Teachers as Researchers

The thought occurred to me recently that, in some manner, every teacher is a researcher. When one thinks of researchers, one may conjure up an image of an academic working for a third-level institution. Teachers, as we traditionally know them, do not fit this description. The research that we do, however informally we do it, is based in practice and has real-world and immediate applications.

Whether we critically reflect on how a lesson went, or whether we take a more formal research approach to our practice, both are equally as valuable. The only difference is that one may go unnoticed and unrecognised while the other reaps rewards through the form of accredited certification.

Researching through the more formal and traditional means generally allows the researcher a medium through which findings can be presented and discussed. The same cannot presently be said about the informal types of research that take place daily in classrooms. Other than something along the lines of a discussion with a colleague or a brief mention at a staff meeting, this sort of informal research most likely ends up being lost to everyone but the initial individual, with its practical benefits remaining unseen and unrealised by a wider audience.

Let me make it clear that I do not see School Self-Evaluation as the answer. That approach is too narrowly focused (standardised testing results) and restrictive, as its structures are designed by people not involved in the process on the ground. The process is also forced, however at the time of writing, a union directive instructs teachers at primary level not to engage with it.

There is a solution. It involves a change of culture, where teachers at primary and at secondary level are encouraged to share their professional and informal research experiences with a wider audience, through a medium that is always accessible. Blogging is one such medium but it is often up to an individual to set up their own blog and to maintain it, in order to reach a significant number of readers. What’s needed is a well-maintained medium where registered teachers are free to make submissions about their formal and informal research and their research in practice, and where other registered teachers can access it and discuss it with a view to further professional learning.

I think the Teaching Council has a role to play here. It is, after all, charged with the promotion of the profession. I would challenge them to enable teachers to share their formal and informal research experiences through a medium that lasts.

The Critical Incident Questionnaire in the Infant Classroom

I had an hour to spare the other day so I decided I’d search YouTube for any videos of my favourite writer in education – Stephen D. Brookfield. I found this video, in which he makes a presentation on critical and creative thinking. The one-hour video does not do justice to the contents of his book “Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher” (1995) but rather it provides a solid basis for wanting to read it, and in my case, re-read it.

This is a wonderful video in which Brookfield recounts his experiences with his own failures in education and how he managed to overcome these. He also uses the highly personal example of his own clinical depression to illustrate his point about assumptions. It’s well worth watching if you can spare an hour.

Stephen Brookfield’s teaching experience is rooted in Adult Education. As a primary school teacher, I find myself wondering whether his approaches to promoting critically reflective teaching are transferrable to the primary school context, particularly at infant level. I particularly note what he terms the Critical Incident Questionnaire. The three questions in the CIQ are as follows:

  1. At what moment in class this week did you feel most engaged with what was happening?
  2. At what moment in class this week were you most distanced from what was happening?
  3. What action that anyone (teacher or student) took this week did you find most affirming or helpful?

I like the idea of it but I know that it would not be viable in its current form in a Junior or Senior Infant classroom. The CIQ is voluntary and is supposed to be anonymous, so oral feedback in place of the standard, written CIQ would defeat the purpose of anonymous feedback. The language in its current form would have to be altered if the pupils were to engage with it properly. It would most likely have to be read aloud and explained by me in order to eliminate confusion. I would have to be mindful of pupils whose first language is not English. In order to collect feedback, I would have to rely to some extent on the children’s ability to write for the purposes of transmitting real meaning. This raises the ethical issue surrounding the guarantee of anonymity – many teachers can identify a pupil by their handwriting.

The other alternative is to send the CIQ home with them at the weekend and to get them to dictate their responses to their parents, who will in turn fill in these dictated responses, possibly by typing them up to preserve anonymity (a teacher can become accustomed to a parent’s handwriting as well!) and for return the following day. This isn’t a perfect solution either, as it relies on participation that one cannot and should not force. It also allows for the child’s answer to be influenced by the parent, which would render the feedback useless.

In less than a fortnight as I begin my ninth year in teaching, I will be embarking on my first experience teaching a Senior Infants class. I would like to use the CIQ in some form to improve their educational experiences, therefore I would welcome any suggestions or feedback from readers of this blog as to how I can best do this.

The Value Teachers Place in Things

If you could avail of a service and pay for the privilege of it; or avail of a similar service and be offered it for free, what would you choose? If I was going to benefit in some way from the free service, I would choose that one, after having given it some proper thought. If I was considering availing of the paid service, I’d do my research to see what was on offer and I’d check the reputation of the person offering it, as I would be parting with hard-earned money.

If you were pondering what product to buy from a range of choices, do you believe what the reviewer says if he/she receives free samples of merchandise from time to time from the supplier? I can’t place much faith in a review if it’s too positive – nothing is perfect. I’d rather give it some real thought and make my own mind up.

This blog post came about as a result of what I’ve seen on various teacher Facebook pages over the last number of weeks. “Like, tag and share to enter a draw for a free planner!” and the likes. It has also come about as a result of what I’ve seen over the last few years – relatively new teachers hosting paid seminars or writing books where they tell NQTs and student teachers how they think they should do things. There is a lot wrong with this.

It is unethical. The whole “Like, tag and share” gimmick is a shameless way of accruing an increasing amount of likes for a Facebook page. The page with thousands of likes therefore has to be questioned as to its value. Can we really believe that ten thousand or more people really have an interest in what a particular teacher is saying/selling on Facebook if those likes were gained through a questionable marketing trick? Is it really a genuine following? Do ten thousand likes place a value in the product being sold or the reputation of the person selling it?

Teachers should question everything and should encourage their learners to do so too. There is an unfortunate trend occurring where some teachers are looking for the quick fix, or the “how-to” manual. This does a disservice to the profession and bypasses what all teachers should be doing – thinking critically. It shows a negligible amount of questioning  or judgment – skills that are important to us as teachers and important to impart to our learners.

I don’t think we can improve our practice by being passive. We can improve our practice by being active participants in our own improvement. This means thinking for yourself, questioning new initiatives before implementing them, talking to your colleagues and sharing problems, solutions and ideas. It’s also important to question the value of what you read (this blog is not immune from criticism, rather it is welcomed) or what is for sale on the internet . We really can’t follow a check-list and expect to be the best we can be. It’s not all in a book and no one individual can give you answers to all of your questions or solutions to all of your problems. Collaboration, where everyone is respected as an equal and where everyone has something to contribute, is a good start.