Research: the classroom teacher’s Swiss army knife

It has long been believed that research ought to be left to the researchers, to those experienced in the work of carrying out experiments, taking field notes as they observe what is happening around them, or pouring over text to glean some meaning from it. Teaching, on the other hand, takes place in an environment from which researchers have come but to which they either do not return or return only occasionally to give a lecture or presentation.

Such a perspective ignores both the value of the teachers’ perspective as the ears and eyes of those of us in the education profession, as well as the value that research holds for teachers in their classrooms. Regarding the first point, teachers work on the front lines of our profession: the classroom. They understand the ins and outs, and the ups and downs of classroom learning and overall classroom dynamics better than anyone, aside possibly from their students. They thus have many experiences, and much wisdom, to share with those of us on the outside of their classroom walls. If I were hired to teach in a Korean high school, I would contact any English teachers currently or recently working in such schools to find out what to expect in terms of the students’ abilities and concerning likely expectations on the part of administration. I certainly wouldn’t ask my neighbour working as an instructor in a tech college in Vancouver. Conversely, were I scheduled to have a job interview at the tech college, I would be keenly interested in knowing about my neighbour’s experience teaching there, and would be interested in talking to other teachers working there as well.

As to the second point–the benefits that teachers gain from carrying out their own research–like a Swiss army knife, research can be a very handy tool for any teacher understanding how to use it well. First, research in the classroom can be used to expand a teacher’s knowledge about learners and learning in their particular teaching specialty, for example by means of observation notes, questionnaires given to students, tests, or any of variety of individual or group tasks, large or small. Second, as teachers experiment with a variety of tasks and test types, they can develop their creativity in the classroom. The need for this is particularly great for online/distance learning: getting and keeping learners engaged during a class on Zoom is widely reported to be quite a challenge, particularly with young learners and others lacking the motivation or confidence to learn online.

Third, through action research, teachers can explore potential solutions to particular learning challenges in their classrooms. For example, cooperative learning can be used as a possible solution to help learners struggling with selecting the correct pronouns, prepositions or transition words (“therefore”, “however”, “additionally”, etc.) in their writing. Stronger writers can be grouped with those who are weaker to act as mentors, a particularly helpful strategy when they share a common native language. Finally, by expanding their knowledge of learning in their discipline, increasing their creativity, and finding solutions to learning issues in their classrooms, teachers advance in their professional development, and care help promote the professional development of their peers as they share their findings in workshops, presentations, or on their own professional blogs or in a professional journal.

All of these are sound reasons for teachers to engage in research in their classrooms. As the instructor of the research-methods course in a TESOL program, however, I regularly encounter two obstacles to teachers becoming skillful researchers: the lack of knowledge needed to carry out sound research, and the lack in confidence to engage in it. The latter problem is an issue based not only on a lack of knowledge of educational research fundamentals but also on a lack of understanding of how educational research differs from that carried out in the hard sciences and medical fields, for example. Research of learners, and learning, is very different from other types because, for instance, it cannot be carried out in a lab using test tubes and special machines or analyzing rock formations or fallen trees outdoors. Educational research makes use of particular approaches, design options, and procedures for data collection and analysis, and for meeting ethical constraints. This is specialized knowledge requiring a course focusing specifically on research methods. Thankfully, programs such as ours and others in education do offer such a course, either as an elective, or ideally, core requirement. The potential benefits to teachers, their students and to our peers within our teaching specialties are such that it would be a shame for teachers to refrain from conducting research in their classrooms, physical or virtual.

Knowledge feeds practice.

Knowledge-based practice builds excellence.

Excellence breeds fruitfulness.

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