Doing Research – what does it mean for teachers?

Traditionally educational research has placed university researchers as the knowers and teachers as the doers, with the knowers studying the doers. Lay users, teachers and policy makers, can then take the products of research as findings and recommendations, to improve schools and schooling. Research conferences, research journals and libraries are filled with educational research studies of this type but it seems that few practitioners read them and apply them in their work.

As an alternative approach the Centre for Applied Research in Education (CARE) was established at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the mid-20th century, repositioning teachers as researchers. Lawrence Stenhouse, a teacher educator who was a main driving force behind the setting up of CARE, argued that teachers were highly competent professionals who should be in charge of their own practice. A team member John Elliott called CARE’s perspective a radical departure from the traditional view of educational research as a specialist activity, the results of which teachers apply rather than create. Elliott soon became heavily involved in the development of action research at CARE with the large scale Ford project.

In parallel in the USA Donald Schon (1983), a professor of urban studies and education at MIT, was asking questions about the kind of knowledge production and use that competent practitioners engage in and how professional knowing differs from the kinds of knowledge presented in academic textbooks, scientific papers, and research journals. Schon pointed out that for teachers real-world problems do not arise as well-formed structures but as messy and indeterminate situations encouraging reflective practice, improvisation, invention and the testing of strategies in the actual context in which they arise, in a form of teacher research. He was making a distinction between the relatively fixed and easily communicable know-what form and the uncertain, transitory and context-dependent know-how form that is produced in the act of performance of expert work.

Action research and teacher research

The terms action research, teacher research, and practitioner inquiry (or practitioner research) are often used interchangeably.

Action research in its strict sense refers to research activities that use a cyclical, action/reflection model to investigate and attempt to make changes in an organization, for example, a whole school and usually carried out by a team of researchers. Action research emerged in the 1940s from the work of anthropologist John Collier and social psychologist Kurt Lewin. The spiral process of successive cycles of planning, inquiry, action, and fact finding about the result of the action is a defining element of action research.

The term participatory action research emphasises the involvement of those who might be termed research subjects, but are repositioned as co-researchers who take part in conceptualisation, implementation, and interpretation of the research project.

Teacher research is intentional, systematic, public, voluntary, ethical, and contextual inquiry in a school/classroom conducted by practitioners. It deploys methodologies which have been developed to investigate the messy and indeterminate situations that Schon mentioned.

Teacher research differs from action research in that:

  1. It is not necessarily cyclic.
  2. It does not necessarily require a team element — a teacher can conduct practitioner inquiry in their own classroom, for their own benefit.
  3. It does not necessarily require a specific action or improvement as an outcome. It may produce a change in a teacher’s perceptions, attitudes, or thinking that will eventually result in particular changes, but the immediate result of a practitioner inquiry project need not be a set of specific action. It is this knowledge dimension that teacher researchers often cite as its most powerful, transformative benefit and broadens the meaning of research by including description and story-telling, a narrative process, in addition to the more usual products of research, conclusions, findings and recommendations. I will expand this idea in my next blog.

All action research carried out by practitioners can be called teacher research, but not all teacher research can properly be labelled action research.

A strength of teacher research is that it can help to address some of the weaknesses inherent in traditional educational research. It is designed to change the conceptualisation and activity of practice by working from within that context outwards, helping to close the theory/practice divide.

A limitation is that reporting of results is usually confined to the local community, restricting their potential usefulness. This communication aspect is something we can take on as the teacher research community by the many means now available to us, face to face and online.

Next blog: What counts as research?


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