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Teachers as researchers
Q: How can I transform my classroom into a research lab?
John Dewey's vision of real lab schools in which teachers and researchers collaborate to improve student learning remains an ideal that may, finally, after more than a century of sporadic talk and considerable sighs, be inching closer to reality. Eventually, partnerships between universities and K–12 schools may look like teaching hospitals: "Researchers and practitioners collaborate in a cyclic process to integrate theory and practice. They develop theoretical models, implement practices based on these models, systematically track progress, adjust models based on classroom results, and so forth. Researchers and teachers continue this cyclic process for each theoretical model until it is aligned with classroom results. They then disseminate findings to other schools, universities, and policy agencies." (Hinton, C. and Fischer, K., "Research Schools: Grounding Research in Educational Practice," Mind, Brain, and Education, Blackwell Publishing, 2008.)
Although the ideal may be for teachers and researchers to work together, teachers don't have to continue to wait for Godot. Teachers can become researchers. They can work with their colleagues or even alone in the laboratory of their school or classroom. In many ways, consciously or unconsciously, teachers already have much in common with researchers. They analyze problems, formulate hypotheses, implement practices, assess their results, and make adjustments. Often, all that separates a teacher from a teacher-researcher is a bit more intentionality and mindfulness. Here are some practices you might consider:
- Study, understand, and internalize available research about how the brain (top)
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- learns—for example, take a course like this one, read relevant studies, or discuss theories about brain function with colleagues
- Develop questions—Why did Susie not understand today's lesson? Why are my students not more engaged in this material?
- Formulate hypotheses—potential answers to these questions that link your understanding of the research to your understanding of the question
- Engage in systematic discussion with colleagues—or write in a journal—about the questions and hypotheses
- Articulate the models or metaphors implicit in your thinking about students' problems, strengths, and learning—a helpful resource is Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff G. and Johnson M., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980)
- Identify specific learning outcomes—skills and understanding—and conduct pre- and post-lesson assessments using clear rubrics
- Identify independent variables like the students' freedom to pursue their interests—and dependent variables like the degree of engagement in the course
- Field-test an innovative technique—a lesson design or a teaching strategy
- Collect the data and record the results
- Use the results to refine the hypothesis or adjust the practice
- Disseminate the results with your colleagues for further discussion
Perhaps the most important part of whatever you try is to keep a good, brief record of your work. Adjust your expectations of yourself to the reality of the demands on your time. Maintaining a teacher's journal can be very valuable and, ultimately, save considerable time in the future as it becomes a personal collection of methods and lessons that do or do not work—a reference and a reminder.