Teacher Research as a Pathway to Professional Growth

Jonah Hassenfeld

There are two basic methods of educational research. Quantitative methods analyze large numbers of students to study causes and effects. What teacher practices, for example, improve student outcomes? Researchers plan interventions, create control and experimental groups, and compare the results.

Qualitative research, on the other hand, offers powerful tools to access the minds of a small group of students. How do these young people think about God? What do they do when they approach a text? How do they use the Internet to find information online? To answer these questions, researchers don’t need thousands of people; they may only need a single classroom. The goal of qualitative research isn’t to make generalizations. Rather, the researcher aims to generate hypotheses based on a set of carefully selected cases. These hypotheses chart directions for future thinking and research.

Learning and practicing qualitative research methods, therefore, can be a powerful way for teachers, especially veteran teachers, to deepen their practice. The tools of qualitative research help teachers articulate clear learning goals, design new assessments and expand their understanding of students’ experiences in the classroom.

Over the last two years, with support from a CASJE small grant and in partnership with the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for the Study of Jewish Education at Brandeis University, I organized a group of teachers to use qualitative research methods to study their own teaching. They articulated research questions, collected data and synthesized shareable findings.

This sort of research isn’t for every teacher. Teachers in the first years of their career have their hands full with the basics of classroom management and lesson planning. They may lack the mental space to pull back from the everyday and consider larger issues.

To find a question with the potential to add to the field, teachers need years of experience. I recruited six teachers who had mastered the basics and were looking for opportunities to reflect on their work in a new way. I met with each teacher for an hour every other week throughout the year. In our first meeting, I asked each teacher, “What questions or problems have continued to bother you over the course of your career?”

Teachers answered as if they had been waiting for the chance to share their ideas. Anna, who taught history, talked about the challenge of teaching African American history to (mostly white) Jewish students. Emily, who taught science, described her struggle to negotiate between her identity as an educator and a climate activist. “When, if at all, is it appropriate to share her own beliefs and work with her students?” she wondered. Kevin, an English teacher, noted that we talk a lot about close reading but never define exactly what it means, and he wondered whether students knew what we meant by close reading (or whether we did ourselves).

But brainstorming questions wasn’t enough. For a research project, we needed to articulate specific and concrete questions about which we could collect data. Anna, for example, began with an intuition that learning African American history would pose specific challenges for her students, but she couldn’t, at first, articulate what those might be. Emily’s questions about her own identities might be an appropriate subject for a memoir, but to research the question, we would have to refine it. Kevin had many fascinating thoughts about the nature of close reading, but when we began, they seemed more appropriate for a work of literary criticism than for classroom research.

In each case, I worked with the teacher to consider how data could shed light on their areas of concern. Some teachers pushed back on the need for data. To them, using data meant quantitative research—distributing surveys and using statistical analyses to test hypotheses. They also raised questions about the ethical implications of studying their students in this way. As we explored qualitative research methods however, teachers began to see that doing qualitative research had a lot in common with the ways they thought about their students already. Teachers used a number of methods: think-alouds, asking students to vocalize their thoughts as they read a text; structured interviews, posing the same questions to a number of students in order to compare their answers; and ethnographic observation, observing students’ behavior and jotting “field notes” for later analysis. As the teachers used these methods, they noticed aspects of their students’ behavior they had never considered before. Qualitative research generated vivid insights into students’ thoughts and feelings about the world.

Ultimately, teachers designed data-collection plans. Anna assigned her students to write autobiographical essays in which they described their experiences with race. She recorded students thinking aloud as they read those essays at the beginning, middle and end of the course. She hoped to use these data to shed light on the development of their racial identities. Emily recorded six weeks of her environmental science class’s discussion as they studied the effects of climate change. Pairing those transcripts with her students’ journals, she hoped to chart the ways that students’ scientific knowledge interacted with their sense of justice and morality. Kevin decided that before he could ask students what close reading means, he wanted to examine disciplinary differences in close reading. He asked six teachers from humanities departments (Jewish studies, history and English) to think aloud as they read Psalm 137 in translation. He chose that text because of the way that it functioned simultaneously as a religious, historical and literary text.

Each of the teachers in the group enjoyed collecting data. Yet as they went through the process of collecting data and reflecting on it, they began to have more insights about their work far beyond the scope of their research question. They regularly told me how the research they were doing had changed the way they looked at their students. As she read their essays about race, Anna noticed herself paying closer attention to students’ comments in class. Some students used theoretical vocabulary like “intersectional” and “false consciousness.” She wondered, Were they showing off? Did the theoretical vocabulary they used add value to the conversation or obscure what they were trying to say?

Emily often planned for units as she taught them. For her research project however, she had to plan in advance. Although it was not her main topic, she started to ask whether there might be benefits to planning her science class along the way rather than having a unit set in stone in advance. Although Kevin interviewed teachers for his project, he found the think-aloud approach so useful that he began to use it with his students. He found these kinds of interviews helped him develop ways to evaluate student thinking more directly than through their writing. He told me his plans to ask students to record their own think-alouds as a way to engage in literary interpretation without having to write. This pattern suggested that engaging in the process of qualitative research can shape teachers’ practice beyond the scope of a particular research project.

During January, we started analyzing data to formulate findings. During our regular meeting, the teachers and I would comb through transcripts of interviews and observations and attempt to generate theories grounded in the reading we had done that might explain what we were seeing. Little by little, teachers began to draw preliminary conclusions. By March, several of the teachers had findings they felt confident enough about to share more broadly. Of the six teachers in the group, four presented at national conferences during the spring. These conferences included practitioners and academic researchers. The questions they were asked and the answers they gave demonstrated that their research had the potential to contribute not only to their teaching or their school but to the field of education at large.

The group faced a number of challenges. A literature review is time-consuming, time that many full-time teachers don’t have. I found myself pointing teachers to relevant articles and continuously lowering my expectation about the amount of reading teachers would do. By reaching out to my contacts in the educational research world, I was able to make sure that each teacher encountered key relevant citations in the area he or she was working. The informal collaborations between academic researchers and practitioners suggest a way to bridge the gap between academia and schools.

Moreover, the teacher research group took up an enormous amount of my time. I met with each teacher for an hour at least every other week (sometimes more). This kind of intensive coaching may not be sustainable. If teacher research is to be as powerful a tool as I think it is, schools must consider how to scale the program by developing more internal capacities for research. Gann has already taken steps in this direction. During the second year of the program, I devoted far more of my time to building capacity throughout the school for teachers and administrators to conduct their own research without my direct oversight. Today, Gann is well on its way to developing a culture that values ongoing research about teaching and learning.

My experience in the Teacher Research Group confirmed something I have long believed: we vastly underestimate our teachers. Teachers don’t just help students discover knowledge; teachers create knowledge. They have unique access to the moment in which learning happens and a special rapport with students that no academic researcher can achieve. Educational institutions must explore how to support teachers in this task and how to help them share what they learn with the world.

Some steps have already been taken in this direction. Publications like HaYidion and the Journal of Jewish Education seek out teacher research and, increasingly, conferences like the Network of Jewish Education feature teacher presenters. Nevertheless, we still have a long way to go. For the field of Jewish education to advance, teachers must become central players in growing our knowledge.

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Summer 2019