The Cambridge University Press Teacher Research Programme offers financial and professional support to a number of projects every year. In a short series of posts, we’re going to be exploring what teacher research means, and how you can benefit from it.
First of all, it’s important to define our terms. Simon Borg, in his book Teacher Research in Language Teaching, observes that the large body of existing literature on teacher research actually contains several different terms, which can be somewhat confusing, as they may overlap and be defined differently by different people.
At the start of his book, Simon succinctly clarifies some of the terminology often used in the field:
“[P]ractitioner research […] refers to systematic inquiry by professionals in any discipline who are investigating their own practices”
“Action research is a form of practitioner research which is characterized by particular procedures which broadly involve the introduction and evaluation of new practices […]. Some definitions […] stipulate that it should be collective or collaborative.”
“Classroom research … is simply systematic inquiry which is conducted in classrooms.”
So what exactly is ‘teacher research’, then?
Simon explains that what the various definitions of teacher research have in common “is that they refer to inquiry conducted by teachers in their own professional contexts; and […] these definitions also typically characterize such inquiry as being systematic. Lankshear & Knobel’s  definition stresses the self-initiated nature of teacher research (i.e. teachers themselves must want to do it and must have some control over its focus and conduct) and suggests it may be collaborative, while Cochran-Smith & Lytle  distinguish, helpfully I feel, between reflection and teacher research: while teacher research is necessarily reflective, reflecting on one’s practice does not automatically constitute teacher research.”
In other words:
“[N]ot all research done by teachers is teacher research – it needs to be conducted in teachers’ own professional context and with the purpose of enhancing their understanding of some aspect of their work.”
When teachers decide to conduct research into their own practice, what does this actually involve?
Simon suggests that:
“Teacher research is more commonly associated with qualitative forms of inquiry and investigative strategies which are accessible to teachers, though in theory there are no limitations on the strategies that teacher researchers can deploy (and quantitative techniques are sometimes used).”
To summarise so far:
• is reflective
• is systematic
• is conducted in the teacher’s own professional context
• is driven, at least partly, by the teacher himself/herself
• may be collaborative
• may be qualitative or quantitative in nature, or both
• aims to enhance the teacher’s understanding of some aspect of his/her practice
Should all teachers do action research?
Simon stresses his views on this point:
“It [is] not my intention to argue that good teaching is not possible without research engagement; […] effective teaching calls for a range of personal traits, interpersonal skills and pedagogical and practical knowledge that are acquired intuitively, collegially, and experientially rather than formally, through reading and doing research. … However, the argument that teachers who have demonstrated their effectiveness in the classroom do not need to be research engaged is, I believe suspect.
First, it reflects a restricted view of what it means to be a professional (i.e. it dismisses the possibility of change or the need for improvement in favour of the unquestioned repetition of the same practices over time); second, it places excessive emphasis on the role of intuition, collegiality and experience in teacher learning – as important as these are, their impact on teacher learning can be enriched through engagement with reading and classroom inquiry; and third, this position limits teachers’ potential for growth by dismissing a valuable and accessible professional development strategy. It is by no means the only strategy available to teachers[.] Research engagement, though, provides teachers with an additional powerful option.”
Barriers to teacher research
Of course, there are potential barriers to teacher research, including limited resources, unsupportive leadership and economic matters, among other things. But for those who choose to engage, there are many potential benefits of teacher research. Simon outlines various scholars’ observations that teacher research:
• develops teachers’ capacity for autonomous professional judgments
• reduces teachers’ feelings of frustration and isolation
• allows teachers to move out of a submissive position and be curriculum innovators
• allows teachers to become more reflective, critical, and analytical about their teaching behaviours in the classroom
• makes teachers less vulnerable to and less dependent on external answers to the challenges they face
• fosters connections between teachers and researchers
• boosts teachers’ sense of status