In recent weeks I’ve run workshops on teacher research in two quite different university contexts. It was interesting to see how participants in these two contexts responded to the idea that teachers can, as a valid form of professional development, carry out systematic investigations of their own work and use these to improve teaching and learning.
In the first context several questions and comments arose about teacher research. Here are some examples, roughly paraphrased:
- ‘Research must always start with a hypothesis’.
- ‘This seems to be a form of adventurism’.
- ‘How can teachers do research that is valid and reliable?’
- ‘What about the control group?’
- ‘How is it possible for teachers to do research with small samples of students?’
- ‘How can teachers get their research published?’
- ‘Teacher research is not academically sound’
- ‘How can teachers study themselves?’
Many of these issues were addressed during the workshop, but they highlight one common obstacle to teacher research: adherence to one particular view of what research is. Concerns about hypotheses, control groups, sample sizes, academic soundness, publication and validity and reliability all stem from what might be called a conventional academic definition of research. Such issues are of course central to certain kinds of research, but productive engagement with teacher research requires a broader more inclusive view of systematic inquiry which accepts that:
- it can be reflexive (we can study our own professional practices)
- it can be practical (and feed back into practice)
- it can be small scale (and very often benefits from being so)
- it can be largely qualitative (without excluding the scope for quantitative work)
- it does not have to adopt an experimental design
- academic dissemination is not a primary goal (though sharing is certainly desirable)
- conventional notions of validity and reliability are not the only criteria for judging teacher research (see Anderson & Herr 1999 for some alternatives).
Over the years I have found that an initial step in introducing teacher research is to give teachers and teacher educators time to explore their understandings of what research is to and begin to consider, where necessary, broader perspectives that are conducive to teacher research.
The second context I visited recently has a strong culture of research-based pre-service teacher education and early on in the workshop I was reminded that ‘all our graduates have studied research methods’. This led to me think more about the relationship between research methods training on pre-service programmes and subsequent engagement by graduates in teacher research. I am not sure the connection between the two is as straightforward as may be assumed.
In this context, as in many others, all final year pre-service student teachers must complete a research project. In preparation for this they study research methods and become familiar with key concepts in the design and conduct of educational research. However, these projects cannot be called teacher research – the student teachers are not in schools and cannot study their own practices. Rather, they complete more conventional analyses of educational issues (for example, the role of music or games in learning or the features of a particular textbook). Student teachers are obliged to complete these projects and cannot graduate without doing so. Their motivations are thus likely to be primarily academic – i.e. passing the course. The results of their work have no immediate (and perhaps no subsequent either) implications for their teaching. And the work is most likely assessed according to typical university assessment criteria. While such projects introduce student teachers to educational research, they do not prepare them to see teacher research as a professional development activity they can engage in during their careers. In some ways, compulsory research projects of the academic kind (because of the demands they create) may even engender negative views of research in student teachers and make it less likely they will see teacher research as a rewarding form of professional development.
These two experiences leave me with two questions:
- What dispositions, knowledge and skills are conductive to graduates’ subsequent engagement in teacher research once they join the teaching workforce?
- How can pre-service teacher education foster in graduates these dispositions, knowledge and skills?