Teachers as Researchers: Another Mark of Professionalism

Cross-posted from Education Week

As I was getting initiated into the society that concerns itself with improving education, I was presented with a model elegant in its simplicity.  University researchers, Ph.D. holders all, were to think up the questions the answers to which were most likely to lead to improvement in student performance.  They would then collect all the facts they thought pertinent to the answers to those questions, and studying those facts, predicate theories that could plausibly explain the facts.  Then they would use various sophisticated methods to test those theories, eventually coming up with theories that could explain all the phenomena of interest.  Sometimes, practitioners would come up with plausible and not so plausible proposals to improve student performance and it would be the job of the researcher to decide whether they actually had the effect they were said to have or predicted to have.

In this formulation, it was very clear who was researcher and who was being researched.  The university Ph.D. holders were in the former group.  Classroom teachers were in the latter group.

All in all, this model has produced disappointing results.  Over the years, some indisputably brilliant work has been done by those university researchers.  But the improvement in student performance, relative to other countries, has been modest for decades.  There is no evidence that American teachers are more resistant to the results of scholarly endeavor than those other countries, so we need to look elsewhere for the reason for this.

In two previous blogs, I have suggested that part of the explanation of the disappointing impact of American education research on American practice is the result of our failure to focus on the characteristics of effective education systems.  But there is another possibility.  Maybe our conception of the process of improvement has overlooked a more mundane use of the research process than the one I just described, one that is more frequently found in the top-performing countries than here in the United States.  I refer here to the role of the researched—that is, the teacher—as researcher rather than just the object of research.

The United States has by far the biggest establishment of university-based education researchers in the world.  But a number of countries, in Asia, Australasia and Europe, train many more of their teachers in research techniques than does the United States.  I do not mean to suggest that they provide their teachers with the same level of mastery of sophisticated research techniques that we provide to trained researchers holding doctorate degrees, but they do provide their teachers with the rudiments of research methods, on a very large scale.

I would argue that the fact that their teachers typically receive basic training in research methods is very important.  In many of these countries, as I have pointed out elsewhere, teachers spend much less time in front of students than is the case in the United States, and much more time working with other teachers, mainly to develop lessons together, work collaboratively on development of more effective instructional methods and perfect their systems for formative evaluation.

Which is to say that teachers in these countries are viewed as primary agents of school improvement.  So it is no small matter that they have basic research skills.  Not only are they expected to work together in a disciplined way to improve their own practice, but they are expected to use their research skills to determine whether their efforts are leading to improved outcomes for their students.

This disciplined effort to improve their practice and student outcomes typically occurs in the context of a strong career ladder system.  The teachers at the top of the career ladder lead these improvement efforts.  The best of them are encouraged to write papers on the work they have been leading and to publish those papers in journals created for the purpose of sharing the most important findings beyond the school in which they originated, sometimes far beyond those schools.

This is not the model I grew up with.  In that model, teachers are the ones who need enlightenment and that enlightenment is supposed to come directly or indirectly from the university Ph.Ds.  In my mind, the model I have just described is a far more powerful model.  I hope it is understood that I am not proposing to replace the university researchers with school teachers.  Not at all.  I am proposing to augment the university researchers with an army of classroom teachers who are can use research methods both to more accurately judge whether their local development efforts contribute to improved student learning—and correct course if they are not—and to more accurately judge whether the claims made by vendors, researchers and others for their findings have merit.

Few changes, in my mind, would contribute more to the development of a true profession of teaching and the abandonment of the blue-collar industrial model of teaching in which the workers are expected to do as they are told.

This is not a romance.  It is happening in places as diverse as Finland, Shanghai and Singapore.  It needs to happen here, too.