A Belated Response To A Great Post By Sylvia Martinez

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.

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8 thoughts on “A Belated Response To A Great Post By Sylvia Martinez

  1. Doug Noon

    Exciting stuff, Graham. I’ve done several teacher-research projects with the university, and they do seem to affect the way you look at what’s happening in the classroom. I hope you find the time to periodically report how it’s going.

  2. Bill Kerr

    “What does 21st Century learning look like?”

    Justify the focus question – its implications and hidden assumptions, how is it not just web2.0 ism?

    I would see a danger of ending up with a description of practices which is not really theorised. I think it’s a real danger in part because learning theory is so rambunctious (disorderly, all over the place).

  3. Bill Kerr

    trying again … my previous comment sounds / is pretentious (blush)

    I think the focus question (“What does 21st Century learning look like?”) sounds grandiose … *as well as* being a new buzz phrase

    cf. idit harel’s study of children using logo to make fraction puzzles in x age tutoring context: “Instructional Software Design Project” ie. she just described what her project was and it’s theoretical dimensions (Papert, Vygotsky, Perkins)

    But “21st Century learning” sounds like what we should all be doing … and it doesn’t play well if we use the Ancient Greek methods and inspiration to teach geometry (even though that might well be part of good 21st C learning) … or if we attach more importance to recent decades rather than the past decade … why associate all of learning (by implication) with the new century or the most recent decade?

  4. Graham Wegner

    Bill, you can use all of the pretentious language you like round here – I’ve been guilty of that myself on more than one occasion. “21st Century Learning” is certainly an imprecise term – does it mean we are deciding what and how learning will take place for the next 90+ years? I think it’s not so much that this century has or needs practices unique to the 21st century but as more and more is added to the education plate, what things are now irrelevant for educators and can be jettisoned out of formal schooling? It is bit like declaring, “Here we are at this point in time. Maybe education has lost its way a bit with the exponential impact of technology (not necessarily Web 2.0 as you hint) – if we stop and take stock, what is it that is still important for schools to be doing?”
    And yes, it might turn into a self-justification exercise to cement the importance of schools to our social fabric etc., etc, but a research project like this has to be better than just carrying on regardless. I’m hoping that with university partners, learning theory will be an important component.

  5. Gareth Long

    I certainly agree with your post Graham – interesting thoughts.

    The fact that many teachers can’t articulate their teaching styles is, in fact, quite worrying. I use the term 21st century teaching and learning – but hang on, we are already nearly a decade into the 21st century. Many people use it as though this is something that has yet to arrive – really we should more likely be looking at the real future and adpting our teaching and learning styles NOW. In reality, many people are using 20th century teaching styles in the 21st century, and a few, regretably, using 19th century styles and then wondering why their students are a) not fully engaged and b) not getting the results they have the potential to get.

    The transformation of education needs brave decisions led by brave leaders who have the confidence to continue to be brave through the inevitable moments of doubt.

    The Cayman Islands are in the process of transforming all aspects of the entire education service simultaneously – whilst challenging its been great fun and really a very intersting exercise. Many countries are watching the progress, which, so far, has been outstanding.

    More through liks below

    Great post Graham.


  6. sylvia martinez

    Hi Graham,
    Thanks for reaching back to this post. I’ve also had more thoughts about this subject since that time too.

    One thing I’ve been wondering is if there are tools that would provide teacher researchers with easy to use recording devices that would help document changes in practice. For example, what if there was some sort of plugin for a blog that would allow data collection for self-reporting. The teacher could journal, and also collect data – quantitative, qualitative, whatever is needed.

  7. Bill Kerr

    Gareth Long’s comment is the sort of thing that worries me – the idea that learning styles are situated in time frames as some sort of argument in itself, without further elaboration of substance, but lets call it 21st C or even better 21st C, second decade and somehow it’s meant to be modern and better?

    I can see that you could make a case for epochs represented by the ascendancy of powerful ideas – such as the Enlightenment, which represented an amazing change in how humans viewed the world. But this “21st C” phrase does need some spelling out IMO if you are going to use it as a self description for your research project. I suppose I do think that how you name things is important.

    What is our underlying basis for evaluating and comparing a new good thing with an old good thing? I’ve come to the view that there is more involved here than “learning style” or “motivation” or “keeping up with technology” even though they are also worthwhile questions.

  8. Gareth Long

    I agree with some of Bill Kerrs comments and the careful use of vocabulary is very important. My very brief comment referring to centuries was really intended as a generalist descriptor that many do understand. I am certainly not linked to time frames in any way – it is the evolution of the teaching and learning processes that fascinate me.

    My concern is that many teachers still teach how they were taught, usually with some slight alterations. Whilst these approaches may have some validity, I am not certainly not criticising them as long as teachers are considering why they teach the way they do and the effectiveness of it for their students. Students are increasingly learning in ever changing ways, fully suported by technology, from cell phones to social network sites. They expect to use technology it is a core part of their life and expect learning to use, at least in part, the skills they know and understand. Please note I did not say technology should replace all teaching styles. My real concern is that, for many teachers, the reality gap between them and students is widening rapidly.

    The issues include the fact that many teachers often do not see themselves as anything other than overworked and put upon by endless initiatives. Their pace of change is not as fast as that of their students. Many are certainly wary of the ever changing technologies which students love and understand.

    The energetic enthusiastic teachers who do reflect on their practive certainly are researchers, and we all should share their experiences and learn from them. Linked to this is the changing face of professional development where, modelling, collaborative teaching and practicing new approaches to learning, espcially those involving technologies, becomes a group activity. This replaces the old routine of one person ‘going on a course’ and then supposedly sharing with colleagues.

    The learning processes for teachers and learners can then be easily shared on a blog or similar which would share practive, successes, words of caution and evidence of the impact of approaches in terms of performance data. This in turn would help them really review and reflect on their practive.

    This is a gain a very brief post on what is a truely exciting subject being considered all round the world.


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