The concept of teacher-as-researcher is included in recent literature on educational reform, which encourages teachers to be collaborators in revising curriculum, improving their work environment, professionalizing teaching, and developing policy. Teacher research has its roots in action research.
While the concept of action research can be traced back to the early works of John Dewey in the 1920s and Kurt Lewin in the 1940s, it is Stephen Corey and others at Teachers College of Columbia University who introduced the term action research to the educational community in 1949. Corey (1953) defined action research as the process through which practitioners study their own practice to solve their personal practical problems.
Very often action research is a collaborative activity where practitioners work together to help one another design and carry out investigations in their classrooms. Teacher action research is, according to John Elliott, "concerned with the everyday practical problems experienced by teachers, rather than the 'theoretical problems' defined by pure researchers within a discipline of knowledge" (Elliott, cited in Nixon, 1987). Research is designed, conducted, and implemented by the teachers themselves to improve teaching in their own classrooms, sometimes becoming a staff development project in which teachers establish expertise in curriculum development and reflective teaching.
The prevailing focus of teacher research is to expand the teacher's role as inquirer about teaching and learning through systematic classroom research (Copper, 1990). The approach is naturalistic, using participant-observation techniques of ethnographic research, is generally collaborative, and includes characteristics of case study methodology (Belanger, 1992).
The research study team provides support and a forum for sharing questions, concerns, and results. Teachers advise each other and comment on the progress of individual efforts. Engaging in collaborative action research helps eliminate the isolation that has long characterized teaching, as it promotes professional dialogue and thus, creates a more professional culture in schools.
Lawrence Stenhouse once said, "It is teachers who, in the end, will change the world of the school by understanding it" (cited in Rudduck, 1988). As teachers engage in action research they are increasing their understanding of the schooling process. What they are learning will have great impact on what happens in classrooms, schools, and districts in the future. The future directions of staff development programs, teacher preparation curricula, as well as school improvement initiatives, will be impacted by the things teachers learn through the critical inquiry and rigorous examination of their own practice and their school programs that action research requires.
Teachers' action research questions emerge from areas they consider problematic, from discrepancies between what is intended and what actually occurs. As Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1990) suggest, the unique feature of teachers' questions is that they emanate solely neither from theory nor from practice, but from "critical reflection on the intersection of the two" (p. 6). Teacher research will force the re-evaluation of current theories and will significantly influence what is known about teaching, learning, and schooling.
It has been said, "Teachers often leave a mark on their students, but they seldom leave a mark on their profession" (Wolfe, 1989). Through the process and products of action research teachers will do both.
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The Clearinghouse thanks Anne Marie Harnett for her contribution to the development of this Digest.