Faculty: P.K. Yonge biology instructor recognized nationally as top ‘teacher-researcher’

April 24, 2017

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – On a recent, coolish spring morning, her shoes damp from the morning dew, P.K. Yonge high school biology instructor Mickey MacDonald surveys the raised plant beds in the K-12 developmental research school’s outdoor Biology Garden.

“This is the kind of learning that engages kids,” MacDonald tells a tag-along visitor. “Students aren’t all that interested in plants in the classroom. The outdoor garden changes everything.”

Instructional innovations such as the student-run Biology Garden help explain why on Saturday (April 29th) MacDonald will receive the American Educational Research Association’s 2017 Teacher as Researcher Award at the group’s annual meeting in San Antonio. The yearly conference is the nation’s largest gathering of scholars in the field of education research.

The AERA organization’s Teacher as Researcher Award recognizes outstanding research conducted in pre-kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade schools by teachers in their own practice.

MacDonald is working with her ninth grade biology students planting seedlings and making curricular lesson connections to the biology garden. Mickey has a special research interest in equity in teaching and learning.

“School just doesn’t work for a lot of kids,” she says, “And for those kids, 15 to 20 percent of their lives is spent doing something that doesn’t work for them. It’s just not OK. Our ultimate goal as teachers is to make school work for ALL kids.”

Inspired by her own classroom experience and a new, state-mandated biology end-of-course exam that was looming in 2012, MacDonald began experimenting with new teaching practices and class projects that she believed would provide equitable learning opportunities for all students.

As a science teacher, she applies the scientific method to her own teaching and learning. “I like to experiment,” she says, but her experimentation is not random. She chooses a focus and applies scientific methods to uncover what works and what doesn’t. For the class projects she has developed over the last several years, she set high standards for all students to aim for. And to succeed.

MacDonald says she has transformed how she teaches by testing and adopting several teaching strategies that help her students reach those raised standards: understanding differences between learners, strategic uses for technology, freeing up instructor time in order to provide critical support to learners, determining the role of assessment, and orchestrating flexible groupings of students depending on need.

Fast forward several years and this body of work has provided the foundation for MacDonald’s freshly minted Ed.D doctoral degree in Curriculum and Instruction in 2016 from the UF College of Education (which P.K. Yonge has been affiliated with since 1934).

She applies the latest instructional tactics and curricula that she has evaluated and learned over the past few years to drive her most recent work. Her primary project examined how offering a variety of ways to learn and understand scientific content can help struggling learners and challenge advanced learners all studying together in the same class of diverse biology students.

The most interesting aspect of her study findings according to MacDonald, is that grouping or labeling students based on achievement levels—such as “gifted” or “struggling”—can have negative effects on both teaching and learning. Research shows that labels such as “struggling” or “learning disabled” can cause students and educators to reduce their expectations and goals for classroom achievement.

MacDonald says students benefit most from groupings that can alter at any given time, and when labels are not ascribed to them based on a test or a seat in a particular class.

“Flexibility is the key,” she says. “Students do best when groupings can be altered and changed depending on student need as it arises.”

MacDonald shares her expertise as an area facilitator of teacher inquiry, a powerful form of professional development in which educators engage in “action research” on their own practice in the classroom or school—wrapping their professional learning around the learning of students.

She also leads her P.K. Yonge teaching colleagues through their own research or inquiry efforts. For the past 13 years, she has partnered on that effort with UF College of Education Professor Nancy Dana, an international authority on teacher inquiry.

Their joint effort combined with the work of the P.K. Yonge faculty “has resulted in significant advances in teaching and learning at P.K. Yonge,” according to MacDonald.

“Teachers have millions of questions about their practice all the time,” says MacDonald, “and teacher inquiry provides a venue for the systematic study of all those questions.”

MacDonald is P.K. Yonge’s second consecutive recipient of the AERA Teacher as Researcher Award. Middle school faculty member Ross Van Boven won the award last year.

MacDonald’s own professional self-evaluation evidently never stops. She says her teacher inquiry research question this year will help her uncover new ways to provide instructional support to students at risk of failure.

And once she answers that question?

“I have plenty more questions,” she says.

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