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Enabling Teachers To Better Teach Through Engaging With Research

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In recent years educational authorities across Australia have been paying increasing attention to improving the learning outcomes of all students in schools, or as it is more pointedly stated, getting schools to focus more on their core business of teaching and learning. Saint Augustine’s Primary School and Southern Cross University in Coffs Harbour Australia have established a ‘Teachers as Researcher’s Initiative’ (TARI) as a vehicle to improve the teaching of teachers. There are three key elements that make up the TARI. These elements are: (1) a partnership with a local university, (2) the introduction of a coaching, mentoring and feedback regime and (3) the embedding of a research culture. While we discuss each element individually for clarity purposes, the reality is that each element is connected to the others in equal measure such that the orchestration of each in required doses is what makes the TARI work. This is a comment about the important role that the school’s leadership team plays in enabling the project to succeed and have the desired impact. In this article we provide an insight into the TARI for those who are wanting to refocus their school and their teachers.
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Enabling Teachers to Better Teach Through Engaging With Research
Jake Madden1, David Lynch2
St Augustine’s Primary School, Coffs Harbour1
Southern Cross University, Coffs Harbour Campus2
Abstract
In recent years educational authorities across
Australia have been paying increasing attention to
improving the learning outcomes of all students in
schools, or as it is more pointedly stated, getting
schools to focus more on their core business of
teaching and learning. Saint Augustine’s Primary
School and Southern Cross University in Coffs
Harbour Australia have established a ‘Teachers as
Researcher’s Initiative’ (TARI) as a vehicle to improve
the teaching of teachers. There are three key elements
that make up the TARI. These elements are: (1) a
partnership with a local university, (2) the introduction
of a coaching, mentoring and feedback regime and (3)
the embedding of a research culture. While we discuss
each element individually for clarity purposes, the
reality is that each element is connected to the others
in equal measure such that the orchestration of each in
required doses is what makes the TARI work. This is a
comment about the important role that the school’s
leadership team plays in enabling the project to
succeed and have the desired impact. In this article
we provide an insight into the TARI for those who want
to refocus their school and their teachers.
1. Introduction
In recent years educational authorities across
Australia have been paying increasing attention to
improving the learning outcomes of all students in
schools, or as it is more pointedly stated, getting
schools to focus more on their core business of
teaching and learning [28, 25, 27]. In focusing on
‘what are we here for’ Dinham [13], capturing such
debates, argues by stating:
…the focus of every school, every educational
system and every education department or
faculty of education [should be] student
learning and achievement.” [13 p.1]
These comments underpin the so called ‘Melbourne
Declaration’ [36], which articulates two important goals
for education in Australia:
Goal 1: Australian schooling promotes equity and
excellence
Goal 2: All young Australians become:
Successful learners
Confident and creative individuals
Active and informed citizens. [36]
Incidentally, this view around the role of schools was
not always the case. Until the mid-1960s the general view
was that schools make almost no difference to student
achievement, which, it was thought, was largely pre-
determined by socio-economic status, family
circumstances and innate ability [7]. However, recent
research refutes this view [10, 18, 32]. Hattie [18], for
example, conducted a meta-analysis covering over 50,000
education related studies. He found the major sources of
variance in student achievement to be centred across 5 key
elements:
1. The student: accounts for 50% of variance in student
achievement
2. The student’s home life: 5-10% of variance in student
achievement
3. The School: 5-10% (principals, other leaders of
influence) variance in student achievement
4. The student’s peers: 5-10% of variance in student
achievement
5. The Teacher: 30% of variance in student achievement
Taking into account what schools and education
systems can readily control and deal with, a focus on
teachers and their teaching has become the key focus in
school reforms [15, 24, 18]. Or, as Hattie [18] suggests, it
is what teachers know, do, and care about which is very
powerful in this learning equation. Therefore, a pathway to
success in terms of enhanced learning outcomes in
students is enabling teachers to become better teachers
[30, 24]. In this article we outline a teacher capability
building project known as the ‘Teachers as Researchers
Initiative’ (TARI) which was staged at Saint Augustine’s
Primary School (in Coffs Harbour, Australia) from 2012
to 2014, where a focus was on enabling teachers to better
teach. Before beginning our outline, we briefly detail the
context of such an initiative for reference.
International Journal for Cross-Disciplinary Subjects in Education (IJCDSE), Volume 5, Issue 4, December 2014
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1790
2. Context of Schooling Today
It is well documented in the literature that society is
moving from an industrial ‘lock-step’ model of
schooling to a more targeted and flexible learning
environment where teachers are increasingly being
encouraged to seek answers and to pose new questions
about their teaching and their student’s learning [35,
33, 24]. This rationale is based on research which
suggests that a ‘design with intended learning
outcomes focus’ is key if teachers are to achieve
learning outcomes in all of their students [24, 23].
Coupled with this ‘design with intent’ approach is
an increasing understanding about how people learn
and how teachers can better teach [37, 24]. With the
consequent result that teaching strategies are moving
towards an ‘evidence-based approach’ coupled with
elements such as questioning, reflecting, interpreting,
diagnosing and even predicting likely results: a
consequence of a the current Knowledge based
Economy [48]. To support this new teaching focus,
teachers at Saint Augustine’s Primary School have
begun a journey into classroom-based research, where
they collect classroom-based data, analyse it and
interpret the results and then use such findings to
inform their teaching decision-making. They are
supported in such endeavours by processes which
enable them to embed in evidence based teaching
practices and learn how to act as ‘teachers as
researchers’. We examine Saint Augustine’s Primary
School and their initiative in a section which follows.
3. The Saint Augustine’s Teachers as
Researchers Initiative (TARI)
In a previous section we established that schools
are facing increasing pressures to ensure all students
achieve the desired learning outcomes. As research
indicates, a focus on teachers has the potential to
achieve such a goal [18]. The challenge for schools
then is how to mobilise to effect such required
changes? At Saint Augustine’s Primary School the
school strategically established a ‘Teachers as
Researcher’s Initiative’ (TARI) as a vehicle to enact
such required changes. In this section we outline the
initiative for key points of reference.
There are three key elements which make up the
TARI. These elements are: (1) a partnership with a
local university, (2) the embedding of a research
culture and (3) the introduction of a coaching,
mentoring and feedback regime. We discuss each in
turn. While we discuss each element individually for
the purpose of clarity, the reality is that each element is
connected to the others in equal measure such that the
orchestration of each in required doses is what makes
the TARI work. This is a comment about the important
role that the school’s leadership team plays in enabling the
project to succeed and thus have the desired impact [30].
Like all successful school-based projects the schools
leadership team was focused on the TARI project and
therefore instrumental in engaging, motivating and
supporting staff to participate in the project (15, 16, 17,
30). Figure 1 illustrates this arrangement.
Figure 1. The TARI Initiative
3.1 Partnership with a University
There is a trap in any initiative where the potential
exists for a school and their teachers to get distracted from
their core business of teaching and learning. In the case of
the TARI this potential lies in teachers being over-
burdened by the initial learning and the enacting of ill-
defined processes of research in their already busy
classrooms [30, 26]. The architects of the TARI were
conscious to ensure teachers were not distracted from their
core day to day business and with that in mind enacted a
partnership with the local university. The brief to the
university was ‘work with us to enable our teachers to use
research as a seamless and core component of their
teaching work’ [30].
In simple terms, the TARI leadership realised that the
core business of the university was research and by
engaging with such an entity the school was able to
maximise the impacts - gain the required support,
guidance and resources --- and not overburden already
busy teachers with trial and error approaches. To these
ends the university provided the technical advice and
support to teachers by way of consultancy, resources, in-
service sessions, research services and the like and the
teacher was then able to access such services to support
International Journal for Cross-Disciplinary Subjects in Education (IJCDSE), Volume 5, Issue 4, December 2014
Copyright © 2014, Infonomics Society
1791
their own research endeavours as required. We hasten
to add that overtime the processes of classroom-based
research have become part-and-parcel to classroom
planning and teaching routines such that its
incorporation has now actually begun to redefine the
actual work of the teacher [30, 26, 27].
3.2 Embedding of a Research Culture
A teaching-based research culture has two aspects.
The first is an environment where teachers strategically
collect and analyse their classroom data and then
incorporate findings --- as standard practice -- into
their teaching decisions. The second is the active
engagement of teachers in research, by way of
incorporating evidence-based practice into their
teaching plans and actions and by engaging with other
teachers on same through conversations, reflections
and joint projects. In simple terms the actual process
becomes embedded in the work of the teacher such that
it is considered part of the overall teaching effect
strategy [26, 27]. These two aspects are supported and
enabled by the partnership with the local university and
the ‘other’ associated elements of the TARI operating
in unison. At the heart of such embedding however is
the need for a teacher professional development regime
that is both informative and supportive of teachers as
they go about their day-to-day business and convenient
to the busy schedules that classroom teaching
demands. With these points in mind the TARI
leadership has implemented a coaching, mentoring and
feedback regime for such effect [30].
3.3. A Coaching, Mentoring and Feedback
Regime
Traditional approaches to teacher professional
learning (or as it is known in the system of teaching,
‘teacher professional development’) are based on
teachers being released from their classroom teaching
duties to attend some kind of seminar or ‘PD session’.
These sessions are often on topics not directly related
to the teacher and their specific teacher development
needs, but aligned to the strategic intent of an
education system or the school as a whole. On another
plane, the prevailing teaching regulatory environment
often mandates minimal teacher professional
development hours, further strengthening the
continuance of such approaches, which are largely
viewed as efficient means [1]. In any case the resulting
levels of teacher skilling are ‘minimal at best’ and offer
‘nothing’ tangible once time passes and the teacher
returns to the demands of their classrooms [43, 1].
As Taylor, et al [47] argue, current professional
development for teachers has not “necessarily
acknowledged that teachers are not a homogeneous
population but represent diverse perspectives, experience,
expertise, receptiveness to new ideas, and potential for
leadership roles” [47 p.85]. Further, Campbell &
McNamara [5], highlight the ability of teachers to be able
to contextualise professional knowledge and learning if
such professional development is to have an enduring
positive change effect on teacher practice. With these
points in mind the coaching, mentoring and feedback
regime that the TARI utilises incorporates, professional
dialogue, collaboration and Learning of Content in
Context as inter-related elements. We briefly outline each
in turn.
3.3.1. Professional Dialogue. While the premise of
‘teacher reflection’ - where the teacher questions their own
practice with a view to think differently about their
classroom practice [15] --- has been described in the
literature and evidenced in teacher behaviour over many
years, there has been a movement in more recent times
towards the use of ‘professional dialogue’ in teacher
learning activities. For clarification purposes,
‘professional dialogue’ differs from ‘teacher reflection’ in
that while it involves teacher reflection, it incorporates a
teaching colleague as participant. Further, it is designed to
“feature the depiction of practice and scrutiny of different
approaches in a critical and attentive manner” [6 p. 326].
Nelson et al. (2010), cited in Cheng and Winnie [6 p. 326],
report that in professional dialogue processes “teachers
have to go beyond simply sharing practice, and that they
have to emphasise investigating their practice in order to
bring about positive changes to their teaching and pupils’
learning”. Research indicates that “there are good
theoretical and empirical grounds to believe that on-the-
job participation in reflective dialogue is an effective
method for the professional development of teachers”
[20]. While professional dialogue has similarities to that of
a ‘critical friend’, a further difference is the incorporation
of ‘teacher collaboration’ and a joint commitment on
behalf of teachers in the arrangement to work together to
effect change in each other’s practice [4].
3.3.2. Collaboration. ‘Collaborative teacher
approaches’ are the antithesis of what can be termed ‘the
traditional approach’ to classroom teaching. In the
traditional teacher world a classroom teacher works in a
single classroom environment--- solo as it were-- doing
their teaching work. While they may engage in teacher
reflection with a view to improving their practice, the
premise of collaboration is minimal and where it does
exist, it is focused largely on whole school functions and
events [24]. ‘Feedback’ of any kind is neither sought out
nor is it well received when it is suggested, a reflection of
the ‘private’ or ‘closed’ culture that exists in the
traditional teacher approach [4]. The reasons for this
circumstance are involved and beyond the scope of this
paper save to say, elements such as trust and professional
International Journal for Cross-Disciplinary Subjects in Education (IJCDSE), Volume 5, Issue 4, December 2014
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dialogue --- key elements --- are negated by the
privatised nature of the one teacher, with a closed door
in a single classroom situation [8].
‘Collaborative teacher approaches’ can thus be
described as teaching environments where the
boundaries of teacher work have been challenged and
thus redefined [30]. While the notion of teachers
jointly teaching is not new, the premise of two or more
educators taking joint responsibility for the planning,
teaching and monitoring the success of a cohort of
students (i.e. a complete year level and multi
curriculum areas therein) as well as the teaching
performance of each other is new [6, 39]. In these
arrangements, professional dialogue becomes a critical
feature because it is through such processes that
teachers begin to share ideas, harness capacities and
experiences, take calculated risks, try something new;
knowing all the time they will be supported and guided
by their fellow teachers in their goals for teaching
improvement. The additional capacity such
arrangements represent is an added feature that
encourages teachers to be involved. Further, as Plinter
et al [39, p. 44] argue, “teachers when collaborating in
such ways, develop:
1. An awareness and understanding of self in relation
to socially constructed identities,
2. An awareness and understanding of self in relation
to a collaborator’s socially constructed identities,
and
3. A shared awareness and understanding developed
by collaborating faculty of the potential impact of
their identities and their students’ identities on the
processes of teaching and learning”.
Taken together, teacher collaborative approaches
expand the professional learning of teachers but also
the potential for authentic student learning [39, 6].
3.3.3. Learning Teaching Content in Context.
According to researchers, such as Opfer & Pedder [38]
and Wayne, et al, [52] professional learning developed
to meet, for example, ‘minimal teacher registration
hours’ and focused to systemic priorities --- the
traditional approach --- is insufficient when
collaboration and professional dialogue predominate
the teacher culture. Opfer & Pedder [38] go on to assert
that “teacher learning must be conceptualized as a
complex system rather than as an event” [38, p.378].
By this they suggest “one (has to) consider the sort of
local knowledge, problems, routines and aspirations
that shape or are shaped by individual practice” [38]
and thus design professional learning accordingly.
Such teacher learnings must “recognize the
overwhelmingly multicausal, multidimensional and
multicorrelational quality of teacher learning and its
impact on instructional practices” [38, p. 394]. In
simple terms, once professional dialogue and collaboration
come into play the ‘learning content’ for teachers needs to
match their context. The processes of classroom-based
research and teachers working on understanding and
applying evidence-based practices, is the central focus of
such a regime.
4. The Teacher as Researcher at Saint
Augustine’s Primary School
Having now provided an outline of the context and the
details of the Saint Augustine’s Teachers as Researchers
Initiative’ (TARI), we continue our outlining of TARI by
providing some insights into the processes which inform
what teachers actually do when they act as a teacher
researcher.
Stringer [45] offers an ecological lens to the type of
research activity that the TARI employs. In short, he
describes this type of activity as ‘action research’, which
he says refers to a three step method as explained:
1. Look: Gather information related to what is most
valued to the goals or the work of the school.
2. Think: After identifying relevant assumptions and
expectations, analyse/interpret this information to
evaluate possible antecedents, cultural and
theoretical assumptions, ideologies, influences,
consequences and potential actions.
3. Act: This part of the cycle often involves posing
new questions that lead to further inquiry. [45]
Freebody [14] argues action research is a ‘deliberate’
rather than a purely exploratory entry into a naturally
occurring educational setting. That is, it is a planned and
self-conscious focused examination of changing practice
and has a number of components. For Freebody [14], a
key characteristic of action research is that it is a solution-
oriented investigation aimed explicitly at understanding
and solving particular problems rather than simply
documenting their instances, character or consequences.
Freebody [14] expands on Stringer’s [45] work by
outlining a more detailed seven step action research
process:
1. Selecting a focus
2. Collection of data
3. Analyse, document and review data
4. Develop analytical categories
5. Organise data and its interpretations
6. Take action and repeat cycle. [14]
This action research type activity can either be conducted
by a group or personally owned. However, the emphasis is
on the importance of the researchers role in defining the
problem, what counts as solutions, and what form the
reporting of the project will take.
International Journal for Cross-Disciplinary Subjects in Education (IJCDSE), Volume 5, Issue 4, December 2014
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The central component of this action research is the
‘loop’ factor (step 6). This takes the form of a series of
iterations on and around the problem, its
documentation and theorization, and the analyses that
are used to display how it has been redefined and
solved. For some, these iterations are referred to as
spirals [45] but are more commonly known as the
Action Research cycle. This cyclic feature of Action
Research is taken to be central to its core emphasis on
the documented improvement of practice.
Stringer [45] elaborated on his “Look, Think, Act”
model following a more qualitative interpretive
research design as outlined in Figure 2.
1. Research Design Initiating a study
2. Data Gathering Capturing
stakeholder experiences and perspectives
3. Data Analysis Capturing
identifying key features of experience
4. Communication Writing
reports
5. Action
Creating
solutions
Figure 2. Stringer’s Qualitative Interpretive Research
Design [45]
The ‘trying out of ideas’ (or creating solutions) is
not undertaken solely for the purposes of re-theorizing
educational practice, or adding to knowledge, but is
also aimed at improving educational practice at the
moment it is needed. In that respect, action research is
concerned as much with outcomes on the original
research as it is with generalizations to other research
or leading to theoretical refinement [40].
Action research is seen as a collaborative enterprise
as it provides opportunities for colleagues to share,
discuss and debate aspects of their practice with the
aim of fostering school improvement and development.
This involves responsible ‘sense-making’ or
interpretation of data collected from within the field of
a researchers own practice.
One way forward for the classroom teacher is to
become an action researcher. Lawrence Stenhouse, in
his 1975 book, “An Introduction to Curriculum
Research and Development popularised the term
“Teacher as Researcher”. The purpose of Teacher as
Researcher is simply to enhance their own (or that of
their colleagues) teaching ability. It’s a systematic
reflection on their teaching practices with the sole aim
of personal improvement.
For the teacher researcher, the purpose of school
based research is fourfold:
Address the gaps in the current knowledge
by allowing teachers to investigate voids in
their (own) teaching practice
Expand the knowledge of teachers
Test the knowledge already known about
teaching and apply it to new circumstances
or with different participants
Add voices not yet heard to the research
knowledge [9].
In the mid to late ‘70s, ‘Teacher as Researcher was
generally an individualized notion, looking at a teacher’s
practice as an isolated activity within the school, and even
isolated from colleagues. However, today we see the focus
of classroom research as part of the whole school and even
at times, at the system level. Teacher research captures
children's learning and development using data that
focuses on childrens voices.
A consequence of teachers undertaking action research
(inside their classroom) is that it becomes more
meaningful (and personal) to the classroom practitioner,
promotes the voice of the teacher and highlights their
professional role. Teacher researchers thereby become the
creators of knowledge.
Schools are beginning to take an interest in this
research as a means to inform their decision-making
across the many dimensions of school life. While school
improvement remains the major basis for schools focusing
on ‘in school’ research, other areas are becoming more
prominent. These include workplace health and safety,
physical learning environments and even issues around
professional development.
The move away from university based research that
guides the theory enacted in schools has been accentuated
by the need for teachers to be more hands on in
determining student learning needs [2]. When discussing
teachers as researchers, the focus is not on an experimental
approach to teaching, but rather a practical means to
improving teaching and learning.
As no two classrooms are alike, the need for the
teacher to be able to tailor the curriculum to the needs of
each student becomes more apparent. The teacher must be
able to rely on his/her knowledge through careful
systematic observation guided by an understanding of
various hypotheses to each context faced.
5. Outcomes to Date
The TARI has now entered its third year and at the
time of writing an evaluation is being undertaken and we
await the findings. But anecdotal outcomes to date provide
insight into what the TARI has yielded in terms of
teachers and their teaching work. We summarise these
outcomes as dot points:
International Journal for Cross-Disciplinary Subjects in Education (IJCDSE), Volume 5, Issue 4, December 2014
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1. The classroom reporting processes that traditionally
occupy teachers at key junctures in the school year
have evolved from ‘end points’ to ‘starting points’.
Put simply, the outcomes of each teacher’s teaching
(i.e. student learning results) are now being
analysed as references for the next body of teaching
work. This has the effect of teachers reflecting
upon their practice for student learning effect and
becoming more diagnostic and insightful as to what
they need to do next as a teacher.
2. Teachers now have a common teaching language
in that the initiative has created a framework
through which teachers can discuss their practice,
provide advice and guidance to fellow teachers and
reference points from which teachers enact
remedial and professional development actions.
3. The traditional ‘one teacher one class’ has evolved
to a series of strategic collaborations. Teachers now
teach in teaching teams where they regularly meet
to evaluate and reflect on their teaching practices
and their teaching outcomes--- the data that they
now collect--- such that each teacher reports feeling
supported and energised in their teaching work
(Madden, 2012).
4. 20% of classroom teachers at the school are now
enrolled in formalised research programs (i.e.
Masters of Education by research) with the partner
university to further their research prowess.
So what does this all mean? For teachers, a
changing world has generated a complex series of
agendas at an exceedingly fast pace. The TARI has
created a framework for teachers to ‘pause and take
stock of what they are doing’: to analyse what they do
and a platform for them to seek advice and to gain the
required professional development support they need
and when. But chiefly the processes of teaching are
being reformed/ refocused and which teachers appear
to be readily adopting. The TARI demonstrates that its
inherent processes can be used to enact change in a
teacher’s teaching practices. This can only be good for
the students in their care.
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