Session Information

01 SES 09 C, Developing Professional Learning in STEM Education

Paper Session



Chair:Deborah Ralls


‘Across the Divide’: Developing Professional Learning Eco-Systems in STEM Education

This paper reports the findings from ‘Across the Divide’, a cross-sector research project designed to question how university-school partnerships can influence university academics’ pedagogic practice in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). This project interprets the imperative of constant change in education reform as a relational, outward looking endeavour, resisting the pressure to focus inwards on the modernisation of bureaucratic systems (OECD, 2015). Findings from ‘Across the Divide’ are offered at time when, in parallel with countries across Europe, schools and academic institutions in England are being encouraged to review and reflect on the quality of teaching and professional development, in line with the Teaching Excellence Framework consultation (2016) and the Standards for Professional Development (Department for Education, 2016). ‘Across the Divide’ seeks to advance the notion of critical reflection on the quality of STEM teaching and learning, by moving to what the OECD (2015, p.15) terms a “’meso’ networked level” of professional development in STEM education.


For decades the concept of the ‘knowledge economy‘ has informed education policy in Europe and around the world. Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) education is considered a vital component in ensuring economic prosperity (The Royal Society, 2014) and, as a result, large amounts of European funding have been allocated to the development of teaching and learning in this field.  In a knowledge economy, education, and STEM subjects in particular, are “the new currency by which nations maintain economic competitiveness and global prosperity” (Duncan, 2010). However, research conducted by the OECD (2015,) suggests that in considering how best to reform education, we need to rethink traditional, formal models of separate institutional learning environments and move instead towards’ learning eco-systems’:

interdependent combinations of different species of providers and organisations playing different roles with learners in differing relationships to them over time and in varying mixes…not a “system level” but a complex series of interlocking systems (OECD, 2015, p.17).

This paper illuminates the process of developing professional learning relationships that aim to facilitate such ‘learning eco systems’ in STEM education.



Purpose and Perspective

‘Across the Divide’ starts from the premise that the rethinking of traditional learning environments can only be successful if we first develop professional learning eco systems across different sectors in education.  Moreover, this research deliberately challenges the tendency for school-university partnerships to adopt what Greany et al (2014, p.6) term “a hierarchical approach in which the university dominates and practitioner knowledge is devalued.” Instead, in seeking alternatives to universities doing to schools, this paper draws upon the concept of a relational approach to engagement as espoused by Warren et al (2009) to inform its approach. Following Warren (2009), a relational approach in this context is defined as stakeholders getting things done collectively, starting from the point of their “shared interest” ” (Warren et al, 2009, p.2213) in advancing STEM education.

This study poses the question, how can university-school partnerships influence university academics’ pedagogic practice in STEM education?

‘Across the Divide’ aims to empower educators to reflect on and discuss practice and pedagogy in a bid to prompt and scaffold reflection-on-practice (Schon, 1983). The project’s aims were to lay the foundation stones for a professional learning eco-system by:

  • brokering learning opportunities between leading secondary and primary schools and the University of Manchester
  • engaging academics, teachers and stakeholders in opportunities for knowledge exchange and discussion about STEM practice, pedagogy and philosophy, through focus groups, study visits and film making
  • identifying the similarities and differences between university and school STEM provision, exploring the implications to student transition and academic teaching and learning.



There were three distinct data collection phases to the ‘Across the Divide’ project, with data analysis running concurrently:
Phase 1 – Pre-Project Elicitation
Phase 2 - Experiential
Phase 3 – Evaluation
The participant group consisted of five university academics from the Faculty of Science & Engineering and five school teachers (three primaries and two secondary schools.) Phase 1 used semi-structured informal interviews to unearth the perceptions of academics and teachers of teaching in their own and other’s settings. The questions asked in Phase 1 interviews required the participant to reflect on a range of issues, including: their philosophy for teaching; areas of strength in STEM teaching; areas they would wish to develop or change; aspects of practice that supported or hindered their teaching and their expectations of the project.
Phase 2 was conducted in two parts; part 1- The Study Day and Part 2 - Academic-teacher visits to each other’s settings. All participants shared in the Study Day experience, designed to give insight into two teaching settings outside the University; a University Technology College with specialism in Engineering and Business, and a primary school which has a strong curriculum focus on Science, Technology and Engineering. These visits were designed to provide a collaborative learning experience that was new to all participants, although clearly identifiable with their own workplaces and professional contexts. The day was structured to engage the participants with teachers from other settings, prompting reflection-on-‘cross-sector’ practice (adapted from Schon, 1983). A project film ( illustrates the key issues that were illuminated by participants’ engagement in a process of collaborative, cross-sector professional learning.
In Part 2, teachers and academics were partnered based on their areas of pedagogical interest. Participants planned experiences to welcome their partners for a 2-3 hour on-site visit. The planning was done by the host who aimed to illustrate to their partner the range of teaching styles, spaces and opportunities in their context. The purpose of this was to provide opportunity for a real insight into each other’s contexts and to allow reflection how they varied to the Study Day schools and each other. Each academic-teacher partnership was posed three fields of questions to structure their reflections whilst on site.
In Phase 3 the evaluation focused on how the project had prompted academics to reflect on how university-school can partnerships influence their pedagogic practice in STEM education in order to further enhance their students’ learning experiences.

Expected Outcomes

Although the project was small-scale, analysis indicate the potential value of exploring a relational approach to CPD, yielding three key areas of interest for further research:
Using a relational lens to frame the project reveals shifts in understandings of professional and relational identities. Following Warren (2009), ‘Across the Divide’ places an explicit emphasis on two key areas: relationship building among and between different stakeholder groups and efforts to bridge the gap in culture and power between university academics and school teachers. As a result, academics have started to think differently about their current pedagogical practices and to identify themselves as professional ‘learners’ in STEM education, as well as experts in their field.

Subverting the traditional power dynamics in school-university partnerships encourages the development of professional learning as a relational, outward looking endeavour. The project deliberately adopted an asset-based approach to school STEM provision, rather than using a model based on school deficits. Providing the opportunity for academics to go into schools as ‘learners’, rather than ‘experts’, generated a different type of professional knowledge exchange about teaching and learning, focusing not only on “professional learning” but also “capacity creation” (OECD, 2015, p.20) through cross-sector knowledge exchange.

Finally, relationships between university academics and school teachers were brokered and developed by the Science Engineering Education and innovation Hub (SEERIH) at The University of Manchester. Through research, SEERIH was able to act as a “change agent”, to “exercise influence on the ground and provide the expertise and drive to sustain the innovation” (OECD, 2015, p.20). SEERIH’s role was pivotal in changing professional and relational identities and in developing STEM education as a relational, outward looking endeavour. This paper thus illuminates how research can help to reposition the imperative of constant change in education reform as a relational, outward looking endeavour .


DfE, 2016. Standard for teachers’ professional development. Implementation guidance for school leaders, teachers, and organisations that offer professional development for
Teachers. DfE, London. Available at:

DfE, 2016. Teaching Excellence Framework: year two and beyond. Government technical consultation response. DfE, London. Available at:

Duncan, A. (2010), U.S. Secretary of Education, Speech to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) 4th November 2010. Common Core State Standards Initiative. Available at:

Greany, T. et al., 2014. School-University Partnerships : Fulfilling the Potential. , (October 2014), pp.1–16.

OECD, 2015. Schooling Redesigned: Towards Innovative Learning Systems, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Schon, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

The Royal Society (2014).Vision for Science and Mathematics Education. The Royal Society, London.

Author Information

Deborah Ralls (presenting)
The University of Manchester
Science and Engineering Research and Innovation Hub
Lynne Bianchi
The University of Manchester, United Kingdom