(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)
The new question-of-the-week is:
How—and what—can education researchers learn from teachers?
This special series is “guest-hosted” by Cara Jackson.
In Part One, Cara, Christopher Harrison, K. Renae Pullen, and Callie Lowenstein shared their reflections.
The series “wrap ups” today with ideas from three educators and researchers.
Connecting on Social Media
Michael Pershan is a teacher from New York City who teaches math to elementary, middle, and high school students. He is the author of Teaching Math With Examples from John Catt Educational, blogs at michaelpershan.com and tweets at @mpershan:
Here is one thing that (some) teachers are good at that (a lot of) researchers aren’t: quickly designing excellent learning materials for children.
A million caveats are immediately necessary. Are all teachers great curriculum designers? Are all researchers bad at design? Aren’t many researchers themselves former teachers? Aren’t researchers almost all currently teachers of undergraduate and graduate students?
That is all fair, but I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve picked up a seemingly interesting article and been turned off by the materials they’ve used in the study. All too often, they are wordy, stilted, unattractive to children, or inauthentic to the work of teaching in some other way.
There are two problems that I see here, a concern and a lost opportunity. The concern is that researchers are reaching conclusions on the basis of lousy materials. Sure, maybe some significant difference was found between two educational interventions. But what if the advantages are only apparent when the materials aren’t great?
The lost opportunity is the chance to reach teachers where it counts. Materials are the currency of classroom teachers. We save them on hard drives, swap them online, and carefully amass a detailed knowledge of resources that our students reliably learn from. (It might be interesting for someone to study that aspect of teaching.) I suspect that many researchers could make a greater impact if their work came with an attractive website and a nice library of free resources.
What if researchers were in the habit of paying teachers a bit for design work? What if teacher-designers were invited to join research groups for discussions and helped brainstorm ideas for activities?
Barring that, teachers continue to embrace social media. Any researcher can now hop on to Twitter and find a handful of teachers to share ideas with and to seek feedback from. There may be social and institutional barriers keeping teachers and researchers from treating each other like colleagues, but it’s surprisingly easy to use social media to cut through that. The lines of communication between researchers and teachers are open like they never have been before. There’s a lot of potential learning from teachers waiting to happen.
‘Partnering With Educators’
Sarah Woulfin is an associate professor at the University of Connecticut who uses lenses of organizational sociology to study the relationship between policy, leadership, and instructional reform. Woulfin’s research addresses districts and schools as workplaces, considering the infrastructure necessary so that principals, coaches, and teachers can do their best work to reach equitable outcomes:
Educational researchers can learn about the interplay of multiple policies and organizational conditions by listening to teachers, observing in schools, and partnering with teachers and leaders. This stance enables researchers to answer—and generate—pressing questions with implications for system and school improvement.
As part of my qualitative policy-implementation research, I have interviewed teachers and leaders and also observed classrooms, professional-development sessions, planning meetings, and superintendent strategy sessions. While interviewing teachers about a focal reform for a study, I hear them raise thorny issues regarding the intricacies of reform efforts.
For example, during data collection on a district’s enactment of a reading curriculum, teachers mentioned barriers for teacher collaboration and burdens of the evaluation system. Similarly, during data collection on instructional coaching models, teachers shared they lacked clarity on expectations for math instruction, creating confusion about what to work on with their coach. This is a reminder that teachers never experience a reform in isolation; rather, they grapple with multiple, ambiguous, and even conflicting reforms.
While observing educators enacting one reform, I notice them engaging with and responding to competing demands on their time and attention. For instance, in a study of infrastructure for instructional coaching, I observed coaches participating in professional development on several intervention programs—even though many coaches’ schools had not adopted those programs. This mismatch led to coaches perceiving the professional development as an ineffective use of district resources, since it stole their time away from tailored coaching of teachers.
And, as part of a study of turnaround reform, I have observed an urban elementary school principal facilitating a leadership-team meeting in a school that lacked the most basic resources. Appallingly, there was a sign above the room’s sink: Do NOT drink the water. Leaders were mandated to implement turnaround reform yet lacked safe, potable water. Researchers must call out disinvestment in school facilities and community infrastructure which influence the path of educational reform.
Taken together, these snapshots from qualitative studies show how teachers and leaders dance with several reforms, influencing the nature of their work and responses to specific policies. These snapshots also show that it is beneficial for researchers to zoom out from focusing on a single policy and its outputs, remain open to detecting varied aspects of reform, and listen to educators.
While partnering with educators, I strive to generate relevant questions that address on-the-ground challenges plus successes while enabling practitioners to learn about research evidence and theory, which describes how teachers’ work is shaped by context and policy. The dialogue among researchers and practitioners contributes to adapting research questions.
Instead of asking, How are special education teachers enacting an inclusion reform?, we may ask: How are special education teachers supported, evaluated, and learning? Partnering can formulate robust questions and, down the road, unearth patterns in current practices with applicability for leaders and reformers at various levels.
Researchers should conduct additional partnership activities with teachers and educational leaders to ensure scholarship devotes serious attention to the realities of teachers’ work and the working conditions of districts and schools. During the COVID-19 era, it is vital to listen to and learn from teachers so that we can move beyond analyzing responses and design restorative, equitable systems that support improvements to districts and schools as organizations hosting teachers’ work and students’ experiences as learners.
Conclusion: ‘Pay Attention’
Cara Jackson conducts education research and evaluation on a variety of topics, including policies related to school and teacher quality and education interventions intended to improve student outcomes. She also teaches in the School of Education at American University.
So how would I answer the original question, “How—and what—can education researchers learn from teachers?” Almost anything! If we want teachers to be interested in research findings, start by asking teachers what questions they would like to see answered. Co-create a learning agenda that drives actionable, relevant research questions.
Second, continue to learn from teachers throughout the research process—and ideally, build compensation for teachers’ time into grant applications to support collaborative work. I recently had the opportunity to observe a teacher steering committee, which offered teachers an opportunity to provide input on various policy proposals. A similar structure could allow teachers to provide suggestions and advice on the wording of surveys, the design of materials to be used in the study, and the interpretation and presentation of research findings. Alternatively, researchers might engage in design-based implementation research, which involves teams that may include teachers, school and district leaders, researchers, students, and community members providing input on the focus of the work.
A third way of learning from teachers, particularly for quantitative education researchers, is to become familiar with qualitative and mixed-methods studies in their area of study. This might sound counterintuitive—why not just go straight to the source? Qualitative researchers spend a considerable amount of time collecting insights from teachers through observations, interviews, focus groups, and document analysis. Systematic analysis of rich qualitative data can help us understand how and why teachers respond to various policies and practices.
Fourth, just as social media can connect teachers in professional learning communities, it can also be useful for teachers and researchers to connect and provides researchers with a window into teachers’ perspectives. Various hashtags can guide you to everything from broad education conversations (#edchat #k12 #LetsK12better) to specific subcommunities (#dyslexia #ELAchat #ScienceOfReading #Math #MTBoS #sschat #APUSHis #NGSSchat). Twitter can be a toxic cesspool, but it’s also how I’m connected to all of the contributors to this piece! It is what you make of it.
The fifth key lesson for researchers is to pay attention to the context of teachers’ work and the barriers teachers face in creating a cohesive whole out of the variety of education reforms adopted by their states, districts, and schools. Researchers should recognize that while their work tends to focus on one section of a puzzle, educators are tasked with putting the entire puzzle together.
While the challenge of getting research to be used by educators is sometimes referred to as the “last mile” problem, I think of it more like a relay race. We continue in an endless loop, with no real beginning or end, passing the baton among educators and researchers and policymakers advocating evidence use. By learning from one another, we can support a more effective and equitable education system.
Thanks to Michael, Sarah, and Cara for their contributions!
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