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. ~ Sergiovanni, 2005

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.