'I think I'll do some research today': issues around teacher research and professional development.
Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association, University of Exeter, England, 12-14 September 2002
This paper explores the current context of the professional development of teachers in the UK, refers to the situation in the US, and develops an argument for a particular approach to teachers doing research. It promotes the concept of teachers as practitioner researchers and promotes teacher research into thinking, practice and professional development. It seeks to highlight the relationship between doing research and developing professionally and to argue that researching classroom and school contexts is a vital part of teachers' professional development. It argues for a new perspective on continuing professional development policy and provision.
The current context for teachers' professional development
Teaching today takes place in a world of rapid change and development and teachers are expected to meet high standards of teaching and raise levels of achievement in schools and colleges. During the last 10 years or so, education has been the subject of intense accountability measures, the implementation of a National Curriculum and the introduction of a national programme of testing more detailed and demanding than any other national programme. Teachers have at times felt a lack of ownership and a lack of self worth, as measures to inspect schools and appraise teachers have been introduced under the banner of 'modernising' teaching.
Within the context of 'rolling reform' and piecemeal implementation, the professional development of teachers has become a high profile, politically 'hot' issue. Civil servants, politicians, professional associations, private sector companies, universities, schools and LEAs, all are stakeholders in teachers' professional development and all are interested in getting a 'piece of the cake'. All teachers are required to engage in professional development; to identify, document, record and evaluate it as they cross through the barriers of induction standards, grapple with targets for performance management, submit threshold applications or bid for research scholarships, international exchanges, professional bursaries and sabbaticals.
This phenomenon is not restricted to the UK. Cochran-Smith and Fries (2001: 3) describe the scene across the Atlantic,
'there have never before been such blistering media commentaries
and such highly politicised battles about teacher education as those
that have dominated the public discourse and fuelled legislative
reforms at the state and federal levels during the last five years or so'
In the battles referred to are opposing sides, one trying to professionalise teaching and link this to raising standards in schools, or the other, trying to deregulate teacher preparation and development and setting out to highlight the lack of connection between teacher qualifications and pupil achievement. Cochran-Smith and Fries(2001:13) made an important point that,
' the way the problem of teacher education' is conceptualised in the
first place has a great deal to do with the conclusions that are drawn
about the empirical evidence suggesting what policies are the best
solutions for reforming teacher education'.
There would appear to be a great deal of commonality in the state of teacher education and development on both sides of the Atlantic.
The professional development of teachers is the latest target of government policy. It has found its realisation in an official publication,' Learning and Teaching: A Strategy for professional development', (2001). There has been a gradual recognition over the last ten years or so of the importance of Continuing Professional Development (CPD), as initiative after initiative has been launched in schools, and teachers have tried to meet the challenges of rapid change. Literacy, and Numeracy Strategies followed the juggernaut of National Curriculum and testing, then, for example, Education Action Zones, Excellence in Cities, Beacon schools, Flagship Schools, Training Schools, Specialist Schools and Colleges, City Academies, and Launchpad Schools and Networked Learning Communities, to name a few.
These are difficult times for teachers. Far more public accountability is demanded than ever before and that accountability is increasingly more visible in league tables, inspections and media coverage. It would appear from ministerial speeches and from policy documents, such as the Continuing Professional Development Strategy, DfES, 2001, that individual schools and classrooms are to become 'learning communities' and the main, key, future sites of professional development. The raising standards agenda dominates the professional preparation and development of teachers and initiatives such as Best Practice Research Scholarships, Education Action Zones and Excellence in Cities must demonstrate how they will address the raising of pupil achievement. It is an 'a priori' assumption that better prepared teachers mean, better achieving pupils, and current initiatives are predicated on improving teaching and learning in classrooms by supporting teachers in their professional development. There would appear to be a tension between personal professional development needs and the needs of the school or department. This tension has been largely ignored though an identification of individual needs features prominently in the proposed implementation in many of the new initiatives or innovations at central government level.
Some would argue that teachers' professional development has been revived as an issue due to recruitment and, in particular, retention issues in the profession (Eraut, 1999). At no other time has the crisis in classrooms been as acute as it is now. A variety of support has been promised: classroom assistants, new technological aid, scholarships, bursaries and the provision of good quality CPD. Normally however, these are not available to all teachers and schools as an entitlement. Teachers and schools have to make bids and write proposals, sometimes to gain financial support or to match funding to participate in development activities. The culture of 'bidding' and proposing projects has arrived in the UK, imported from the USA, increasing the divide between the 'haves' and the 'have nots'. Whilst a climate of diversity offers flexibility, it can also result in inequalities of provision and entitlement for pupils, teachers and schools.
Highly politicised debates have also been imported, as referred to by Cochran-Smith and Fries (2001) in their article which discusses how 'the evidentiary warrant - empirical versus ideological', the 'political warrant- good versus private good' and the 'accountability warrant- outcomes versus inputs' are intended by advocates of competing agendas to add up to and capture the 'linguistic high ground of common sense' about how to improve the quality of America's teachers. Cochran-Smith and Fries conclude with a cautionary note that unless there is debate about the underlying ideals, ideologies and values in relation to the evidence about teacher quality and about the discourse of teacher education reform, there will be little progress in understanding the politics of teacher education reform and the competing agendas.
In the English context, Whitty (1999) refers to the tensions between regulation or state control of teachers' work and the apparent shift back to 'licensed autonomy' through the establishment of a General Teaching council (GTC). We have, in both the English and American contexts, a situation where there is seemingly a great deal of central control of the profession but also a great move to de-regulation in terms of entry to the profession and access to professional development. Whitty, above, argues that a 'third way' or a way that is different from the state control model, and the 'traditional professionalism or self governance' model needs to be found in order to move forward. He calls this alternative, 'democratic professionalism', where teachers would set up alliances with parents, pupils and members of the community, seemingly not a long way away from some of the current proposals for learning communities and networks, but he asks,
'In the light of recent history, my question would be - is either the state
or the profession willing to face up to the challenge?'
In the foreword to 'Learning and Teaching: A strategy for professional development', David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment states that
" I believe that professional development is above all about developing
extraordinary talent and inspiration, and especially the classroom
practice of teachers, by making sure that they have the finest and most
up-to-date tools to do their job"
Teachers' professional development toolkits will have to have more than the physical tools which teachers use. Does a toolkit need to include personal qualities such as enthusiasm, creativity, joy and passion? If not, the toolkit would arguably be less than adequate. Hargreaves, (1992: ix) believes that the ways teachers teach are grounded in 'their backgrounds, their biographies... their hopes their dreams their opportunities and aspirations'.
Forms of Continuing Professional Development
It is the aim of this section to consider and discuss the forms of professional development that may support teachers as researchers.
Defining professional development is not an easy task, highly dependent on the cultural and socio- economic climate prevalent at any one time. Certainly at the time of writing, in the early 21st century, teachers' professionalism has been somewhat demeaned by the intense media coverage of what goes on in classrooms and schools and by the number of government interventions in what teachers should do and know. Day (1999) agrees with Hargreaves, above, when he writes about 'teachers' development being located in their personal and professional lives and in the policy and school settings in which they work' and sees teacher development as lifelong and a necessary part of teaching. Day (1999:2) has ten precepts about professional development which underpin his writing which span the following and serve to illustrate a set of principles for good quality professional development arising from research:
1) Support for professional development as an integral part of raising standards of teaching and learning
2) Teachers as models of lifelong learning for their students
3) Lifelong learning in order to keep up with change and innovation
4) Learning from experience is not enough
5) The value of the interplay between life history, current development, school contexts and the wider social and political scene
6) The synthesis of 'the heart and the head' in complex educational settings
7) Content and pedagogical knowledge cannot be divorced from teachers' personal, professional and moral purposes
8) Active learning styles which encourage ownership and participation
9) Successful schools are dependent on successful teachers
10) Planned career-long development is the responsibility of teachers, schools and government.
Implicit in the above precepts is the notion that professional development takes many forms, from the solitary, unaided, daily reflections on experience, to working with a more experienced or knowledgeable practitioner, through observing and being observed, in professional discourses, and by attendance at workshops, courses and conferences. There has been little research that has focussed on the nature and quality of CPD, apart from Day's seminal work and review of research (1999). Currently the Department for Education and Skills has commissioned a team of researchers from Manchester Metropolitan University and Education Data Surveys to undertake a baseline survey of a large number of teachers' perceptions of CPD in order to gain information about the range and quality of CPD in England which would help them plan initiatives for the future, due to report in late 2002. Early indications of the findings of that project point to a great deal of variation in teachers' perceptions, knowledge and understandings of the processes and products of professional development. There are clearly uneven playing fields, some schools and teachers having cultures, systems and structures that enable them to access a wide range of opportunities of varying types. Some schools and teachers are able to operate in collegial and collaborative ways to embed professional development initiatives. There would also appear to be a need to prioritise individual needs and to balance these against whole school or national priorities. The research and development opportunities offered by the 2001 CPD Strategy were not well known in the sample of teachers surveyed, indicating a need for further dissemination.
A study of c.1000 teachers' opinions of effective professional development across the USA was recently published, Garet et al (2001), from which a number of interesting findings can be gleaned. The research focussed on mathematics and science teachers' self reported accounts of the effects of different characteristics of professional development on their learning. Results indicate core features of professional development activities that have powerful effects on learning and changes in classroom practice: They-
a) focus on content knowledge,
b) provide opportunities for active learning
c) have coherence with other learning activities.
It was found that through these core features, the following structural features significantly affect teacher learning:
1) the form of teacher activity,
2) collective participation of teachers from the same school, grade or subject and
3) the duration of the activity.
Garet et al (2001:936) also reported
'that it was more important to focus on the duration, collective
participation and the core features (i.e. content, active learning and
coherence) than type'
The type of activity was less important than sustained, content focussed, coherent, active learning. Unsurprisingly, one major challenge identified for provision of high quality professional development is cost. There are a number of lessons for the UK in this article, not least the need for collective participation in professional development. The current CPD Strategy seems to favour both: individual teachers as the focus for initiatives, requiring them to apply for funding or search out the appropriate activity for themselves; also requiring all teachers to participate in prescribed national training for literacy and numeracy. The advent of performance management for all teachers may have focussed teachers on their professional development activities, but the direct linking of pupil progress to pay may yet prove to be a wrong move in trying to re-professionalise the teaching force. The Hay McBer report, (2000), whilst espousing a managerial approach to teacher development indicated that a degree of autonomy was important in teacher development and this is supported by Whitty (1999) in his identification of the current struggles over professionalism.
Changes in the last twenty years would appear to have resulted in a decrease in teachers' professional autonomy and seem distant from Stenhouse's (1975;144) ideas of,
'autonomous professional development through systematic self study,
....and through questioning and testing of ideas by classroom
It could be argued that some of the current initiatives such as the Best Practice Research Scholarships programme, Networked Learning
Communities, Professional Bursaries and Excellence in Cities projects may fulfil some aspects of the vision Stenhouse had of professional communities of teacher researchers. Day (1999) also espouses the establishment of networks as powerful sites of teacher learning but pragmatically also identifies the need to invest in teachers and schools in order to provide sustained professional development for teachers. Autonomy in the context of professional development does not mean 'going it alone' but refers to the rights of practitioners to design and shape the types of learning and continuous professional development activities they identify, either through collective or individual evaluation and analysis of their practice. These are key processes involved in teachers doing research in their classrooms and schools.
Who now decides what teachers need to know and how their professional development should take place or of what it should consist? As can be surmised from earlier evidence above, much of teachers' professional development activities in the recent past, since the introduction of the National Curriculum have been driven by the needs of government initiatives and policy, and a somewhat punitive inspection regime. The heavy emphasis on raising standards within national strategies and projects with prescribed content and pedagogy, whilst important, would appear to allow little autonomy and ownership for practitioners.
But, the tide seems to be turning, with school self- evaluation, peer review and 'lighter touch' inspections being the order of the day. Day, ibid, advocates a synchronisation of institutional and personal professional development approaches, in order to maximise the opportunities for change and development in schools. It has often been suggested that appraisal systems would be the best way for this to happen but research has shown this to be problematic. Wragg et al (1996) found that there were ongoing tensions between school and individual needs, limitations in funding for appraisal and problematic issues of confidentiality and personal change. It will be interesting to research and investigate whether current performance management initiatives support and facilitate change and a high quality of professional development activity.
Many researchers of teachers' professional development feel that self determination and autonomy are key aspects or hallmarks of professionalism, see Elliott (1999), Day(1999). MacBeath (1999) in his work about school improvement and effectiveness argues for a balance between external and internal collaborators and evaluators and for ownership and self- determination as key components of successful developments and successful schools. Teacher research approaches, I would argue, facilitate collaboration and autonomy in professional development and move away from the prescriptive, transmission mode of much of the current provision.
The interface of research and professional development
The value of teachers undertaking research and the impact on professional development has yet to be fully appreciated. There are many examples of how teachers can become researchers evident from earlier days, in Lewin's (1948) work and Stenhouse's (1975) vision of teacher-researchers in professional communities to more current initiatives including the TTA funded School-based Research Consortia , McNamara (2002). But, there is still a debate about such teacher research initiatives in relation to 'real' research in the academic arena. Currently there is also a debate about 'evidence-based practice' and pressure on practitioners to use evidence to inform their practice in similar ways to what have been developed in medical contexts. Elliott (2001) develops a view that current versions, Hargreaves (1997) in particular, subscribe to an unquestioning commitment to an outcomes based view of education and lack sufficient attention to educational theory and its contribution to conceptualising aims and objectives. McNamara (2002:22) questions what counts as evidence, and asks for whom the evidence is for, in what context is the evidence to be employed and for what purpose is the evidence to be used? These are largely unanswered questions about evidence-based practice that need to be fully debated and discussed in a number of different places covering researchers, teacher researchers, GTC, DfES and other stakeholders.
The current focus on teacher research is not new. For decades, teachers supported by, and encouraged by, Universities and Colleges of Higher Education and subject associations, (sometimes funded by LEAs), have engaged teachers in action research, practitioner research, collaborative inquiry, and teacher research in schools and classrooms in order to improve teaching and learning and to develop and refine the curriculum and teaching practice, and to innovate and evaluate their teaching, for example Stenhouse 1975,1980; Nixon 1981; Hopkins 1985; Elliott 1974, 1981. During the 1970s and 1980s teachers were often funded, through secondment to universities, to undertake research-based courses at universities and colleges.
The current emphasis on evidence -based practice, the opportunities to apply for funding for classroom and school-based research and the focus on raising standards through teacher research are part of the government's national strategy for Continuing Professional Development. One concern about recent and current initiatives, expressed by Elliott (1999:1) is that strategies to promote teacher research and evidence- based practice may not support the empowerment of teachers, but may be an attempt to,
'establish an epistemic sovereignty to legitimise its (government's)
interventive policies to drive up standards'.
A 'bottom up' approach which facilitates teacher directed research is becoming more evident in recent initiatives, e.g. NUT and GTC, to link research and professional development for teachers. However, a further concern is the imprecise nature of teacher research. Some teachers may subscribe to the view, along with some critics of practitioner research, that the only legitimate research is quantitative research that arrives at clear cut, measurable outcomes and conclusions. This type of research may be viewed as desirable if it also matches or endorses government policies. For many novice teacher researchers, there is a strong pull to believe that research is a straightforward process and that there should not be any struggle with conflicting evidence and difficult, contradicting issues as documented in McNamara (2002: 17). But research into the complex processes of teaching and learning is not always neat and tidy; it is frequently messy and inconclusive. The 'problems' of complex classrooms result in complex research questions.
The notion of criticality and evaluation, of teachers being able to take a critical stance about what they choose to research and what they find out from their research is arguably of crucial importance to how current teacher research initiatives are viewed within the research community and within the teaching profession itself. Key factors in the development of a strategy to promote critical thinking and teacher research would include:
autonomy and control of research questions and project design by the teacher researchers;
a high quality of support for research projects; robust processes of self monitoring, critical reflection and evaluation; transparent procedures for dissemination and promoting debate of research projects and findings. The establishment of critical communities in which teacher research is made public
The role of critical friends and critical community are of great importance to the validity and authenticity of teacher research. The seeds of teachers researching their professional development are planted in various initiatives such as Best Practice Research Scholarships, the practitioner, professionally focussed and action research programmes and degrees in Universities and Colleges and in research networks such as the Collaborative Action Research Network (CARN) and the newly formed local networks springing up in regions. But these networks and initiatives need nurturing, strengthening and funding to grow into vibrant and strong learning and research communities and partnerships where critical friendship and critical communities can flourish. The role of Higher Education personnel in teacher research is a vital and key one, providing support for research through partnerships with teachers, schools, LEAs, consultants, and funding bodies such as the Teacher Training Agency, the Department for Education and Skills and the National College for School Leadership.
Collaboration, networking and critical appraisal are key aspects of the research and professional development process and need to be systematically built into local and regional initiatives. Hargreaves (1994 : 1195) states,
'..in their more robust ( and somewhat rarer) forms, collaborative
cultures can extend into joint work, mutual observation and
focussed, reflective inquiry in ways which extend practice critically,
searching for better alternatives in the continuous search for
However whilst accepting the paradoxical nature of teacher research in that it could be in danger of becoming anything and everything, Sachs (1999:41) argues that,
' teacher research has the potential to act as a significant source of
teacher and academic professional renewal and development
because learning stands at the core of this renewal through the
production and circulation of new knowledge about practice'
Sachs also argues that there are three distinct forms of teacher - initiated school-based inquiry, ' teacher inquiry, action research and collaborative research', all of which have relevance to those wishing to improve their practice. In teacher inquiry, she identifies new roles such as critical friend, new structures such as writing teams who may work on tasks such as documenting practice and new opportunities for disseminating and creating a culture of inquiry into professional development. This notion of creating a new culture is attractive to all who wish to understand more about teaching and learning and who wish to harness research to improve policy and practice. Sachs also raises similar issues to Elliott, (1999) about the tensions in action research arising from the relationship between theory and practice for teachers who value their 'craft knowledge' above the theories underpinning teaching practices. We must not lose sight of the importance of teachers' actual experiences of teaching and 'the power of the personal' with regard to teachers as researchers, Campbell (2002) and of how, as Hargreaves (1992) reminds us,
' teachers' work is deeply embedded in their lives and developing the
teacher therefore involves developing the person, developing the life'
Foster (1999) voiced some criticism of small-scale classroom research by teachers and argued that much of teacher research in classrooms was not research. He found flaws in data collection and analysis. Similarly, Pirrie (2001) suggests that the desire to find evidence to support classroom practice generates a belief in 'toolkits' for teachers as a legitimate outcome of research. One danger lurking in teacher research approaches is that possibly teachers may overlook the complexity of what they are researching and arrive at conclusions that can seem overly simplistic and naive, due to pressure to arrive at a practical solution.
It is entirely understandable that teachers feel confused, as discussed at the beginning of this paper. It is arguably time for teachers' roles and responsibilities to be reviewed, in an exploration of values, attitudes, knowledge, skills and pedagogy that could be reflected in a professional identity which acknowledges the complexity and scope of the job of teaching in the current context. The loss of autonomy, lack of self determination and a culture of audit and excessive accountability, which as argued above, characterise the teachers' lot and render teachers liable to be treated as a political football in the education arena. What would be a significant move forward, would be to have a CPD policy for many more teachers and schools than currently is the case, which gave support, time and opportunity to engage in focussed, informed, discussion of teacher - directed research investigations of their professional development and classroom practices as part of the normal school year. To do this, teachers would need help and support in research design, methods and critical analysis, in fact, research training for practitioners who wish to take ownership of their professional development.
A particular approach to teacher research and professional development
I would argue that teachers who explore their professional identity and professional learning through investigation and research of their professional history have more sophisticated understandings of professional development. Maclure argues that identity can be used to explore practice and thinking,
'Identity should not be seen as a stable entity - something that people
have-but as something that they use, to justify, explain and make sense
of themselves in relation to other people, and to the contexts in which
they operate. In other words identity is a form of argument. As such it
is both practical and theoretical. It is also inescapably moral: identity
claims are inevitably bound up with justifications and belief'
Maclure (2001: 168)
The particular power of narrative, biography and telling stories about professional development is of importance in teacher research. MacLure (2001:167) asserts that,
'There is a lot of interest in the personal dimensions of teachers' lives- in knowing what teachers are like and what makes them tick...As a result, informal, person- oriented genres such as narrative and biography, autobiography, life history and anecdote have become quite widely accepted within educational research and professional development'
The work of Connolly and Clandinin (1996), on stories of experience and narrative inquiry as an emerging paradigm in research into teacher identity is important in this context. This approach to researching teachers' lives through stories is concerned with the types of research approaches and techniques open to those wishing to research their professional development and to improve their practice. Ball and Goodson (1985:13) write of ' opening up the sealed boxes within which teachers work and survive' in support of the promise of greater explanatory power offering better links between teachers' individual lives in classrooms and schools and current social structures. From Maclure's research into teachers' lives and jobs, she suggests that identity can be an organising principle in teachers' jobs and lives and that teachers' identity claims can be seen as a form of argument ,
'as devices for justifying, explaining and making sense of one's conduct, career, values and circumstances'
It is exactly how these devices, and others enabling practitioners to research their practices, thinking, attitudes and beliefs, might look and work that this paper seeks to examine and illustrate. In summary, it is how practitioners, through diary keeping; interviewing and observing colleagues; writing and telling stories can:
The experience of researching professional development can be a powerful experience and can increase self esteem, critical reflection and evaluation and the understanding of what professional development processes are. One story of success is Dadds' (1995) case study depiction of Vicky, an action researcher who investigates her practice in pursuit of professional development. There are strong links across the professions as the work of Bolton (2001) on reflective writing in the health and care professions and Fairbairn 's ( 2002) paper on ethics and storytelling in professional development attest.
A Strategy for Research and Professional Development
There is evidence that some aspects of the current CPD Strategy are being successful in promoting teacher research in classrooms and schools, for example the Best Practice Research Scholarship Programme. Campbell and Jacques (2001) reported on the early impact of the BPRS programme as having given teachers opportunities to undertake small- scale investigations of teaching and learning. Teachers in this scheme were engaged in investigating and developing successful classroom practice and at the same time researching their professional development. There is evidence that in many cases BPRS teachers are involved in collaborative learning for school improvement with their colleagues as a result of their research projects. Similarly the School-based Research Consortia ( McNamara (ed), 2002) evidences the results of teacher research in the reports of practitioner research projects. Across the country many teachers are engaged in practitioner research and evaluation projects for postgraduate awards. There is an untapped resource and a rich seam of practitioner inquiries that have resulted in developments in many classrooms and schools. Similarly, the potential of university and schools' partnerships in ITT, the use of teachers as mentors for trainees and NQTs is relatively underused and unexplored with regard to teachers' professional learning and development. There is a need to maximise these opportunities and to disseminate them - at local, regional and national levels. The dissemination is not to demonstrate 'how to teach' but to support and promote teacher research and to provide an important public arena for debating practice and research into practice.
While advocating the promotion of more such initiatives to increase teachers' access to research based professional development I would urge consideration of the quality of teacher research, which must be safeguarded. There is no recipe for teacher research. A wide variety of approaches must be promoted in order to facilitate teachers identifying their own focus and areas for research. The processes of research must be rigorous and robust in order to:
formulate research questions that have been subject to discussion and debate
engage in systematic enquiry which is subject to review and evaluation interrogate and analyse findings disseminate and make public debates and findings from research
It may be timely to remind ourselves that if we are to retain and sustain teachers in the profession in the future, then providing them with a voice and empowering them through active participation in research which allows them to investigate and shape the knowledge base of their teaching may be a key factor defining in their professionalism and underwriting their commitment to education. Teachers can take charge of the professional development agenda and harness it to their own needs by engaging in research in their classrooms and schools. This does not mean regularly re-inventing the wheel or indulging in 'navel gazing'. Doing research also involves using research. It means constructing informed questions for research in classrooms and schools, questions informed by the research and practice of others. What the government needs to put its energies into is devising ways of supporting all teachers and putting them in touch with each other in local, regional and national fora in which they can share the fruits of their labours- not in recipes and packages but in reports of creativity, passion and joy in teaching. Teachers researching their own contexts, sometimes alone, sometimes in collaboration with colleagues or even pupils from their own or other schools, debating their findings and working in partnership with universities and local authorities are a powerful force within the profession to frame a vision for the future. Teacher research is an idea whose time has come.
Professor of Education
Liverpool Hope University College
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