Perspectives on Teacher Research

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:

  1. What dispositions, knowledge and skills are conductive to graduates’ subsequent engagement in teacher research once they join the teaching workforce?
  2. How can pre-service teacher education foster in graduates these dispositions, knowledge and skills?
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10 Responses to Perspectives on Teacher Research

  1. Prof. Zheng Xinmin says:

    I can’t agree with you more, Prof.Borg! Thank you for your inspiration!

  2. Ruaa Hariri says:

    Hi Prof Borg.. very interesting questions indeed. I’ve been thinking lately about important aspects in teacher education. Here are my ideas:
    1. I believe that inspiring graduates to engage in future research can be through igniting motivation (understanding motivation, and how to become motivated); installing a sense of empathy (for them to have with their future learners and work colleagues); encouraging inquiry-based research (how to spot issues in their context, identify a good research idea and which methodology to use)
    2. Fostering this knowledge, skills and dispositions can be through integrating them in teacher education curriculum. Having them practice with their peers, and monitoring them as they conduct group work. They should learn ‘how’ to become good at collaboration, and not just completing tasks. Assessment standards can include good collaboration skills, and a good understanding of self and peer-evaluation skills.

    Thank you

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thanks for these interesting comments. Yes, I agree that the issues you highlight can help pre-service programmes prepare graduate teachers who are equipped for and positively disposed towards teacher research. Much depends on the school context graduates will work in and these will vary on how conducive to teacher research schools are. It’s not something we can expect new teachers to be engaging in from the start of their careers – they will have other immediate ‘survival’ priorities. But if they have been well-prepared, once they have settled in and start thinking about professional development teacher research can be an option.

  3. Thanks Simon for the questions that you pose, and Ruaa for your suggestions, which I think overlap to some extent with what I say here

    Q1. Research knowledge and skills can surely be ‘taught’ / gained through experience.

    However, for novice teachers to be disposed to become and remain engaged in research once they are immersed in the multiple challenges of classroom teaching, don’t they need to be helped to understand that
    a) learning teaching is an ongoing process throughout teachers’ professional lives, since both teachers as people and the contexts in which they work change considerably over a professional lifetime.
    b) Classroom based TR (individually or with colleagues)can help teachers to understand their contexts better and so help make it more likely that their responses to changes that they encounter remain as beneficial for learning as possible.

    To foster such a disposition in trainee teachers the apparent assumptions underpinning the objectives of pre-service teacher education programmes need to be radically reconsidered.

    away from a (tacit?) assumption that such programmes can offer a full professional preparation by providing ( more or less) everything any trainee needs to know about education, their subject, and how to teach it in any local classroom

    towards an explicit recognition that any PRESET programme can only provide a starting point /framework to help novice teachers begin the complex process of learning teaching, and that developing their disposition to ‘research’ their own classrooms is an important means of supporting their future learning of teaching.

    Such a shift in the expressed purpose of PRESET implies a major overhaul of how the time allocated for the curriculum is spent. In many national contexts such an overhaul would be ‘political’ at many levels. Perhaps this is why there have been so few attempts worldwide to develop alternative curricula?

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thanks Martin. I totally agree. The thinking that underpins teacher research is very different to the assumptions behind much pre-service work (and the notions of professional development generally that apply in many educational contexts). Many pre-service programmes include a course on ‘action research’ or similar, but this is often problematic; it may be taught as a standard research methods course, focus on propositional knowledge and ignore dispositions, have no links to real-life classrooms, and not give student teachers any real practical experience of classroom inquiry. Such courses can actually be counter-productive – they put student teachers off research rather than promoting teacher research as a viable and practical form of professional development. So despite the positive vibes that surround much discussion of teacher research in our field, there’s still so much more to do when it comes to initial teacher preparation.

  4. Amol Padwad says:

    Dear Simon,

    Apart from the valid reasons you have given re why the research work by pre-service student-teachers can’t be considered ‘teacher research’, I think there is also a common-sensical question: unless one is a teacher how can one engage in teacher research? Pre-service trainees are not yet teachers and hence whatever research they conduct won’t qualify as teacher research.
    I was fortunate to be involved in two different ways of handling/ offering TR – one as a funded project and the other as a short formal course. I felt that both approaches were restrictive and couldn’t manage well to balance between supporting/ guiding teacher researchers and not encroaching on their voluntarism/ autonomy. It may be premature for me to say this, but I also feel that by its nature TR is something that may gain a lot from formal support but would lose its spirit if made to work in any formal framework.

    Thanks for yet another insightful piece!


    • Simon Borg says:

      Thanks Amol. In pre-service contexts, the practicum is the only really obvious place where student teachers can take on the role of teacher researchers. They may have their own classes for a number of weeks (this varies a lot across programmes) and doing a small piece of teacher research can be an assignment they complete as part of the practicum. For this to work, student teachers will need to be adequately prepared and supported, the task must be feasibly framed, and supervisors and schools must also understand and support the exercise. The balance between support and autonomy in teacher research is critical; I would add ‘quality’ to the equation too – support, autonomy and quality are linked; insufficient support may create more autonomy but can impact negatively on quality. Too much structure can reduce autonomy but increase quality (how we measure quality in teacher research is another discussion). My experience on different teacher research schemes is that teachers’ access to ongoing good quality support (guidance that respects autonomy) has been a key factor in determining whether teachers persist with their inquiries and in the overall quality of the work they do.

  5. Asif says:

    Simon! You make things look so simple!

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thanks Asif – I hope you mean that in a positive sense! At one level, the issue, though, is simple – if we want teachers to become teacher researchers the conditions (personal and contextual) to facilitate this need to exist. Pre-service training can lay the ground in terms of dispositions, knowledge and skills; schools then need to be provide the environment. In many educational context neither of these apply and teacher research consequently cannot be a feasible form of professional development without significant in-service work and some reform within schools.

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