Teachers as researchers

Adapted from an article for the Secondary English Magazine

(Vol 10 No 1 Oct 2006)

Caroline Daly, Institute of Education University of London

Teachers as researchers

What should inform the decisions made by teachers about how to develop their practice? If teachers are to make informed decisions, we need to ask – informed by whom? How can teachers inform themselves and each other about good ideas for developing teaching, and reflect more critically on the skills they use everyday in their own classrooms?

Why become a teacher-researcher?

Part of the professional role of the teacher involves keeping up to date with developing ideas about learning and teaching and being critically informed about developments in practice. Being a ‘professional’ includes developing the capacity to research for increasing numbers of teachers. This means developing the skills and knowledge to be able to lead the development of their own practice through research. Becoming a teacher-researcher is not something to undertake alone however and this article sets out ways forward for teachers to get started with the support of colleagues.

The idea of doing classroom research can sound extremely daunting to first-time teacher-researchers. With so many demands made on their time, the idea of designing a research project and carrying it out can seem an unnecessary burden – especially when so many initiatives offer ready-made ‘answers’ to improving practice. The effect however of externally provided solutions can be to overload teachers with models of ‘excellence’, handed down by unknown ‘experts’. Slickly produced training packs are frequently left unused in many departments, where teachers feel no particular motivation to work with ideas they do not ‘own’. Is this kind of knowledge really valuable to teachers, coming as it does from outside their own practice and when they have not been party to developing the ideas they are supposed to implement? The problem was summed up by one teacher, on leaving an INSET session at her local Professional Development Centre: “Every course I have been on involves watching a video of an exemplary lesson given by a teacher. I leave feeling both enthused by watching this good practice and also a bit scared – how would I ever use the strategies suggested to us in my classroom?”

Teacher research aims to involve professionals in producing their own knowledge and understanding about teaching and learning by examining what happens in their classroom through careful and systematic investigation of practice. The context of the individual classroom is central to this type of research, which usually starts by focusing on the needs of the students whom the teacher knows well. Through research, teachers can become their own experts and begin to develop and share their own ‘answers’ –particularly when the process is shared with colleagues who can help to build a collaborative approach to professional development that is bottom-up.

How can you get started?

Some teachers will have the support network of a masters degree or other professional development course which includes an element of research training. Even without this, there are things you can put in place to make research a supported professional development activity. Try to get the backing of your Senior Leaders from the start. This is vital to being able to spend professional development time on classroom research.

Peer involvement is important, and your colleagues are more likely to be interested in what you’ve found and try it for themselves if they have been involved in the research along the way. Working with colleagues on a project increases the motivation of the researchers, and means that a range of experience can be pooled as the project develops.

Choosing a topic

It’s really important to choose something you care about and want to find out about. It might be to try out a new teaching approach, or to test whether something you are doing is really that effective. Remember it will be YOUR research, although department, school, Local Authority or organisational priorities will have influenced your choice of topic. There will also be your own beliefs about teaching, and your experience as a teacher which has brought an important question or issue to the surface which you want to address.

Getting started – preliminaries

  • Develop a research topic title that is very focused and stems from a real issue that matters to you in your classroom. Think about why it is important in the context of your classroom and your school. It is better to focus on one class and find out about one aspect of teaching and learning. Ask other teachers if they can tell exactly what you are trying to find out from your chosen title. If it’s not totally clear, keep working on it!
  • Try to get someone to research with you. It might be another teacher, a Learning Support Assistant or a member of your management team who would like to support your development. Have regular meetings to share your planning and get feedback on your ideas about methods. There may be another teacher in your school who has undertaken research – ask them to share their experience with you.
  • Think of any ethical issues which have to be addressed. Always seek permission to interview students, make them anonymous in your reporting and consult with your Senior Leaders on school procedures for projects like these.
  • Make a realistic time-scale for the project, including time to analyse your findings and share them with colleagues.

 

What size of project is manageable?

Keep it small-scale – really! An over-ambitious project becomes self-defeating, and it’s easy to underestimate how long it takes to analyse the data you will collect and reach conclusions you can defend. For example, try to research a new teaching method, resource or grouping arrangement which is used over just a few lessons. When you have experience of this, it may be possible to try something on a larger scale if the school has a commitment to teacher research.

Ask yourself: how many students do I need to study (the sample size)? You will find it difficult to carry out interviews for example with every member of a class. The sample should be relevant to the aims of the project. Will you choose a representative sample of students, or are there good reasons for targeting certain students because of your detailed knowledge of them – e.g. a group of reluctant readers?  On the other hand you might decide to select a sample from some broad baseline data, e.g. statistical information about achievement. You could also select a sample for in-depth research, based on the responses you get to broader initial data-collection, e.g. choose a group to focus on based on the responses you get to a class questionnaire.

Choosing your research methods

The most important thing is to choose methods which are ‘fit for purpose’ – if you want to find out how the students feel about a new strategy you have tried, then a questionnaire will give you very simplified answers, whereas an interview which is loosely structured will allow you to explore the students’ responses in more detail. It is very likely that you will want to draw on more than one approach – for example, observation of a new learning activity may be filmed, you may interview a group of students and then analyse their written outcomes. You may be doing research as a ‘participant observer’ as their teacher – this is very likely, and your own instincts and responses are important to being able to understand complicated things like a student’s attitude during a new type of teaching approach. So, practitioner research should be guided by what you know as the teacher, but is not mere anecdote or general reflection – the methods you choose need to be very clear so that you know you have collected data that are actually helpful in developing your understanding of the issue, and so that other teachers can learn from your experience and try out their own research project along similar lines if they so wish.

Try to include the students’ voices in your research methods, by interviews or focus group discussions. We only really know what it is like to learn in a particular classroom when the students tell us! A small number of brief interviews can reveal a lot.

Three key points to consider when developing your methods:

  • Keep the amount of data you produce manageable – for example, limit the number of questions in a questionnaire or the number of students you interview.
  • Pilot your methods to test out how they work with different students – so ask the respondents for their opinions on your questionnaire etc. and see how they have managed to cope with your questions. You might be able to try out a questionnaire with a colleague’s corresponding class before using it with your own.
  • Remember that any method can be adapted to best suit what you want to find out, your own students and the time you have available.

Which methods? A basic introduction

  • Questionnaires. Good for getting basic information in an easily manageable form, but not good for trying to find out anything complex like what affects student motivation and attitudes. You will need to decide what types of questions to ask – do you need to find out personal or factual information to research your topic? Is it about attitudes?  How many questions will you ask? Too many is onerous for the respondent and for you to interpret later… How will you code the responses? Will it be fairly straightforward and readily shown in a statistical chart, or will you ask open-ended questions which require you to identify what has been said under headings or categories? This will take much longer to analyse but will tell you more about complex issues.
  • Interviews. Good for allowing in-depth exploration of how students are responding to an aspect of your English teaching, especially if you prepare the questions very carefully to be open-ended and accessible. You might feel that your topic does not need this however, and so you can have a more structured interview with a set number of questions to follow. Difficulties can include the tendency for the researcher to ask leading questions, and the sheer amount of data that can emerge for transcription and analysis – limit the number of interviews and the length of time you spend. Fifteen minutes can give you a great deal of information. They need to be recorded and transcribed before being coded by headings or categories relevant to your research focus.
  • Focus group interviews. Good for getting carefully considered opinions of a number of students in a way that is economic with time. A group of 4-5 will usually allow for reflection and ideas to be developed. But beware – the group dynamic will also affect what students feel it is ‘safe’ to say in front of their peers, and it can be an eye-opener to interview the same students individually.
  • Observation. Good for when you have a research partner which allows you to be released to capture significant moments in the classroom. It is important to make an ‘observation schedule’ before hand, so that your notes can be focused under headings which you decide are relevant to the research topic. Otherwise, observation notes that are not organised like this can take a lot of re-reading to identify what is important.
  • Textual analysis. Good for examining evidence of student outcomes in written forms where appropriate, and can be used to analyse relevant policy-documents e.g. a department marking policy.
  • Film-recording. Good for capturing complex learning situations, e.g. group talk, but can be obtrusive unless students are introduced beforehand to having a camera around.
  • Statistical analyses. Baseline information about a class can be used to compare student achievement before and after an intervention, though this can be misleading and simplify what is really going on so its usefulness depends on the focus of your research. For anything complex, most real development can be subtle and may not be evident in rapidly improved scores etc. An advantage is that a lot of this type of information is readily available in schools and you may not need to collect it specially.
  • Journals. Good for collecting data as ‘field notes’, by which you keep a record of anything which happens inside and outside your classroom which is relevant to the research. This is another form of data collection which needs to be kept focused so that you can manage the data afterwards when it comes to analysis.

Telling it like it is

You will need to present your findings in an accessible form for future reference and for sharing with colleagues. It is important to have a systematic approach to analysing the research so that it is manageable and, crucially, carried out in a way that is transparent and shows the relevance of your findings to what you wanted to find out. It is NOT about finding neat answers or setting out to ‘prove’ that something works. Small-scale teacher-research is not about proving anything, but it adds to teachers’ collective knowledge about practice and helps to question ready-made solutions from ‘out there’. Teacher research tells it like it is. ANY findings are useful, including those which indicate that a recommended strategy has not worked for a particular group of pupils. The important thing is showing what you find out, and how this contributes to the developing knowledge that colleagues can glean about an area of teaching. It is particularly useful if others can learn from your work.

Write about what you have found in the first person – teacher-researchers are close to their work, and it is impossible and undesirable to assume an objective stance on what you have found out. Explain your choice of topic within the context of your classroom and why the sample and methods are appropriate to that. Choose how much of the data you need to present to help make sense of what you have found. Present your data in an accessible form – simple tables work best for statistical data, and selections of key quotes help to manage large amounts of text-based materials like interviews and observation notes. Identify your key themes or features from the data and then find appropriate examples to support what you have found. Finally, decide on any key recommendations which emerge from your project.

Dissemination

After you have worked on a project, you’ll want to share it with other teachers. Book time to do this and start networking, and then think about other opportunities. The dissemination of a research project beyond the researcher is often a bit hit-and-miss which is a great pity. Talking with colleagues brings an important perspective to research findings. It helps prevent tunnel-vision setting in about finding the ‘right’ way to do something and instead keeps up a research-informed debate about learning and teaching. It is helpful to identify questions or suggest further contexts for future action research which you or other teachers may be able to carry out to continue the work.

Select bibliography to support Action Research

Bell, J. (2010) Doing Your Research Project: A guide for first time researchers in education, health and social science. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Denscombe, M. (2010) The Good Research Guide for Small Scale Social Research Projects. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Wilson, E. (2009) School-based Research: A guide for education students  London: Sage.

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