Creating a Culture of Teachers as Researchers
My earliest professional experiences were in public schools that had formal partnerships with universities. Academic “researchers” (i.e., my professors) regularly taught in classrooms alongside the public school teachers. They sometimes facilitated, sometimes served as members of study groups of educators actively pursuing questions of practice. I did my pre–student teaching in one of these schools and upon graduation returned there briefly as a teacher.
My questions at that time were around mathematics. I was inspired by the research and writing of Deborah Ball, and was struck by the fact that although a university professor, her “research” was tightly linked to classroom instruction, hers and that of other teachers. Deborah Ball is now Dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan, but many of us still know her for her work on mathematics instruction at the elementary level, and for her writing about Shea’s Number.
Shea was a third-grade student who developed an hypothesis that zero was both negative and positive and that some numbers could have properties of both. As a novice educator, I was struck by Ball's ongoing reflections about how to respond to Shea’s misconceptions about numeracy. She chose not to simply correct him, because she wanted to support his development and use of mathematic reasoning. She continually revisited this issue as the class collectively enagaged in ongoing conversations and investigations about numbers.
As a teacher, she didn’t have a “right” solution, but rather engaged in a systematic process of inquiry about the teaching and learning of mathematics. Ball took seriously children’s mental models and used them to plan her next day’s instructions, making her teaching responsive to the learning. Eventually Shea and the class came to disprove his hypothesis. (Deborah Ball’s work with Shea is widely available on the web. For an archived webinar, a transcript of Shea’s discussion about zero, and several of Ball's articles, visit: http://resources.curriculum.org/secretariat/november2.shtml )
My earliest training as a teacher, then, was around processes and practices of teacher inquiry. Having a question about one’s practice wasn’t seen as a problem; it was assumed. It was also expected that you had a systematic and intentional process (or set of research tools and a “method”) of researching your question. My first “research study” investigated how to engage more 2nd graders in conversations about mathematics, to get all students to hypothesize and wonder and not merely a handful. I videotaped myself teaching, asking others to observe me, and interviewed students to get at their thinking. I also read a lot of articles about elementary math education and enrolled in a graduate course on mathematics education.
My findings: I learned that the students most active and engaged in the classroom believed that they had “good ideas”; the ones least so thought adults and authority were necessary factors in meaning making in math and, as one of my 8-year olds put it, “only the teacher really knows.” I also found that certain structures made students more and less likely to engage—some students needed to spend more time with the manipulatives and doing tasks that they could see and experience; some preferred individually writing their thinking in their journal or having conversations with a partner than being part of whole-class conversations.
If you know elementary math education in the 90s you know these weren’t revolutionary findings. There was no one lining up to hear my 21-year old, first-time teacher insights. They were transformative to me, though. They empowered me—I could better understand my students. I could begin to understand their thinking and reasoning and why their behavior and sense making was . . . .well, sensible to them. I could also change my practice to better support their learning.
Research was at the heart of good teaching—not incidental reflections on my practice, but sustained attention to a specific question about student learning and my teaching that was both rigorous and systematic. It helped that, at the school I taught in, it was the norm for teachers to study their practice; it helped to have ready access to people who could direct me to the right literature; it helped that as models, I saw teachers presenting their “findings” alongside university professors and professors on their hands and knees with kids in classrooms. Mostly, though, it was about a culture of expectations—to be a professional educator meant to be in sustained conversation with myself, my students, and the broader education field about learning.
Here on the Exchange website, you find resources, tools, and cases and stories relating to teacher inquiry. In the community space, you have an opportunity to engage in discussions with other educators about problems of practice or to formalize your own group. Research is not what others do to teachers or about teachers; it isn’t a club meant to be wielded to compel particular actions. Research is at the heart of what it means to be an educator— to inquiry, to wonder, to engage, and to learn. That’s what it means to be a professional educator and that’s what how we want to support you through this site.
- Read reflections on teachers as inquirers from educator Susan Lytle in “Practitioner Inquiry and the Practice of Teaching: Some Thoughts on ‘Better.’
- Marian M. Mohr and her Northern Virginia Writing Project companions define the concept of "teacher research" in a way that clearly illustrates how this process differs from the daily process of classroom decision-making.
- This account of the professional learning of three groups of New York City educators, from both in-school and out-of-school contexts, reveals how reflective structures can support change—change in the educators' work with children, change in children’s access to literacy strategies, and change in the way the educators think of themselves professionally.
- In "Conferring with Students: Examining Our Practices," Haeny Yoon, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Lisa Monda-Amaya, director of the University of Illinois Center for Small Urban Schools, write about an inquiry group they have supported (and in which Haeny participated) in which elementary teachers systematically engaged in a study of writing instruction.
- Read the recent blog post from the Eastern Michigan Writing Project (EMWP) Teacher Researcher Group titled “Local Understandings Can Change the World.” In this post, the group discusses how teacher inquiry impacts far more than individual classrooms and school buildings. To add your comments, you'll need to first use the “Request to Follow” button found on the group’s homepage.
- This is the time of year to start thinking about creating a space for a group of teachers with whom you share questions of practice. It might be a formal inquiry group or an informal meeting with teachers in your grade around common challenges and questions. Create your own group here.