Improving Teaching 101: Teacher Action Research
Over the past two decades living and working in Oakland, I became well acquainted with Dr. Anna Richert. This professor of education at Mills College has built a powerful network of teachers engaged in systematically reflecting on their teaching practice. I have served as a member of the advisory board for the Mills Teacher Scholars for several years. I wrote about their work last May in this post. As we look for ways to improve our classrooms for our students, teacher research ought to be very high on the list. I asked Anna to share some of her expertise in this interview.
Anthony: What is teacher action research?
Different people have different ideas about what constitutes teacher action research. Common to all is the idea of teachers studying their practice--typically their students' learning and their own teaching--in a systematic way. Whereas all good teachers reflect on their practice to make sense of their work, those who engage in teacher research do this reflection in a deep and intentional manner. Three core practices that are part of the research process of the Mills Teacher Scholars Project that I have been leading at Mills College for the last decade or so are aimed at supporting this kind of systematic reflection. They include the need: 1) to carefully formulate a research question; 2) to conceptualize and enact a systematic and intentional plan for gathering and analyzing classroom and school-based data to answer that question, and 3) to articulate and enact a plan for changed classroom practice that reflects the teacher's learning from the research process.
Anthony: How do teachers organize themselves to do this?
Teachers have various ways of organizing themselves to engage in action research. Some, who have had the opportunity to learn about how to do action research, do it on their own. Most teachers I know prefer to do their research with others--that is in a research group like the Mills Teacher Scholars, where the teachers can support one another as the work moves along. There is a real advantage to doing teacher research as a part of a group because it offer validation that doing research matters, a factor of accountability to one's colleagues that a research group provides, and also possibility of having others look at your "data" and your findings. The happenings of teaching and learning are inordinately complex. Having multiple perspectives on what one is observing/finding enriches the process many fold.
Anthony: How have you seen it affect teachers that you have worked with?
In my experience (including my own experience as a teacher researcher) the process of engaging in teacher research is transformative. Looking in a systematic and careful way at students learning and one's teaching brings agency to the work of teaching and allows the teacher to act with intent. It is a relief to name the uncertainty of teaching, which is inherent to the research process that begins by framing a question about one's work and thus undo the myth of certainty that pervades our field these days. The teacher researchers I have spoken with about this report that it is liberating to know what you know and what you need to know more about so you can continuously improve your practice. Teacher research allows you to do just that. The teacher often finds herself assuming a new sense of professional authority as she becomes the author of her professional understandings. It is she who becomes the expert rather than outsiders who tell her how to think and what to do.
Anthony: What is the role of collaboration in this sort of research?
Collaboration is an essential part of the process. This is even more so in settings where the student population is diverse. Understanding student learning (or other classroom- based phenomena) is difficult work made more possible and effective if considered from multiple perspectives. We know from current learning theory that knowledge is socially constructed. Having colleagues with whom to share the different stages of the research process greatly enhances every aspect of doing teacher research.
Anthony: How has it affected the teacher researcher's teaching practice?
The teachers in the Mills Teacher Scholars program report changing their practice as a result of doing their research and getting smarter about what their students know and don't know. Interestingly, their teaching practice is changed not only from what they learn about their students' learning, which is primary, but also from the inquiry stance that leads them to ask questions about what is happening in their classes as a regular part of every day's work. They report teaching with an inquiry stance is different from teaching without one as the process keeps their own professional learning alive. Additionally, many report that their relationships with their students change as they engage their students as collaborators in the research process. Everyone learns-teachers and students alike--in a classroom led by an inquiring teacher researcher.
Anthony: How have you seen this impact student learning?
In the Mills Teacher Scholars we are tracking student learning outcomes in the classrooms of the teacher researchers with whom we work. The teachers routinely report findings of student learning as measures by benchmark assessments and daily classroom student work that systematically gathered to mark progress (or no progress) in learning outcomes. This year we have collected the standardized test score data of the focal students who were part of the prior year's study. Though not all of those data are in, what we see thus far shows important gains for the focal students who were part of the teacher's research project. This is promising indeed.
Anthony: What sort of support do teachers need to do this kind of work?
Given the structure of schools as we know it, finding time and support for doing this kind of careful thinking about one's teaching is difficult to say the least. There are exceptions, of course--and in those settings the support for teacher research can come from the culture of the school where all teachers are encouraged (and provided time) for this inquiry work. But even in those settings, support for the work is essential. Teachers simply have so many things pulling at them always. Unless it is an expectation that they will step back and reflect on their practice, it is not likely that this will happen--at least not in the systematic way I believe is at the heart of teacher research.
My sense is that there is a misconception about school by those outside them that teachers are provided the time and opportunity to think about their students' learning with colleagues and grow in their professional knowledge as a result. We find that this is rarely the case. Not only do teachers not have the time to collaborate with their colleagues and learn about their teaching in the process, they don't have the knowledge and skills about how to engage in this kind of work, since it is not typically thought of as a necessary component of teaching. My experience leads me to believe that having support for teacher research is essential. Even for experienced teacher researchers having support in terms of time, colleagues, and guidance is important.
Anthony: Where is teacher research taking place?
There are teacher research groups happening all across the country, plus there are networks of teacher researchers that, if interested, teachers can seek out on line. Some school districts support teacher research groups such as the partnership we have with Oakland Unified School District. Our Oakland partnership underscores district's commitment to teacher-led professional development. County offices of education often support teacher research groups as well such as the TARI project of the Alameda County Office of Education. Mills Teacher Scholars program is excited about growing community of teacher researchers and would welcome news of similar projects that support teachers to study their practice in these ways and in so doing, build a knowledge base for the profession by the teachers who are "on the ground" doing the work.
Anna Richert is a Professor of Education and Faculty Director of the MIlls Teacher Scholars Project at Mills College in Oakland CA. She has a 20+ year history directing teacher research projects for teachers in urban schools. Her research focuses on teacher learning and teacher leadership with an emphasis on the role professional inquiry and ethics play in both. She was a Teacher Education Scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and and a recent recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Fellowship. Her work in both settings focused on teacher research Richert has a book forthcoming titled "What Should I Do? Managing the Ethical Dilemmas of Teaching," which will be published by Teachers College Press this coming spring.
What do you think of the sort of teacher collaboration Dr. Richert describes? Have you seen this work in your school?