I had the pleasure recently of chairing a forum on Education-Focused (EF) academic roles at the Australian Conference of Science and Maths Education (ASCME) at the ANU in Canberra. I currently hold one of these roles myself - “Lecturer (Education-Focused)” - but across the country these are known by many other titles (Teaching-Focused/Teaching-Professionals/Teaching-Only).
Approximately 70 people attended the EF forum at ASCME (including EF and T&R staff as well as several Associate Deans) which in itself was telling about how much interest surrounds these positions. And put simply, this room probably contained the highest concentration of passion towards science and maths education that I have seen in a single location simultaneously. I’ve been in fuller rooms, but these guys were the die-hards and once we got rolling, people were wearing their heart on their sleeve!
In the Monash Faculty of Science we currently have ~5 EF academics, from Level B Lecturers to Level D Associate Professor (and hopefully soon a Level E). Some were once T&R staff, others are direct EF appointments, and there have already (since 2011) been several EF promotions, including up to Level D!
Are EF staff still ‘Researchers’?
You bet. The burgeoning volume of education research being done in Australia by both EF and T&R academics is impressive and routinely published in internationally peer-reviewed education journals. Amongst scientists, education research often gets a bad rap for not being particularly rigorous, evidence-based, or relevant for real teaching at the coal-face. (If you’re not sure what I mean, try using the word ‘pedagogy’ in a room of scientists and watch the response!).
Yet what I have seen in two short days at the ACSME conference has been quite the opposite. Most projects are thoughtful, longitudinal, and comprehensively evaluated studies of innovative teaching – all based on the experiences of real students. What’s more, many papers in this area are based on many years of data and analysis, and often take over 12 months before being accepted/rejected for publication.
A strong history of science education research exists of course, most produced by normal T&R academics. But this field is increasingly occupied by EF staff, who have both the passion, but also have academic probation and promotion criteria driving them to excel in this field.
Exciting, Innovative Teaching
As with research, normal T&R staff make fantastic contributions to great teaching. Yet the pressures of research output, and the emphasis on pursuing high-impact papers and research grants mean many academics simply don’t have the time to dedicate to their teaching.
In contrast, EF staff have been given the explicit responsibility of reforming our classrooms and our curricula. Now that these roles are officially recognised in many institutions, true reward and recognition exists for those whose ‘laboratory’ is the classroom itself.
These academics now have the capacity to develop, nurture, implement and evaluate big picture ideas, and publish in quality education journals. Take for example the “IDEA Experiments” which have been introduced across three schools in our Faculty of Science, now described in one paper (Rayner, Charlton-Robb, Thompson & Hughes, IJISME, 21(5), 1-11, 2013) two Good Practice Guides, and likely to be subject of at least two further publications.
Frustration & Uncertainty
At the ACSME EF Forum, the general feeling in the room was positive, but at the same time there is a mountain of anxiety amongst this group. In fact it seems perhaps that Monash has one of the better frameworks, with many delegates from other institutions describing the frustration and uncertainty of short-term contracts, enormous workloads, and little recognition. Each university, and the sector as a whole, seem to be feeling their way through this period with varying levels of commitment to EF roles, despite the clear and ubiquitous need for dedicated teaching and learning experts.
In case there is any confusion, let me put one thing straight - EF folk work hard! Good learning outcomes are hard. Running inquiry-oriented, problem-solving classes are difficult. Keeping up with changes in eLearning is exhausting. Our one-hour, open Forum heard that loud and clear from probably 40 different voices. Yet this cohort remain completely dedicated to this challenge.

Leadership & the Future
In the past, ‘teaching-only’ staff may have lacked recognition in many Schools, but EF-status is now yielding the next leaders in science education. In my personal case, many of my T&R colleagues now turn to me for ideas and inspiration. At ACSME, our keynote Nobel Prize speaker Prof. Brian Schmidt spoke of being mentored by his EF colleague in Physics at ANU to improve his teaching! I predict in our own Faculty we might see our next Associate Dean of Education come from the ranks of EF staff – beyond which, who knows?