Influencing education practice

It seems like a long time since I wrote about preparation for Nyholm tour back in August 2022. I stated then that it was my wish to create a package of sorts that chemistry departments interested in change could use to initiate and implement reform of laboratory teaching.

It is very nice to travel the country and the world sharing The Good News about what initiatives I did in my own work. A challenge – similar to the challenge of publishing work – is that while it is interesting to hear (or read) about what other people did, there are always local contexts that give different challenges and so the particular mode of implementation being advocated might not be translatable. And so what people seem to value most is the idea and rationale, rather than the specific details of implementation. Talks (or papers) that focus too much on the mechanics of implementation and not enough on the reason underpinning it are exposed to the potential retort: “that’ll never work here”.

Worse still, is that if the rationale and associated underpinnings are not clearly elaborated on, there may be a sense of “we do that already. If I espouse pre-labs and you are already doing pre-labs, you’ll probably not feel like there is not too much to engage with. If I explain my rationale and design of pre-labs, at least there is something more meaningful to check against, explore differences, what you might be doing better, what could be changed.

That’ll never work here” and “we do that already” are two of the most significant barriers to reform (along side time, of course, but I am no miracle worker), and I have pretty much come to the conclusion that even more talks and publications on why what I did that was so great is not going to have much influence. And I want laboratory education to get better!

laboratory reform is not one big red button that is pressed, but likely emerges from a thousand tiny changes

A project last year was the first step in turning the gaze away from “this is what we did, aren’t I great?” and towards “this is what you could do, and can you see why?”. To make it readable (or at least, more so) it manifested as 10 Guiding Principles. We didn’t buy in to any of the old tropes about inquiry or problem-based as they bring too much baggage. We tried to speak to all agents involved in laboratory education, in the knowledge that laboratory reform is not one big red button that is pressed, but likely emerges from a thousand tiny changes, for reasons of time, budget, and staff resource. We illustrated each example with good, solid reports from chemistry departments around the world. I don’t think this will be the silver bullet in terms of the research into practice dilemma, but hope that it is a step in the right direction. I had forgotten that I had written that original blog post as 5 points, and it is interesting to reflect that 4 of the 5 made it into the 10 Guiding Principles. The fifth – on projects – is a work in progress…!

The 10 Guiding Principles are listed below and are available to read now in an Open Access article in Chemistry Education Research and Practice. Since thanks to my Danish laboratory collaborators and the funding they secured to do this work which meant some nice trips to Copenhagen as we worked on this over the year, provided by Novo Nordirsk Foundation.10 Guiding Principles listed are: 1. Create laboratory environments that are accessible and conducive to learning. 2. Ensure coherence with intended learning goals among the professional learning community for staff involved in teaching laboratory classes. 3. Incorporate pre-laboratory activities so that students can prepare for learning in a complex environment.  4. Design scenarios to promote dialogue. 5. Include tangible opportunities for students to learn about safe and sustainable practices. 6. Model modern scientific work practices through facilitation of group and interdisciplinary work. 7. Embed opportunities for creativity and open experimentation. 8. Implement a variety of assessment types to align with intended learning goals. 9. Establish common formal and informal feedback protocols and opportunity for students to use feedback to inform future approaches. 10. Provide a mechanism by which students can document and showcase their learning.