Harvard Educational Review
  1. Teacher Research for Better Schools

    By Marian M. Mohr, Courtney Rogers, Betsy Sanford, Mary Ann Nocerino, Marion MacLean, and Sheila Clawson

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2004. 192 pp. $21.95

    Coauthored by four schoolteachers and two teacher-research support staff members, Teacher Research for Better Schools defines "teacher research" and explores what happens to teachers, schools, and faculty-administrative relations when classroom instructors adopt teacher-researcher identities.

    Mohr et al. define teacher research as "inquiry that is intentional, systematic, public, voluntary, ethical, and contextual" (p. 23). The last adjective is central to the authors’ definition, as it distinguishes teacher research from conventional scientific studies that control for variables in order to produce reliable results. Instead of isolating variables, Mohr et al. explain, "teacher researchers strive to define, articulate, and elucidate the context as a whole, to reveal the assumptions at work within the context, and to uncover the connections as well as tensions among elements of that context" (p. 25). Teacher researchers seek to create knowledge that is immediately useful with their students in the particular classroom environment in which they teach.

    As the teacher researchers observed by Mohr et al. discovered, conducting research (i.e., assuming a teacher-researcher identity) is really no different from adopting good teaching practices. As one teacher researcher described it, "teacher research is paying attention in a different way" (p. 49); that is, with an eye to interrogating and improving practice. Teacher researchers pose questions about student learning, so they must gather data about how their students learn. This process results in teacher educators conveying the message that students should consider "the ways they know." This focus on metacognition — an inevitable outcome of teacher research — helps students develop effective learning strategies. By becoming attuned to the process of problem-solving, students learn not only subject matter but also how to think about that subject matter. Moreover, the process is self-perpetuating: As teacher researchers become increasingly aware of their students’ thinking as a result of their research, they begin to incorporate teaching about learning into their lessons about DNA, the Civil War, or the quadratic formula. Over time, this becomes a standard part of teacher researchers’ repertoire, whether or not they are conducting a specific research project. Teachers’ instruction thus continues to improve, as does students’ learning. Teacher research, therefore, serves as a particularly effective form of ongoing professional development.

    Part Two of Teacher Research for Better Schools provides a series of illustrative narratives from teacher-researcher classrooms and research meetings. Betty Sanford’s chapter, "It All Adds Up: Learning Number Facts in First Grade," provides a particularly vivid description of one teacher educator’s journey to best practice. It also highlights a second benefit of teacher research: Although Sanford arrived at a deep understanding of the first-grade mathematics curriculum through her study of student cognition, not through a review of the relevant scholarly literature, Mohr et al. found that the practice of conducting classroom research made teacher researchers both more knowledgeable and more interested readers of scholarly articles. As Sanford illustrates, teacher research can enable classroom teachers to expand their conceptions of themselves as a member of a professional community.

    When conducted within a supportive network of colleagues, teacher research helps break down harmful assumptions about an all-knowing teacher. Like academics, teacher researchers ask tough questions. The willingness to ask such questions enables teachers to empathize with their students, who take such academic risks daily. Teacher researchers, Mohr et al. argue, model inquiry by talking to students about their research questions and the ways they seek answers. While modeling is undeniably essential to good teaching, one might quibble with Mohr et al.’s reasoning: It seems more logical to have teacher researchers model the subject matter inquiry they are attempting to teach students than to model inquiry about teaching. Teacher researchers must show students that they are not only learners in the realm of education, but also, like their pupils, students of history, mathematics, or literature.

    Part Three, How Does Teacher Research Affect Schools?, discusses how well-supported teacher researchers, working in conjunction with other reform groups, can transform school culture and curriculum. Because the narratives are case studies of specific schools, they are burdened with details that make them less useful than the careful classroom sketches provided in Part Two. Nonetheless, the authors make a convincing case that a teacher-researcher presence in schools transforms faculty interactions, creating communities in which discussions of pedagogy, educational theory, and classroom practice occur more frequently. Part Four, What Does Teacher Research in Schools Mean to the Educational Community?, provides an especially useful summary of recommendations for forging and sustaining teacher-research communities within schools.

    Teacher Research for Better Schools provides useful information for school administrators, who will appreciate suggestions about how to support teacher research; teacher educators, who will recognize the link between student teacher journals and teacher researcher logs; and classroom teachers who, after reading the text, will understand the concept of teacher research and may recognize ways they already use it — in the form of reflective analysis — in their own teaching and planning.

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