Teacher research – making a start

The concept of research in education is very open with a wide spectrum of activity and an equally wide range of areas of inquiry. This openness encourages multiple perspectives and helps us to reflect on our own position. But it can and does lead to misunderstandings when it comes to the detailed work of doing research.

I think that teaching and research in are inseparable partners, because it is impossible to be doing the work and not be thinking about how to do it better, or at least how to keep going when times are tough.

But what kind of research are teachers doing, out of all the available ‘research’ options?

The purpose of research is to reduce uncertainty by constructing knowledge. But ‘knowledge’ is another open concept, carrying with it the risk of misunderstanding its meaning within the educational research and the teaching community.

Teachers develop useful knowledge of different types in the lead-up to their first day in class and they build on it as they teach.

One type of such knowledge is the stable, communicable, factual type; know-what. It is the sort of knowledge that you could write in a handbook and pass on to a temporary teacher taking over your class for a day. It includes areas such as subject and curriculum knowledge, classroom management and procedures.

Teachers also construct another type of knowledge as they integrate their know-what and their ethical, moral and professional beliefs into their performance. This is know-how, constructed in the moment of performance by the teacher, in the context of the classroom. You can see it in action in another teacher’s room but if you asked tried to write it down you would find it practically impossible, because it is only expressed in performance. The same goes for your own performance; you can show it to someone on a video but a written report would be inadequate. If you visited the other teacher’s class again, working on the same subject and the same teacher and students so you could check your findings, you would be guaranteed to see something different because know-how is always changing. There’s no possibility of replication and any conclusions you might draw are interpretative and tentative.

Thinking about what teacher research means and what gives it its own identity it might be useful to keep in mind this idea of knowledge as know-what and know-how. An external researcher can investigate and build on know-what without the teacher being directly involved. But the only person who has full access to know-how is the person who generates it – the teacher.

So while a teacher could research know-what, given the resources and methodological training, the natural work of the teacher researcher is to investigate know-how. It’s a form of research that you are doing already.

Looked at this way we can begin to see teacher research standing in its own light rather than in the shadow of its bigger and older siblings.

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