning Greeno (2006) calls for a learning environment in which stimulating and organising broad meaningful domain knowledge and automously founded actions are applied as two pro-transfer and inseparable factors. In this context, Kessels (2001) and Kessels and Keursten (2002) call for a knowledge-productive learning environment in which no educational material is prescribed, and instead research and reflection are the prime tools used to stimulate and facilitate meaningful learning. This is in line with the meta review by Taylor (2007) which indicates that accumulating personal learning experiences in a unique context about which there is critical reflection from various perspectives is one of the most powerful tools is promoting transformative learning. This is a process of communicative learning in which identifying and problematising ideas, convictions, values and feelings are critically analysed and given consideration. This requires a setting in which the participants dare to give themselves over to uncertainty and a certain degree of ‘discomfort’ so that they can learn personally. It is about daring mutual questioning of personal ‘truths’ and being prepared to modify existing paradigms on the basis of new insights. The shape transformative learning takes in education is in part dependent on the lecturer’s personal ideas about learning theories combined with the understanding of the reciprocal relationship between: (life) experience; critical reflection; dialogue; holistic orientation; context understanding and authentic relationships (Mezirow & Taylor, 2009). “Transformative learning is always a combination of unlearning and learning” (Bolhuis, 2009, p. 62). It is a radical process of falling down and getting back up again. According to Bolhuis, the unlearning element receives too little attention in research into and the forming of theories about learning. The helping hands that are offered with regard to ‘unlearning’ are implicit and are focused on reconstructing mental models and experimenting with new behaviour that can respond to behaviour and context through repetition and reflection.

In summary, this means that if mode-2 practice-based scientific educational research wants to contribute to the professionalisation of teachers, the research design must be based on ideas about learning theories with respect to the level of learning that is intended. In research into the professional beliefs and behaviour of the educator, a research setting in which transformative learning by the practitioners is facilitated is one of the design principles. This means that a research setting that is productive to knowledge is created, one which encourages and facilitates shared interactive research and the (re-)development of practical knowledge, beliefs and behaviour from different perspectives, with the aim of contributing to creating a ‘changed and more experienced person’ (see for example vignette 2).

Looking back over our research, we can typify our design of the learning environment in which the researcher and educators design and research together as a learning environment in which various levels can be learned. The accent in this was (1) having reflective dialogue which was dominated by: obtaining conceptual clarity about key concepts and the significance of this for practical actions and research into personal beliefs and the impact of these on actions; (2) the design of a theory-based analysis tool that, over a number of cycles, we ‘tested, reflected on, modified and again tested until we could work satisfactorily with it and were confident that the participants in the follow-up study could deal with effectively; (3) the design of interventions at ‘individual, peer and group level’ (Meijer et al., in press) via cycles of testing, reflecting on what worked, why it worked and how it could be improved; and (4) the design of a coherent professional development programme based on the interventions with the associated supporting materials and the basic premises of supporting learning from the participants. Because the practitioners researched with the researcher what interventions had an impact on their own development as well as how and when, they created new knowledge about professional development. They also integrated conceptual scientific knowledge about the subject of the research, ‘stimulating the inquiry-based attitude’, into their own educational repertoire.

3.2. Supporting Practitioners’ knowledge productivity

Following on from European and Americans examples (e.g. Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009; Loughran, 2007; Pickering et al., 2007), in the Dutch educational context and teacher training, we are increasingly seeing practitioner research used as a professional learning strategy to support individual and organisational learning. The teachers do their own research in their own context and the research itself as seen as an intervention (Bolhuis et al., 2012). According to Bolhuis et. al, practically-focused research by professionals contributes to more conscious consideration about the aims and effects of the work and promotes this approach where professionals create practical knowledge and use other people’s knowledge more in their work. The concept of practitioners’ knowledge productivity as a process in which new knowledge is created to contribute to innovation in the workplace was introduced by Kessels (1995; 2001). It refers to using relevant information to develop and improve products, processes and services. Supporting processes of practitioners’ knowledge creation requires expertise, such as “making tacit knowledge explicit, facilitating work and teambuilding, and supplying mentors and coaches with appropriate guidance abilities” (Kessels, 1998, p. 2). Knowledge productivity refers to ‘breakthrough’ learning’ which means that learners develop new approaches and are able to break with the past (Verdonschot, 2009). Both Kessels and Verdonschot believe that innovation processes are denoted as social communicative processes in which participants work in collaboration, whereby the quality of the interaction is important and should provide access to each other’s knowledge and connect these (see for example vignette 3). Paavola, Lipponen and Hakkarainen (2004) introduced the knowledge creation metaphor as a learning metaphor that concentrates on mediated processes of knowledge creation. A learning model based on knowledge-creation conceptualises “learning and knowledge advancement as collaborative processes for developing shared objects of activity […] toward developing […] knowledge” (p. 569)

Vignette 3: Social communicative knowledge creation.
Vignette 3: Social communicative knowledge creation.
3.2.1. Collaborative learning

In collaborative learning, the literature makes frequent reference to professional learning communities, group learning or learning from peers, and is seem as the most powerful driver for educational innovations (Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012; Mourshed et al., 2010). The concept of a professional community is multidimensional in nature and can be unpacked as practitioners’ peer learning with the goal of developing a shared vision that provides a framework for shared decision making on meaningful practice questions (see for example vignette 4). The aim is to improve practice from the perspective of collective responsibility, in which both group and individual learning are promoted. (Hord, 1997; Stoll, Bolam, McMahon, Wallace, & Thomas, 2006).

The positive impact of collaborative learning methods is convincingly present in research literature. The meta analysis by Pai, Sears and Maeda (2015) showed that compared to individualistic learning methods, learning in small groups ( 2-5 participants) promotes students’ acquisition of knowledge and has also positive effects on increasing the transfer of students’ learning experiences and outcomes into practice. From the perspective of cognitive load theory, that considers a collaborative learning group as an information processing system (Janssen, Kirschner, Erkens, Kirschner, & Paas, 2010), students working in a group outperform students working individually, because a group has more processing capacity than individual learners. Sharing the cognitive load increases the cognitive capacity to understand the learning objectives at a deeper level (Kirschner, Paas, & Kirschner, 2009).

Pai, Sears and Maeda (2015) found that the positive interdependence between the group members, interpersonal skills and carefully structured interaction contributed effectively to collaborative learning achievements. There is also general agreement that the reflective dialogue plays a key role in the interaction in collaborative learning (e.g. Fielding et al., 2005; Lomos, Hofman, & Bosker, 2011) and that critical friendship, with the emphasis on ‘friendship’, in the sense of equality, trust, openness and vulnerability (Schuck, Aubusson, & Buchanan, 2008) is a prerequisite for collaborative learning. Personal commitment, as in the sense of learner engagement (see for example vignette 5), is indicated as another precondition to resolve complex practice-based problems and find acceptable solutions. (Bolhuis et al., 2012; Fielding et al., 2005)

In their exploration of the relation between teacher learning and collaboration in innovative teams, Meirink, Imants, Meijer and Verloop (2010) found that collaboration in teams that focused on both “sharing of ideas and experiences” and “sharing identifying and solving problems” contributed to a higher level of interdependence. Collegial interaction that can be typified as ‘joint work’ is indicated as interaction with the highest level of interdependence. This is in line with other findings from research into factors that influence the transfer of good practice (e.g. Fielding et al., 2005). In this study, the transfer of good practise is seen as ‘joint practice development’ which depends on relationships, institutional and teacher identity, having time, and most important learner engagement. The importance of “the quality of relationships between those involved in the process” (p. 3) is highlighted because the transfer of practice is relatively intrusive and hard to achieve.

Vignette 4: Developing a shared vision


Vignette 5: Personal commitment and agency

In summary, this means that supporting practitioners’ knowledge productivity during mode-2 research requires a research design incorporates the theoretical ideas regarding collaborative workplace learning. Here, the practitioners use practice-focused as a professional learning strategy and not just as a tool to create knowledge.

Looking back on the knowledge productivity of the educators in our research design, we see strong correlations with, for example, the practitioner research self-study method (Loughran, 2007; Lunenberg, Zwart, & Korthagen, 2010). The aim of our research is very close to the central goal of the self-study methodology. This goal is to uncover deeper understandings of the relationship between teaching and learning about teaching, with the aim of improving the alignment between intentions and actions in the practitioners’ teaching practice. Like the self-study approach, our research design strongly appeals to individuals’ scholarly notions and qualities, where the systematic collation and analysis of personal data in a personal context supports a personal deeper professional understanding that can be shared with other colleagues. However, where we differ explicitly from the self-study approach is that our research design centred around ‘collective’ learning in multiple settings with the aim of creating a collective deeper understanding and generalizable scientific knowledge, and implementing this new knowledge into the practice of teacher educators. The importance of well-guided collaborative knowledge creation in small-peer groups is thereby emphasised by the expert group. The expert group highlighted the importance of flexible research guidance that is aligned with the ‘reality of the daily working context’ as a precondition to staying motivated to participate in this research project (see for example vignette 6).

Vignette 6: Flexible guidance
Vignette 6: Flexible guidance

3.3. Innovation in education

As well as professional teaching, mode-2 research also aims for innovation in the professional context. Therefore it is relevant to understand the relationship between individual and collective organisational learning (Argyris, 2002; Senge, Cambron-McCabe, Lucas, Smith, & Dutton, 2012). Innovation in education programmes is a complex, broad concept and concerns multiple relations and dimensions within multiple programme components. For a definition of what we can understand innovation in education, we use Waslander’s (2007) description in her review of scientific research on sustained innovation in secondary education. To her, an innovation is a set of activities which together comprise a concept or an idea which if implemented improves practice. An innovation is something ‘new’ that has added value for the future. Further, there is only an innovation of this ‘news’ manifests itself in people’s behaviour and is embedded in their day-to-day routine.

Innovations at the organisation level always relate to relationship between individual and collective learning and successfully triggering collective learning is a first step towards innovating. The research by Peck, Gallucci, Sloan and Lippincott (2009) into teacher education practices shows that the problems related to individual practice (raised by new policies) are often the trigger for faculty (collective) learning. Even though collective learning still delivers such well designed interventions and knowledge, it is no guarantee of successful implementation at the level of the organisation (Verdonschot, 2009). Based on her meta analysis of innovation practices, Verdonschot established that the skills and ambition of the individual implementing the intervention influence its success. In addition, the new knowledge that is to be integrated must be well-timed, relevant and appropriate (Eraut, 2004, 2007; Peck et al., 2009). If the knowledge was not acquired in a personal context, but through formal learning such as, for example, schooling, it often has to be transformed to the personal situation because the new knowledge doesn’t fit the actual situation in which it is required. To integrate the new knowledge requires practitioners’ meta cognitive skills in transforming knowledge and skills to the personal situation.

3.3.1. Supporting innovation in education

In supporting professional learning that is focused on innovating, it is essential to facilitate the generation of new reality constructions (Homan, 2005). Generating new reality constructs is central to the theory on organisational learning in the familiar work by Argyris and Schön (1978) and is aligned with the previously discussed theory on transfer of learning. Argyris (1992; 2002) differentiates between single-loop learning and double-loop learning. With single-loop learning, a lot is learned but nothing is learned about how to learn better. It is generally about solutions that are more of the same. Single-loop learning will therefore not contribute to innovations because it concerns only correcting errors without altering underlying governing values. To resolve complex problems for which new solutions are needed, double-loop learning is needed. This means calling on the ability to fundamentally think the problem through and learn from this through critical reflection. Argyris stated that to change organisational routines with success, organisational and individual double-loop learning processes should both be encouraged. In his opinion, it is impossible to change organisational routines without changing individual routines, and vice versa. Senge, Cambron-McCabe, Lucas, Smith and Dutton (2012) talk in this context about fundamental changes in mental models, systems and interactions which are a prerequisite to redesigning and changing the current situation. To support double loop-learning, Argyris calls for an increase in people’s capacity “to confront their ideas, to create a window into their minds, and to face their hidden assumptions, biases, and fears by acting in these ways toward other people” (2002, p. 217). He highlights the importance of encouraging self-reflection and advocating personal principles, values, and beliefs in a way that invites inquiry into them. This is in line with Eraut’s research (2004, 2007) in which he emphasises the critical importance of support and feedback in enhancing organisational learning, especially within a working context of good relationships and supporting managers. In addition, opportunities for working alongside others or in groups, where it is possible to learn from one another, are important.

In summary, this means that if mode-2 practice-based scientific educational research wants to help in innovating educational context, more is needed than stimulating double-loop learning by practitioners during joint design and research. Encouraging transfer between individual and collective learning and securing its implementation in the professional context requires a research design that is based on innovation theories that are leading in the monitoring of this complex form of learning.

Looking back over our research, we have experienced that the transfer of personal learning into organisational learning and innovation is highly complex and time-consuming. In our opinion, a well-designed implementation plan that is guided by principles from theories on organisational learning and innovation is needed prior to the start of the research. In our view, this plan must include management support and implementation facilities to ensure that the implementation doesn’t come to a halt when the researcher leaves.
In the study we are reflecting on, the researcher had a management position in two of the four participating educational settings and was able to influence the organisational policy concerning educating teachers and the demands the educators have to meet. In these two settings, our mode-2 research resulted in a successful transfer of scientific knowledge into our practice policy (see for example vignette 7).

Vignette 7: Transfer of scientific knowledge into organisational policy

In the other two settings, our research design was only successful from the perspectives of knowledge creation and professional development. Once the (co-) researcher had left, further implementation came to a halt. Our explanation is that having an implementation plan that is supported by the management (e.g. Eraut, 2004, 2007; Van Veen et al., 2010) is a prerequisite to implementing the innovation at the organisational level. We recommend that that if the researcher is not to execute the implementation plan personally, this should be done by an engaged practitioner who, in line with Verdonschot’s research (2009), has the courage, ambition and mandate to make the implementation a success. Looking back on our innovation we can see that, like many other innovations, it was triggered by new policy (Peck et al., 2009). This policy concerns the ambition of the Dutch Educational Council (2014) to promote the development of an inquiry-based attitude on the part of teachers.

4. Working hypothesis concerning design principles in mode-2 research

This conceptual paper is a reflection of our previous two-year mode-2 research journey (Meijer et al., in press) in which our partnership between researcher and practitioners successfully contributed to bridging the research-to practice-gap in education. That research concerned a multiple case study as part of which we worked with five experienced educators to design, test and explore a professional development programme. Our reflection shows that the partnership in our research helped to create socially robust scientific knowledge and that this collaboration contributed to the transfer of the knowledge created into the practice in which the research was conducted. The new knowledge was not just integrated into the practitioners’ actions, in two of the four settings where the research was conducted, it was also translated into internal policy documents. These policy documents are definitive in ensuring curriculum innovation and thus the required educational behaviour in the setting in which the researcher works.
Our contribution in shaping the theory regarding the design of mode-2 research comprises firstly the finding that partnership between the researcher and practitioners in creating practice-based scientific knowledge succeeds in closing the gap between theory and practice if the research design includes the objectives and a theoretically-based approach to both practitioners’ knowledge creation, practitioners’ development and the proposed organisational learning and innovation. Secondly our reflection resulted, from various theoretical perspectives of the partnership with practitioners, in concrete design principles, preconditions and recommendations for supporting and guiding practitioners during mode-2 research. We have set these out in the table below (see Table 3) and these can be seen as a working hypothesis for designing and guiding this kind of research. Allocation to the categories used is not a distinction because some of the recommendations apply within multiple categories.

Table 3: Design principles of mode-2 research
Table 3: Design principles of mode-2 research

To summarise: in this conceptual paper, we have reflected on the theoretical aspects of transfer of learning; professional development; practitioners’ knowledge creation; innovation and organisational learning on how partnership with practitioners can help in bridging the gap between theory and practice.

Our reflections have highlighted the importance of having three interwoven research designs in mode-2 research: (1) one design concerning the scientific knowledge creation process based on practitioners’ knowledge creation; (2) one design concerning the practitioners’ learning support in knowledge creation, professional learning and knowledge transfer and (3) and one design that guarantees implementation into practitioners’ practice at the organisational level. To gain a deeper scientific understanding in critical design variables in mode-2 research which at the same time help to create scientific practice-based knowledge, professionalise practitioners and ensure innovation, we recommend that mode-2 researchers write conceptual papers from the perspective of three interwoven designs to allow further meta analysis to be carried out in the future. We also advise further investigation into the qualities a mode-2 researcher must demonstrate as a facilitator of professional development and innovation. The researchers can use the design principles we have proposed as a working hypothesis for designing and guiding their own mode-2 research. Follow-up research into these design principles can support deeper understanding of how mode-2 research in education can bridge the gap between theory and practice.

Corresponding Author

Marie-Jeanne Meijer, PHD-student, Curriculum director at Windesheim University of Applied Sciences, Movement & Education, The Netherlands, mj.meijer(at)windesheim.nl


Marinka Kuijpers, PHD, Professor at Welten Institute, Open University, The Netherlands, marinka.kuijpers(at)ou.nl

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