TeachersTopic is a periodical feature about a subject of interest to the teaching community written by a prominent expert in the field. This month, Dr. Gail Ritchie answers questions about teacher research.
Q: What is teacher research? Is it another name for action research? Why should teachers conduct research?
A: Teacher research is a process by which classroom teachers investigate problems of practice, delve into questions about curriculum, and/or “test out” new instructional practices. The process consists of articulating a question, collecting data to answer the question, analyzing the data, reflecting upon and interpreting what the data say, drawing conclusions from that analysis, and then taking action based on those findings. Because it is action-oriented, teacher research is considered a type of action research. Teacher research is conducted by teachers, whereas action research can be conducted by any practitioner with questions about his/her practice (e.g., administrators, counselors, social scientists).
Teachers who conduct research are engaging in ongoing, job-embedded professional learning. Investigating their own questions, rather than waiting for someone to tell them what to do, empowers teachers to generate their own knowledge about “what works” in teaching and learning. It encourages them to be reflective and adopt a questioning stance toward teaching and learning—what Bob Fecho calls “critical inquiry pedagogy” (2004). Teacher researchers often work as part of a team or within a group of other researchers, so they have the benefit of collaboration and multiple perspectives as they seek to analyze and interpret their data.
Q: Teachers are very busy. How will they find time to add teacher research to their already busy teaching lives?
A: As surprising as this may seem, teacher research may actually save teachers time in the long run. That’s because the systematic collection (and subsequent analysis) of data by a teacher researcher is much more efficient and effective than a random, hit-or-miss, shot-in-the-dark approach to addressing classroom issues and concerns. Some school districts, such as the one where I work, value collaborative teacher research to such an extent that they provide funding to pay for substitute teachers. This allows the teacher researcher groups to meet six times per year, during the school day, and support one another’s inquiries.
Many new teacher researchers are amazed to discover that they were already engaged in actions similar to the teacher research process as a natural part of their classroom instruction/assessment cycle. Once they join a teacher research group, they become much more systematic and focused as they experience the energy derived from evidence-based inquiry and practice. They realize the interconnectedness between teaching and research, as their research informs their practice, and the realities of the classroom inform their understanding of educational theory. This promotes professionalism (in the form of reflective, inquiry-based practice and collaboration), and provides evidence (in the form of the data collected during the inquiries) to support innovative instructional practices.
Q: How does teacher research affect student achievement?
A: Like most education research, it is difficult to “prove” that teacher research has a direct, positive impact on student achievement. However, there is definitely a correlation between teachers who are reflective, who investigate curriculum and instructional practices, and student achievement. Teachers who improve classroom teaching/learning through their inquiries become more accomplished practitioners. And, accomplished practitioners have a positive impact on student learning. In addition, the knowledge generated from classroom-based research can inform local policy decisions, by providing the evidence to back up teachers’ claims about best practices.
Q: How do teachers get involved in teacher research? Are there incentives or supports in place for teacher researchers? How can I connect with other teachers interested in researching in their own classrooms?
A: Teachers sometimes become involved in teacher research through coursework that emphasizes the natural connection between inquiry and practice. But, in my dissertation study, I found that the main way teachers become involved in teacher research is through a personal invitation from someone they respect. Teachers who are already conducting research invite other teachers to benefit from collaborative reflection and inquiry. When those initial inquiries are supported effectively, teachers tend to stick with teacher research until, over time, it becomes a part of who they are as teachers, or what Marian Mohr called, “a way of being” a teacher.
Many teacher researchers are part of networks of other teacher researchers. These networks are often supported by websites or electronic learning platforms such as Blackboard. An example of such a network is the Collaborative Action Research Network (CARN). Another such organization is the League of Teacher Researchers. Several electronic journals now publish the work of teacher researchers online; one fine example is ARExpeditions. For more information about what teacher research is, and to read studies written by teacher researchers, click here. For more information about the Fairfax County Public Schools Teacher Researcher Network, click here.
About Dr. Gail Ritchie:
Teacher Leader Network member Gail Ritchie is the National Board Program Manager for Fairfax CountyVirginia) Public Schools. A National Board Certified Early Childhood Generalist, she taught kindergarten, K-1, and first grade for fifteen years before assuming her current position. She is also the co-leader of Fairfax County’s Teacher Researcher Network. Gail completed her doctorate at George Mason University with a dissertation study entitled, “Teacher Research as A Habit of Mind.” Additional research interests include early literacy, differentiated instruction, and early childhood development. Gail has two basketball-crazy sons (one played for Virginia Tech), and one very spoiled cat. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, music, and watching videos.)