I've had this post sitting in draft form for several months now after I commented on a post from Sylvia Martinez on the concept of teachers as researchers. Sylvia's thoughts have risen to the top again in the context of yesterday's meeting of the four schools and university partners selected for a three year Learning Technologies research project. I was part of the team that successfully applied for our school's involvement in a project that partner university research expertise with regular classroom teachers in a bid to explore the overarching question "What does 21st Century learning look like?" Now 21st Century Learning is a phrase that is bandied around by educators, visionaries and systems so much that it is fast becoming yet another trendy buzz phrase that is an assumed understanding that no-one can actually define. So the fact that DECS (our state education system) is keen to actually explore what it might mean for schools and students here in South Australia is a good move to move that terminology from the realm of rhetoric to the definition of actual good practice that is scalable across a large public school system. But it is the casting of teachers in the role of researchers that is of interest to me here.
Here's what I wrote on Sylvia's post:
I would say from my casual observations from within the system here in South Australia, not many teachers would view themselves as researchers. Part of it is that notion of academia - experts and researchers with doctorates do their detached research from afar and then teachers read their latest findings in books and journals or reserve spots at professional development seminars and sessions to find out what the research says should be happening in their classrooms. The other part that comes into play is that often research is a place where the boundaries are pushed or new territory is explored - many teachers are very wary of labelling their pedagogy as being part of personal action research - to some, they are quite afraid of being labelled experimental by leaders, parents or their peers. And who wants their child in a classroom where they could labelled guinea pigs following some teacher's wacky passions? For many, the safe route is to follow what is touted as good common practice and not go out too far out alone on a limb. It's a shame that teachers are not resourced better and actively supported to conduct classroom based research - the chalkface experience is too often over-ridden and disregarded by the higher powers that be.
I know my own doubts about perceiving myself as a teacher/researcher have a lot to with doubting that I have enough method and trust in my observations. I know that many of us subscribe to a research methodology described once by Will Richardson as "throwing ideas against a wall and seeing if it sticks". Sometimes, in a time poor occupation, that's as good as we can do.
The other factor that comes into play is how much teachers understand the learning theories that underpin the way they operate with their students. South Australian teachers have been told often that our curriculum framework (SACSA) is based on constructivist principles. Apart from Bill Kerr (who certainly knows his learning theories) I very rarely encounter teachers who can articulate their own understanding of the learning theory they subscribe to. I would include myself in that uncertain category most of the time but blogging has helped me to be more conscious of learning theory and the role it should play in defining professional practice. (I had never heard of constructionism until I crossed paths with Bill and Leigh Blackall.) I have heard Dr. Trudy Sweeney (part of this Learning Technologies grant) on more than one occasion citing research that states that often teachers' beliefs are not accurately reflected in their practice. So, it means that even if you manage to change the beliefs of a teacher, it does not necessarily mean that the teacher's practice will change. And conversely, a teacher's practice can change without any shift in their beliefs.
I like what Sylvia says about educators who choose to blog their ideas and learning:
If you are blogging about your own practice as a classroom teacher, you are already a teacher-researcher. By sharing your voice with the world, you formalize what you know and reflect on your own practices with a “tomorrow mind” that will benefit not only your own students, but also others around the world.
No one is better placed than the teacher to see if learning theories involving students hold water. "Scientific research"as a term is often misused to push certain points of view as Doug Noon highlighted a little while back. I think this is a great chance for our school to benefit from university expertise and I'm hoping that empowered teachers who value their hands on experiences and observations and can connect the dots to the theory is one of the primary outcomes.