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.

Building a school research culture

source: pixabay.com @ninocare

This year has been my first in a new role, the oddly titled ‘Dean of Research and Pedagogy’. I have a broad portfolio, including such things as pedagogy from PK-12 and overseeing the work of the Library, but two major aspects of the role are:

  • Building a professional learning culture of continual improvement, data generation and analysis. This includes overseeing the professional learning agenda and staff development, overseeing teacher action research projects, supporting our staff doing post-graduate study, leadership development, coaching teachers and leaders, and refining performance and growth processes.
  • Research innovation and support. This is about disseminating and building a body of research that promotes quality pedagogy and teacher improvement, executing evidence-based strategic initiatives, and working to develop a data analytics culture.

I sat down at the beginning of 2017 to map out how I was going to address these aspects of my role. What was the underlying strategy? What were the deliverables? Who were the key stakeholders? At the end of each year, how might I know I had been successful? What evidence of my own influence might I see if I was being successful in nudging the ever-nebulous school culture?

I wrote a two-year strategic plan (a working document that I revisit regularly) and put some measures for myself in place.

What follows is not my plan or those measures, but the kinds of things I have tried this year in my attempt at developing the research culture of the school.

  1. Harnessing internal and external expertise

As I explained in this recent blog post, staff development can include coaching, mentoring, consulting, courses, conferences and regular opportunities for goal setting and performance review. It includes collaborative learning experiences and those that occur over time. It includes harnessing both external and internal expertise.

This year a new initiative related to my role was called the Leadership Forum, a once-per-term cheese-and-wine event dreamt up and co-launched with the Director of Strategy. All of our school leaders, from Coaches and Year Co-ordinators to Heads of Faculty and the Executive, are invited each term to an early evening of cheese, wine, and connecting around leadership. This is an opportunity to connect the strategy of the school with the operational and relational work of our leaders.

The first Forum of the year was run by myself and the Director of Strategy, in which we took leaders through a process of reflecting upon research findings on effective school leadership, and then worked with them to set goals for themselves and their teams, aligned with the strategy of the organisation. For the second forum, we welcomed Professor Dylan Wiliam. For the third we ran a panel of three principals who spoke openly about their journeys of school leadership. And this final term, we welcomed Professor Pasi Sahlberg. This Forum provides one example of a way to engage teachers and leaders in current conversations around education, and with research and researchers.

Bringing experts into the school, and having them speak to our context, meant that their words and points connected more strongly with the people in the room. Also, staff enjoyed the collaborative experience of hearing them speak, together, so conversations have continued well after each presentation finished. Creating these kinds of crucibles of collaboration, and following up with books or articles that build upon the presentations, has been one way to nudge people’s thinking, especially when presenters are provocative or challenging.

  1. Research reports

I have published six of what I call the ‘Research Report’ to staff this year. The report is intended to provide all staff access to current thinking, research, and writing, around education. Across the year the report provides resources (from academic and theoretical, to popular and easily accessible) relevant to our specific school context, including to various sub-schools, faculties, and strategic priorities. The selected readings are a small selection rather than a comprehensive collection. Staff are encouraged to dip in and out according to their personal and professional interests.

I have been interested to note those people who have provided positive feedback about the report; many are non-teaching staff—from the Bursar to the administration staff—who have appreciated being able to immerse themselves in, or dip into, educational thinking, and have this shared in an accessible way. Making research accessible to all democratises the community and empowers everyone to have conversations around education. It has incited many corridor conversations, as well as more formal ones.

  1. Publishing on school platforms

Research is partly about communication and dissemination. In a school environment it is important that research can be made accessible for the community.

This year, on the school blog, I have written about things such as measuring success in education, professional conversations, and digital learning. In these posts I have referenced research in order to model how research can inform the thinking of educators and schools.

I was interviewed for the school podcast around the question, ‘What makes a great teacher?’, and I’ve written for and presented at other forums, in school and nationally.

Communicating in blogs, podcasts, and presentations, allows research to become alive and humanised.

  1. Keeping the staff professional reading library current

I am a card-carrying member of The Book Depository and have ordered plenty of resources for the professional reading library at school, in order to provide staff with the opportunity to engage with current research. At the end of each term, I promote a selection of books by emailing about them and placing them on a red trolley for the end-of-term staff morning tea in the Library.

I remind staff that professional reading can be counted as an informal professional learning activity under our Teacher Registration Board Professional Learning Activities Policy, so they can log it as part of their 20 professional learning hours per year for teacher registration.

  1. Keeping myself current

I could not do this role without keeping myself up to date with research. My adjunct position at a university helps to keep me current (as I have access to research literature behind the pay wall). It also allows me to do thorough literature reviews, such as those I have completed this year on digital learning and school libraries. I now have staff asking me to find current research literature for them to inform the work they are doing.

  1. Collaboration

It should go without saying that none of this happens without collaboration with a web of stakeholders. Relationships are key in this role. There’s no point me being in my office, reading away like the nerd I am, if no one is engaging with me or the work. Much of my day is spent in formal meetings or informal conversations.

One of the indicators of my success is when people seek me out, such as for individual coaching around career or professional development or a staff issue, to work with a team around a problem of practice, to generate data to gauge their impact, or to help with a Masters dissertation or PhD application.

One challenge to anyone in this kind of Research Lead role is the reality of the lives of teachers and school leaders. Educators are busy, pressed on from all angles, constantly rushing to their next class, to mark their next assignment, to jump through the next accountability hoop. Leisurely time and space to sit back and drink from the fire hose of current research literature is a fantasy. In addition, as this Deans for Impact blog post explains, teachers have deeply held sets of cultural and personal beliefs about learning and about how to best serve their students.

Engaging in research, and in discussions and explorations about research, can help teachers to interrogate those beliefs and bring together science, evidence, and systematic thinking with their praxis (wisdom of practice). We should value teachers’ lived experiences of lessons, relationships, students, and bringing content to life through pedagogy. We can also work to incrementally develop school cultures in which research becomes a part of ‘the way we do things around here’.