By Lucy Rycroft-Smith & Darren Macey, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
One might argue that many of the world’s current political issues stem from a pointedly competitive worldview – a sense of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ that assumes limited resources and thus the need to protect or reserve said resources according to a hierarchy. In the last two years, we have been playing to a different professional tune.
Besides studying at the Faculty of Education, we both work full-time. Our work at Cambridge Mathematics, an organisation creating a digital, flexible map of maths education for curriculum design, is highly and unusually collaborative. In our team of ten people, we all work on each other’s products and processes. Almost nothing leaves the team without the benefit of the eyes and minds of other team members. Even better, we collaborate beyond the confines of the team and beyond the confines of the UK, working closely with experts at Cambridge Assessment, Cambridge University Press and both the Faculty of Mathematics and Faculty of Education – but also other world-leading experts in mathematics education and design research. No, this is not an advertisement – and no, we are not selling anything. Our current and final ‘products’ will be almost all free, which is one of the reasons we are able to work with such expertise so freely.
The habits of collaboration are deep and rich. We have incredible, conceptual discussions; we consult one another on all kinds of weird and wonderful ontological questions; we have coffee-time chats about what algebra is or might be. Having both been maths teachers in past lives, this is a privilege we have come to enjoy only fairly recently, and would very much miss if we lost access to it. So, serendipity having blessed us with the desire and resources to start a Master’s degree in Mathematics Education at the same time, we were mutually delighted. What better than to have a ready-made and trusted study buddy for the next two years?
However, how much collaboration is appropriate and desirable when studying for a research degree?
Does this situation tip over into a ‘limited resources’ scenario, and thus should we be competitive with one another? Should we continue to read, edit and rewrite one another’s work freely, or is this against the principles of taught research study?
How protective should we be over our own ideas and theories, given that they largely arise out of our collaborative day jobs together?
What is an idea and who owns it?
One standout advantage of our working relationship is the unspoken mutual support. There are lots of moving parts to beginning a Master’s at Cambridge, from mundane organisational issues of funding processes and paperwork, University IT access and navigating Moodle, to the more esoteric intricacies of absorbing Cambridge college culture… which gown do we need exactly? Alongside this are the day-to-day realities of reading lists, session prep and supervision planning that are all made simpler when we can each spot for each other, making sure neither one of has missed a trick and discussing anything about which we are unsure.
Far from limiting our resources, backing each other up like this frees us up to focus on the important things, absorbing our pre-reading and allowing opportunities to discuss our thoughts in the safest of safe spaces before exposing our intellectual efforts in public. Of course, this only works if there is trust between us and neither one of us takes advantage of that trust as the demands of graduate study increase. It is essential that this trust extends to our ideas too, but fortunately both of us are happy to share credit (or even reject credit if we don’t deserve it) and so the siren call of professional jealousy remains unheeded.
So the question might well be ‘are we getting an unfair advantage?’ Realistically, this can only be the case if success within our cohort is a zero sum game, the achievement of one balanced by the failure of another, but certainly this would be counter to the principles of Master’s study. It is however incumbent on us to adopt different working practices between our assessed work and our professional roles. In the latter, we may substantially rewrite material on each other’s behalf, but in the former, we must be careful to limit ourselves to critique and comment rather than direct editing. More importantly, we must guard carefully against accidental leakage of each other’s ideas into our own work leading to unintended homogeneity.
This is interesting, because a career in research as we know it isn’t generally about working or writing alone, and important contributions are often collaborative ones. Is this just about ease of assessment, or are we working within the confines of a system that doesn’t yet properly recognise or consider collaborative working practices? In the environment of lectures and seminars we would expect discussion, critique and advancement of one another’s ideas to be the cornerstone of what we do; in assessment, we are largely doing the same but with absent researchers we will rarely, if ever, meet or speak to in person. What if we had access to them and could interview them? Would this be acceptably within the confines of preparation for an assessed essay? Is this different to the serendipitous chats we might have with trusted colleagues, experts, or supervisors?
Where these boundaries lie and how collaborative a research degree is or could be is something we continue to consider (Mostly together, of course). Part of our work on assessment has considered innovations beyond the traditional written individual exam model – for example, the idea of collaborative assessment. Could you imagine a place for such methods in university educational research programmes of the future?
Lucy Rycroft-Smith has worked in mathematics education for over 10 years across primary, secondary and the Further Education sector. She worked as a Head of Mathematics at a large comprehensive school in the UK, consulted in primary schools on mathematics, and worked for the Open University as an Associate Lecturer in Mathematics. She has also worked for several years as a freelance writer, writing on education for the Guardian and the TES, and is the co-editor of Flip the System UK : A Teachers’ Manifesto(Routledge, 2017). She works in Communications and Research at Cambridge Mathematics (see www.cambridgemaths.org), managing the blog Mathematical Salad and writing Espressos for maths teachers.
Darren Macey spent nearly 10 years teaching secondary maths, before joining OCR in 2014 as a subject specialist working on the redevelopment of A Level Mathematics. He currently works full-time for Cambridge Mathematics, exploring statistics education research as part of the Cambridge Mathematics Framework writing team. He writes about maths teaching and assessment and co-authored the pedagogy book for teachers Teaching Statistics (Cambridge University Press, 2018). He is an Ambassador for the Royal Statistical Society and a member of BERA.