August.10.2017

Educating teachers to be researchers: three surprising gaps in what we are doing in Australia

By Amanda McFadden and Kate Williams

Much is asked of teachers these days. Governments and school systems seem to regularly increase their expectations of how teachers, and their schools and systems, should be operating and accountable.

One development in Australia that may have missed the media spotlight, but is of considerable concern to educators, is how teachers are now expected to incorporate education research into their teaching. Additionally, and most importantly, they are also now asked to continually evaluate how effective this is on their teaching practices and the impact it has on their students.

But how do they do that? What is out there to help them?

Currently we are reviewing the literature about effective ways to improve research and evaluative skills and attitudes in pre-service and in-service teachers. We have made some surprising discoveries.

What is happening with teacher research?

Since the 1980s there has been a heightened focus on teacher research with teachers being encouraged to be active researchers within their own classrooms. The concept of the teacher as researcher is now part of the educational landscape and research units within initial teacher education preparation programs are commonplace.

The introduction of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST) includes a focus on evaluation as part of the professional practice of teachers. In Queensland, Master Teachers are required to contribute research reports to the Department of Education Evidence Hub about what works in school improvement. In initial teacher education programs, the introduction of the Teaching Performance Assessment highlights an emphasis on an evidence-based approach to evaluating teaching performance for pre-service teachers.

But how are pre-service teachers supported to develop and use research and evaluation skills as part of their professional practice? To understand this effectively, the nature of research and evaluation have to be deconstructed.

What is evaluation?

While teacher research is concerned with systematic collection of data to solve a problem or improve practice, evaluation uses the systematic collection of data to investigate the effectiveness of a program, practice or policy. Evaluation makes judgements about what works for whom and why. Evaluation uses a variety of different research methodologies to understand processes, with particular research designs required if robust evidence of effectiveness is to be claimed. The addition of evaluation into the professional standards asks graduate teachers to specifically evaluate the effectiveness of their teaching programs.

This focus raises a number of questions. How are concepts of evaluation taught in initial teacher education? Is there are a focus on capstone evaluation course design, that is, does learning about evaluation happen only late in the program, or is it integrated throughout? How are evaluation skills intentionally taught, as a process approach embedded throughout practice, or is evaluation constructed as a planned end product activity?

What we have found so far

Our literature review has so far identified 16 studies across the last 16 years about building research skills in teachers, but very few have focused specifically on evaluation. The most common documented approach to this work has been planned and enacted support of teachers undertaking small research projects. Support tended to include the formation of collaborative inquiry communities with other teachers undertaking research with supporting and mentoring by peers and university academics. The type of research carried out by teachers was exclusively action research in all except one study. Other approaches have included research courses as part of university programs.

Documented benefits to these approaches to building research skills in teachers have included:

  • benefits for teacher practice including enhanced reflective practice and increased content knowledge
  • benefits for broader aspects of the teaching profession including enhanced teacher identity, collegial networking and relationships, and informal dissemination of research findings
  • benefits for teachers’ understanding of research including increased confidence and knowledge of research processes, an enhanced evaluative stance, and increased use of research literature to inform practice

Studies also document key processes and challenges including the important role of mentoring, collaborative inquiry communities, and the need for more accessible and translatable research for use by teachers.

The 3 surprising gaps

We have noticed three gaps in the literature that raise concerns about the robustness of the evidence base upon which we design future research and evaluation training for teachers.

  1. The area of research and evaluative skills of pre- and in-service teachers is under-researched, with the rigour and quality of studies varying widely and with almost no focus on evaluative thinking or stance in teachers with the exception of one older study from 2003.
  2. The scope of studies analysed to date includes no Australian studies and limited research with pre-service teachers.
  3. There is a predominant focus on teacher-conducted action research projects with the specific aim of encouraging greater reflective practice in educators. There are two related and potentially problematic issues with this. First, the research has not focussed on building research capacity per se, but rather positions action research as a means to a different, yet important, end – increased reflective practice skills. Second, although action research might be considered one methodological choice from a suite of diverse educational research methodologies, a number of the studies appear to adopt a definition of action research that suggests that action research is the ONLY type of research conducted by teachers with the corollary that ALL research conducted by teachers is action research. For example: “the process by which practitioners study problems in a systematic manner for self-improvement and to increase their knowledge of the curriculum, teaching, and learning is called action research”

Is all teacher research action research? Do teachers not have the same wide array of methodological approaches open to them as other researchers? Is this construct of the teacher as researcher as ONLY an action researcher being proliferated in pre-service teacher education?

Leaders in the field have recently noted definitional confusion around action research and the current review thus far suggests that this definitional ambiguity might also extend to teacher research, which is being considered as synonymous with action research. This context narrows the methodological research opportunities available to teachers and by default pre-service teachers.

Teachers need to be equipped to evaluate their practice

The literature review is not yet complete. As the work continues we will critically analyse the field of research in teacher capacity building in evaluation and research. The findings will inform the development of a framework of evidence-based principles and practices to support future curriculum reform and implementation in initial teacher education and will enable the design of a future program of research aimed at addressing the current gaps in the literature.

If pre-service teachers are required by the graduate level professional standards, and by high stakes capstone assessment pieces to engage in evaluation of their teaching practice, equipping them with the skills to do this is a priority for initial teacher education.

 

Amanda McFadden is a lecturer in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education, QUT and Course Coordinator of the Bachelor of Education (Early Childhood). Amanda works closely with pre-service teachers in their capstone professional experiences. Intentionally building the evaluative capacities of pre-service teachers through effective course design in initial teacher education is an area of interest for Amanda.

 

 

Kate Williams is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education, QUT. Her research has a focus on early child development and program evaluation. Kate leads the Evaluation Strand of the Childhoods in Changing Context Research Group at QUT and teaches a research unit in the undergraduate early childhood education course at QUT. Kate is interested in building evaluative capacity in the teaching and education research professions.

 

6 thoughts on “Educating teachers to be researchers: three surprising gaps in what we are doing in Australia

  1. Great article. It has been a concern of mine about the emphasis on evidence based practice as opposed to practice based evidence as the evidence may in fact be lab based! Therefore not always undertaken in the contexts in which it is expected to be used – the classroom. Action research ie. the full research cycle, is the perfect way to have practice-based evidence! Just because something is evidence based doesn’t always mean it will work in all contexts. Determining practice based evidence through action research is useful and validates a teachers decision.

  2. Kate Williams says:

    Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment on the paper. We look forward to providing an update once the full review is complete – plenty of work to be done by everyone in this exciting space!

  3. Dr Madonna Stinson says:

    Thanks for the great article and opening up this important discussion. Hand in hand with the increasing pressure on teachers to be able to interrogate and use data is a real need for teachers to contribute to the research community. And for those contributions to be acknowledged and valued as valid. A conversation about how teachers may do this is needed. Let’s broaden the methodological discussion too.

  4. Kate Williams says:

    Thanks for your comment. Love that you picked up on the idea about broadening the methodological discussion. We look forward to lots of conversations in a range of contexts as work and thinking in this space progresses.

  5. Peter Anderson says:

    Thanks for a great article on a discussion that needs to be had. This holds particular resonance from my perspective in Indigenous Education as so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Teachers in service are often at the coal face of best practice developed by themselves yet lack the skills to communicate and correlate with other research.

  6. Kate Williams says:

    Great point Peter, a really important group of teachers to consider in all evaluative capacity building efforts. These teachers might also have unique and really valuable views on appropriate methodologies for evaluating their approaches to practice.

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