An introduction to teacher research
Every day, teachers develop lesson plans, evaluate student work, and share outcomes with students, parents, and administrators. Teacher research is simply a more intentional and systematic version of what good teachers already do. This article explains the basic process of teacher research, including formulation of a research question, data collection and analysis, and writing up your findings.
Every day, teachers engage in research. Working with students to facilitate learning, teachers develop lesson plans, evaluate student work, and share outcomes with students, parents, and administrators. Teachers then begin again with new units and lessons to clarify and review concepts as well as develop new understanding. That may not sound much like research — most of us call it teaching! But if we describe those activities in slightly different language, we’d say that on a daily basis teachers design and implement a plan of action, observe and analyze outcomes, and modify plans to better meet the needs of students. That’s research.
All that distinguishes teacher research from the everyday work of teaching is that teacher research consists of intentional and systematic inquiry in order to improve classroom practice — intentional because the teacher chooses to pursue a particular question; systematic because she follows the steps described below. In teacher research, the teacher chooses a question she wants to know more about (the research question), plans how to gather useful information (data collection), reflects on what she’s learned (data analysis), and determines how content or instruction can be modified to better serve student needs (conclusions or outcomes). Teacher research is simply good teaching that is planned and written down in a formal way.
Why teacher research?
Teacher research differs from more formal or academic research about schools and teaching in a number of meaningful ways that make it quite valuable to teachers, administrators, and academic researchers alike.
By, for, and about teachers
The most obvious difference, of course, is that teachers conduct the research — not district administrators evaluating a teacher or curriculum, and not university faculty or graduate students who may not spend enough time in the classroom to truly understand what’s happening.
In teacher research, teachers decide what to study. The research question emerges from a teacher’s nagging or curious “I wonder…” about some aspect of classroom life. As a result, teacher research addresses the challenges teachers actually face — not the challenges someone else thinks they face. In addition, teachers participate in the production of knowledge and theory about classroom life. Not only the research questions but the methods and conclusions also come directly from teachers. So much is written about teachers and for teachers, but writing by teachers can be especially valuable — and represents a great professional opportunity for the teacher writing it.
Finally, the findings of teacher research impact teacher practice directly because they stay in the classroom or are shared with the researcher’s colleagues. Research findings are not generated to appear in a scholarly publication that takes significant time to filter back to the classroom. Findings can affect practice immediately as teachers make decisions about a strategy’s effectiveness for student learning.
Building new relationships
Teacher research also gives teachers the opportunity to develop new and different relationships with both colleagues and students. While a lone teacher can pursue research on her own, the value and effectiveness of teacher research are magnified when several teachers at a school work together, forming a supportive research group to act as a sounding board, provide encouragement, and explore next steps. This opportunity for collaboration with colleagues breaks through the isolation many teachers experience. The process invites teachers to include students in decisions about curriculum in an effort to develop and incorporate best practices. After all, if you want to know how a particular strategy is affecting a child’s learning and experience in school, who better to ask than the student?
Marion MacLean and Marian Mohr are teacher educators who have collaborated on a book, Teacher-Researchers at Work, published by the National Writing Project. The text is divided in to four sections: Part I describes one model of the teacher research process, from choice of research question, through data collection and analysis, to working with research groups. Part II takes on questions teachers have posed to the authors over the years, for example: “What happens when you teach and conduct research at the same time?” and “When do you find time to do teacher research?” Part III of Teacher-Researchers at Work shares examples of teacher-researchers’ articles, and Part IV suggests resources for teacher researchers. How-to strategies in this article are indebted to Teacher-Researchers at Work for its comprehensive exploration of the processes of teacher research.
While different educators and different texts advance particular methods of teacher research, the models are generally variations on a theme: teachers choose a research question, gather data from the classroom, then analyze the data to determine how classroom practice can be modified to better meet student needs. This process is understood as cyclical, with each question-research-findings cycle presumed to lead to another in a process that focuses on understanding an issue rather that proving a particular hypothesis.
Teacher research projects vary greatly, for the goal is for individual teachers to decide the important issues for investigation. You start simply by asking questions about your teaching. Projects might focus on one student, a group of students, or the entire class; they might focus on a particular instructional strategy to understand its effectiveness or on the ideas students bring with them to class. Questions that could lead to excellent research projects include the following:
- What happens when I ask struggling writers to draw their ideas before writing?
- What is the effect of reading journals on silent reading?
- What happens when my students write about math?
- How can I help my ESL students connect math phrases with math operations?
Ready to embark on a project? There are a few things necessary for a good start: a research question, a research log, and a research group.
The research question
A research question is designed to get to the heart of what goes on in the classroom, asking “what’s going on?” in relation to behaviors or strategies. It’s worth spending significant time thinking about this central component of teacher research. MacLean and Mohr suggest using guiding questions in order to focus attention in the research process:
- What are you curious about in your classroom?
- What puzzles you in your classroom?
- What problems do you want to solve in your classroom?
- What seems most or least successful about your teaching?
It might be helpful to frame inquiry as a “What happens when…?,” “How…?,” or “What is…?” question.
- “What happens when…” allows teachers to explore the effects of a particular practice, strategy or intervention. “What happens when I implement read-alouds in my classroom?” invites teachers to observe the effects of read-aloud strategies from a cognitive or behavioral perspective, for example.
- “How…” questions lead teachers to consider the details of a practice or behavior. For example, “How do ELL students interact during recess?” invites teachers to try to understand social behaviors of particular students that might suggest ways to facilitate interaction in the classroom.
- “What is…” questions suggest thoughtful consideration of a method or strategy and its place in classroom practice. “What is the role of inquiry in my science classroom?” requires careful reflection on the role and possibilities of inquiry in the classroom, its potential for student learning, and the qualities of inquiry in the classroom.
Choosing a compelling question is critical for it guides the research process. It can be tweaked over time as teachers discover that they are really interested in thinking more broadly or narrowly about an issue, for example, but the research question needs to emerge from an area of inquiry about which teachers are passionate, for this keen interest sustains the research process.
The research log
The research log will become the keeper of thoughts, observations, and theorizing about the research question. What the log looks like (a notebook, sticky notes in a planner, even a laptop or tablet computer) isn’t nearly as important as its function and that it is used! Into the log should go observations, quotes, descriptions of what’s going on the class (including dates and times) — especially in relation to the research question. At those times during the day when fully descriptive notes are not feasible, quickly jotted notes on scraps of paper or sticky notes can be collected until there is time in the day to more fully flesh out and add detail to the observations.
MacLean and Mohr suggest the following types of research log entries:
- Descriptions of events and interactions in the classroom
- Quotations, phrases, conversations
- Surprising, confusing events or statements
- Reflections on observations, tentative theories, assumptions
- Thoughts about the research process — what’s working, what isn’t
- Ideas about teaching
Research log notes become an invaluable source of data as teachers begin to investigate the research question and will remain an important space for reflection and a source of data throughout the research process.
The research group
Research groups are a critical secret to the success of teacher researchers, for group members collaborate to support, challenge and advance peer thinking on central questions related to classroom practice. Teachers might share interest in a common question (“What is the experience of Latino students in third grade?”), or might each pursue a different question. McLean and Mohr recommend research groups of three to five members, meeting twice a month over the course of a school year. During meetings, each teacher should have time to report on the status of her research, with other members listening carefully. It is also recommended that at least one member of the group has experience doing teacher research.
Research group meetings are a time to share anecdotes and data from research logs, to discuss research questions as well as ideas about data collection and analysis, and to articulate initial findings. Group members can challenge assumptions, offer alternative interpretations, and make suggestions about next steps. Participation in a research group has the added benefit of reducing isolation as teachers share experiences and solve problems together.
Once a research group has been formed and the research log begins to fill with entries and observations, it’s time to begin collecting data to try to answer the research question. If the question is “What happens when students sketch a story before writing?,” examples of data collection might include student drawings as well as the writing that follows; interviews with students about their drawings and the process of writing; observation data about student behavior while drawing and writing; and interviews with colleagues who tried a similar strategy. All of the data collected from these strategies will become details that help answer “what happens when…?”
Classroom are rich with possibilities for data collection.
Classrooms are full of data, although what happens there is not often thought of as research. You collect data whenever you grade students’ papers or listen carefully as a student struggles to talk through a problem. You are also collecting data when you write in your research log — recording field notes, classroom observations, and reflections — and when you write and revise your research question. You will probably, in the midst of your research, recognize happily that everything is data about something. You are surrounded, immersed, inundated. (MacLean & Mohr, 1999, p. 36).
Data collection strategies
In addition to teachers’ everyday opportunities to record data, a number of other strategies can be useful for collecting data in the classroom. Interviews with students, parents and other teachers can yield valuable information.
- Collect student work such as portfolios, written work, and art work.
- Record class discussions, group work, and playground or cafeteria interactions through photographs or audio or video recordings.
- Use questionnaires, checklists, and surveys to explore students’ attitudes, opinions, preferences, behaviors.
When selecting data collection strategies, it is important to consider which strategies best answer the research question and which strategies fit as seamlessly as possible into daily classroom practice, although data collection is also simply characteristic of thoughtful teaching. Again, the distinguishing characteristic of teacher research is that this collection of data is intentional and systematic. Nevertheless, when selecting strategies, questions to keep in mind include the following:
- Can you afford the time to gather, record and reflect using this technique?
- How soon can the technique give you information?
- What are the limitations of this technique?
Data collection can quickly yield tremendous amounts of data for analysis, and initial analysis — as well as revision and refinement of the research question — is likely to begin before data collection ends. Data analysis is the process of organizing and reorganizing data in a variety of ways in an effort to understand what the data say. As a systematic form of inquiry, teacher researchers don’t rely only on reflection and intuition to understand classroom life (even though these are valuable tools), but they “get their hands dirty” through intensive analysis of the data.
McLean and Mohr offer several strategies to help teachers navigate data:
- Categorize and sort. Sorting data into categories is a way of identifying potential themes that will organize findings. Recording key quotes or observation details on index cards, for example, allows the teacher-researcher to “shuffle” data into different categories in an effort to understand “what’s going on?”
- Order. Analysis can be facilitated by ordering data in various ways: chronologically, by frequency, or by importance, for example. Chronological ordering of one student’s data, for example, might show development of a particular capacity over time; ordering data by frequency might yield insight into the time of day certain behaviors occur.
- Identify and acknowledge assumptions. Teacher research groups are an ideal setting for identifying and exploring assumptions the researcher brings to the process. Unacknowledged assumptions may leave the researcher vulnerable to seeing only what she expects to see. For example, an unacknowledged assumption that students read better in silence and isolation might leave the researcher blind to findings that suggest more interactive reading strategies are effective for some students.
- Pay attention to surprises and unexpected results. The identification of assumptions and possible biases leaves the teacher-researcher more receptive to surprises that may come from the data and involves paying attention to data that doesn’t seem to fit with other data. Surprises can lead to new areas of inquiry or deeper understanding of the area of investigation.
- Talk with students and others about what they think. Students are a tremendous yet often untapped resource for understanding what’s going on in the classroom. In addition to involving students in data collection, student insight can be valuable for data analysis as well, for they can confirm or disconfirm initial analyses, as well as provide alternative analysis. The research group should play the same function as researchers work to organize and focus data. In addition, talking with interested others about analysis of data is an opportunity to speak findings out loud and listen for moments that lack clarity.
- State theories. Data analysis should lead to the articulation of a teacher’s theory about what is going on in the classroom. Plenty of research offers theories on the way things work in schools, but analysis frequently generalizes findings across settings so that the theories that emerge are too abstract to apply to particular classrooms. The benefit of findings that emerge from teacher research is the generation and articulation of a personal theory of how things work or how they might be changed to enhance classroom practice.
Writing up findings
Summoning time and energy to write a report of research findings might seem a poor use of valuable time, but the process of organizing and writing about one’s findings is a critical step in identifying and articulating new understanding(s) about “what’s going on” in the classroom. Prompts or strategies for drafting a report of findings, suggested by McLean and Mohr, include free-writing for 15 to 20 minutes and writing up findings as if you were writing a letter or talking to someone unfamiliar with the research. The research group continues to play an important role in the writing process, reading drafts with the eyes of someone already familiar with the work.
Writing about findings is another feature that distinguishes teacher research from ordinary classroom practice, for the write-up reflects the intentional and systematic nature of teacher research, acting to improve classroom practice. Once again, the write-up does not focus on proving something through research, but rather describes new understanding that emerges from the process. As McLean and Mohr argue, the writing “helps us know what we know” (p. 68).
Writing also facilitates an exploration of the implications for classroom practice that emerge from self-study. A new practice or strategy may be embraced or rejected following the teacher research process. Writing up findings can also facilitate greater collaboration among colleagues, for a report of the research not only describes the process (the data collection and analysis, for example) but also shares insights valuable to the larger school community of educators.
The strength of teacher research is the development of a better understanding of classroom practice in ways that are specific and local. Outside researchers often work to generalize research findings to the larger educational community or lack a teacher’s insider perspective on the classroom context. In its focus on intentional and systematic inquiry, teacher research empowers teachers to thoughtfully examine and analyze classroom practices in order to improve teaching, a tremendous outcome for teachers and students.