Is teacher research still important and relevant? In the 1970s, the Bay Area Writing Project in the United States had just embarked on a first wave of teacher research collaborations. A decade later, reports were coming through of transformations experienced by teachers and their students when educators engaged in classroom-based research. Was this just one more symptom of the supposed ‘hippy age’ of teaching?
A limited role for inquiring teachers
For some time now we have seen suspicion of any form of educational research not fitting into the ‘gold standard’ of randomized controlled trials. Qualitative and context-sensitive research has been excluded from the evidence base and teachers have been compelled to implement ‘evidence-based’ practices. It has seemed in some quarters that there is no longer any need for teachers to ask questions; they are all being answered by science. Indeed, teachers’ questions are seen as obstacles to their faithfully following pedagogic scripts.
Currently, however, education systems are starting to see the limits of top-down reform and particularly of attempting to impose single solutions on teachers. It turns out that ‘what works’ does not always work for all students in all classrooms. It is being accepted in some quarters that teachers’ modification of mandated programs might strengthen their effectiveness. This movement, termed ‘improvement science’, allows educators license to ‘tinker’ and make local adaptations of mandated programs. However, the idea that teachers might direct their own inquiries prompted by their own questions, or that effectiveness might be judged by anything other than scores on standardized tests does not enter into this limited form of ‘improvement’.
Australia’s rich tradition of teacher research
Australia has been for some time a hub for teacher research. An influential figure was the late Garth Boomer whose name is well known in education circles. He argued that, if students were to become inquiring learners, teachers had to become informed and inquiring educators. This is an argument with particular resonance with today’s emphasis on innovation in education. Significantly, Boomer encouraged universities and schools to become partners to achieve this mission:
Since schools and universities are institutions for the promotion of deliberate learning, all teaching … should be directed towards the support of deliberate, personally owned and conducted, solution-oriented investigation. All teachers should be experts in ‘action research’ so that they can show students how to be ‘action researchers’. (Boomer, 1985, p. 125)
Schools of Education in many universities have been staffed by educators who have made the transition into research track from a background in school teaching. These academics have integrated practitioner inquiry into a succession of graduate programs and collaborative research projects. Together with colleagues including Barbara Comber, Rob Hattam and Marie Brennan, we have worked with many hundreds of teachers and school leaders to embed inquiry into professional practice and to attempt the complex work of acquiring the dual habitus of educator and researcher.
Researching the impacts of teacher research
In 2008, we decided to follow up as many of these teachers as possible in order to learn about whether inquiry had remained part of their professional practice and what they valued about it. The 58 participants who responded to our detailed survey had undertaken collectively 123 practitioner inquiry projects. When asked to nominate a project that had the most significant impact on practice, those of 12 months or longer and which were conducted in collaboration with partners beyond their schools were highest ranked. The most impactful projects generated data that was more extensive and multi-layered than was available from day-to-day practice. These projects introduced theories and new knowledge and provided opportunities for teachers to apply these to practice. Sharing learning in the form of presentations or reports gave practitioners recognition, and confidence, and crystallised the knowledge gained.
Inquiry as professional practice for contemporary times
Based on detailed analysis of surveys and in-depth interviews we have identified four overarching themes.
First, effective practitioner inquiry is powered by teachers’ motivation to improve the learning experiences of students most at risk. This challenges the view of teachers as needing the external discipline of regulatory powers in order to force them to assume accountability for student learning outcomes.
Second, impactful practitioner inquiry is as much thinking differently as it is about changing practice. Educators find inquiries impactful when they challenge themselves to think and speak differently about their practice, their students, the curriculum and the nature of teaching and learning.
Third, impacts of inquiring practitioners are dynamic and much better explained by networking and complexity models than top-down change models.
Fourth, practitioner inquiry aligns well with new models of teacher and curriculum leadership such as are promoted by the AITSL standards. It maintains a central focus on the practice of teaching whilst building skills of design, analysis, communication, collaboration and networking.
Teacher research is professional practice for contemporary times and a true driver of innovation.
Sue Nichols is a senior lecturer at the University of South Australia. She leads the Multiliteracies and Global Englishes Research Group in the Centre for Research in Education. Her research in the fields of literacy, family involvement, practitioner inquiry and inclusive education has been supported by national competitive and university grants. Her research crosses diverse contexts including libraries, universities, school classrooms, kindergartens and recreational spaces. As society increasingly moves online, her research and teaching has followed, investigating changing literacy, learning and pedagogic practices.
Phillip Cormack is an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the School of Education, University of South Australia. He has been the Key Researcher at the Hawke Research Institute (HRI) and Director of the Centre for Studies in Literacy, Policy and Learning Cultures (LPLC). His research interests include the history of adolescence, and contemporary and historical perspectives on literacy policy, curriculum and pedagogy.
Impactful Practitioner Inquiry: The Ripple Effect on classrooms, schools and teacher professionalism by Sue Nichols and Phil Cormack is published by Teachers College Press