Learning Begins with a Good Question
The Eastern Michigan Writing Project Teacher Research Group includes teachers from across the grade levels, elementary through college, who have voluntarily come together to explore questions about their own practices of teaching and their students’ learning.
The veteran teacher of high school sophomores and Advance Placement English knew two contradictory things about his students—they were bright and inquisitive, and their reading scores were persistently low. After receiving the latest round of disappointing test data, he decided that it was time to step back and take a systematic look at what his students understood as they read. He began regularly collecting their accounts of what they understood after reading a particular passage. And then, he did something different . . . .
Rather than struggling by himself to understand what their reading responses meant for his teaching, he took his collection of student responses to his “team”—the Eastern Michigan Writing Project (EMWP) Teacher Research Group. They welcomed the chance to look through the high school students’ reading reflections and to discuss what they saw, specifically in relation to the teacher’s research question about how his students make sense out of the texts they read. As the year progressed, the veteran teacher studied the changes he made in response to what he learned from both his data collection in the classroom and the feedback he received from his peers.
The EMWP Teacher Research Group includes teachers from across the grade levels, elementary through college, who have voluntarily come together to explore questions about their own practices of teaching and their students’ learning. Cathy Fleischer, who has served as facilitator of this group for more than a decade, thinks it is no accident that a supportive group like this inspires teaching innovations. The key is giving team members a chance to pursue their own questions—questions that drive them to gather data and take a fresh look at their assumptions about teaching and learning. Cathy sees it as a real strength that her team comes from different schools and bring different backgrounds to bear—they aren’t inhibited by institutional pressures that can limit open inquiry about student learning. And they are there because they want to be there—they develop confidence in their professional judgment by regularly sharing questions and findings with highly-motivated colleagues. Listen as Cathy explains how the group supports one another through this process
As Cathy describes, the group members change their mindset about teaching by taking a systematic look at what happens in their classrooms. Their habits of inquiry become infectious—other teachers pick up on the approach, as do students who become more self-aware about how they learn. Individual group members can galvanize change at their school sites by modeling the habits of systematically studying student learning and their own professional practices.
As an example, one member of the teacher research group who teaches in a Title 1 middle school was curious about what would happen when her school adopted a packaged program to increase students' vocabulary. A strong team player, she took on the implementation with energy, but selected her inquiry question as one that focused on how effective this program would be with her students. She decided that rather than simply "implementing the program," she would try to gather evidence about what helped students progress and what didn’t. She brought other interested teachers at her school into the conversation, as well as parents. As a result, she has helped to foster a sense of agency amongst staff and parents that is often absent when schools buy into a scripted program or curriculum.
Ultimately the success of the Eastern Michigan Writing Project Teacher Research Group depends on the high level of intrinsic motivation its members maintain. Many of the supports NCLE promotes as being important for systems change are absent—time is not provided within the school week for planning or reflecting on this research, most administrators are not directly involved, and there are no school-wide agreements on goals or processes. But the sense of professionalism that is fostered by sharing findings with supportive peers, by having the freedom to choose a question that matters to you, and by socializing with people you respect—is unparalleled. For groups like this one, the right questions really are as powerful as the right answers in making positive changes take root.