Teachers taking on the role of teacher-researchers

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It has been suggested that schools which are deemed to be effective are those that engage and promote teachers to engage in research to inform and ultimately improve their practice (National Teacher Research Panel, 2008). To an extent this is true. Unfortunately it is not always possible to engage in formal research due to constraints within an organisation that limit such activities.

Since the formation of the General Teaching Council for Wales (GTCW) under the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998, teachers were able to receive funding to enable them to engage in Action Research projects. However, this funding has now stopped which has meant that due to other budgetary problems faced by schools, I anticipate, the number of teachers undertaking such activities will rapidly decline. Surely this will have a negative affect on the quality of teaching and learning that takes place.

It can be suggested that "teacher research is finally revolutionary". This is because the traditional forms of educational research, was something which was done by experts, with the external individual being the professional and very often, the teacher feeling 'inferior'. Now the role of teachers as researchers has evolved and the relationship between outside expert and class teacher takes on a more collaborative role with a slight power shift towards the class teacher informing the expert (Denscombe, 1999).

Teacher research can be described as the process of "...systematic and intentional inquiry carried out by teachers". What is important to stress, is that teacher research functions in a variety of ways for different reasons (Christianakis, 1998). However the overall objective of teacher research is to have a positive impact upon teaching and learning.

The notion of teachers as researchers has predominately taken the form of action research. Action research is a practice that has been widely used over the last 60 years in a variety of guises. The process of action research is designed to bridge the gap between theory and practice.

The process of action research is not just about changing individuals but it is about influencing the culture of a group such as a school, to move forward and improve the educational practices of such groups (Cohen, 2001). There are various theories of 'teacher research' or 'action research' that have all fundamentally evolved from the work of Kurt Lewin. Lewin's concept has informed the cyclic model of action research, that Stephen Kemmis has based his ideas on (McNiff & Whitehead, 2002). I will not discuss the various models of action research in depth.

It is important to realise that with the new changes in the curriculum orders across all subjects, I believe and agree with Kincheloe (2003), in that "teachers must join the culture of researchers if a new level of educational rigor and quality is to be achieved". This is true. The new culture will promote an ideology where teachers are viewed as learners. This, teacher empowerment, is not an accident. It occurs when teachers take responsibility to develop a link in theoretical knowledge with practice.

Teachers becoming researchers: Advantages

Within this section I aim to discuss the literature about, the advantages of teachers engaging in action research and ultimately, researchers.

When teachers are engaged in research it empowers the teacher to improve the practice within their own classrooms and become agents for change within their departments and schools. One possible reason for this is that the teacher, sometimes through collaboration, will identify what it is they want to change. It develops a sense of ownership for the practitioner and not something that is imposed upon them by an external body. (Smeets & Ponte, 2009)

A critical feature of teachers engaging in action research is that the research aims to improve practice, by directly feeding into practice and the process is on-going, hence the cyclic aspect of action research principles

There are many reasons why there has been a strong emphasis upon the action research paradigm because it impacts across many areas of the learning and teaching agenda. It can be a starting point for developing new curricula, a vehicle for driving forward professional development within schools thus feeding into the performance management cycle and school policy development.

Smeets and Ponte (2009) highlight that teachers involved in action research have a positive impact upon the practice of other colleagues within the organisation. As Kagan(1992) argues, where an establishment promotes collaboration as being the norm within the organisation, teachers are more likely to engage in action research, hence, changing the belief of the teachers. It is suggested that teacher belief is a key factor in affecting change not just within their classroom but the wider school community.

Teachers engaged in research are incessantly redefining their own practice. Action research projects enable teachers to listen and interact with pupils, thus enabling them to adjust their own approaches to teaching the new curriculum. It offers teachers an opening to confront methodologies imposed from external bodies and offers a voice to enable these to be questioned. Frequently teachers are being told how to teach certain topics but through engaging in action research, they discover alternatives that enable pupils to acquire the curriculum content easier. There is a distinct sense that a teacher who has gained new knowledge from research will continue to think and develop a mindset to that of a researcher and continually strive to learn via such a process. (Mohr, 1994)

A notable advantage of teachers as researchers is that by engaging pupils in the process to solve problems leads to greater student confidence and a willingness to collaborate on other projects. In addition to this, the process enables teachers to acquire vital evidence that may be used to ensure successful communication involving parents and teachers. (Hartman, 1994)

A key attribute of teachers becoming researchers is that it enables teachers to narrow the gap and make sense of theory that is presented by experts.

The motivation of teachers to participate in action research is crucial to the success and impact of the process. It has been suggested that teachers will continue with research if their work has a positive impact upon the pupils, feel they will be treated as professionals and if they are part of a strong and well supported group. (Westwell, 2006)

Any teacher who is engaged in classroom-based research, will develop the skills to be able to reflect critically on your own practice so that the learning process for pupils improves. As a result of this engaging in action research develops our ability to become reflective practitioners and develop reflexivity. Reflexivity refers to the teacher's ability to remain impartial during the research activity and to avoid bias during the process. It is strongly linked in to the process of reflection. (Cohen et al, 2001)

Teachers engaging in action research attend more carefully to their methods, their perceptions and understandings, and their whole approach to the teaching process.

Teachers participating in inquiry often find the process intellectually satisfying. In turn, they become more critical and reflective about their own practice. (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1992)

Teachers are required to deal with many complex social interactions. It can be argued that those teachers who are on familiar terms with their students and are proficient in their curriculum area, they have the skill set to become superior teachers who are capable to motivate and enthuse their pupils (Kincheloe, 2003).

The teaching profession is embroiled in policies that can often inhibit a child's potential. The teacher researchers are better equipped to recognise and challenge certain educational strategies than those teachers who are not engaged in research.

Teachers becoming researchers: Disadvantages

From my own experience, it is quite clear that most teachers are reluctant to engage in action research projects. The concept of research is often considered as detached from the everyday routines of teaching. This detachment is narrowing, as a result of the newly trained teachers having experience of action research methods and the benefits they can have to all members of the learning community.

Teacher research can be a dominant factor for engineering school improvement, unfortunately there is no guarantee that it will be fully utilised. This is due to the complex political issues within a school. In order, for the notion of action research, to be effective within a school, it is vital that it must be fully embedded within the normal procedures such as the performance management and departmental review process. Cochran-Smith & Lytle (1992) argue that, creating an organisation which promotes a learning culture is not easy.

The process of action research can often be a timely one. This is one aspect of research that was desired by teachers. It was noted that when time was of the esence, teachers often pushed the research project aside (Westwell, 2006).

Denscombe (1999) highlight the additional work involved for the teacher(s) increases. This can often disuade people from engaging in action research because of this additional work load without any immediate benefits to their practice. In addition to the time constraints, school pressure, accountability and a lack of experience all contribute to reasons why teachers are reluctant to engage in action research.

As previously discussed the relationship between external researcher and teacher is a complex one. A significant reason why practitioners do not engage in research is because of confidence and a lack of control over the research question and steppin into the unknown. This will only be overcome if more teachers become involved in research and develop new partnerships with researchers. (Halsall, 1998)

One aspect of teacher-researchers is that there is a strong possibility that your prior beliefs could influence how you interpret your results. This element of reflextivity and self reflection are difficult to skills to develop (Cohen, 2001).

As previously mentioned, engagement in action research can be a powerful vehicle for change within an organisiton. However, what is notcieable is that it can be a very isolated activitiy. If research is conducted within an organisation which does not promote innovation, then there will be very little opportunity to exchange with colleagues. It is through human nature, many people do not like or embrace change because it requires a new approach or way of operating. Educational research does not have a positive reputation with many teachers. For this reason, many teachers find that it is irrelevant to classroom practice and consequently of little interest.

There are many ethical issues that arise from educational research and these must be dealt with sensitively by all involved. It is crucial that exploitation of participants is avoided. Some teachers may feel uncomfortable with the issues that may arise from their research and as a result feel out of their comfort zone.

Cochran-Smith & Lytle (1992) refer to the idea that teachers rarely discuss openly problems within their own classroom. This is in contrast to the perception that researching teachers are constantly posing questions about their practice, challenge themselves and seek different perspectives upon their methods. Opening themselves up to such criticism may not be comfortable for many teachers. It is important that a shift in culture and such approaches is gradual. It will only be effective providing the support mechanisms are in place within the organisation.

Some organisations may view themselves as ones that promote a culture of teacher-researchers; it can sometimes be questioned to what extent the teacher has control over the research activity they may be engaged in. Sometimes the Headteacher may dictate what areas of research are to be addressed. There is a risk that this may take away ownership from the teacher and risk a lack of teacher empowerment, which may in turn, create a negative atmosphere within the school. Challenging the establishment poses inherent dangers. Using the findings of action research must be done in a way that does not compromise the profession or negatively upset the dynamics of the school.

Kincheloe (2003) outlines, effective teacher researchers, pose questions that push the conceptual envelope. Unfortunately for all the efforts of the teacher researcher, forces beyond their control may produce little impact upon the pupils.

CONCLUSION

The creation and sustainment of culture of inquiry within an organisation is crucial in ensuring the pupils receive the best teaching and learning opportunities. It provides a school management team, with a challenge, to facilitate this culture, in a time where funding for such professional development is at an all time low. It must also be highlighted that, it is the individual teachers within an organisation, to recognise and act upon research opportunities within their classrooms and wider environments. If teachers, as suggested, collaborate to undertake action research, they can grow in confidence, enthuse other staff members thus developing a research mindset. The beauty with the new frameworks' provides all stakeholders with the freedom to experiment and take ownership of the journey. Engaging in research should engineer these changes.

The tools of a teacher researcher make it possible for practitioners to explore their individual situation. It provides an impulsion to give power to teachers to find an array of solutions to their own questions. It enables us, as teachers, an approach of formalising the questions that we pose and reflecting, as we endeavour to improve the learning of pupils.

It is clear from the literature review that engaging in action research is an intellectually demanding process that is very time intensive. Engagement in such activity will pay dividends for not just the teachers and organisations involved but the profession as a whole.

It is apparent from my literature review, teachers who engage in action research; develop an attitude to inquiry that builds confidence in themselves and their own knowledge, enabling them to become reflexive and more reflective in their practice.

The purpose for all teachers, I believe, is to help improve the life chances for the pupils that they teach. The literature review identifies the reasons for and against teacher research; however, responsibility for undertaking it lies with the individual teacher. In my opinion, until the profile of the impact of teacher-researchers is raised it will remain an activity that takes place in pockets of schools around the UK, having a positive impact upon only a small number of children. The advantages, for such activities, is clear, teacher research, acts as an agent for change and builds a case to alter pedagogy, thus creating more motivated and better learners. By critically examining your own practice, teachers can make small changes, focussed on specific issues with a dedicated action plan.

Therefore, it is fair to say, that all teachers should aim to become teacher researchers. There is no prescriptive method for how this will be developed, but what is clear is that the primary vehicle for this is creating a culture, within a school, where teachers engaging in action research is fully embedded as a normal activity in line with teaching the curriculum.

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