Early Childhood Education

Teacher Research

 

Teacher research is generally defined as the “systematic and intentional inquiry carried out by teachers” (Cochran-Smith and Lytle, 1993, p. 7) and is described by a wide range of labels, including practitioner research, teachers-as-researchers, action research, partnership research, and teacher inquiry. Teacher researchers study and analyze a wide range of questions and aspects related to their classroom practice, typically resulting in new plans of action and new knowledge about the teaching learning process. Current school reform efforts and recommendations to raise professional standards for teacher certification in the United States include the provision of teaching experiences that move teachers beyond a dependence on organized knowledge (generated from outside schools and classrooms) and the transmission of this knowledge, toward new understandings developed through critical thinking and teacher research. While this “call to action” might seem relatively recent, teacher research in the United States is not.

Historically, evidence of teacher research has spanned more than a century of work among teachers and teacher educators who have inquired alone and in collaboration, utilized diverse, yet related, methodologies, and engaged in a range of traditions in which teacher research and practice are mutually informing, nested endeavors. The many forms of teacher research have included and continue to include both empirical and conceptual studies and utilize an array of data sources such as reflective journals, oral inquiry, case studies, classroom-based research, and autobiographical accounts of teaching, learning, and schooling. Regardless of the label used or form taken, teacher research positions teachers as producers as well as consumers of knowledge—knowledge that is situated and constructed in classrooms and schools, focused on pedagogical, social, and political issues, and informed by the learning lives of children and teachers. Noted educator Eleanor Duckworth (1987) wrote the following about her vision of researchers who also teach:

This kind of researcher [cares] about some part of the world and how it works enough to want to make it accessible to others; he or she would be fascinated by the questions of how to engage people in it and how people make sense of it; would have time and resources to pursue these questions to the depth of his or her interests, to write what he or she learned, and to contribute to the theoretical and pedagogical discussions on the nature and development of human learning. (p. 140)

Within the wide array of qualitative or interpretive studies, teacher researchers’ aims include understanding the complexity of the teaching and learning process, addressing the need to study contexts of learning that are particular and situated, and including diverse sources of data for creating thick descriptions of learning. In these studies, methodologies typically include in-depth interviews, observational field notes, and a diversity of classroom documentation (work samples, photographs, video tapes, transcriptions). At times, similar to the above- mentioned product-process studies, teacher researchers have participated in interpretive studies alongside university researchers. Yet, even when teachers are members of such research initiatives, the struggle continues today to situate teacher researchers in positions of equal or shared authority for contributing to the knowledge base that informs practices, policies, and programs in schools.

During the past century in the United States, there appears to be at least three periods when teacher research has gained a prominent foothold in the professional literature, taking center stage in the dominant discourse, and legitimatizing the researching lives of early childhood teachers. These include the Progressive Era early in the twentieth century, the action research and collaborative action research movement spearheaded by Kurt Lewin midcentury, and practitioner research during the 1970s and 1980s to the present.

The roots of teacher research in the United States go back to the Progressive Education Era, led by John Dewey, when he called for teachers to engage in “reflective action” that would lead toward inquiry-oriented practice (1933). Progressive educators’ research and practice focused more on the child rather than curriculum content as the source of direction for the creation of relevant teaching and learning experiences. Teacher reports were the cornerstone of the model of inquiry in Dewey’s laboratory school, informed by documentation including teachers’ field notes, classroom experiments, and teachers’ collective debriefings of the daily learning experiences of children and teachers. Attention was on the study of how to provide for, promote, and investigate the active engagement of children in authentic classroom experiences and to share knowledge learned from these classroom studies with others in the field of early childhood education.

The early efforts by teacher researchers of the Progressive Era to critically study children’s learning lives in naturalistic, school settings were expanded upon and to some degree elevated by the work of Kurt Lewin in the 1940s and 1950s, who coined the phrase “action research.” Action research is one form of teacher research in which teachers study classroom problems or questions and act to change practice in response to the analyses of their data. Subsequently, action researchers have investigated a wide range of topics, including pedagogical (e.g., impact of teaching strategies on children’s learning, content-specific studies such as teaching writing), organizational (e.g., the role of open classrooms on children’s learning), and community-focused (e.g., home-school relations, parent participation) aspects of teaching and learning. The practice of action researchers is characterized by movements through iterative cycles of critical observation and documentation, reflection, planning, acting, revising, and acting. Engagement in such cycles of inquiry typically results in a heightened awareness of decision making, problem posing, and problem solving. Teacher researchers are sometimes referred to as reflective practitioners because they reflect on action and in action to frame, critique, and respond to problems or questions (Schon, 1987). Consequently, teaching is praxis because teachers examine theory in light of practice, through recursive cycles of reflection and action.

While teachers can engage in action research alone, often teachers conduct research with others through research collaboratives, study groups, or critical friend partnerships. It was Lewin who first sought to bring researchers and teachers together to engage in collaborative action research, where the mechanism and potentials of the social construction of knowledge are made visible and diverse and complementary perspectives contribute to new, shared understandings. From these earliest years to today, university researchers and teachers form action research groups in which teachers learn to conduct research, contribute new insights and knowledge to the field, and view teaching and researching as mutually informing inquiry. In addition to collaborative action research other research partnerships have developed over the years including those created by Professional Development Schools (PDS) and developed by the Holmes Partnership, Research is a fundamental cornerstone of these university-public school partnerships in which classroom teachers, preservice teachers, and university faculty research together, shaping the policies and programs of local schools while educating young novice teachers toward inquiry-oriented practice.

Teacher researchers have not always partnered with university researchers, but have also formed research collaborations within and across classrooms and schools, utilizing a form of systematic and intentional inquiry not necessarily representative of action research. For example, during the 1980s and 1990s a number of research collaboratives developed, including the research communities such as Patricia Carini and colleagues at the Prospect School in Bennington, Vermont, and Steve Seidel and others at Harvard Project Zero in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In these collaborations, teachers generated and used protocols to guide their analyses and interpretations of a wide range of classroom records, including photographs, transcriptions of children’s conversations, videotapes, work samples, and teachers’ field notes. For example, at the Prospect School, teachers created the Descriptive Review of the Child process to frame and systematize their careful investigations of children’s early learning experiences, inviting teachers from throughout the school to participate in the collective analyses and interpretations of rich and diverse classroom records. Educators at Project Zero created an inquiry process called the Collaborative Assessment Conference. Teachers come together to talk about children’s learning and use this tool or framework to systematically guide their conversations related to how children work on problems or explore interests and the role of teachers in their efforts to improve contexts for learning.

Research collaborations similar to these developed concurrently, focused on particular curriculum content areas, with early literacy and children’s oral and written language taking the early lead in the 1970s and 1980s, including play, storying, and drama, followed by, most notably, mathematics and science instruction. Such research groups have grown during the past two decades due, in part, to the support and encouragement by professional organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the National Writing Project, the Critical Friends’ Groups (CFGs) of the National School Reform Faculty’s (NSRF) group, the International Reading Association, to name a few, and the Teachers Network Leadership Institute (TNLI). These national and international initiatives aimed at facilitating teachers’ research together, have been joined by a plethora of local and statewide groups aimed at creating contexts for studying teacher practice, children’s learning, and the impact of policies and practices on schooling in specific locales.

Beginning in the mid to late 1980s, similar work by educators in the more than thirty municipal infant-toddler and preprimary schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy began to influence the work of U.S. teacher-researchers’ generation and use of classroom documentation. Documentation is not only a compilation of classroom records but also a spiraling process in which teachers collaboratively use documents to inform and guide teacher practice; reveal children’s construction of knowledge; demonstrate a respect for children’s work; validate the competencies of children, and communicate teachers’ ideas for and understanding of children’s learning lives to each other, to parents, and to the larger community. Through this approach to early education, Reggio-inspired teachers and teacher educators in the U.S. have developed research collaboratives (e.g., Reggio-Inspired Teacher Education (RITE) and the Informed Practice Collaboratives) and meet regularly to share and engage in collective reflections from which collaborative decisions are made for how to challenge, deepen, and extend children’s learning. Among the functions of documentation for teacher inquiry are (a) representational (creating meaning), (b) mediational (linking thought to action), and (c) epistemological (providing a source of new knowledge). Across these examples of research collaboratives, early childhood teachers engage in research with others to chronicle, “make visible,” and disseminate new understandings about children’s learning even as they create contexts and constructs for research that are inclusive, deliberate, and embedded within the practice of daily teaching.

Concurrent with the emergence of research collaboratives in the United States, a rich reservoir of teacher research (both conceptually and empirically based) by individual teachers has developed. Nevertheless, evidence of empirical studies by individual teachers is more difficult to find in the literature than conceptually based research. Yet, the creation of new professional journals aimed at publishing the writings and the research of teachers (e.g., Voices of Practitioners: Teacher Research in Early Childhood Education, now a special section of the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC) journal Young Children, the online journal of Early Childhood Research and Practice, and the journal Theory into Practice) during recent decades have become more plentiful. Teachers’ conceptual studies have been most evident through the narratives and autobiographical accounts that describe the complex and multifaceted nature of teaching and learning.

These chronicles of teachers’ and children’s educative experiences may be considered by some researchers and educators as more teacher stories rather than serious research. However, if one applies Cochran-Smith and Lytle’s (1993) definition of teacher research (noted at the beginning of this entry) then the writings of well-known teacher researchers such as Vivian Paley, Sylvia Ashton- Warner, and Francis Hawkins clearly represent deliberate and systematic inquiry, often conducted over long periods of time, and informed by the analyses of a diversity of documentation. These accounts of teacher inquiry are squarely aimed at answering important questions focused on understanding the emergence of early literacy, investigating children’s friendships, rights, and moral dimensions in the classroom, and facing the challenge of how to reach troubled and impoverished children, for example. Such questions and teachers’ written accounts of their studies are focused on real problems that subsequently frame teacher research, inform teacher practice, and contribute new knowledge to the field of early childhood education.

As evidenced in the teacher research described here, teachers over the past millennium in the United States have continued to take steps away from a position of “the researched” toward one of “researcher,” who contribute new knowledge to the field of early education. The work of teacher researchers includes both how teachers construct new knowledge and which knowledge they choose to pursue. Here, teacher knowledge refers to a range of foci from personal, practical knowledge to pedagogical content or subject matter knowledge to propositional knowledge. Thus, knowledge includes two distinct and related moments in learning, researching, and teaching. These include both the process of constructing new knowledge and the realization that certain knowledge already exists (Shor and Freire, 1987). The disposition to continually inquire, to seek, and to connect ways of knowing is one that views the teacher as a lifelong learner or student of teaching, committed to generating practical theories and “local knowledge” (Cochran-Smith and Lytle 1993, p. 45) with others and sharing that knowledge with the broader field of education.

Regardless of the focus or form of research or type of knowledge produced and used, teacher researchers are influencing reform in the field of early childhood teacher education as well as within classrooms and across schools. This is occurring even as the debate continues on whether knowledge generated by authorities outside teachers’ classrooms holds more weight (as scientific knowledge) than knowledge generated by classroom researchers. Nevertheless, the evidence of teachers’ movement away from roles characterized by passivity from which they receive knowledge from “outsiders” without question, deliberation, or challenge has shifted toward one characterized by systematic and intentional research, resulting in inquiry from which new knowledge and ways of knowing emerge. Thus, teacher researchers today are actualizing what John Dewey (1929) noted early in the twentieth century of the teacher research movement—that the most important act of a teacher is to investigate pedagogical problems through inquiry.

Further Readings: Cochran-Smith, Marilyn, and Susan Lytle (1993). Inside/outside: Teacher research and knowledge. New York: Teachers College Press. Dewey, John (1929). Experience and nature; La Salle: Open Court. Dewey, John (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath. Duckworth, Eleanor (1987). “The having of wonderful ideas" and other essays on teaching and learning. New York: Teachers College Press. Himley, Margaret, and Patricia F. Carini, eds. (2000). From another angle: Children’s strengths and school standards. New York: Teachers College Press; Schon, Donald (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions; San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Shor, Ira, and Paulo Friere (1987). A pedagogy for liberation: Dialogues on informing education. South Hadley: Bergin and Garvey.

Mary Jane Moran