Teacher research

Set up for today’s presentation via Zoom

Today I had the pleasure of being the opening speaker, via Zoom from Perth, at the King’s Institute Research Symposium at The King’s School in Parramatta. In this blog I outline some of the thoughts I shared.

The pracademic

Those working in schools doing post-graduate study or action research, might be considered a pracademics. The word ‘pracademic’ is used to describe those in their field who simultaneously straddle the dual worlds of practice and scholarship, industry work and research. In education, these are the boundary-spanners who operate as the bridge between the worlds of education research and that of classroom and school. We bring a research lens to our work in schools, and we bring lived experience to our writing and research.

Pracademics have a crucial role to play in connecting the dots between scholarly and practical domains in ways that empower those working in schools to meaningfully engage with research and to contribute outwards to narratives about education. This is about speaking out as well as bringing in.

As I reflect on my own pracademia, I realise that since completing my PhD in 2016, while continuing to work full time in a school, I have produced:

  • 8 peer-reviewed papers in academic journals;
  • 6 academic book chapters;
  • 1 co-edited book – Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education;
  • 1 monograph – Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools; and
  • blog posts and opinion pieces.

I have spoken regularly at conferences in Australia and overseas, on podcasts and in radio interviews. I also peer review papers for academic journals and write academic book reviews.

As someone who is employed in a school, this is a kind of moonlighting that occurs in volunteered time. These certainly aren’t things I would encourage all teachers to do, but engaging in or with research does meaningfully inform my practice in my school. My overlapping double roles inform one another. The hybridity of the pracademic provides credibility within the school environment, a  perspective that understands the realities of schools. Those of us engaging in research in our schools bring important contextual, relational and practical knowledge to research.

Teacher research is important

We are operating in an education world in which evidence-based practice is promoted and sometimes expected, and in which the field of medicine is seen as a benchmark against which education should measure itself. Schools, school leaders, and teachers are increasingly expected to be research literate, to be informed by research and evidence in our decisions and practices.

We are often presented with arguments that begin with sweeping and unsubstantiated statements like ‘the research says’. ‘Evidence-informed’, ‘research-based’ and ‘data driven’ are buzzwords. They appear in education reports, blogs, media, academic papers, speeches by consultants, books, in school staff rooms and in discussions on social media.

Teacher research and involvement with research is important, especially because so often education research knowledge remains separated from teaching practitioner knowledge. Much education scholarship is written in the structure and language of the academe. Often it resides behind a paywall (at USD$40 per article) or an expensive price tag (at upwards of $200 per book), making it inaccessible for many who work in schools.  Meanwhile, consultants and corporations promote often oversimplified, diluted or misleading solutions to education problems, while claiming that their solutions are based in research. However, as those of use working in schools know, context matters a lot. And the answer to ‘what works?’ is often ‘it depends’.

Teacher research helps us to:

  • make better decisions for our own contexts;
  • include student voice in school change;
  • listen to the voice and experiences of teachers;
  • engage teacher autonomy and agency; and
  • measure the impact of any changes we are making, setting our own success criteria, rather than relying on external metrics.

Teacher research seeks to understand and improve. It does not aim to provide prescriptions, mechanistic approaches, recipes, checklists or league tables. It is about engaging thoughtfully, critically and systematically with evidence, research, our own contexts and our own professional judgement.

Teachers engaging in research and research methodologies means we are applying these to our own contexts, and are also better placed to assess the relevance of other research and evidence we come across. We can make more meaningful sense of the research upon which advice and claims are based. It helps us to be careful of accepting simplified answers at face value. It gives us confidence in our own professional judgement and strengthens our willingness to interrogate claims of ‘the research says’.

Teacher research leads to better outcomes for students

Research cannot and should not tell teachers what to do, but research and other evidence has value in schools and can point us in directions worth pursuing. We improve our schools and our teaching when we integrate professional expertise with evidence and research. It is through practitioner research that we can marry the complex, human work of teaching with a critical, scientific mindset.

Teacher research can help those of us working in schools to make the best decisions for those in our classrooms and communities. It can help teachers and schools decide what is likely to be the best way to invest time and resources.

Practitioner research is an iterative, active, ongoing process that can hone our professional judgments and help to put us in a better position to bring about improved student learning and achievement, as well as other positive school-based results. It requires an ongoing, collaborative commitment to learning, understanding, critically examining what we think we know about what might work in schools to bring about the best outcomes for our students. That is ultimately what we are all here for.

Can and should teachers be (viewed as) researchers?

Sarajevo bullets, by @debsnetWhen we respect teaching as an intellectual activity and give teachers the opportunities to raise serious questions about what they teach, how they teach and the larger goals for which they are striving, they can play a dramatic role in transforming their institutions. ~ Peter Senge, Schools that Learn: A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone who Cares about Education

This month – April 2015 – is the month in which Dylan Wiliam argued in the TES magazine that teaching cannot and will not be a research-led profession, in which Tom Bennett responded that evidence-based education is dead (but that evidence-informed education lives), and in which John Hattie was quoted in a TES article as saying that teachers should not try to be researchers and that ‘I don’t have any time for making teachers researchers.’ In response to his own question, ‘Asking teachers to be researchers?’ he replies, ‘They are not.’

In this article Hattie is also quoted as saying that teachers should use the “literacy and sensibility of research to inform their practice” and that the worlds of research (by academics, not teachers) and teaching should “orbit together”. This resonates with Tom Bennett’s assertion that teaching be evidence-informed (but not evidence-based) and with the mandate of researchED which is to raise research literacy in the teaching profession and promote conversations between teaching and academic communities (my post about researchED Sydney 2014 is here).

As someone whose identity straddles ‘teacher’ and novice ‘researcher’ (as a PhD candidate coming towards the end of my PhD journey) I agree that research should inform teaching, leading and educational practice, and that worlds of education and the academy should work in collaboration. I am not sure, however, that we should draw a divisive line with ‘teacher’ on one side and ‘researcher’ on the other.

When I read the TES article which presented quotes from Hattie, a number of questions arose for me. What does Hattie mean when he says that teachers are not (and perhaps cannot be) researchers? What is his definition of ‘researcher’?

Is he discouraging teachers from reading academic literature and collecting data to inform their practice? Is he telling teachers they cannot be (taught to be) systematic thinkers who investigate, trial, collaborate, communicate and utilise scholarly literature and evidence to inform their practice?

Many teachers have been involved in action research projects, or Masters or PhD dissertations. Are these teachers, too, incapable of conducting and applying research thinking and methods? For me this is an issue of identity, of sense of self. Am I a teacher who researches? A researcher who teaches? A teacher and a researcher? Is Hattie suggesting that these identities are unavailable to me?

Is research in a real educational context by a real educator less valid than that of an academic from a university?

Many have responded to this conversation. Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, warns against encouraging teachers not to pursue evidence, as he articulates in this TES article.

Teacher Chris Parsons explores how the teaching profession might strategically develop its use of evidence to inform practice.

PhD candidate Charlotte Pezaro, writing for the Australian Association of Educational Research, explores ways in which academics and teachers might interact.

Policy analyst Patrick Watson in this post argues that we need to identify research which is worthwhile for informing practice, build the research-literacy of teachers and encourage action research to facilitate reflection and deeper understanding.

The 2012 Grattan Institute report ‘Catching Up: Learning from the best school systems in East Asia’ asserts that high-performing school systems view teachers as researchers, continually developing their knowledge base through practices such as professional reading and action research. My PhD cites examples of literatures which promotes participatory action research as transformative for individual practice and collaborative cultures. All research and all researchers have limitations. I wonder what the impact is of viewing teachers as researchers and of encouraging teachers to think of themselves as researchers. How does it shape teachers’ identities, self-perceptions and practices if they are encouraged to be consumers, curators, engagers and creators of research? Perhaps it is partly a question (to reflect Dweck’s work) of developing a research mindset.

One of Wiliam’s points is that research cannot tell us what could be only what we already know. If we are always basing our practice on what has been done, we aren’t innovating or trialling new possibilities. Teaching and schools should be about more than doing what has been done and what is known; it should be about moving forward and even about innovation and creativity.

Perhaps teachers who see themselves as researchers could call themselves ‘teachers as innovative, research-literate, reflective, evidence-informed, systematically-thinking, data-using-and-interrogating practitioners who drive their own learning and improvement in regards to what benefits their students.’ Or maybe that’s a bit long.

While I understand that the issue of whether teachers can or should be researchers is nuanced, complex and riddled with semantic argument, I (as someone who identifies as teacher and researcher) would like to think we can view teachers as researchers, by my definition, if not by Hattie’s.