Our ‘Dual Focus PhD’ series tracks the working lives of our part-time PhD fellows. Many work at the highest of levels, both nationally and internationally, including for other parts of the UN System. They come to Maastricht for our unique PhD Dual Career Training Programme in Governance and Policy Analysis (GPAC²). This time we catch up with Fernanda Soares, who will shortly defend her thesis.
Mindel: We host the PhD defence of Fernanda Soares at 4pm on Monday, 18 November 2019, during our GPAC2 part-time PhD programme workshop. Fernanda started her PhD with us five years ago (see video below), and at the first workshop passionately convinced us of the need to study sports activities in slums in Brazil. She succeeded in persuading us – but later changed topic, moved countries (twice), became a mother, and completed her research while doing a full-time job. Now, as supervisors, Prof. Kristof De Witte and I, Dr. Mindel van de Laar, are excited to play out a mock defence with Fernanda.
Fernanda: My research study focuses on the influence of collaborative practices on student learning and teaching outcomes in West Africa. Specifically, I focus on (i) collaboration within the school between teachers on pedagogical topics; (ii) on principals’ instructional support to teachers on pedagogical matters; and (iii) teachers’ collaboration through Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), which refer to a group of teachers sharing and critically interrogating their practice in an ongoing, reflective and collaborative way. This research is especially relevant considering the current global learning crises, characterised by a larger share of students attending school but not gaining the expected competencies for their grades. My research shows that by supporting in-service teachers to improve their classroom practices through ongoing, sustainable, longer-term approaches grounded in their own realities, we can help deliver quality education and increase student learning.
Kristof: From a methodological perspective, Fernanda’s PhD thesis is exceptional because she combines excellent quantitative and qualitative research. Few people succeed in similar real mixed methods studies. Fernanda applies state-of-the-art quantitative studies like instrumental variable approaches or coarsened exact matching on a rich and innovative dataset that she collected herself. In the qualitative analyses she compares different types of learning communities by document analyses, semi-structured interviews with professional learning community experts, and expert validation sessions.
Mindel: What is also remarkable in this study is the fact that Fernanda and her team collected survey and interview data in Equatorial Guinea. Collecting data is already difficult, and generally we know that PhD students who do their own primary data collection invest an extra year of their research time in that activity. Collecting data in a developing country poses even more challenges.
Fernanda: There are many challenges that can arise when collecting data in developing countries: from heavy rain that stops your data collection for a few days, to arriving at a remote school in your sample just to find out that it is closed for the day due to some local festivities, to challenges in recruiting the right pool of capable enumerators. It is important to start with a well-developed plan for your data collection – but one that has wiggle-room or flexibility to adjust to unforeseen situations. In other words, applying creative solutions to maintain the rigour of your data collection.
Kristof: The novel data collection allows us to study new insights in the professional development of teachers. For the first time, we can dig deeper into how participation in professional learning communities is linked to constructivist and student-centred learning. Additionally, we can explore how principals’ instructional support to teachers changes student achievement. As supervisors, we were excited about this novel data as it opens the black box on professional development at schools.
Mindel: Participants in the GPAC2 PhD programme come from all over the globe. Through their jobs they see societal issues that deserve to be studied — isues that we as staff in Europe may not even think about. The programme design thus invites Maastricht academic staff to think beyond typical academic structures and base the research on practical examples. The main challenge in this programme is not to come up with an interesting topic – as our fellows bring their topics with them. The issue is more how to translate such issues into questions that can be researched.
Kristof: The GPAC2 fellows always bring innovative insights and ideas with them, as they know the local context very well. In many countries there are various important policy changes that have never been studied. Moreover, the fellows typically have good ideas on the data to be studied. Our main contribution as supervisors is to help them with selecting and applying the appropriate methodological toolbox. Each dataset and context requires a different way of analysis. During regular Skype meetings, and during the intensive meetings in the GPAC2 weeks in Maastricht, we brainstorm about the best methodology to tackle the research question, and we focus on all empirical details. As time passes, it is always nice to see how field experts also become methodological experts and, as such, experienced researchers.
Fernanda: Being part of the GPAC2 PhD programme has been a wonderful experience, as it allows you to combine your career and research objectives. It also exposes you to various fascinating topics and methods introduced by other fellows. Still, finding time to work on your research can be challenging when you are also a full-time employee and a mother! Having self-discipline and being able to combine some of the work I was doing at my regular job with my PhD research was key for me to succeed.
We invite you to join the formal public defence of the thesis “The influence of within school and across schools’ collaborative practices on student learning and teaching outcomes in West Africa” at 4pm on 18 November 2019 at the Minderbroedersberg 4-6 in Maastricht.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS (2014)
The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UNU / H.Hudson