No simple thing
It is not a simple thing for a teacher to become a good researcher. You have to change position, use different skills and work in a team. And, make no mistake, research requires real discipline or it descends into mush.
The change in position is dramatic: from standing in front as the teacher and leading, to sitting as unobtrusively as possible and following. Of course, that’s too simplistic but the move is certainly from being a doer, to acting first and foremost as an observer. My greatest successes as a teacher-researcher were in learning how to observe learners as a quiet non-participant in other people’s lessons. Other teacher-researchers learn how to observe teachers skilfully. Both approaches will work but, for me, it was shifting to observe learners, early in my career, that changed my teaching practices. It changed my position, permanently.
The new skills are those of watching and listening, accurately. These are under-rated skills. Our tendency as teachers, certainly in our first years of teaching, is to develop our intuition and to make swift judgments that keep learning alive. But research requires a precision about watching and recording what we see. To be a very good researcher – paradoxically to see more – you have to try to take your own prior expectations out of the observation. Try to record what happens and not what you might want or expect to happen. Research usually blossoms where the researcher suspends their expectations and positively gets their burgeoning interpretation out of the way. Then they can look more clearly at the outcomes of their records, later. Evidence is never un-tainted but it can be made less tainted.
Teamwork is a huge help. It is in the nature of research to collaborate. Collaboration allows you to collect more evidence in more settings. It adds perspective and allows triangulation. And it is in the very nature of good research that it has to be shared, published even, so that others can examine and critique it.
But, my emphasis in this short piece is on the importance of discipline in research. Research is not just a business of observing practice and reproducing what we see as evidence for beliefs that we already hold. Discipline in research requires precisely the opposite: the conditions for seeking evidence should be to try to find conditions that disprove your assumptions.
More than that. The researcher should always examine their conclusions and their evidence to test whether the facts could be taken to support the very opposite of the interpretations they have made. In truth, good research – like the best science – should be allowed to surprise the researcher. Too often, when I read educational research, it feels like the researcher is relieved to arrive at conclusions that reinforce their prior values and beliefs. I am left wondering whether the teacher truly abandoned the discipline of teaching and embraced the discipline of research.
In my view, the two best Professional Development programmes in the world are founded in research techniques: Japanese Lesson Study and Harvard’s Instructional Rounds. It is not an accident that both require disciplined inquiry and they involve training for teachers in working in teams that abide by those disciplines. This is teacher research at its best.
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