School & District Management Opinion

Teachers as Researchers: Changing the Dynamics of PD

By Starr Sackstein — February 04, 2015 5 min read
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ImageGuest post by Dr. Charles Gleek

We’ve all been there; sitting in large group, professional development workshops facilitated using instructional practices we would never inflict on our own students.

While I sincerely hope that none of us have endured sessions like those Strauss (2014) highlights in the Washington Post, the stark reality is that most professional development schemes are divorced from what most of us see as ways of improving our practice.

Just as one-size-fits-all, top-down administered assessments do not yield generalizable results about individual student learning, so too do packaged, facilitator-centric, schemes for improving the quality of instructional practice neglect the ways each of wish to improve our professional practice.

As professionals, we often comply with school, district, or company mandates to sit participate in obligatory training workshops. But just as authoritarian systems perpetually struggle to keep individuals oriented towards an arbitrary slate of objectives, such mass-produced professional development plans often fail because they are not constructed around the interests of those who are subjected to them.

As such, we often passively adopt or resist our mandated professional development programs, doing just enough to tick the boxes or complete the review form, so only to return to what matters most: learning.

Individuals are motivated by a variety of factors, but some are more important than others. Daniel Pink (2009) makes the case that our intrinsic motivation to do anything—to work, live, and play—lies in the degree to which we have autonomy over what we do, can work toward mastery of capabilities, and do so with a meaningful sense of purpose.

Pink’s ideas align very well with what we know about learning engagement; the extent to which an individual’s behavior is positively aligned with an organization’s values, outcomes, or activities. Specifically, learning engagement function of an individual’s behavioral, emotional, and cognitive capabilities as well as a learner’s relationship with their instructor. (Skinner & Belmont, 1993; Fredericks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004).

It is this disconnect between what we know as professionals, many of us researchers in our own right, and the practice we are subjected to when we take part in workshops that do not align with our intrinsic motivation to improve our instructional practice. What is needed is a system of continual professional development that is personalized and relevant to the questions we have about our individual classrooms and students.

What then is the alternative?

First and foremost, we need to reframe the argument about what we do as teachers. We are not simply cogs in what Friere (2000) describes as “the banking system” of education.

Teachers are social scientists. We study human behavior, largely learning but certainly other forms of behavior in our classrooms as well. We test the different approaches and methods of learning work to improve the ways in which our students understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and communicate their knowledge in a variety of settings.

As teachers, we occupy a unique position to report on an individual student’s learning, including prescriptions for improvement and celebrations of success, in ways that no grade, transcript, or standardized test can ever do.

In short, we are not simply facilitators of content and standards; we are the agents best positioned to provide an objective assessment about student learning in a rigorously scientific fashion. Ignoring or marginalizing these capabilities is not simply a disservice to our students and parents, it is a theft of the intellectual property that each teacher brings to their craft.

Professional development should be rooted in action research. Teachers are singularly situated to to ask questions about learning in their classrooms. Teachers gather information and data about their students all the time, whether its derived from internal and external assessments, formative evaluations, or even from feedback they receive from the students themselves (see Quinton & Smallbone, 2010).

In all cases, this data should be used to drive the process of inquiry, to review what others have done, and to design a plan for research. In addition, teachers should be conducting research, reporting their findings, and reflecting on the research process itself as an act of continual scholarship (Mertler, 2012).

This process embeds and celebrates a culture of learning in our professional practice, just as it models best practices of investigation and reflection for our students and families to observe and emulate.

Individual teachers should no longer be subjected to mandated, mass-training workshops. Rather, we should have the capacity to define our professional development goals in light of the questions we have about the approaches to teaching and learning that exist in our own classrooms as well a those of the organization which we choose to work in.

Teachers who share identify similar lines of inquiry in their classes can collaborate on large-N studies, with the prospect of presenting their findings to as wide an academic and community audience as they wish. Teachers who feel they are in need of revision or training on action research methods can choose to align themselves in affinity cohorts in order position themselves for effective inquiry in their classrooms. Such an individualized approach to professional development corresponds to the same sort of personalized learning we strive for with our students year in, year out.

Centering our professional development in action research offers limitless possibilities to personalize improvements in our practice, especially as we seek to enhance the learning experiences of our students.

If we truly want to facilitate change in education, to empower individual teachers to make informed choices about the ways they can improve their craft, their learning, and their lives each and every day, then we must treat teachers as the professional researchers that they are.


Fredricks, J. A., Blumenfeld, P. C., & Paris, A. H. (2004). School Engagement:

Potential of the Concept, State of the Evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74(1), 59-109.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.

Mertler, C. A. (2012). Action research: Improving schools and empowering educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Quinton, S., & Smallbone, T. (2010). Feeding forward: using feedback

to promote student reflection and learning - a teaching model. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 47(1), 125-135.

Skinner, E.A., & Belmont, M.J. (1993). Motivation in the classroom: Reciprocal effects of teacher behavior and student engagement across the school year. Journal of Educational Psychology,85(4): 571-581.

Strauss, V. (2014, February 28). A video that shows why teachers are going out of their minds. Washington Post. Retrieved from //www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/02/28/a-video-that-shows-why-teachers-are-going-out-of-their-minds/

About Dr. Charles Gleek: Charlie teaches Global Politics courses in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program at North Broward Preparatory School, as well as graduate courses International and Comparative Education in the Ross College of Education at Lynn University; both schools are in South Florida. You can find Charlie on Twitter discussing everything from #TTOG and #sunchat to world politics, music, and Manchester United at @games_frontiers.

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.