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October 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 2

Where Can Teacher Research Lead? One Teacher's Daydream

Improved instruction, more reflective learners, professional growth, and collegial sharing—all can result from involving teachers in classroom research.

Instructional Strategies
It's 4 o'clock in the morning. One of those occasions when I wake up two hours before the alarm is set to go off and can't get back to sleep. My mind drifts back to the previous day, when my teacher-researcher group spent our last “day out.”
As members of a collaborative teacher-researcher group, funded and supported by Fairfax County Public Schools, we are each given five administrative leave days during the year to work on research projects. The Office of Research and Policy Analysis provides two support personnel to guide us through the research process. While making final plans for completing our yearly reports, we feel a camaraderie that teachers rarely experience—a moment without competition, refreshing and nonthreatening.

A Morning Muse

On this day we take part in a “read-around.” Even though I've experienced sharing in other collaborative research groups, it is new every time. Each teacher brings a freshness that is never duplicated. As each of us discuss personal research, others join in with similar experiences.
Two teacher researchers who teach elective courses voice similar problems in motivating a student to take elective courses as seriously as required courses. Several of the others, who share the same student, say that he reacts more positively when he is in close physical reach of the teacher. One experience leads into another until all teachers have contributed some of their findings.
Our principal—who has joined us to hear our findings—leaves reluctantly to return to school for the lunch period. She has sensed the importance of what we are learning about ourselves as professionals, about our teaching, and, most important, about our students.
In my own classroom research, I am exploring strategies for working with learning disabled students who are mainstreamed into one of my science classes. As I determine the success or failure of each strategy I try, I adjust my lessons to enable students to be more successful learners.
For example, during my data collection, I find that learning disabled students work well with other students in cooperative groups. In addition to learning from other members of the group, they contribute capably to the group task. After collecting and analyzing data about their interactions, I eventually conclude that cooperative learning is a successful strategy to use with all my students.
What goes through my mind in the wee hours of this morning is that the concept of “reflective practice” may have far-reaching applications. What if college professors actually carried on teacher-research to determine successful strategies in their teaching? They could introduce it to their students, who then could use reflective practice to improve their learning throughout college and later for greater productivity in whatever career they choose. Further, what might the potential applications be for reflective practice for employees in business, industry, and government?
With all of these exciting ideas running through my mind, I have to share them, so I nudge my sleeping husband. His company is doing something like collaborative reflective practice. Executives have been meeting in groups and subgroups to explore ways to cut waste and improve productivity. We have discussed the similarity many times over dinner.
“Paul, who thought of that method you are using at the office?”
“Our new president,” he mumbled. “He has a book by a Japanese author.” (He turns over and covers his head with the blanket.)
I press on. I can't let Paul fall back asleep and leave me alone in my thoughts. “I've been thinking that what you do is a lot like teacher-research and could be applied to many different occupations—including the government.... Well, what do you think?”
“No,” he mumbles, “it isn't the same. The Japanese use this method in businesses, and it goes all the way down to the bottom of the corporate ladder. If you used their method, then your students would be doing it, too.”
“That's an interesting thought. But I think they are doing it—researching their own learning, I mean. Yes, they are! At the beginning of a group project, I ask them to list the ingredients needed for collaboratively producing a successful project. Then, I tell them to use as many of the ingredients as possible during their work. The elements they identify include listening to everyone's ideas, staying on task, and respecting others' feelings.
“Next they evaluate their final group projects by writing about the activity in learning logs. They write about any specific problems that delayed their progress and describe how the group solved them. Then, when beginning the next group project, they draw on this information. Finally, my students write about what they learned from the project.
“That's reflective learning,” I add, “And it is similar to reflective teaching, which is what teacher-researchers do.”
Obviously I'm not going to get any more out of Paul at this time of night. He has fallen back into sleep.

Back to Reality

The next morning, there isn't time to continue our discussion. I'm ready to leave for school, where 28 7th graders are waiting to find out if they can choose their favorite endangered species to research for a report.
Later that day, my thoughts focus on the impact of my research on my teaching. I know that changes are taking place because of the research. Five years ago, when I joined a collaborative teacher-researcher group at Hughes Intermediate School to explore teaching and learning, I came across a research question that changed my teaching forever: Can writing-to-learn strategies improve the achievement of students in my science classes?
Although I had tried a few writing activities the previous year at the request of our principal, I hadn't seen value in the activities. After joining the teacher-research group, however, I read some articles about using writing-to-learn in science and wanted to explore it further. My research topic became: What happens when 7th graders use writing-to-learn in science?
That year I experimented with the process. My 7th grade science students completed their assignments in “learning logs.” In my own research log, I wrote about what was happening as they wrote. I chose four students, who I felt represented a cross section of my class, and read their learning logs regularly. Each month I met with the research group and shared what was happening. During these exchanges, other teachers helped me analyze the data. By the end of the year, I had a lot of evidence showing how writing had involved these students in science learning.
The activity that stood out the most was the writing that occurred after my students had viewed films. I had always printed up sheets of questions for students to answer after watching films. Then one day a former student stopped by. Noticing that I had scheduled a science film for the day's activity, she remarked that when she was in my class, she had hated the films because of having to answer the questions afterwards. Surprised that she had disliked the activity so much, I decided to take a closer look at this strategy.
As I observed students viewing films, I discovered that they were so busy taking notes that they were missing much of the valuable information. When I asked my students to listen carefully—but not take notes because there would be no questions—they were able later to write pages of information, even using new vocabulary, that showed what they learned. By letting them share aloud their writings, I found that they wrote more and became enthusiastic about their writing. Not only did they learn more, but they also enjoyed watching the films when they didn't have to answer the questions.
After this illuminating lesson, I threw away all of the question sheets. Not only do I not have to spend time developing questions for each film or video I show, but my students are learning more from the writing activities. The success of this activity encouraged me to search for further ways to use writing-to-learn with my students.

Sharing Teacher Research

As I reflected on my experience as a teacher-researcher that first year, I knew that there were even deeper questions being answered than the one my research focused on: What happens when a teacher looks at her own classroom to discover what learning is taking place? What happens when students look at their own learning? What happens when a teacher shares research results with other teachers?
I shared my findings in our teacher research group. Writing-to-learn soon became a common thread in the research reports we wrote at the end of the year. Other teacher-researchers had found the strategy to be effective in their classrooms as well.
The following year we formed a Writing-to-Learn Research Group to interest other teachers in the process. Six other teachers joined the group, which I led, to continue research about using writing-to-learn in science, math, English, and creative writing.
Over the months, the sharing continued. Our final report, in the form of a poster, displayed a large tree with branches indicating where we had tried writing-to-learn with our students in various ways that year. We had many copies of the “Branch Out and Use Writing-to-Learn“ poster printed and gave them to our faculty. Many still hang in the teachers' workrooms and in some classrooms. We also presented the posters at workshops in the county and in surrounding school districts. Some posters even made it to the National Science Teachers' Convention. Recently, at the request of my principal, I shared the posters with the faculty at my present school. Six teachers requested more information about writing-to-learn in their subject areas. At least two of them said, “I used some of your ideas the very next day.”
The next way I shared my research with other teachers was through writing. My article “Using Writing-to-Learn with Films” was published in Science Scope (October 1991), a National Science Teacher Association publication. When I ran into other science teachers I knew from other parts of Fairfax County, they remarked that they had seen my article and successfully tried writing-to-learn with films in their classes. And so, in addition to my students and myself learning from the research experience, my colleagues were also learning. Staff development was growing out of my research.
Not only have teachers learned from my research, but I also have learned from other teacher-researchers' findings. For example, a first-time teacher-researcher in our group, a speech clinician, gave a learning styles inventory to her students. After her students and their parents eagerly received the results, she modified some of her teaching strategies to more closely match her students' learning styles. She also began working with some students individually to improve their speech.
The experiences she shared with the group caused me to reflect on my own teaching strategies and the learning styles of my students. Teacher research again had led to new knowledge, changed instructional practice, involved students in reflecting on their own learning, and encouraged colleagues to learn from one another.

Daydreaming Again

The changes I see taking place in my own teaching and that of other teacher-researchers confirm my belief in the value of reflective practice. As I begin to drift into another pleasant reverie, I imagine what would happen if senators, representatives, and all our government leaders actually reflected about how they operate in committees and in the larger group. It seems to me that others could profit from taking a closer systematic look at what they do to appraise its effectiveness.
I begin to formulate in my mind the letter I will write to the President of the United States. Reflective practice could solve the “educational crisis,” I speculate—and who knows what might happen to the national debt! I envision myself in an elegant waiting room. Deep in thought, I hear the receptionist repeat her invitation: “Mrs. Johnson, the President will see you now!”

Rita Wright Johnson has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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