AERA Meeting Showcases New Ways To Present Research

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In a hotel meeting room here at the annual conference of the world's largest educational research group, four actors are putting on a play. Garbed in black, they clutch their scripts and launch into their lines. The standing-room-only crowd watches, enthralled.

These "actors" are researchers, and they are using this unusual format to present real data from a qualitative study of parents' responses to mathematics reforms at a New England high school.

Novel ways of doing and presenting research abounded last week at the American Educational Research Association conference, which drew 12,000 scholars from around the world. Among the hundreds of sessions scheduled during the April 19-23 gathering were talks on research led by teachers; discussions on using autobiography, biography, photography, and emerging video technologies as forms of research; and presentations on "action" research, which calls on researchers to involve themselves in the phenomenon they are studying.

"If you go back 10 or 15 years, the field was a methodological straitjacket," said Alan H. Schoenfeld, the association's outgoing president.

Teachers as Researchers

The proliferation of new ways to conduct and communicate research grows in part out of dissatisfaction with old methods. Critics for years have complained, for example, that statistical data often fail to capture the whole story of what happens in classrooms.

"I think there's a realization that traditional educational research isn't reaching a lot of audiences--particularly teachers," said Robert Donmoyer, the Ohio State University researcher who brought the play format, known as "reader's theater," to the annual meeting for the first time in 1993.

At last week's presentation, written by Jean L. Konzal, an assistant education professor at the College of New Jersey in Ewing, N.J., the researcher-actors were staging a town meeting held to discuss the introduction of new approaches to math instruction. Actors planted in the audience portrayed parents who were either endorsing or opposing the changes, which called for redesigning courses and placing students in heterogeneous groups rather than grouping them by ability.

Researchers said they often use the scripts as discussion starters in teacher education classes or with other school groups.

"I see this as an approach that speaks to practitioners and parents very differently and gets them involved in thinking about the complexity of issues," Ms. Konzal said. The approach, she continued, "helps them perhaps see issues more clearly, and perhaps leads them to take some action."

Similarly, teacher-led research, featured in several other sessions at the conference, also has a second purpose: It's a potential tool for professional development.

Popular in the 1940s, studies conducted by teachers later became less common, and then re-emerged in the 1980s, said Kenneth Zeichner, a teacher education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Now, schools in Boston, Madison, and Oakland, Calif., among other places, engage in the practice.

In the Madison schools, for example, more than 400 teachers have taken part in the teacher-research program begun in that district nine years ago.

Mr. Zeichner and his colleagues interviewed 74 of those teachers. In findings presented last week, they noted that the teachers credited the research process with helping them be more reflective about their own teaching, gain a sense of control over what happens in their classrooms, and listen more to their students.

But the university researchers have yet to document any improvements in student achievement in the classrooms of the teacher-researchers they studied, although the participating teachers say their students' attitudes toward school seem to have improved.

Just as with traditional studies, newer research forms have limitations, one being the possibility of greater bias.

The play format also leaves out discussion of the theoretical underpinnings of the original research.

And teacher research, Mr. Zeichner said, often varies in quality.

"There's a huge debate now on how do we decide what is good teacher research," he said. "One problem is that the academic community doesn't see it as knowledge production."

Vol. 18, Issue 33, Page 5

Published in Print: April 28, 1999, as AERA Meeting Showcases New Ways To Present Research
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