April.12.2015

Teachers as researchers: what they do, where to find them and how academic researchers can engage with them

By Charlotte Pezaro

Many teachers are making grassroots attempts to read, use, and generate research these days. Educational researchers love this. In turn, they are engaging with teachers, by organising events especially for teachers at educational research conferences and collaborating with teachers in classroom research.

Schools all around Australia are currently hosting research projects involving classroom teachers. But it can be difficult for teachers to engage in research because it takes a lot of time and energy, not just in the classroom but also due to the paperwork and meetings involved.

However, I believe if we don’t work with each other, teachers risk reinventing wheels or becoming trapped within an echo chamber, and researchers risk irrelevance.

There is so much to be gained by collaborating with each other. Together, teachers and researchers can develop a research literate teaching culture. Of course many teachers are already working collectively to improve their access, engagement with, and undertaking of research.

In this post I want to look at what teachers are doing and how researchers might engage with them.

 

Formal and informal research

Educational researchers are often interested in large-scale research questions involving multiple teachers or schools, whereas classroom teachers are often looking to participate in or conduct informal research that is specific to their own classroom context and practice.

Teachers regularly carry out informal research in their daily work in the classroom.

Informal Research

By the nature of their role, teachers are informal researchers. Every day a teacher enters their classroom with a new lesson to try, a new strategy to test, a new thought about how to manage young Harry’s distractibility or Neville’s anxieties, help Ginny understand a difficult Herbology concept, and develop Hermione’s broomstick flying skills.

However we know that teachers with better research skills, who are critically reflexive, and who look outside their own experience will find and evaluate possible solutions to teaching and classroom issues more quickly and efficiently. This can make their teaching more effective.

Looking outside to what others have done is a central part of this process. However, the constant trial and error teachers undertake to improve their classroom teaching is barely spoken about or shared. Usually, it’s undertaken independently, and the results a quiet accomplishment. Sometimes, it’s done collaboratively, and the results are shared with the community of teachers, students and their families. Occasionally, research is undertaken more formally, purposefully, with a broad goal of improving school or system-wide policies or processes.

Formal Research

Formal research is “hard and it is technical and there are a lot of i’s to dot and t’s to cross” (e.g. ethics applications, access to literature, participant recruitment and informed consent, and the difficult work of analysing and interpreting complicated data). It is rigorous, and accountability for validity and reliability are deeply entrenched within the system. With so many hurdles to jump, it can take a long time to complete a formal research project.

 

Teachers’ networks and events

While educational researchers investigate policy impacts and teaching methods, individual teachers often seek more definite and immediate resolutions to context-specific issues. Teachers are seeking what they desire through grassroots networks and events, such as Twitter, Teachmeets, and researchED conferences.

Teachers on Twitter

A small but growing group of teachers are flocking to social media such as Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest to share their resources, experiences and ideas. In particular, Twitter has become the forum for teachers to discuss what works for them, and what doesn’t. We know that this informal research is a normal part of the everyday work of a teacher, and teachers have found that there is much to be gained through the sharing and discussing of such work through social media.

Researchers should also join Twitter. It is a great place to share research and explore teachers’ responses to and incorporation of both formal and informal research into their daily work.

Twitter-synchronous chats

Regular chats such as the #PSTchat (for pre-service teachers) and #AussieED (for Aussie educators) provide structures for productive synchronous conversations on issues that matter to them, including educational research. Regular discussion topics include homework, behaviour management, myths in education (such as learning styles and Brain Gym), NAPLAN, using data, and subject-specific practices and pedagogies. On March 8, hundreds of Australian teachers took to Twitter to discuss “research in education” with #AussieED; the conversation flew fast.

Researchers are not excluded from such discussions, and some do engage, myself included. I aim to be constructive and contribute thoughtfully; these chats are spaces for teachers to share their experiences and ideas, and when I participate, I ensure my contributions are made in the spirit of collegiality, rather than antagonism or authority. I’m always welcomed!

Twitter-curated accounts
Curated accounts such as #EduTweetOz are hosted by a different Aussie educator each week. I was fortunate to be included as a host last year. There are a number of educational researchers on Twitter already.

AARE has an account under @AustAssocResEd . Maybe AARE can curate an account with a different Aussie educational researcher each week?

Blogs

Many teachers are blogging; sharing their experiences, practices, and interpretations of research with each other and the wider world. Some blogs are highly critical of educational research.

(This AARE blog is for educational researchers. It is widely read by teachers, academics, interested members of the public and politicians. Teachers can co-author blog posts with an educational researcher. -Ed)

Here are a few teacher blogs to visit

About Teaching  by Corinne C. (Australian primary teacher)
Classroom Chronicles by Henrietta M. (Australian primary teacher)
Teaching as Learning by Melissa P. (Australian secondary English and Italian teacher)
Teaching of Science  by Ian H. (British secondary science teacher)
Filling the pail  by Greg A. (Australian secondary science teacher)

Teachmeets

Teachmeets are informal meetings between teachers where they discuss and share practice, insights and innovations for teaching effectively. Teachmeets are organised by interested teachers who simply find a space, make a time, and advertise the event. You will often see them mentioned on Twitter. Educational researchers are most welcome at Teachmeets.

Teachmeets do not charge fees for attendance. Some, not all, participants give short presentations (2-7 minutes) and join in break-out sessions. Sometimes guest speakers are specifically invited. Many teachers who attend maintain a blog or engage via Twitter. Educational researchers have been known to present at Teachmeets, however teachers are given priority.

Matt Esterman, one of the teachers instrumental in the Teachmeet movement in Australia, says “each Teachmeet is unique in focus, attendance, context and purpose, and these are affected by the participants themselves, as they shape the Teachmeets as much as the host!

researchED

UK conference series researchED has dipped its toe into Australian waters. The grassroots, teacher-led researchED movement has grown from the dissatisfaction of some teachers in the UK with their access to, engagement with, and inclusion in educational research. Intended aims are to increase teacher engagement with research and research literacy, with the underlying belief that teachers and researchers should collaborate to promote effective practice in education.

Shore School, Sydney, hosted the first Aussie researchED on Saturday 21 February of this year, and the speaker line-up included a wide range of teachers, researchers and policy-makers. The inclusion of Kevin Donnelly in a panel discussion led some teachers and researchers to make the decision to skip the conference. Cognitive psychology researchers are embracing researchED conferences, and are particularly noticeable on the speaker lineups.

Research Leads and teacher research journals

In the UK, researchED and similar movements have led to the establishment of Research Leads in many schools. Research Leads are teachers or administrators who take on the additional role of seeking and disseminating research, delivering ‘evidence-based’ or ‘research-based’ professional development, and guiding UK teachers through action research projects in their schools.

Research Leads meet regularly to share their experiences and learn from the ideas of others. Individual schools around Australia have created similar roles, but these are not yet widespread.

Arising from this, UK teachers have launched a successful Kickstarter fundraiser campaign  to publish their research in a journal, with articles reviewed by a “team of practicing teachers and headteachers”. Glen Gilchrist, the teacher behind this project, is encouraging others to “hacking teacher led research”.

Teacher associations

More established, and most likely to include researchers, teacher associations exist for almost every subject area or teaching community in every state of Australia and at the national level. Associations such as the Science Teachers’ Association of Queensland  (one of eight state members of the Australian Science Teachers’ Association; ASTA) continue to publish a quarterly, non-peer-reviewed journal and host multiple conferences each year.

Conferences are of high quality and include researchers. The journals are excellent channels of communication with teachers, but (in my experience as editor of one such journal) it is difficult to convince researchers to publish in association journals because they are not peer-reviewed or indexed.

 

Join in, but tread lightly

Teachers have created these networks and events to share, engage, collaborate and direct their own research, as well as the formal research available to them. These networks and events serve teachers’ aspirations for their own and their education systems’ improvements in order to achieve better outcomes for their students. For the most part, teacher activities in these networks are productive, collaborative and progressive.

There is space here for researchers to participate and contribute. The inclination might be to jump in, sage on the (Twitter) stage, and make grand pronouncements about what works and what doesn’t; what teachers should and shouldn’t do, and how. But to do this will surely backfire. Teachers have not created these spaces to be told what they’re doing wrong; they get enough of that in the mainstream media and from politicians.

My advice to researchers is tread lightly; be gentle and kind, encouraging and patient. Ask questions, share and offer help and support when it’s sought. You will surely learn a lot in return and could make some very productive connections.

 

PEZAROCharlotte is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland (UQ). Her research looks at the role that science classroom argumentation plays in the development of particular cognitive processes, understandings, and values for making decisions. Before beginning her research, Charlotte was a primary school teacher with Education Queensland, teaching in remote, regional and city schools. She shares her experiences and expertise in primary science education in a number of primary education courses at UQ. Charlotte has a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) and a Graduate Bachelor of Education (Primary).

12 thoughts on “Teachers as researchers: what they do, where to find them and how academic researchers can engage with them

  1. Hi Charlotte, great article, thanks. It’s heartening to read about increasing teacher engagement with research/ers. As you say, teacher associations are a great way for teachers to connect with research/ers (we do a lot of this in the Association of Women Educators http://www.awe.asn.au ). From my experience in EQ I’d like to see more government engagement with research and the dissemination and translation of research, and leadership in fostering schools’ engagement with research/ers , especially in the social justice area. My PhD research examines the politics of systemic marginalisation and disregard for important perspectives here, so teachers should not presume that departmental resources are comprehensive. For example, there are significant gaps in the resources provided by a national anti-bullying project for which I once worked, around gendered violence, including homophobia. I’m keen to support schools to access research, and to conduct their own research, in this area. Thanks again for writing about this Charlotte. Cheers, Maria http://www.socialchangeagency.com.au

  2. Charlotte Pezaro says:

    Thanks Maria.
    Yes, I’ve seen some of the work that AWE do and it looks fantastic. As for government engagement, I think that’s also a major issue!
    There are many researchers out there keen to work with teachers and support them through their own research. As I’m sure you know, there is very little room in the broader culture of research to do this, yet educational researchers often impress me with their willingness to work with teachers; and vice versa, as there are pressures on both parties in these collaborations.
    Thanks again.

  3. David Zyngier says:

    Charlotte thanks for the fantastic overview and ideas about how ed researchers can join teachers in discussion about practice and theory. Look forward to further collaboration with you – we are already following each other on Twitter

  4. Lorraine Beveridge says:

    Thanks Charlotte for your sympathetic and understanding view of researchers working with teachers, and the acknowledged benefits to both camps. Increasingly, schools have professional learning funds that means that they can access academics to work as critical friends with them on projects.

    My research found that academics found it difficult due to their university workloads , although a number of academic partners interviewed expressed the view that they were better academics (more credible and knowledgeable about current education trends that they shared with ITE students) as a result of their Uni / schools link. They also reported that increasingly universities do not value the work they do in schools, making it difficult to continue.

    An important point you made in my view is the different aims of educational research that contribute to the academic-school divide. Teachers are looking to solve pressing practitioner issues and academics “are interested in large scale research” with a view to publication, which is what is valued in their institutions.

    Increased communication and collaboration may result in shared, tangible, achievable goals that both sides benefit from. This means allocated time to talk, plan, implement in an action learning mode. Both sides (systems…universities and education systems) need to see the benefits of engaging in co-research through publication of findings in an accessible form in practitioner as well as academic journals, so the co-inquiry is data-driven and shared.

    I loved your overview of different social media forms that are currently in use and growing exponentially.
    Thanks
    @lorribev

  5. Celia F says:

    Hi Charlotte, as an academic (hold a research based EdD) but a teacher first I find the attitude of some university based education researchers hard to take when they try to tell teachers what works. Especially if they claim teaching experience as the 5 minutes they spent at 23 in an elite private school before running back to the uni and they are trying to tell teachers in real schools with a big mix of kids about engagement when in reality they have no real idea of what this even looks like in a classroom of disengaged, disinterested 16 year olds who’s family does not value education. I think its time the researchers go to the TEach meets etc as attendee’s to learn from the teachers not as experts because in the classroom they are not the experts, the teachers are. Being told on twitter by one university based researcher to be more positive was an interesting experience. Showed a complete lack of knowledge about real life in teaching; its hard work and you get little thanks; its not all beaming faces and shiny technology in open classrooms.

  6. Charlotte Pezaro says:

    Hi Celia,
    Thanks for sharing your experience. One message I am trying to put out there is that academics and teachers know and do different things, and each have advice to give to each other. I myself occasionally make mistakes in both of my roles (as teacher and as researcher) when I forget this. I am lucky in that I have teacher friends and researcher friends who pull me up when I do this! They are very forgiving.
    As a teacher who spent several years in city, regional and remote schools, each with unique challenges and rewards, I hope I have some capacity to comment on the work that teachers do. At the same time, I feel privileged that my experiences so far in research, as a PhD candidate, have given me new means to reflect on and improve myself as a teacher. I am glad to have experienced both roles.
    Researchers would have little value without teachers, as it’s real teachers’ work that we gather the best data from. Similarly, teachers risk reinventing wheels or falling into echo chambers without researchers. Our work complements each others’. All in all, I think it’s best we work together. Don’t you?

  7. Lorraine beveridge says:

    Hi Charlotte and Celia
    I’d like to add a bit more please. As a school-based person I led an action research project with a group of 6 teachers in NSW. The project was govt. Funded and a mandatory academic partner came with funding. On reflection, the teacher team were quite demanding of the academic partner who was working in the school, although I did not realise this at the time. She had to change her times due to her Uni timetable changing, and she was not exactly what we asked for in terms of expertise and experience. I think we (self included) should have been more understanding of the inflexibility of the system from which she came. Now I see both sides. Only through ongoing communication will we see each other’s viewpoints. I definitely agree that we have much to learn from each other.

  8. Kim Milton says:

    Thanks Charlotte for a great article. I am a primary teacher who has just come back from 2 years maternity leave. I have started a new blog and reopened my twitter account to reconnect with teachers. Recently, I wrote a post on Evidence Based Teaching and how researched teaching strategies are now the ‘in’ thing in education. With John Hatties 138 influences on learning, educators now have several excellent strategies to trial and also strategies not to use, this is exciting for teachers. As an educator I have many questions I would love to research in the classroom but as a teacher I don’t have the skills. I think your article is spot on trend with both educational researchers and teachers wanting to work together to create the best education system we can. I agree with Lorraine we do have a lot to learn from each other. I really look forward to seeing how this is going to work.
    Read my article at http://experimentaleducator.edublogs.org/2015/04/15/evidence-based-teaching/

  9. Gary Jones says:

    Really enjoyed your post. For me, there is a need for greater conceptual clarity and shared understanding of terminology. In particular, there needs to be a wider understanding of the difference between evidence-informed practice and research. We should be looking to help teachers improve rather than prove.
    http://evidencebasededucationalleadership.blogspot.com

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