What kinds of activities do your students enjoy and why? How can technology be used to support their learning? How often do you correct your students’ oral errors, what strategies do you use, and how effective are they? What are your beliefs about teaching grammar, how justified are they and how do they influence your teaching? What kinds of activities will encourage students to speak more English in class? How do you provide feedback on students’ written work and how do students interpret and respond to this feedback? Do you believe that pair and group work are ‘good’ for your students, and what evidence do you have to support your views? Why are students seemingly more concerned with getting the right answer than with learning? Why do certain activities work with some classes but not with others?
Teacher research is a strategy that teachers can use to examine questions such as these. The word ‘research’ very often evokes images of a large-scale, complex, theoretical and time-consuming activity which has limited relevance to the work of classroom teachers. This is unfortunate, because teacher research is both practical and relevant. It is practical because it focuses on pedagogical issues and seeks to understand and improve teaching and learning; it is relevant because teacher research focuses on issues that teachers identify as being important for them and their students (and ideally for their organisations more generally). Teacher research is also feasible – it does not have to be large-scale and teachers can work with one class, a smaller group, or even with individual students.
Like all research, teacher research is a systematic process (click here for more details) – teachers start by identifying an issue (but not necessarily a problem) they want to explore and questions they want to investigate; they then collect information (‘data’) relevant to those questions, analyse and interpret the data, then decide on what practical action to take as a result of their conclusions. Teacher research is very often pictured as a cycle, as in this example:
Teacher research is a powerful strategy for professional development (read about one teacher’s experience.). It has the potential to deliver not only improvements in teaching and learning but also to give teachers an enhanced sense of their own professional identity. Many teachers who have adopted teacher research in their classrooms have told me how it increased their motivation and boosted their confidence (National Education Association lists various other benefits of teacher research).Teacher research can also give teachers an added sense of professional autonomy because, in contrast with conventional training courses, teacher research is driven by teachers themselves – they make decisions about what to focus on, how, and when. External ideas from, for example, reading, can of course support teachers in making such decisions, and advice from more experienced colleagues can also be valuable – but ownership of the process lies with the teachers themselves.
It is important, though, not to see teacher research as an activity which teachers must carry out in the isolation of their own classrooms. In fact, the process and outcomes will be enhanced when teacher research is collaborative. Teachers can collaborate with colleagues – in their schools or in other schools – who are also interested in examining their own teaching. Students, too, can be collaborators in teacher research. Teacher research can even be done as a collaborative activity across a whole department or language school. Collaboration has many benefits – responsibilities are shared, discussions are enriched, and peer support can sustain motivation.
So, there are many good reasons why teachers should engage in teacher research. ‘But what about the challenges?’ I hear readers ask. Well, firstly, although teacher research can be integrated into regular classroom activities, some additional time to plan, do and share the research is needed. Also, teachers may need some support so that they can learn about ways of collecting data in their classroom (e.g. using interviews, self-observation, and simple questionnaires) and of analysing these data. When teacher research is based on careful planning and informed decisions it can lead to results that are worthwhile and that can be confidently used as the basis of future decisions about teaching and learning – that is after all a key purpose of teacher research. A third factor which teachers can benefit from is the availability of advice and feedback from someone (within or outside the school) who has experience of teacher research.
A number of resources exist to support teachers who are interested in doing research. I’ve compiled a list of free sources of research on language teaching and this includes links to several examples of research done by teachers in their classrooms. My blog also contains posts on teacher research. Various books and on-line resources exist too – one free booklet is ‘How to do action research in your classroom’. This is not written specifically for language teachers – but teacher research is a professional development strategy all teachers can use.
I hope this brief introduction to teacher research makes you curious to find out more and to experience the benefits of teacher research yourself – if it does, you will find more information in the links in this article. And if you have any questions please leave a comment.
If you’re interested in running some research of your own – particularly on ELT in schools – then Cambridge University Press may be able to support you. Click here for more information and an application form.