Teachers search and ReSearch: questioning educational practices.
Teachers engage in responsive teaching every day. They collect information about their students, interpret that information, and make instructional decisions (any decisions, really) based on the information collected, on their observations and other gathered information. This process emcompasses the responsive teaching cycle (adapted from Whitin, Mills, & O'Keefe, 1990). Although common, many of these searches for responsive teaching are part of a classroom's private life. The difference between teachers searching and teachers researching lies in the systemization and purpose of the process and in the reliance on data.
According to Hansen (1997), "A teacher researcher, among other things, is a questioner. Her questions propel her forward" (p. 1). Teacher researchers engage in a "deliberate, solution-oriented investigation that is group or personally owned and conducted" (Johnson, 1993, [paragraph]2). They study their own practices while seeking to address specific situations (Corey, 1953).
Amos Hatch (2006) wrote that:
Teacher research is systematic, data-based inquiry that teachers use to improve their professional practice. If it's really research, then it must be done systematically.... That means an organized plan for executing the inquiry must be laid out before the project is begun--as opposed to trying to figure out what happened after the fact. It means that a design for carefully collecting and analyzing data must be in place at the outset of their inquiry--as opposed to seeing what happens and trying to figure out what it might mean. (p. 1)
Teachers often have valuable insights, impressions, and ideas. These insights may not to be based on data, however, but on impressions and feelings. In teacher action research, the kind of information collected needs to be determined in terms of what one would like to learn. Hence, the collection of data needs to be based on the information that is likely to answer the question being asked, one that will promote transformation and better teaching practices. The focus of the research study will then determine the information to be collected and analyzed.
One of the important points of teacher research is that it must lead to improvements in teaching. As Hatch (2006) wrote, "Teacher researchers must be reflective about their professional practices to the point where they can see issues that they need to address in order to improve" (p. 2). By embracing teacher research, teachers can look for wiggle room, for spaces of possibility, as they seek to honor students' diversities, individualities, and practices, even in light of mandates and rigid curricula.
While there are many approaches to action research, first-person participatory action research connects personal experiences to political issues, offering insights that go beyond the immediate context being studied (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000). For example, how can a teacher foster critical literacy practices within the auspices of No Child Left Behind legislation or in light of scripted curriculum? This kind of inquiry process serves to transform teachers' theories and practices in the classroom, as well as theories that affect the larger community.
Teacher research has the potential to inform the field of childhood education if it is based on data and published in a way that provides windows into certain practices and/ or decisions. Teacher research helps make research "directly relevant to the lives of human beings who collectively create their realities via participation, experience, and action. Finally, action research aims to reconceptualize and transform both theory and practice in a symbiotic manner" (Souto-Manning & Hermann-Wilmarth, 2008, p. 268). While publication itself should not be the sole motivation for conducting teacher research, teacher researchers can shed light on other classrooms and offer situated representations of a phenomenon, of change (Dyson & Genishi, 2005).
According to Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1993):
Teacher research [is] systematic, intentional inquiry by teachers about their own school and classroom work.... [T]eacher research stems from or generates questions and reflects teachers' desires to make sense of their experiences--to adapt a learning stance or openness toward classroom life. According to Berthoff (1987), it is not even necessary that teacher research involve new information but rather that it interpret the information one already has--what she calls "REsearching." (pp. 23-24)
Doing Teacher Action Research
As a primary grades teacher, I engaged in teacher research from a critical perspective, including both empirical and conceptual work, seeking solutions to problems and answers to questions I never confronted in preservice or inservice trainings. As a teacher researcher, I defined my research questions (what I'd like to learn), devised and organized ways of gathering and recording information (based on methods to collect data that would allow me to answer my questions), and consistently documented experiences inside and outside of my classroom, across contexts (different classrooms, home and school, among others), by systematically writing or recording them. I intentionally engaged in research, learning deliberately.
In conducting teacher action research myself, the focus of my investigation developed as I attempted to understand why certain things were (or were not) happening in my classroom (Hubbard & Power, 1993). As I defined the focus of the teacher research study, I embodied the stance of a teacher researcher who has "an approach toward teaching in which teachers learn from and with their students" (Hansen, 1997, p. 3). I designed, conducted, and implemented research to improve teaching and learning in my own classroom community. As part of the process, I asked for permission for my students to participate.
As I planned to conduct the study, I designed it paying close attention to the four problems defined by Hubbard and Power (1993): "finding a focus or question, determining what data are relevant, collecting data, and analyzing the data" (p. 51). For example, in Negotiating Culturally Responsive Pedagogy Through Multicultural Children's Literature: Towards Critical Democratic Literacy Practices in a First Grade Classroom (Souto-Manning, 2009), I shared one study of teacher action research.
In documenting the process thoroughly, I sought to abide by the tenets of a "well done" and "well described" research study, as defined by Amos Hatch (2006, p. 2). I began by finding a focus--diversity and access in an early childhood classroom. This focus came from my students' questions on why certain children went to certain classes while others could not opt to do so. It also emerged from my belief in critical democratic education. I chose the focus based on my observations of my own classroom, and in an effort to improve the educational experiences of all children in the classroom.
According to Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1993), "Teachers' questions often emerge from discrepancies between what is intended and what occurs" (p. 14). In the case of the study exemplified above, clear discrepancies existed between the intentions and consequences of pull-out programs. While pull-out classes are designed with good intentions (to differentiate instruction), they caused sorting and segregation within school walls. I located my study within a theoretical framework as I created "an inventory of important theoretical influences that have helped to shape ... thinking and ... practice" (Hubbard & Power, 2003, p. 135).
My research questions were: How can students consider multiple perspectives without adopting an exclusionary view? In which ways can we meet the individual needs of children without excluding and/or segregating them? How can we value students' diversity of experiences and backgrounds as something we can build on, instead of something that needs to be fixed?
As I addressed my research questions as a teacher researcher, I talked about these issues with the children. I also wanted to bring into this conversation the historical influences shaping the relationship between diversity and access. In doing so, I exposed students to historical influences by drawing on multicultural children's books. Setting a focus helped me with systematic data collection and other aspects of teacher research (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993), such as ownership, lack of supportive structures, questions emanating from practice, and an interpretive framework.
The forms of documentation in this teacher research study "resemble the forms used in academic research, particularly the standard form of interpretive research" (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993, p. 17). Over the period of the teacher action research, I took extensive field notes documenting classroom interactions, kept student artifacts, interviewed students and other teachers, maintained journals, and recorded audiotapes of small- and large-group activities. As is common in teacher research, I employed multiple data sources so as to create a more complete picture. Finally, I engaged in data analysis and reached insights and (at times) contradictions.
As I analyzed the data, I organized and compared it, looking for commonalities. Hubbard and Power (2003) proposed that as you analyze your data, "You enter into a dialogue with it, questioning it further, finding newer meanings and different rhythms" (p. 88) and theorizing from practice in a cyclical and recursive process. This analysis allowed me to refine my focus. Hubbard and Power (2003) offer specific tools and methods for engaging in data reduction and analysis, such as indexing, memos, and the constant comparative method. These strategies allow a teacher researcher to initially get from a sea of information to a manageable amount of data that can be analyzed.
Some Final Thoughts on ReSearching in the Classroom
In conducting teacher research, it is important to be aware of procedures that aim to protect participants in teacher research studies (and any research including humans) when research might be publishable. Universities have structures called Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to provide safeguards to participants and to ensure ethical behavior. It is important to protect participants' identities and to seek permission to publish research (including the right to refuse participation) before embarking on the journey.
Even in an environment in which teacher research may not be considered valid or reliable, and especially in such a time, teachers must dare to search for change, to actively research for change. After all, "Teacher research should be valued not simply as a heuristic for the individual teacher" (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993, p. 25), it should be recognized for the potential to expand beyond the classroom and school walls and serve as catalysts, as inspiration for change and transformation for more humane and culturally responsive educational practices.
Note. This column will seek to feature teacher action research studies, processes, and components.
Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. (1993). Inside/Outside: Teacher research and knowledge. New York: Teachers College Press.
Corey, S. (1953). Action research to improve school practice. New York: Teachers College Press.
Denzin, N., & Lincoln, Y. (Eds.). (2000). Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Dyson, A. H., & Genishi, C. (2005). On the case: Approaches to language and literacy research. New York: Teachers College Press.
Hansen, J. (1997). Researchers in our own classrooms: What propels teacher researchers? In D. Leu, C. Kinzer, & K. Hinchman (Eds.), Literacies for the 21st century: Research and practice (pp. 1-14). Chicago: National Reading Conference.
Hatch, J. A. (2006). Teacher research: Questions for teacher educators. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children. Retrieved on April 21, 2009, from http://journal. naeyc.org/btj/vp/AmosHatchQuestions.pdf
Hubbard, R.S., & Power, B. M. (1993/2003). The art of classroom inquiry: A handbook for teacher-researchers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Hubbard, R. S., & Power, B. M. (1993). Finding and framing a research question. In L. Patterson, C. M. Santa, K. G. Short, & K. Smith (Eds.), Teachers are researchers: Reflection and action (pp. 19-25). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Johnson, B. (1993). Teacher-as-researcher. Washington, DC: United States Department of Education, Office of Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED476223).
Souto-Manning, M. (2009). Negotiating culturally responsive pedagogy through multicultural children's literature: Towards critical democratic literacy practices in a first grade classroom. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 9(1), 53-77.
Souto-Manning, M., & Hermann-Wilmarth, J. (2008). Teacher inquiries into gay and lesbian families in early childhood classrooms. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 6(3), 263-280.
Whitin, D., Mills, H., & O'Keefe, T. (1990). Living and learning mathematics: Stories and strategies for supporting mathematical literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.