Teachers as researchers
To plan an effective program of teaching and learning, teachers collect information to identify what students already know (baseline assessment), as well as student learning needs and goals (diagnostic assessment). Then, during the implementation of the program, teachers monitor and keep track of student progress (formative assessment), giving feedback and adjusting their teaching as needed before assessing student achievement (summative assessment). Teachers use the evidence they gather from this cycle of assessment to evaluate and reflect on their teaching, and to program for subsequent teaching (Centre for Educational Statistics and Evaluation, 2015; Di Gregorio, 2016).
Teachers undertake these different types of assessment by drawing on a repertoire of assessment strategies. Depending on the assessment strategy used, the information collected can be represented as quantitative data (such as test scores, numerical marks, percentages, rankings) or as qualitative data (such as observation notes, annotated work samples, reports, portfolios). Teachers use these data to inform their programming decisions, to provide students with targeted feedback, and for reporting. So, in a sense, teachers who integrate assessment effectively into their program are already using evidence to inform their decision-making. In other words, they are already using evidence-based research to shape their practice.
For classroom assessment to be principled and ethical, it needs to be designed with some key features. First, the assessment must be transparent, so students are clear beforehand about what is expected of them and what is to be assessed; and practical, so that the burden on teachers and students in terms of time, effort and stress is proportionate to the educational benefit derived from collecting the information. Second, the assessment must be valid, that is, it assesses what it claims to assess, and the data collected is used in meaningful ways, and not to support unrelated or over-stated claims. At the same time, assessment must be reliable, so that assessment results are as consistent as possible from one student to the next, from one teacher to the next, and from one time period to the next. Finally, assessment tasks should be authentic, and useful in the context of real-world needs and demands, so as students prepare for the assessment, they engage with curriculum content that is meaningful and of value for meeting their long term educational needs and goals.
The principles that apply to the design of classroom assessment also apply to educational research design. These principles can be illustrated in the context of two methodologies for conducting research in classrooms, methodologies that can be considered in some ways as more rigorous and systematic versions of the assessment processes routinely undertaken by teachers in classrooms: action research and design-based research.
Action research is a form of enquiry teachers can use to understand their work practices and how their work impacts on their students and/or colleagues. Action research is a systematic way for teachers to reflect on their practice, and to investigate questions about how to improve their practice (Burns, 2010). It has been described by Kemmis, McTaggart and Nixon (2014, page 4) as a type of research ‘oriented to making improvements in practices and their settings by the participants themselves’.
Through action research, teachers can evaluate and improve their practice by examining successes to understand how and why they worked and by investigating challenges and problems with the goal of improving learning outcomes. The action research process begins when the teacher formulates a question, for example: When I do X, why does Y improve, but Z does not? How can I improve … ? In order to answer the question, the teacher designs an action research plan. The design of the plan will incorporate:
- informed action, that is, a principled change to the teaching context or teaching practice with the goal of improving learning outcomes
- procedures for collecting data before, during and afterwards
- procedures for reflecting on and interpreting the data to revise the plan and to inform the next action in the cycle
The action research plan must be practical and achievable in the teaching context. The first step in the plan is the collection of baseline data, that is, data collected before any action is taken. The second step is to implement action, recording the effect. The teacher then reflects on what happened in order to revise and plan for the next action in the series. The data collected during each action – evaluation – reflection cycle is called incycle data. Action research findings can be used as evidence to support changes in classroom practice. These changes then need to be monitored to see if they continue to have a positive impact on the learning outcomes of the students in the class over time. The findings can be shared with colleagues, who might trial the same or similar actions, or the findings might be used to generate further questions to investigate.
When teachers undertake action research, they often collaborate with university researchers. University researchers can assist with the design of the action research and systematic data collection, as well as the use of theoretical concepts to analyse and interpret the data and to enhance the strength of the evidence emerging from the project. University researchers can also assist with the publication of findings, so these are shared more widely, and can become a starting point for classroom based innovation and research elsewhere.
Another methodology used for research collaborations between teachers and university researchers is design-based research, involving ‘small, pragmatic, planned and classroom data-informed interventions, designed with the intention of developing theory about and demonstrating evidence of effective literacy pedagogic practice’ (Comber, Freebody, Nixon, Carrington & Morgan, 2016, p. 316). This methodology has been developed to blend ‘empirical educational research with the theory-driven design of learning environments’, and it has been described as ‘an important methodology for understanding how, when and why educational innovations work in practice’, and the relation between theory and practice. The aim of this type of research is both to ‘create usable knowledge’, while at the same time advancing ‘theories of learning and teaching in complex settings’ (The Design-based Research Collective 2003, page 5).
[Design-based research] means that teachers collect baseline performance data on an area of students’ learning they are wanting to improve, design and implement a pedagogical intervention informed by theory and related research, and subsequently collect another set of student performance data to compare with the first. Further analysis occurs, and further intervention(s), in iterative cycles of amended practice and data collection, with teachers refining their interventions on the basis of their classroom inquiries and students’ work. Final data and analyses are used to inform theoretical understandings and for dissemination … (Freebody, Morgan, Comber, & Nixon, 2014, page 9).
When university researchers and teachers collaborate to improve practice and to generate evidence of effective practice, the design of the project must take into account both the ethics of using students as research participants, and the theory to be applied as a tool for organising, thinking about and interpreting the data.
The ethics of designing classroom-based research echo the principles that apply to the assessment of student learning in classrooms. In other words, classroom-based research must be transparent, practical, valid, reliable and authentic. In addition, researchers must account for the fact that the relationship between students and teachers is not an equal one, so they must ensure the research has ‘merit and integrity’, is justifiable and respectful, of potential benefit, in the best interests of the students, and safe, protecting the students’ physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing (National Statement on Ethical Conduct of Human Research, pages 29-31). Before participating in research, students, and their parents for those under 18, must give their consent. Because educators are in a position of authority, classroom-based research is designed in ways that ensure parental and student consent is informed and freely given. Parents and students need to be assured that there will be no negative consequences if they decline to participate or choose to withdraw at any time.
Research involving children and young people raises particular ethical concerns about:
- their capacity to understand what the research entails, and therefore whether their consent to participate is sufficient for their participation;
- their possible coercion by parents, peers, researchers or others to participate in research; and
- conflicting values and interests of parents and children (National Statement, page 29)
In order to organise, think about and interpret data, researchers use theory. In everyday language, we often use the word ‘theory’ when we are talking about possibilities or guesses, for example: ‘In theory, we should be able to win this.’ Researchers, on the other hand, use the term ‘theory’ to label the conceptual framework, body of knowledge or model they use to organise, explain and interpret data. A theory is like a map the researcher uses to find their way around the research context and the data, and to locate different elements in relation to each other. Often research is designed to test the explanatory power of a theory in a specific context, with the result that the findings might modify or extend the theory.
Practitioners often dismiss theory as not relevant to resolving their day-to-day challenges and problems. Nevertheless, working from a sound theory or model enables practitioners to reflect on their practice systematically and critically, and also to generalise on the basis of reflective practice in order to sustain successful innovations over time and to implement innovative ideas emerging from their findings in different contexts.
The idea that good theory and good practice depend on each other has echoed through the centuries, as illustrated in the following maxims, the first by Leonardo da Vinci in the fifteenth century, and the second, in the twentieth century, by Kurt Lewin, who coined the term ‘action research’.