I’ve just returned from a very interesting assignment where I worked with a Ministry of Education which is promoting and supporting professional inquiry among English language teachers in primary and secondary schools. Teacher research is one form of professional inquiry that is being promoted in this context and one recurrent theme in my discussions with teachers there was the value of both process and product in teacher research.
The issue can be framed quite simply as follows: when teachers (not just in this particular context but more generally) study their own work (and communicate the inquiry to others) attention to the product of the inquiry (i.e. the results) too often overshadows that given to what teachers learn through the process (e.g. about themselves, their students, teaching, learning, collaboration and professional learning). As a result, teacher research is often seen to be successful only when it generates positive measureable results – e.g. evidence that teaching in a particular way leads to improvements in student test scores. This is a limiting way to view the purpose and value of teacher research and it is worth thinking about why teachers often bring this perspective to the study of their own work.
One powerful factor will be teachers’ existing notions of research, notions which will often be reinforced in the educational community more widely. My own research over the years has shown that teachers commonly associate research with experimental and statistical inquiry that leads to significant and generalizable results. In many contexts, as soon as teachers hear the word ‘research’, as in teacher research or action research, a whole set of prior understandings are activated which immediately dispose teachers to adopt a product-oriented approach to studying their own work and to downplay the value of what is learned through the process.
Institutional expectations can also play a role here. School leaders may communicate to teachers the expectation that teacher research will generate results which can be applied more widely in the school to enhance the effectiveness of teaching and learning. Professional inquiry can contribute to institutional growth, but the expectation that the outcomes of a (short) classroom study will provide the definitive evidence that shapes school policy is unrealistic and places undue pressure on teachers who feel they have to come up with some ‘significant’ results.
A further factor that may frustrate our efforts to get teachers to reflect more openly and deeply on the process of professional inquiry is a drive to showcase success rather than to consider in broader terms what might be learned from teacher research (even when interventions do not have the hoped-for results). In such contexts, the process of teacher research will be valued less than the results it generates (and the results themselves will only be valued if they provide evidence of ‘success’). Yet teacher research can support professional learning in ways that extend way beyond specific research findings.
I am in no way suggesting that results do not matter in teacher research. What I am arguing against is an exclusive, often premature and unwarranted focus on results and greater recognition for the fact that the learning that teacher research produces goes beyond the actual ‘findings’ of a study. In practical terms, then, in promoting attention to process in teacher research it helps if:
- expectations (teachers’ and schools’) are managed throughout the process regarding the nature and implications of any results that will be obtained
- technical concerns (e.g. to do with research design) are not allowed to obscure attention to the teacher learning processes that teacher research stimulates (teacher research does need to be rigorous though)
- the criteria against which the quality of teacher research is to be viewed (e.g. by teachers and their schools) are made explicit and include prominent reference to processes (e.g. the quality of learning teachers experience) not just results.
- teachers’ prior understandings and experiences of research are made explicit and discussed early on to establish a platform for teacher research that is not exclusively experimental and quantitative
- reasonable time is allowed for teacher research so that pressure to achieve results through short interventions bracketed by pre- and post-tests is avoided
- teachers are motivated to do teacher research and recognise its professional and pedagogical value; if teachers do teacher research reluctantly it is more likely that the product (i.e. completing the exercise) will matter to them more than the process
- teachers are introduced to alternative ways of doing teacher research rather than assuming the work must involve an intervention whose impact is studied quantitatively
- teachers are encouraged to reflect on the different kinds of learning they experience during teacher research in addition to their results and to give space to such reflections when they share their work.
Measures such as these will encourage teachers to focus not just on the product (the specific research findings) of their work but also to consider the broader kinds of learning they derive from the process of doing teacher research.