Teachers as Researchers

A good teacher will evaluate their own practice and reflect on how they can improve. That evaluation will almost certainly involve analysing data, and assessing the work students produce. It may also involve talking to students about what they enjoyed, or found difficult, or asking them to complete a short questionnaire. It may involve asking a colleague to observe you teach, or you observing someone else’s lesson. The results of the evaluations will influence your planning and hopefully, will encourage you to try new things. So when does ‘good practice’ become ‘research’? And what are the advantages of engaging in research?

‘Research’ is defined by the Chambers dictionary as: ‘systematic investigation towards increasing the sum of knowledge’. This definition provides some clues. It is suggested that a piece of inquiry, evaluation, or development work becomes ‘research’ when the following apply:

  • the work involves capturing data: Conversations or lessons might be recorded so that they can be used outside the context in which the events took place. Students’ work might also be used as evidence.
  • participants are being asked to do something out of the ordinary: You might ask people to take part in a focus group, or an interview that disrupts their normal routine in some way.
  • the output is public: If the output is public then it can contribute to the ‘sum of knowledge’. However, if the results of the piece of work are to be made public, people need to be confident that this new knowledge is based on reliable evidence, that the conclusions are valid and that the research has been carried out properly.

The advantage of conducting research is that it is systematic and contributes knowledge to the field, which in this is case is ‘education’. The ‘knowledge’ is based on evidence, can be defended and explained, and is therefore likely to be taken more seriously than accounts of personal experience. A piece of research is also likely to take place over a significant period of time, and if conducted properly will help you to consider what works and also provide insights into why it works.

If these conditions apply, then the work does constitute ‘research’. This has further implications:

  • The work should take account of other studies in the field. Studying the literature will also give you some ideas about how you might tackle the issue that you are concerned about.
  • The work should be systematic and purposeful. It should be underpinned by a clear philosophy and set of beliefs. There should be specific research questions and an ethical design that will give reliable results that are likely to be considered to be valid, by others.

Exercise 2.1. Thinking About Research

The following activities will help you to think about how to design good research – starting with thinking about what you might research.

Choose an area of particular interest to you and answer the following questions:

  • What do you want to find out more about and why?
  • What could you focus a piece of research on?
  • Suggest a working title for your study.
  • Write down two or three specific research questions.

Exercise 2.2. Start Researching

Spend about 30 minutes searching the internet for material related to your chosen area or topic and begin to explore other work in the field. The aim is to become familiar with the field as this might affect the questions you want to consider. You will want to see what research has already be done in this area and consider how this might refine your own research. You may find that your question has already been answered, that your question may need to be modified, or that your research is brand new.

Conductin Research

As a teacher undertaking a study in your own classroom, it is likely that it will be relatively small-scale and short-term. The methodologies that will be of most use to you are case studies and action research.

Case study

There are many definitions of case studies in the literature, and many different types of case study (Yin, 2003; Stake, 1995; Gillham, 2000; Bassey, 1999). However, they all have the following features:

  • they are ‘bounded’ in space and time
  • the research takes place in the natural context and draws on multiple methods of collecting data
  • the purpose is to inform practitioners, policymakers, or theoreticians.

A case study might be designed to find out more about a situation; it might be designed to test a particular theory or it might be designed to try and explain an observed phenomenon.

The main criticism of case studies is that the findings cannot be generalized. This can be addressed by making the context clear to the reader in a detailed report; it is then up to the reader to take from the study information and ideas that might apply to their own situation.

Action research

Action research is best considered to be a strategy rather than a specific method (McNiff and Whitehead, 2011; Wilson, 2013). It involves practitioners systematically investigating their own practice, with a view to improving it. Action research involves the following steps:

  • Identify a problem that you want to solve in your classroom This might be something quite specific such as why certain pupils do not answer questions or find an aspect of your subject hard or de-motivating, or it might be something more general like how to organise group work effectively.
  • Define the purpose and clarify what form the intervention might take. This will involve consulting the literature and finding out what is already known about this issue.
  • Plan an intervention designed to tackle the issue.
  • Collect empirical data and analyze it
  • Plan another intervention This will be based on what you find and will be designed to further understand the issue that you have identified.

Action research is a cyclical process. Through repeated intervention and analysis, you will come to understand the issue or problem and hopefully to do something about it.

Figure 2.10.1 Action research cycle.

Action research suffers from some of the same criticisms as case studies: can the results be generalized? Rigour in this case comes from careful planning and clear reporting. The findings will be ‘believable’ if the researchers explain what they hope to achieve and how the intended actions link specifically to the problem. The process needs to be explicit and underpinned by a clear framework of ideas against which the findings will be judged (Kemmis, 1993).

Exercises 2.3. Planning Research Design

Given your research question and the previous research on this topic, which research design would you use? Case study? Action research? Or one of the traditional empirical designs discussed earlier in the chapter (descriptive, correlational, experimental)?

Collecting Data

Earlier in this chapter, we discussed various data collection methods used in research. Having decided on the research question and the research approach, the next decision is the method of data collection that will help answer the research question. Evidence from several sources of data will aid in the confidence of findings.

Figure 2.10.2. Overview of different data collection methods. See the previous section on data collection for more information.

Exercise 2.4. Data Collection

Based on your research question and planned research approach, which data collection method(s) might be appropriate?

Disseminating Research

Classrooms can be private places in which a teacher and the class get on with the business of teaching and learning. If you undertake a piece of research in your classroom and discover something exciting then your instinct will be to tell people and to perhaps do a presentation at a departmental meeting. People might listen with interest, but it will not necessarily change their behavior.

David Frost (2006) argues that you have to plan for impact. An effective way to do this is to work collaboratively from the outset. Involve colleagues in your plans, invite them into your classroom and engage them in discussions about aspects of your project. In this way your department will become a ‘learning community’ and you are likely to get some help with your work.

Exercise 2.5. Disseminating Your Research

Go back to your research plan and think about how you might involve a colleague, or your department or someone else in your school.

  • Who do you need to influence?
  • What might they do to help?
  • What will the benefits be?