Sunday, March 18, 2018

Teachers as Researchers: Making the Shift

I think my heart will always be in a classroom…whether it’s a room full of energetic, shining-faced five year-olds or a university classroom filled with “big kids” training to become teachers, this is the place where I am always happiest and most alive.  My decision to pursue doctoral studies was a difficult one, as it meant leaving these special people and places for awhile and becoming a student once again.

Above: Junior and Senior Kindergarten sell iced tea and cookies to raise money to help the endangered Oregon spotted of my favourite project-based learning experiences!

In the past year, my cohort and I have shifted to view education through the lens of researcher as well as practitioner.  This has been an especially tough one for me…for many years, I have probably placed a much higher value on practical knowledge than research.  When research findings don’t align with my own experiences as a practitioner, I am guilty of defaulting to my own lived experience.  According to Labaree (2003), teachers firmly believe that only fellow teachers have the authority to speak about teaching and the educational process.  Labaree found that teachers can and will refute an entire study by citing one differing practical classroom example. 

At the same time, teachers are deeply caring professionals committed to providing the best possible education for their students.  When something isn’t working in their classrooms, they usually want to know why.  Many teachers are excited to implement new pedagogical approaches, curricula, or teaching strategies and want to know if these practices are making a difference for their learners.  Although teachers must report on students with letter/number grades and percentages, teachers know that there is a bigger story behind the quantitative data.  Despite a strong reliance on practical experience, teachers do care about research—they are interested in solving problems, investigating more deeply, and making a difference. This leads me to the topic of my blog post—can teachers also function as researchers?  Is it possible to operate with one foot in each camp?

What is teacher research?
Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1993) defined teacher research as “systematic and intentional inquiry by teachers about their own school and classroom work” (pp. 23–24).  However, instead of being the objective observer, teachers are involved in every aspect of the teaching and research process—both roles are intertwined, conducted at the same time, and inform each other (Klehr, 2012).  Klehr has observed that teacher research is an active, reflective, and constantly evolving process; research questions may shift over time as a direct result of data collection, student needs, or shifting political situations in the educational systems.  I believe the goal of teacher research is more informed, deliberate classroom practice.

Qualitative research methods are well-suited to the flexible, holistic nature of teacher-led research.  Teaching journals, pedagogical narration, field notes, observations, and media samples are accessible and natural for most classroom teachers.  In my practice, I blog on a monthly basis to reflect on and disseminate my work.  Blog posts have chronicled my evolution as a teacher, allowing me to identify what has worked, how I could improve as a practitioner, and what direction I should take next.   With blog posts, short case studies, and the other methods described above, it is possible to identify themes through narrative analysis.  Narrative methods are an excellent fit for the “personal, storied nature of teaching” (Carter, 1993, p. 8).  Teachers are natural storytellers who can analyze their stories through a research lens to gain important insights.  

In my own practice, I’ve been fortunate to participate in a more formal research process several times.  On both occasions, this has fallen under the umbrella of participatory action research as a teacher piloting new curricula and programs.  My first experience was in 2007 when Manitoba Education developed a Literacy with ICT continuum.  I was one of three teachers in my school district who implemented the new continuum and developed and assessed a variety of  learning experiences.  I collected student work samples and observations and maintained a teacher log of my experiences and reflections.  Throughout the year, I shared my findings with Manitoba Education which informed the development process and final product.

Another time, I was able to assist with the development and implementation of my school district’s first Junior Kindergarten program.  As a pilot site, we collected quantitative data such as test scores (using the DIAL-4 developmental screening tool), parent surveys, as well as relying on more qualitative measures such as observations, field notes, and student work samples.  We wanted to know if regular early intervention with a qualified teacher and clinicians had a lasting impact on students’ academic and social success.  Although I was an inexperienced researcher with a ton of bias and deeply invested in the process myself, my research informed my classroom practice and my classroom practice influenced my research questions.  Collecting data and constantly reflecting on what was working and what wasn’t led to the development of a research-informed, high-quality early intervention program that I still regard as one of the great achievements of my teaching career.

What shifts do teachers need to make to also function as researchers?
Upon completing an undergraduate degree, most new teachers aren’t prepared to engage in research activities.  Keeping their heads above water with teaching, assessing, reporting, and classroom management is enough to leave them exhausted at the end of the day.  Gaining life and classroom experience and developing a reflective practice are excellent starting points for novice teachers.  With time and continued professional learning, teachers may be ready to move toward these four shifts in perspective to engage more effectively in research activities (Labaree, 2003).

a) From normative to analytical: instead of wondering what to do when a particular problem occurs, teachers must transition to examining the nature of the problem to understand it more fully. This shift in viewpoint enables teachers to focus on the big picture (instead of just one student or one issue) and make broader connections and generalizations.

b) From personal to intellectual:  good teachers are deeply invested in relationships with students, parents, and colleagues.  However, to use an old cliché, sometimes this can stop them from seeing the forest because of all the trees. As researchers, teachers need to look beyond individual relationships to big, important ideas. 

c) From particular to universal:  many teachers are busy and overwhelmed, giving them a narrow focus limited to their classrooms and students. Researchers have a broad knowledge of theory that can create linkages to a community of practice.  My colleague and best friend Leah Obach and I like to work within a community of practice, including parents, students, community members, educational stakeholders, and universities in our classroom practices.  This creates opportunities for collaboration and learning experiences that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. 
Above: Junior and Senior Kindergarten students collaborate with university students to investigate climate change and the impact on polar bears

d) From experiential to theoretical: as previously mentioned, many teachers believe their lived experiences trump any theory or research.  Teachers must be willing to consider theory as well as practical experience in their roles of teacher-researchers. 

Challenges and next steps 
Practicing teachers have great potential to benefit from examining and applying existing research and investigating and creating new research.  However, few teachers have the time (or the sometimes the desire) to read professional literature, finding academic studies to be dense and difficult reading.  One solution is to make clear language research summaries available to practicing teachers.  These concise and simple summaries are a quick and easy way for busy teachers to engage with current research (“Knowledge mobilization", n.d.). 

Children in classrooms can function as co-researchers (although this idea merits its own blog post).  Pedagogical approaches such as inquiry and project-based learning foster a classroom culture that values children's curiosity and ability to ask questions and identify problems and issues in their world.  Children are very capable of posing questions and can become tenacious researchers when pursuing ideas that are important to them.  Giving children the opportunity to participate in research builds important academic skills as well as the ability to communicate, collaborate, and cooperate with others.
Above: Kindergarten children collect quantitative data through a survey.

Additionally, stronger linkages must be forged between universities and K-12 schools.  When university faculty conduct research in K-12 educational settings, it demystifies the research process and provides useful and timely information to classroom teachers (hopefully). University faculty involved in local schools can also lead to mentoring or partnering with teachers as teachers begin to engage in their own research.  As classroom teachers experience the value in the process, it is likely that they will be more invested in continuing to ask questions, seek answers, share their findings, and make a difference in education.   


Carter, K. (1993). The place of story in the study of teaching and teacher education. Educational Researcher, 22, 5–12.
Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. (1993). Inside/ Outside: Teacher research and knowledge. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Klehr, M. (2012). Qualitative teacher research and the complexity of classroom contexts. Theory Into Practice , 51(2), 122–128.
Knowledge mobilization documents best practices for clear language research summaries. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2018, from
Labaree, D. F. (2003). The peculiar problems of preparing educational researchers. Educational    Researcher , 32(4), 13–22. Retrieved from

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