The experience in reflective teaching is that you must plunge into the doing, and try to educate yourself before you know what it is you’re trying to learn.
(Donald Schön, 1987)
Donald Schön, a philosopher and educational researcher, makes an important observation: learning about teaching often means making choices and taking actions without knowing in advance quite what the consequences will be. The problem, as we have pointed out more than once, is that classroom events are often ambiguous and ambivalent, in that they usually serve more than one purpose. A teacher compliments a student’s contribution to a discussion: at that moment she may be motivating the student, but also focusing classmates’ thinking on key ideas. Her comment functions simultaneously as behavioral reinforcement, information, and expression of caring. At that moment complimenting the student may be exactly the right thing to do. Or not: perhaps the praise causes the teacher to neglect the contributions of others, or focuses attention on factors that students cannot control, like their ability instead of their effort. In teaching, it seems, everything cuts more than one way, signifies more than one thing. The complications can make it difficult to prepare for teaching in advance, though they also make teaching itself interesting and challenging.
The complications also mean that teachers need to learn from their own teaching by reflecting (or thinking about the significance of) their experiences. In the classrooms, students are not the only people who need to learn. So do teachers, though what teachers need to learn is less about curriculum and more about students’ behavior and motivation, about how to assess their learning well, and about how to shape the class into a mutually supportive community.
Thinking about these matters helps to make a teacher a reflective practitioner (Schön, 1983), a professional who learns both from experience and about experience. Becoming thoughtful helps you in all the areas discussed in this text: it helps in understanding better how students’ learning occurs, what motivates students, how you might differentiate your instruction more fully, and how you can make assessments of learning more valid and fair.
Learning to reflect on practice is so important, in fact, that we have referred to and illustrated its value throughout this book. In addition we devote this entire chapter to how you, like other professional teachers, can develop habits of reflective practice in yourself. In most of this chapter we describe what reflective practice feels like as an experience, and offer examples of places, people, and activities that can support your own reflection on practice. We finish by discussing how teachers can also learn simply by observing and reflecting on their own teaching systematically, and by sharing the results with other teachers and professionals. We call this activity teacher research or action research. As you will see, reflective practice not only contributes to teachers’ ability to make wise decisions, but also allows them to serve as effective, principled advocates on behalf of students.
Types of resources for professional development and learning
At some level reflection on practice is something you must do for yourself, since only you have had your particular teaching experiences, and only you can choose how to interpret and make use of them. But this rather individual activity also benefits from the stimulus and challenge offered by fellow professionals. Others’ ideas may differ from your own, and they can therefore help in working out your own thoughts and in alerting you to ideas that you may otherwise take for granted. These benefits of reflection can happen in any number of ways, but most fall into one of four general categories:
- talking and collaborating with colleagues
- participating in professional associations
- attending professional development workshops and conferences
- reading professional literature
In the next sections we explore what each of these activities has to offer.
Colleagues as a resource
Perhaps the simplest way to stimulate reflections about your own teaching is to engage fellow teachers or other colleagues in dialogue (or thoughtful conversation) about teaching and learning: What do you think of this kind of experience? Have you ever had one like it yourself, and what did you make of it? Note that to be helpful in stimulating reflection, these conversations need to be largely about educational matters, not about personal ones (“What movie did you see last night?”). Dialogues with individual colleagues have certain advantages to more complex or formal professional experiences. Talking with an individual generally allows more participation for both of you, since only two people may need to express their views. It also can provide a measure of safety or confidentiality if your conversation partner is a trusted colleague; sometimes, therefore, you can share ideas of which you are not sure, or that may be controversial.
A somewhat more complex way of stimulating reflection is group study. Several teachers at a school gather regularly to bring themselves up to date on a new curriculum, for example, or to plan activities or policies related to a school-wide theme (e.g. “the environment”). Group meetings often result in considerable dialog among the members about the best ways to teach and to manage classrooms, as well as stories about students’ behavior and learning experiences. For a beginning teacher, group study can be a particularly good way to learn from experienced, veteran teachers.
Sharing of ideas becomes even more intense if teachers collaborate with each other about their work on an extended basis. Collaboration can take many forms; in one form it might be “team teaching” by two or more teachers working with one group of students, and in another form it might be two or more teachers consulting regularly to coordinate the content of their courses. Collaborations work best when each member of the team brings responsibilities and expertise that are unique, but also related to the other members’ responsibilities. Imagine, for example, a collaboration between Sharon, who is a middle-years classroom teacher, and Pat, who is a resource teacher—one whose job is to assist classroom teachers in working with students with educational disabilities or special needs. If Pat spends time in Sharon’s classroom, then not only will the students benefit, but they both may learn from each other’s presence. Potentially, Pat can learn the details of the middle-years curriculum and learn more about the full range of students’ skills—not just those of students having difficulties. Sharon can get ideas about how to help individuals who, in a classroom context, seem especially difficult to help. Achieving these benefits, of course, comes at a cost: the two teachers may need to take time not only for the students, but also to talk with each other. Sometimes the time-cost can be reduced somewhat if their school administrators can arrange for a bit of extra planning and sharing time. But even if this does not happen, the benefits of collaboration will be very real, and often make the investment of time worthwhile.
Professional associations and professional development activities
Another way to stimulate reflection about teaching is by joining and participating in professional associations— organizations focused on supporting the work of teachers and on upholding high standards of teaching practice. Table 45 lists several major professional associations related to education and their Internet addresses. Most of them are composed of local branches or chapters serving the needs of a particular city, state, or region.
To achieve their purposes, a professional association provides a mixture of publications, meetings, and conferences intended for the professional development of educators, including classroom teachers. Typically the publications include either a relatively frequent newsletter or a less frequent journal focused on issues of practice or research. Very large associations often publish more than one newsletter or journal, each of which is focused on a particular topic or type of news (for example, the National Education Association in the United States publishes eight separate periodicals). Some also publish online journals (there are several listed as part of Table 46 or online versions of print journals. Whatever format they take, professionally sponsored publications stimulate thinking by discussing issues and dilemmas faced by professional educators, and sometimes also by presenting recent educational research and the recommendations for teaching that flow from that research. We discuss ways of using these publications further in the next section of this chapter.
Table 46: A sampling of journals related to professional education
Meetings and conferences sponsored by a professional association also take a variety of forms. Depending on the size of the association and on the importance of the topic, a meeting could be as short as a one half-day workshop or as long as a full week with many sessions occurring simultaneously. Sometimes, too, an association might sponsor a more extended course—a series of meetings focused on one topic or problem of concern to teachers, such as classroom management or curriculum planning. In some cases, the course might carry university credit, though not always.
As you might expect, the size of a professional association makes a difference in kinds of professional development experiences it can provide. In general, the smaller the association, the more exclusively it focuses on local news and educational needs, both in its publications and in its meetings or other activities. At a professional development workshop sponsored by a local teachers’ association, for example, you are relatively likely to see colleagues and acquaintances not only from your own school, but from other neighboring schools. Locally sponsored events are also more likely to focus on local issues, such as implementing a new system for assessing students’ learning within the local schools. In general, too, local events tend to cost less to attend, in both time and money.
By the same token, the larger the association, the more its professional development opportunities are likely to focus on large-scale trends in education, such as the impact of the No Child Left Behind legislation we discussed in Chapter 1 or the latest trends in using computer technology for teaching. Conferences or other professional development events are more likely to span several days and to be located outside the immediate town or region whether you live and work. You may therefore see fewer of your everyday colleagues and acquaintances, but you may also have a greater incentive to make new acquaintances whose interests or concerns are similar to your own. The event is more likely to feature educators who are well-known nationally or internationally, and to call attention to educational trends or issues that are new or unfamiliar.
Whether large or small, the activities of professional associations can stimulate thinking and reflecting about teaching. By meeting and talking with others at a meeting of an association, teachers learn new ideas for teaching, become aware of emerging trends and issues about education, and confront assumptions that they may have made about their own practices with students. Professional meetings, conferences, and workshops can provide these benefits because they draw on the expertise and experience of a wide range of professionals—usually wider than is possible within a single school building. But compared simply to talking with your immediate colleagues, they have a distinct disadvantage: they take effort and a bit of money to attend, and sometimes they are available at convenient times. Well-balanced professional development should therefore also include activities that are available frequently, but that also draw on a wide range of expertise. Fortunately, an activity with these features is often easily at hand: the reading of professional publications about educational research and practice.
Reading and understanding professional articles
Although publications about educational issues and research can take many forms, they tend to serve three major purposes in some sort of combination. A publication could either (1) provide a framework for understanding teaching and learning, (2) offer advice about how to teach, or (3) advocate particular ideas or practices about education. Benefiting from a professional publication depends partly on understanding which of these purposes a particular article or book is emphasizing.
Three purposes of educational publications
Consider the first purpose, to provide a framework for understanding teaching and learning (Hittleman and Simon, 2005). A “framework” in this context means a perspective or general viewpoint for understanding specific events and actions. They are much like the theories described earlier in this book, though not always as formal or broad. A published article might propose, for example, a way of understanding why certain students are disrespectful in spite of teachers’ efforts to prevent such behavior (perhaps they are reinforced by peers for being disrespectful). It might offer evidence supporting this perspective. In doing so, the author provides a sort of “theory of disrespectful behavior”, though he or she may not call it a theory explicitly.
A second purpose is to offer advice about appropriate teaching practices. An article intended for this purpose, for example, might suggest how to introduce reading instruction to first graders, or how to use fiction to teach high school history, or how to organize a class to include a student with a disability. Often giving such advice overlaps with the first purpose, providing a framework for understanding, since thinking about an educational issue in a particular way may imply certain ways of dealing with it in practice.
A third purpose of a published article is to advocate ideas and persuade others to take actions benefiting students and society. It might take a position about important issues in education: Is it a good idea or not to retain (or hold back) a student in grade level for another year if the student fails the curriculum the first time? Should schools teach about sexuality? Should girls learn science in classrooms separate from boys? In advocating for ideas or policies about such matters, the article may express concern about what is good, ethical or desirable in education, not just about what is factually true or practical. The author may seek explicitly to persuade readers of the author’s point of view. These features do not mean, however, that you need to give up thinking for yourself. On the contrary, when reading an advocacy-oriented article, reflection may be especially important.
Whatever its purpose—understanding, advice, or advocacy—an article or book about a professional issue can stimulate thinking about what you know and believe about teaching and learning. It should therefore create, rather than undermine, your individuality as a teacher. Think of professional reading as a dialogue or conversation about education: some of the comments in the conversation will probably be more helpful than others, but each participant contributes somehow, even if none can give a final answer or everlasting truth. It is the same with publications; some may be more helpful than others, but none will be so perfect that you can afford to cease further reading or further thinking. If you are about to begin a teaching career, for example, you may be especially interested in anything published about classroom management, but less interested in the problems of administering schools or in the political issues that usually accompany educational systems. Yet some publications may discuss these latter issues anyway, and eventually you may find yourself more concerned about them than at the start of a career. Your job, as a reflective teacher, will be sort out the currently useful articles (or parts of articles) from ones you cannot use immediately.
To experience educational publications in this way, however, you must think of the authors as your collaborators as well as general authorities. As a reader, you need to assume that you are entitled to consider an author’s ideas, but not obligated to accept it without journals related to professional education question. There are several strategies for developing this attitude, but to keep the discussion focused, we will look at just two. We have already discussed the first strategy, which is to understand the purposes of any particular piece of research which you encounter, in order to assess its current usefulness to your daily work and your long-term professional goals. We have already indicated several general purposes of educational research publications, but we will go into more detail about this in the next section. The second strategy for relating to authors as collaborators is to think about how you yourself might contribute to professional knowledge by engaging in research of your own, even as a classroom teacher—an activity often called action research (Mills, 2006; Stringer, 2007). At the end of this chapter we discuss what action research involves, and how you might consider using it.
Authors’ assumptions about readers
Authors of professional articles and books also make assumptions about their readers, and it helps to be aware of these while you read. The assumptions affect the style, content, and significance of the author’s ideas in ways that are both obvious and subtle.
One assumption is about the response which an author expects from you, the reader: does he or she expect you actually to do something new, or simply to consider doing something new? Or does the author just want you to be aware of a new idea? Consider, for example, an article reviewing best practices about inclusion of students with special needs. The author may imply, or even urge you to take a moral position: you should include these students, the author may seem to say. But in a different article—one recommending particular teaching practices—the author may merely ask you to think about alternatives to your normal ways of teaching. Certain strategies worked under certain teaching conditions, the author says, so simply consider whether they might work for you as well.
A second, less obvious difference among professional publications is in their un-stated assumptions about prior experiences and attitudes of readers. This assumption may be either helpful or frustrating, depending on you actual prior background. A piece intended as a “framework for understanding” may assume, for example, that you are familiar with basic theories of learning already. If you have read and understood what we outlined in Chapter 3 of this book, the article may turn out to be relatively accessible or understandable to you even if you have relatively little experience in actual classroom teaching, and even if you have never studied learning theories in detail. The article might seem more accessible than you expect because, for example, it focuses primarily on how teacher’s praise affects students’ learning, an idea with which you may be somewhat familiar already.
On the other hand, a professional publication may assume that you have taught school for a number of years already, or that you are at least familiar with classroom life from the point of view not of students, but of a teacher. An author writing about “withitness” (discussed in Chapter 8), for example, may make this assumption, since the concept originated by observing teachers managing large group classroom activities. If you yourself are experienced at actual teaching, reading about withitness may trigger a lot of questions about just how withit teachers are able to be in practice, and about whether in fact they always need to be withit. You can also ask yourself these questions even if you have not yet been a teacher yourself, of course, but they may seem less immediate or urgent.
A professional article intended to advocate for a particular educational policy or practice may make very different assumptions about you as a reader. It may assume, for example, that you do in fact enjoy persuading others of your point of view, even when others initially disagree or react indifferently. This sort of assumption may show up as much in what the writing omits, as in what it includes: if the term cooperative learning activity is used without explanation, for example, the researcher may be assuming not only that you are the sort of person— perhaps a teacher—who knows what that term means already, but also that you already believe in the value of cooperative learning and are motivated to explain its value to others.
In making these distinctions among published articles, keep in mind a point we made at the outset: that an individual article usually serves more than one purpose at a time and makes more than one assumption about your prior knowledge and about how you are supposed to respond to the article. The differences are only about emphasis. To illustrate these ideas about the purposes and effects of research, look in the next section at three examples of actual published articles relevant to education. The studies are not a full cross-section of educational research or publications, but they do suggest some of the variety possible (and necessary) among them. Each example serves a mixture of purposes, but also emphasizes one purpose in particular (perspective-taking, teaching recommendations, or advocacy) described earlier. The authors of each example also make particular assumptions about you, the reader—about the intellectual work which the authors expect you to do and about the motivations which they assume you have or hope that you will acquire. For each example, we describe the reactions of one of us (Kelvin Seifert) as he read the article.
Example #1: How do children acquire moral commitments?
In 1997, Herbert Saltzstein and several colleagues published a research-oriented article about how children acquire moral beliefs (Saltzstein, et al., 1997). The group of researchers were all graduate students and professors of psychology, working mostly at the City University of New York. When Kelvin read of their affiliation with psychology, he suspected that they would talk about moral beliefs in general, and not necessarily about moral issues in classrooms, such as cheating or treating classmates with care and respect. Still, the article interested Kelvin as a former teacher and current university professor, because he had long been concerned with fostering qualities like integrity, honesty, cooperation, and loyalty in students. If Kelvin could find out about the mechanism or process by which children acquire mature moral beliefs, he reasoned, maybe he could modify his teaching to take advantage of that knowledge.
So Kelvin began reading the article. He discovered some parts were challenging and required careful reflection, whereas others were easier to read. One of the most challenging passages came almost immediately, in the second and third paragraphs; these paragraphs, it seemed, required a bit of prior knowledge about theories of moral development. But Kelvin was willing to concentrate more fully on these paragraphs, because he expected that they might clarify the rest of the study. Here are the paragraphs, and some of Kelvin’s thoughts as he read them:
|Initial problem: We began by re-examining the phenomenon of heteronomy, Piaget’s assertion (1932/1965) following Kant (1785/1959) that young children equate moral obligation with deference to authority when justifying their moral judgments. The concept is important because it is central to the organismic account of moral development as a series of differentiations and integrations[p. 37]||This was one of the difficult paragraphs, perhaps especially because Kelvin had never read the specific book by Piaget or by the philosopher Kant. But Kelvin did recall reading, at various times over the years, about Piaget’s views on moral development. Piaget believed that at first, children define morality in terms of what adults think: an action is “good” if and only if adults (e.g. parents) consider it good, and “bad” if and only if adults consider it bad. This is the idea of “heteronomy” to which Saltzstein is referring. Children, in this view, take quite awhile to develop or “grow” into truly autonomous moral beliefs.
Autonomous beliefs form slowly out of earlier beliefs, in the way that a young plant or animal might grow. This is the “organismic account of moral development” that Saltzstein is talking about.
|…This account has been challenged by Turiel’s domain theory (Turiel, 1983). According to Turiel and his colleagues, even young children intuitively distinguish moral from conventional rules. [p. 37]||Here was an idea that was intriguing! Saltzstein and his colleagues were pointing to research (by the person cited, named Turiel) that suggests that even preschoolers know the difference between truly moral rules and merely conventional rules. Apparently they believe, for example, that it would be wrong to steal toys or to hit someone, even if adults gave you permission to do so. But apparently they also know that it would be OK for traffic lights to use different colors—for red to mean “go” and green to mean “stop”—provided that everyone agreed on changing the rule. That is what the researcher named Turiel apparently meant by distinguishing convention from morality.|
The introduction continued in this challenging style for about two pages, requiring Kelvin to read slowly and carefully in order to understand its points. Kelvin was not discouraged from continuing, though, because he wanted to find out more about how, in general, children acquire moral beliefs. Did moral beliefs take time to develop—did they “grow” on children slowly after initially being borrowed from parents or other adults? In this case, then maybe Kelvin owed it to his students to adopt and express desirable moral attitudes myself, so as to provide a good model for their developing beliefs. Or were students’ key moral beliefs already in place when they entered school—almost as if “hard wired” in their minds, or at least already learned during infancy and the preschool years? In this second case, it might still be desirable for Kelvin to adopt positive moral attitudes, but not for the purpose of modeling them for students. Students already “hard wired” for key moral beliefs might not need a model so much as an enforcer of desirable moral behaviors. Concerning the issue of cheating, for example, the students might already understand the undesirable nature and implications of this behavior. As a result they might not need demonstrations of honest integrity from their teacher as much as affirmations from the teacher of the importance of honesty and integrity, along with consistent enforcement of appropriate sanctions against cheating when it did occur.
For Kelvin, therefore, the outcomes of research on moral development—including Saltzstein’s that he was currently reading—posed issues of classroom management, both in university classrooms and in public school classrooms. So Kelvin read on. Saltzstein proposed resolving the issues about the origins of moral development by distinguishing between moral conflicts and moral dilemmas:
Moral conflicts are conflicts between moral duty or right and a non-moral desire. An example might be the conflict between whether to return a wallet to its rightful owner or keep the coveted wallet with its extra cash. In contrast, moral dilemmas are conflicts involving two moral rights or duties. For example, [a person might feel a dilemma between] whether to steal a drug to save a spouse’s life. [p. 38]
The distinction between conflicts and dilemmas looked promising to Kelvin. Moral conflicts looked fairly simple in cognitive terms, even if they were sometimes difficult emotionally. The “right” action was obvious. Moral dilemmas were more complex cognitively as well as emotionally, because two “goods” were being weighed against each other. The moral alternatives might both be right and wrong at the same time, and their relative “rightness” might not be immediately obvious.
Saltzstein and his colleagues proposed that when young children show awareness of moral rules, they may be doing so in the simpler context of moral conflicts. A young child might believe that you should return a dollar to its owner, even if the child has trouble in practice overcoming a selfish impulse to keep the dollar. The same child might have trouble deciding, however, whether it is “right” to inform his teacher if a best friend has cheated on a test. In that case two moral principles compete for attention—honesty and loyalty to a friend. To sort out the implications of choosing between these principles, a young child might need to rely on older, wiser minds, such as parents or other adults. The minute that he or she does so, the child is showing the moral heteronomy that Piaget used to write about and that Saltzstein referred to early in the article.
Understanding these ideas took effort, but once Kelvin began figuring them out, the rest of the article was easier to follow. In reading the remaining pages, he noted in passing that the researchers used several techniques common in educational research. For example, they interviewed participants, a common way of gathering systematic information about individuals’ thinking. They also imposed controls on their procedures and on the selection of participants. Procedures were controlled, for example, by posing the same three moral dilemmas and to all participants, so that individuals’ responses could be compared meaningfully. The selection of participants was controlled by selecting two age groups for deliberate comparison with each other—one that was seven years old and the other that was eleven. Since the researchers wanted to generalize about moral development as much as possible, but they obviously could not interview every child in the world, they sampled participants: they selected a manageable number (sixty-five, to be exact) from the larger student population of one particular school. In a second part of the investigation, they also selected a comparable number of children of the same two ages (7 and 11) from the city of Recife, located in Brazil. The Brazilian group’s responses were compared deliberately with the American group’s responses, in order to allow for the impact of cultural beliefs on moral development in general. Kelvin recognized this research strategy as an example of using control groups. In research terms, the Brazilian group “controlled for” the impact of American culture on children’s moral beliefs, and vice versa, the American group controlled for the impact of Brazilian culture on children’s moral beliefs. Altogether, these techniques helped insure that the interviews of children’s moral beliefs really illustrated what they were supposed to illustrate—that they were reliable and valid, in the senses that we discussed in earlier chapters. As Kelvin noticed Saltzstein’s attention to good research techniques, he gained confidence in Saltzstein’s observations and in the interpretations that the authors made from them.
What did Saltzstein and his colleagues find out—or more to the point, what did Kelvin Seifert learn from what Saltzstein and his colleagues wrote about? There were three ideas that occurred to Kelvin. One was that in everyday life, children probably deal with moral beliefs of all levels of cognitive complexity, and not just “simple” moral conflicts and “complex” moral dilemmas. Saltzstein found that children’s solutions to moral dilemmas depended a lot on the content of the dilemma. Children advocated strongly for truthfulness in some situations (for example, in deciding whether to tell the teacher about a friend’s cheating), but not in other situations (like in deciding whether to back up a friend who is being teased and who has lied in an effort to stop the teasing). But it was rare for all children to support any one moral principle completely; they usually supported a mix.
Another idea that Kelvin learned from Saltzstein’s research was about how children expressed moral heteronomy versus moral autonomy. Age, it seemed, did not affect the beliefs that children stated; younger and older children took similar positions on all dilemmas initially. But age did affect how steadfastly children held to initial beliefs. Younger children were more easily influenced to switch opinions when an adult “cross-examined” with probing questions; older children were more likely to keep to their initial position. Moral heteronomy was revealed not by a child’s views as such, but by the kind of dialogue a child has with adults.
A third idea that Kelvin learned was about children’s perceptions of adults’ moral beliefs. Saltzstein found that even though older children (the 11-year-olds) showed more moral autonomy (were more steadfast) than younger children, they tended to believe that adults thought about moral issues in ways similar to children who were younger. In the “teasing” dilemma mentioned above, for example, the 11-year-olds opted much more often than 7- year-olds for remaining loyal to a friend, even though doing so meant further untruthfulness with peers. Yet the 11- year-olds also more often stated a belief that adults would resolve the same dilemma in a way characteristic of 7- year-olds—that is, by telling the truth to peers and thus betraying loyalty to a friend. This finding puzzled Kelvin. Why should older, and presumably more insightful, children think that adults are more like younger children than like themselves? Saltzstein suggested an interpretation, however, that helped him make sense of the apparent inconsistency:
…Consistent with our past research, children attributed the kinds of moral choices made by younger children to adults. In our view, this finding tends to support a constructivist rather than a [social modeling] view of morality, which would predict that the child’s judgments mirror (or develop toward) their representation of adult judgments. [p. 41]
In other words, thought Kelvin, if children learned moral beliefs by imitating (or modeling themselves after) parents or other adults, then they ought to see themselves as resembling adults more and more as they get older. Instead, they see themselves as resembling adults less, at least during middle childhood. This would happen only if they were preoccupied with “constructing” their own beliefs on the basis of their experiences, and therefore failed to notice that adults might also have constructed beliefs similar to their own.
Relevance: a framework for understanding moral development
The article by Saltzstein offered a way to understand how children develop moral beliefs, and especially to understand the change from moral heteronomy to moral autonomy. By imposing controls on the procedures (uniform interviews) and on the selection of participants (particular ages, particular societies or cultures), the researchers eliminated certain sources of ambiguity or variability in children’s responses. By framing their project in terms of previous theories of moral development (Piaget’s, Turiel’s), furthermore, they made it easier to interpret their new results in the general terms of these theories as well. In these ways the investigation aspired to provide a general perspective about children’s moral development. Providing a framework for understanding, you recall, is one of the major purposes of many professional publications.
But note that the authors paid a price for emphasizing this purpose. By organizing their work around existing general theory and research, they had to assume that readers already had some knowledge of that theory and research. This is not an unreasonable assumption if the readers are expected to be fellow researchers; after all, many of them make a living by “knowing the literature” of psychology. But assuming such knowledge can be an obstacle if the authors intend to communicate with non-psychologists: in that case, either the authors must make more of an effort to explain the relevant background research, or readers must educate themselves about the research. The latter activity is not necessarily difficult (the background knowledge for Saltzstein’s work, for example, took me only a few paragraphs to explain in writing), but it must be done to make full sense of research that tries to provide a universal framework of psychological knowledge.
The reader’s role: interested observer of children
In conducting and reporting their research, Saltzstein and his colleagues were not presenting themselves as school teachers, nor were they expecting readers necessarily to respond as teachers. As they put it in the first paragraph of the article, they sought to offer “a more contextualized perspective for understanding the development of moral judgments” [p. 37]. Unlike most teachers, they seemed indifferent to recommending how children’s moral judgements ought to be fostered. Observation of children was their purpose, not intervention. The meaning of the term “contextualized perspective” was not obvious to Kelvin when he first read it, but eventually it became clearer: they were talking about the importance of distinguishing among types of moral decisions and moral beliefs. They did sometimes note information relevant to teaching—for example, they pointed out that for cultural reasons, teachers in Brazil do not command high respect and therefore compared to American children, Brazilian children may feel less compelled to tell the truth to their teachers. But this comment was not the primary focus of their research, nor did the authors discuss what (if anything) it might imply about teaching in the United States.
Yet the non-teaching perspective of the article did not keep Kelvin, a long-time school teacher and current university teacher, from reflecting on the article in terms of its educational relevance. As we mentioned already, Kelvin was attracted to the article because of his own concerns about character development in students—how do they acquire moral beliefs and commitments, and how should he help them in doing so? Kelvin did not really expect to find an answer to the second of these questions, given the “observation” orientation of the authors. He did hope to find an answer to the first, although even here he also expected that to make allowances for the fact that research interviews are not usually identical to classroom situations. Children might respond differently when interviewed individually by a researcher, compared to how they might respond to a teacher in class. Or perhaps not. So in reflecting on the article, Kelvin had to note the context and purposes of Saltzstein’s study, and to remind himself that once a teacher went beyond simply observing children to intervening on their behalf, the teacher might be led to different conclusions about children’s moral development. But in spite of these cautions—or maybe because of them—Kelvin found much food for thought in the article related to teaching.
Example #2: Learning disability as a misleading label
In 2006, Ray McDermott, Shelley Goldman, and Hervé Varenne published an article that discussed the use of disability categories in education. The article attracted Kelvin’s attention because he had been concerned for a long time about the ambiguities of disability categories (see Chapter 6 of this book) as well as about their potential for stigmatizing individuals. He expected the article to document additional problems with labeling when a student is from a non-white ethnic group. Kelvin’s expectation was fulfilled partially, but he was surprised also to encounter an additional and tougher message in the article. Here is how the study began:
Since about 1850…classifying human beings by mental ability, accurately or not, has been a politically rewarded activity. Those with power have placed others, usually the downtrodden, into ability and disposition groups that they cannot escape… People who live together in a culture must struggle constantly with the constraints…of systems of classification and interpretation used in the culture.
Kelvin had a mixed reaction to this opening. In one way it seemed to say something familiar—that classification systems (such as categories for disabilities) may create problems for individuals. But the tone of the paragraph sounded more severely critical than Kelvin had expected: it was saying that power governed all classifications, implying that misclassifications may be widespread or even universal.
Kelvin’s initial hunch was therefore that the article would express a radically critical view of disability classifications—particularly as they affect the “downtrodden”, which presumably included children from minority ethnic groups. His expectation proved correct as the authors explained their point of view, which they called a cultural approach to understanding disability. Using learning disabilities (LD) as an example, here is how they explained their position:
We are not as interested in LD behavior as in the preoccupations—as seen from the level of classroom organization—of all those adults who are professionally poised to discover LD behavior. We are less interested in the characteristics of LD children than in the cultural arrangements that make an LD label relevant.
At this point Kelvin was not sure if he wanted to continue reading the article because it seemed like it might not be relevant to classroom life specifically. It also implied a severe criticism of professional educators
—implied that they are too eager to find examples of LD and for this reason may misclassify students. On the other hand, Kelvin was already aware that LD are an especially ambiguous category of disability; maybe the article would help to show why. So he kept reading.
The authors continued by outlining the history of LD as a category of disability, describing this category as an outgrowth of the general intelligence testing movement during the twentieth century. By the 1970s, they argued, the concept of LD offered a way to classify children with academic difficulties without having to call the children mentally disabled. Because of this fact, the LD category was needed—literally—by well-off parents who did not want their children treated or educated as children with mental disabilities. LD as a concept and category came to be applied primarily to children from the white middle-class, and mental disability became, by default, the equivalent category for the non-white and poor.
To support this assertion, the authors reported a classroom observation of three non-white boys—Hector, Ricardo, and Boomer—while they worked together to design an imaginary research station in Antarctica. Citing actual transcripts of conversation while the boys worked, the authors concluded that all three boys showed intelligence and insight about the assignment, but that the teacher was only aware of the contributions of one of the boys. Hector systematically hid his knowledge from the teacher’s view by getting Boomer to speak for their group; Ricardo participated well in the group work but was rarely acknowledged by the other two boys. Boomer received considerable praise from the teacher, thanks to his speaking for the group. Yet the teacher was never aware of these subtleties. The authors blamed her oversight not on the teacher herself, but on an educational and cultural system that leads educators to classify or typify students too quickly or easily. Here is how they put it:
The American classroom is well organized for the production of display of failure, one child at a time if possible, but group by group if necessary…Even if the teacher manages to treat every child as capable, the children can hammer each other into negative status; and even if both…resist dropping everyone into predefined categories, the children’s parents can take over, demanding more and more boxes with which to specify kinds of kids doing better than other kinds of kids. In such a classroom, if there were no LD categories, someone would have to invent them.
When Kelvin read this conclusion, he did not really disagree, but he did feel that it was beside the point for most teachers. Maybe children do get classified too easily, he thought, but a teacher’s job is not just to lament this possibility, as the authors seemed to be doing. Instead their job is to help the real, live children for whom they have daily responsibility. What teachers need are therefore suggestions to avoid misclassifying students by overlooking key information about them. Kelvin wished, at the end, that the authors had made some of these suggestions.
Relevance: a critical framework
In this study the authors offered a sort of backhanded framework of thinking about categories of disability; or more precisely they offered a framework for understanding what the categories are not. In essence they said that disability categories describe qualities “in” students only in the sense that educators and others happen to think of disability categories in this way. An equally reasonable way to think about disabilities, they argued, is that modern society is organized so that its citizens have to be classified for many different reasons. Educators are simply helping to implement this society-wide expectation. A frequent result in classrooms is that teachers classify students too easily and that key evidence of students’ capacity is overlooked.
In making this argument, the authors implied an indirect recommendation about how to teach, though the recommendation actually focused on what teachers should not do. Instead of (mis)identifying children with learning difficulties, the authors implied, teachers and other educators should stop concerning themselves with classifying children, and seek to reorganize classrooms and schools so that classification is less important. “Change the school”, they wrote, “and LD becomes less relevant”. This conclusion may be an important reminder, but it is not especially helpful as a recommendation to practicing teachers, who usually need to know about more than what to avoid.
The readers’ role: concerned advocate for social justice
It is not surprising that the article lacked concrete recommendations for teaching, given that the authors seemed to speak to readers not as classroom teachers, but as general critics of society who are concerned about fairness or social justice. Their comments made two assumptions: first, that readers will want to minimize unfair stereotypes of students, and second, that readers will seek greater fairness in how teachers treat students. For readers who happen to be teachers themselves, the first of these assumptions is a reasonable one; most of us would indeed like to minimize unfair stereotyping of students. The second is also reasonable, but perhaps not in a way that the authors intended. Teachers probably do try their best to treat students fairly and respectfully. Their responsibilities usually mean, however, that they can only do this conveniently with their own students; the time available to work toward general social justice is often limited. (As you might suspect, Kelvin was not fully satisfied after he finished reading this article!)
Example #3: The impact of bilingualism on reading
In 1995, three education professors—Robert Jiménez, Georgia García, and David Pearson—published a study about the impact of bilingualism on children’s ability to read English (1995). The three specialized in curriculum studies, literacy acquisition, and bilingual language development, and were therefore motivated by a concern for the academic success of bilingual children and especially by concern for identifying why bilingual children sometimes have difficulty learning to read English. Too much research on bilingualism, they argued, was based on what they called a “deficit” framework: it focused on what bilingual children lacked compared to monolinguals. They sought an alternative framework, one focused on bilingual students’ competence, and especially on their competence to read a second language.
To search for this alternative, the researchers mounted a large research program, and the article published in 1995 was one of the studies resulting from this research. It caught Kelvin’s interest not only because of its topic, but because of its approach. Instead of surveying dozens of students with a questionnaire, as researchers sometimes do, these investigators relied on just three students studied intensively. Each student became a case study and included detailed, lengthy observations and interviews of that particular student. Each student was chosen deliberately for a particular purpose. One was a highly proficient reader who was also bilingual (Spanish and English); a second was a marginally proficient reader who was bilingual (Spanish and English); and a third was a highly proficient reader who was monolingual in English. To qualify for the study, furthermore, each student had to be comfortable reflecting on and talking about their own reading processes, so that the authors could interview them at length on this topic. The researchers asked each student to read six one-page passages in English and (where relevant) in Spanish. They invited all three to think aloud about their reading as they went along, commenting on how they figured out particular words or passages. The oral readings and think-aloud commentaries were taped and transcribed, and became the information on which the authors based their conclusions and recommendations.
Using these procedures, Jiménez, García, and Pearson discovered important differences among the three girls. The proficient bilingual, Pamela, used her growing knowledge of each language to help in learning vocabulary from the other language. When she encountered the English word “species” , for example, she guessed correctly that it meant the same as the similar Spanish word “especies”; and when she encountered the Spanish “liquído”, she guessed correctly that it meant the English “liquid”. Her focus on learning vocabulary was stronger than for the proficient monolingual, Michelle, who commented less on specific words than how the overall reading passages related to her prior general knowledge. The difference presumably stemmed from Michelle’s greater familiarity with English vocabulary—so much greater, in fact, that Michelle did not need to think about individual words deliberately. Both Michelle and Pamela differed, however, from the less-proficient bilingual reader, Christine. Like Pamela, Christine focused on vocabulary, but she did not think of her native Spanish as a resource for this task. When reading a Spanish word, she was sometimes reminded of English equivalents (“cognates,” as language teachers call them), but she did not use her much greater knowledge of Spanish to assist with her more limited English. She did not search for equivalent words deliberately, as Pamela did.
Relevance: recommendations for teaching english as an additional language
The authors of this article focused more directly on particular learning behaviors than did the authors of the two articles described earlier. Jimenez and his colleagues emphasized the importance of regarding a child’s native language as a strength in the process, not a liability, and they then pointed out the importance of facilitating vocabulary development. But they did not claim this recommendation to be appropriate for all children or for all forms of bilingualism. They only focused on a particular pair of languages (Spanish and English in the USA), and on three combinations of skill level in these two languages. These are common bilingual experiences in the United States, but they are not the only ones, either in the United States or elsewhere in the world.
For other bilingual situations, their conclusions might not hold true. For some students (e.g. Chinese- Americans), the native language and the second language are much more different in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar than Spanish is to English, and therefore may provide less of a resource to a child learning to read. In some settings, relationships between languages are more equal than in the United States. In Canada, for example, both the numbers and the overall social status of English speakers and French speakers are more equal than in the United States. In both of these situations, if a child fails to learn to read the second language, it may not be for the reasons suggested by Robert Jiménez, but for other reasons, ranging from difficulties with reading per se to cultural differences in how a child expects to be taught (Johnson, 2004).
The reader’s role: both teacher and researcher
In the published article describing their research, Jiménez, García, and Pearson assumed that readers have some familiarity with bilingual students and with issues related to teaching reading. They began their article by describing previous research studies in these areas—more than a dozen of them, in fact. In the middle they described numerous responses of the three bilingual students to the passages they were asked to read. At the end of the article they made specific suggestions for teaching, such as “focus more on vocabulary development”. When Kelvin read these various sections, he found that his prior knowledge of and reflections about teaching helped to make sense of them. But he also found that did not need to be an expert in bilingualism order to understand the authors’ messages—he had never, in fact, taught English as a Second Language, nor had he ever conducted research on reading or bilingual language development.
Action research: hearing from teachers about improving practice
Each of the professional articles just described offers ideas and recommendations that can stimulate reflection about teaching and learning. But they all suffer from a particular limitation: Although they often relate to teachers and classrooms, teachers’ role in influencing in designing and interpreting a study is minimal. In the world of educational research, persons other than teachers—typically professors, educational administrators, or other professional researchers—tend to speak on behalf of teachers. All three of the articles described earlier in this chapter had this feature. Persons other than teachers chose the research topics.
The information that emerges from this arrangement often still relates to teaching and learning, and may contain useful insights for classroom work. But by definition, it is framed by people whose interests and fundamental commitments may not be identical with classroom teachers. As a result, the studies are somewhat more likely to attend to problems posed by academic disciplines or by educational administrators. Two of the studies which we described earlier—the ones about moral development and about labels for disabilities—showed this quality. Classroom teachers are concerned, of course, about both moral development and categorizing of students. But if teachers had designed the two projects themselves, they might have re-framed both of them to focus more explicitly on the challenges of classroom teaching. In studying moral beliefs, for example, teachers might have focused more squarely on how to foster moral beliefs in their students. In studying inclusive education, they might have focused more fully on the practical difficulties faced by teachers in assessing students’ learning disabilities with validity.
The nature of action research
In view of these issues, a particularly important kind of investigation for teachers is action research (sometimes also teacher research), an activity referring to systematic, intentional inquiry by teachers for the purpose of improving their own practice (Stenhouse, 1985; Brydon-Miller, Greenwood, & Maguire, 2003; Russell, T. & Loughran, J. 2005). Action research is not to be confused with research about teaching and learning, which are investigations by professional researchers on topics of teachers, teaching, or learning.
Action research has several defining characteristics, in addition to being planned and conducted by teachers. First, it originates in the problems and dilemmas of classroom practice, or in chronic problems with certain students, materials, or activities. Second, its outcomes offer information focused on particular teachers and classrooms, rather than about teachers in general or students in general. Although this feature might make action research seem less useful as a source of advice or knowledge that is truly general, supporters argue that focusing on specific learning contexts makes action research more credible or valid as a source of practical information and ideas. It is, they argue, simply more attuned to the context of real classrooms (St. Clair, 2005). Third, while the audience for action research can certainly include professors and educational administrators, the audience tends to be other teachers (Fenstermacher, 1994; Ackerman & MacKenzie, 2007). Action research is therefore in an especially strong position to provide “insider” perspectives on educational problems.
Action research in practice
Action research makes a number of assumptions as a result of its nature and purposes (Richardson, 1994; Schmuck, 2006). To varying degrees, most such studies support some combination of these ideas:
- that teaching is itself really a form of research
- that action research, like teaching itself, requires substantial reflection
- that collaboration among teachers is crucial for making teacher research meaningful, and for the improvement of teaching
- that teachers’ knowledge of teaching has to be shared publicly, especially when gained systematically through action research
To see how these features look in practice, look at several examples of action research studies.
Example #1: Focusing on motivating students
A number of years ago, Patricia Clifford and Sharon Friesen published an account of their effort to develop a classroom program based on students’ out-of-school interests and experiences (1993). Clifford and Friesen were co-teachers in a double-sized classroom which deliberately included children from first, second and third grades. Their interest in students’ out-of-school experiences grew out of three more basic questions about teaching, which they phrased like this:
- How can curriculum remain open to children’s unique experiences and connect with the world they know outside the school? Too often, the official school curriculum lacked meaning for children because it seemed cut off from the rest of the world. The result was unmotivated students and poor learning.
- Why is imaginative experience the best starting place for planning? The teachers felt that imaginative experiences—make-believe play, stories, poems—provided access to children’s lives outside school—their make-believe play, or their stories or poems. Perhaps somehow these could be connected to the goals of the official curriculum.
- What happens when teachers break down the barriers between school knowledge and real knowledge? Indrawing on children’s outside experiences, would children actually become more motivated or not? Would they take over the program, and fail to learn the official curriculum goals?
To answer these questions, the teachers kept extensive diaries or journals for one entire school year. These became the “data” for the research. In the journals, they described and reflected on their daily teaching experiences. The teachers also talked with each other extensively about classroom events and their significance, and the results of the conversations often entered the journals eventually during the research. In their journal, for example, the teachers recorded an experience with students about ways of telling time. In preliminary discussions the students became interested in how a sundial worked. So the teachers and students went outside, where they created a human sundial, using the students themselves. The teachers’ journal kept a chronicle of these events, and noted the comments and questions which students developed as a result:
- If you stood in the same place for a whole day you would see your shadow change places because the earth changes position.
- Why is my shadow longer than I am in the evening, but shorter at noon?
- Clouds can block the sun’s rays so sundials won’t work on rainy days.
- How did people start to tell time?
As the year evolved and observations accumulated and were recorded, the teachers gradually began to answer their own three questions. They found, for example, that connecting the curriculum with children’s interests and motives was most effective when they could establish a personal bond with a child. They also found that imaginative expression helped certain children to feel safe to explore ideas. They found that blending school-based and personal knowledge caused children to learn much more than before—although much of the additional knowledge was not part of an official curriculum. With these conclusions in mind, and with numerous examples to support them, Clifford and Friesen published their study so that others could share what they had learned about teaching, learning, and students.
The study by Clifford and Friesen is interesting in its own right, but for our purposes think for a moment about their work as an example of action research. One of its features is that it formed part of the normal course of teaching: the authors were simply more systematic about how they observed the students and recorded information about classroom events. Another feature is that the research required conscious reflection over an extended time: their journals and conversations contained not only descriptions of events, but also interpretations of the events. A third feature is that the study involved collaboration: it was not just one teacher studying the major questions, but two. Th fourth feature is that the teachers not only developed their results and conclusions for themselves, but also shared them with others. These four qualities make the study by Clifford and Friesen a clear example of teacher research. Note, though, that sometimes studies conducted by teachers may not show all of these features so clearly; instead they may show some of the key features, but not all of them, as in the next two examples.
Example #2: Focusing on development
Since 1981, Vivian Paley has published a series of short books documenting and interpreting her observations of young children in classrooms (1981, 1986, 1991, 1998, 2000, 2005). Paley was interested in how young children develop or change over the long term, and in particular how the development looks from the point of view of a classroom teacher. In one of these books, for example, she observed one child in particular, Mollie, from the time she entered nursery school just after her third birthday until after the child turned four years old (Paley, 1986). Her interest was not focused on curriculum, as Clifford and Friesen’s had done, but on Mollie as a growing human being; “the subject which I most wished to learn,” she wrote, “is children” (p. xiv). Paley therefore wrote extended narrative (or story-like) observations about the whole range of activities of this one child, and wove in periodic brief reflections on the observations. Because the observations took story-like form, her books read a bit like novels: themes are sometimes simply suggested by the story line, rather than stated explicitly. Using this approach, Paley demonstrated (but occasionally also stated) several important developmental changes. In Mollie at Three (1988), for example, she describes examples of Mollie’s language development. At three years, the language was often disconnected from Mollie’s actions—she would talk about one thing, but do another. By four, she was much more likely to tie language to her current activities, and in this sense she more often “said what she meant”. A result of the change was that Mollie also began understanding and following classroom rules as the year went on, because the language of rules became more connected in her mind to the actions to which they referred.
Vivian Paley’s book had some of the characteristics of action research—but with differences from Clifford and Friesen’s. Like their research, Paley’s “data” was based on her own teaching, while her teaching was influenced in turn by her systematic observations. Like Clifford and Friesen’s, Paley’s research involved numerous reflections on teaching, and it led to a public sharing of the reflections—in this case in the form of several small books. Unlike Clifford and Friesen, though, Paley worked independently, without collaboration. Unlike Clifford and Friesen, she deliberately integrated observation and interpretation as they might be integrated in a piece of fiction, so that the resulting “story” often implied or showed its message without stating it in so may words. In this regard her work had qualities of what some educators call arts-based research, which are studies that take advantage of an artistic medium (in this case, narrative or story-like writing) to heighten readers’ understanding and response to research findings (Barone and Eisner, 2006). If you are studying the use of space in the classroom, for example, then aesthetically organized visual depictions (photos, drawings) of the room may be more helpful and create more understanding than verbal descriptions. If you are studying children’s musical knowledge, on the other hand, recordings of performances by the children may be more helpful and informative than discussions of performances.
Example #3: Focusing on collaboration
In 1996, an example of action research was published that was intended simultaneously for classroom teachers and for university researchers, and which focused on the challenges of collaboration among educators (Ulichny & Schoener, 1996). A teacher (Wendy Schoener) and a university researcher (Polly Ulichny) explored how, or even whether, teachers and university researchers could participate as equals in the study of teaching. Wendy (the two used first names throughout when they published their experiences) was a teacher of adults learning English as a Second Language (ESL); Polly was a specialist in multicultural education and wanted to observe a teacher who was successful at reaching the ethnically diverse students who normally study ESL. Polly therefore asked Wendy for permission to study her teaching for an extended period of time—to visit her class, videotape it, interview her about it, and the like.
What followed is best described as an extended negotiation between teacher and professor for access to Wendy’s class, on the one hand, and for mutual respect for each other’s work, on the other. In the published article, the negotiations are described separately by each participant, in order to honor the differences in their concerns and perspectives. Before, during, and after the observations, it was necessary for Polly and Wendy each to adjust expectations of what the other person could do and was willing to do. As the authors put it, some things were “easy to hear” from the other and some things were “hard to hear”. Wendy, as a teacher, found it easier to hear criticisms of her teaching if they came from herself, rather than from the higher-status university professor, Polly. Polly, for her part, found it easier to hear Wendy’s comments if she matched Wendy’s self-criticisms and evaluations with some of her own experiences. Polly therefore made sure to tell Wendy about dilemmas and problems she experienced in her own (university) teaching. Because they needed to adjust to hearing and talking with each other, the two educators eventually focused less on Polly’s original purpose—studying multicultural teaching—and more on the problem of how teachers and university researchers might collaborate effectively.
Overall, this study qualifies as a piece of action research, though it is not fully focused on classroom teaching. For example, the teachers did collaborate and reflect on their experiences, but not all of the reflection was about teaching in classrooms. The rest was about the relationship between Wendy and Polly. While the problem selected was originally about classroom teaching—Wendy’s—it did not originate with the classroom teacher (Wendy) or concerns she had about her own classroom; instead it was chosen by the university researcher (Polly) and her desire to study multicultural teaching. The researchers did share what they learned by publishing their observations and ideas, but their published report speaks only partly to classroom teachers as such; in addition it speaks to academic researchers and educators of future teachers.
By pointing out differences among these examples of action research, we do not mean to imply that one is “better” than another. The point is simply to show how diverse studies by teachers can be and to appreciate their differences. Whatever their specific features, classroom studies by teachers hold in common the commitment to giving a voice to teachers as they reflect on problems and challenges intrinsic to classroom life. This goal can be accomplished in more than one way: through journals and other record-keeping methods, through oral discussions with colleagues, and through written reflections created either for themselves or for others concerned about teaching and learning. Diversity among topics and methods in action research studies should not surprise us, in fact, since classrooms are themselves so diverse.
The challenges of action research
Well and good, you may say. Action research offers teachers a way to hear each other, to learn from their own and other’s experience. But there are also a few cautions to keep in mind, both ethical and practical. Look briefly at each of these areas.
Ethical cautions about action research
One caution is the possibility of conflict of interest between the roles of teaching and conducting action research (Hammack, 1997). A teacher’s first priorities should be the welfare of his or her students: first and foremost, you want students to learn, to be motivated, to feel accepted by their peers, and the like. A researcher’s first priorities, however, are to the field or topic being studied. The two kinds of priorities may often overlap and support each other. Vivian Paley’s observations of children in her classes, described earlier, not only supported her children’s learning, but also her studies of the children.
But situations can also occur in which action research and teaching are less compatible, and can create ethical dilemmas. The problems usually relate to one of three issues: privacy, informed consent, or freedom to participate. Each of these becomes an issue only if the results of a research project are made public, either in a journal or book, as with the examples we have given in this chapter, or simply by being described or shared outside the classroom. (Sharing, you may recall, is one of the defining features of action research.) Look briefly at each of the issues.
Insuring privacy of the student
Teachers often learn information about students that the students or their families may not want publicized. Suppose, for example, you have a student with an intellectual disability in your class, and you wish to study how the student learns. Observing the student work on (and possibly struggle with) academic activities may be quite consistent with a teacher’s responsibilities; after all, teachers normally should pay attention to their students’ academic efforts. But the student or his family may not want such observations publicized or even shared informally with other parents or teachers. They may feel that doing so would risk stigmatizing the student publicly.
To respect the student’s privacy and still study his learning behavior, the teacher (alias the “action researcher”) therefore needs to disguise the student’s identity whenever the research results are made public. In any written or oral report, or even in any hallway conversation about the project, the teacher/researcher would use a pseudonym for the student, and change other identifying information such as the physical description of the student or even the student’s gender. There are limits, however, to how much can be disguised without changing essential information. The teacher could not, for example, hide the fact of the intellectual disability without compromising the point of the study; yet the intellectual disability might be unusual enough that it would effectively identify the student being studied.
Gaining informed consent
Students may not understand what is being studied about them, or even realize that they are being studied at all, unless the teacher/researcher makes an explicit effort to inform them about the action research and how she will use the results from it. The same is true for the students’ parents; unless the teacher-researcher makes an effort to contact parents, they simply will not know that their child’s activities are being observed or may eventually be made public. Students’ ignorance is especially likely if the students are very young (kindergarten) or have intellectual or reading difficulties, as in the example we described above. As an action researcher, therefore, a teacher is obliged to explain the nature of a research project clearly, either in a letter written in simple language or in a face-to-face conversation, or both. Parents and students need to give clear indications that they actually understand what class activities or materials will constitute data that could be made public. In most cases, indicating informed consent means asking students’ parents signing a letter giving permission for the study. Sometimes, in addition, it is a good idea to recheck with students or parents periodically as the project unfolds, to make sure that they still support participation.
Insuring freedom to participate
When a student fails to participate in an ordinary class activity, most teachers consider it legitimate to insist on the student’s participation—either by persuading, demanding, or (perhaps) tricking the student to join. Doing so is ethical for teachers in their roles as teachers, because teachers are primarily responsible for insuring that students learn, and students’ participation presumably facilitates learning. If a teacher designates an activity as part of an action research project, however, and later shares the results with them, the teacher then also becomes partly responsible for how other teachers use knowledge of the research study. (Remember: sharing results is intrinsically part of the research process.) The resulting dual commitment means that “forcing” a student to participate in an action research activity can no longer be justified solely as being for the student’s own educational good.
Much of the time, a simultaneous commitment to both teachers and students presents no real dilemma: what is good for the action research project may also be good for the students. But not always. Suppose, for example, that a teacher wants to do research about students’ beliefs about war and global conflict, and doing so requires that students participate in numerous extended group discussions on this topic. Even though the group discussions might resemble a social studies lesson and in this sense be generally acceptable as a class activity, some parents (or students) may object because they take too much class time away from the normal curriculum topics. Yet the research project necessitates giving it lots of discussion time in class. To respond ethically to this dilemma, therefore, the teacher may need to allow students to opt out of the discussions if they or their parents choose. She may therefore need to find ways for them to cover an alternate set of activities from the curriculum. (One way to do this, for example, is to hold the special group discussions outside regular class times—though this obviously also increases the amount of work for both the teacher and students.)
Practical issues about action research
Is action research practical? From one perspective the answer has to be “Of course not!” Action research is not practical because it may take teachers’ time and effort which they could sometimes use in other ways. Keep in mind, though, that a major part of the effort needed for action research involves the same sort of work—observing, recording information, reflecting—that is needed for any teaching that is done well. A better way to assess practicality may therefore be to recognize that teaching students always takes a lot of work, and to ask whether the additional thoughtfulness brought on by action research will make the teaching more successful.
Looked at in this way, action research is indeed practical, though probably not equally so on every occasion. If you choose to learn about the quality of conversational exchanges between yourself and students, for example, you will need some way to record these dialogues, or at least to keep accurate, detailed notes on them. Recording the dialogues may be practical and beneficial—or not, depending on your circumstances. On the other hand, if you choose to study how and why certain students remain on the margins of your class socially, this problem too may be practical as action research. Or it may not, depending on whether you can find a way to observe and reflect on students’ social interactions, or lack thereof. Much depends on your circumstances—on the attention you can afford to give to your research problem while teaching, in relation to the benefits that solutions to the problems will bring students later. In general any action research project may require certain choices about how to teach, though it should not interfere with basic instructional goals or prevent coverage of an important curriculum. The main point to remember is that action research is more than passive observation of students and classrooms; it also includes educational interventions, efforts to stimulate students to new thinking and new responses. Those are features of regular teaching; the difference is primarily in how systematically and reflectively you do them.
Benefiting from all kinds of research
Although we authors both feel a degree of sympathy for the nature and purposes of action research, we are not trying to advocate for it at the expense of other forms of educational research or at the expense of simply reading and understanding professional publications in general. The challenge for you, as a classroom teacher, is to find the value in all forms of professional development, whether it be participation in a professional association, reading general articles about research, or engaging in your own action research. To the extent that you draw on them all, your ways of learning about teaching will be enriched. You will acquire more ways to understand classroom life, while at the same time acquiring perspective on that life. You will learn ways to grasp the individuality of particular students, but also to see what they need in common. You will have more ways to interpret your own experiences as a professional teacher, but also be able to learn from the professional experience of others. Realizing these benefits fully is a challenge, because the very diversity of classrooms renders problems about teaching and learning complex and diverse as well. But you will also gain good, professional company in searching for better understanding of your work—company that includes both educational researchers, other professional teachers, and of course your students.
The complexities of teaching require teachers to continue learning throughout their teaching careers. To become a lifelong reflective practitioner, teachers can rely on colleagues as a resource, on professional associations and their activities, and on professional publications related to educational issues and needs. Understanding the latter, in turn, requires understanding the purposes of the published material—whether it is offering a general framework, recommending desirable teaching practices, or advocating for a particular educational policy or need. Interpreting published material also requires understanding the assumptions that authors make about readers’ prior knowledge and beliefs.
An important additional strategy for becoming a reflective practitioner is action research—studies of teaching and learning designed and carried out by teachers in order to improve their own practice. By nature, action research studies are highly relevant to classroom practice, but there are also cautions about it to keep in mind, both ethically and practically.
Assumptions about readers’ prior knowledge
Insuring privacy of students
Insuring freedom to participate
purposes of educational research
On the Internet
<http://www.aera.net> This is the official website of the American Educational Research Association (or AERA), a major “umbrella” professional association supporting educational research of all kinds. The home page has links to over two dozen special interest groups (called “SIGs”), each specializing in some form of educational research or practice. There is, among others, a special interest group called “teacher as researcher”, intended primarily for educators involved in action research.
<http://www.nea.org> This is the website of the National Education Association (or NEA), another major professional association of educators. The difference between this association and the American Educational Research Association, however, is that the NEA focuses less on presenting research as such, and more on issues of teaching practice. Like the AERA website, it includes articles on numerous topics that can be downloaded or read online.
<http://www.ed.gov/offices/OERI> This is the website of the United States Office of Educational Research and Improvement. It summarizes current research initiatives about education that are sponsored by the United States Federal government, and includes links for finding information about the individual initiatives which it lists.
<www.scra27.org>, <coe.westga.edu/arsig> These two websites belong to professional organizations dedicated to action research. The first belongs to the Society for Community Research and Action, a division of the American Psychological Association. It promotes and publishes action research in many professions, one of which is education. The second website belongs to the Action Research Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association; as you might suspect from its name, it focuses exclusively on action research by educators.
Ackerman, R. & MacKenzie, S. (Eds.). (2007). Uncovering teacher leadership: Voices from the field. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
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