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Focus On Basics

Volume 1, Issue A :: February 1997

On Reading Teacher Research

by Susan L. Lytle
I am a collector. For more than ten years I have had my eyes open for anything even vaguely related to the subject of teacher research. I've tracked the major journals, ordered monographs, handbooks, and edited volumes, attended sessions at teacher research conferences and at conferences where teacher researchers appeared on the program, sought out self-published volumes, joined SIGs, surfed the Net, ordered newsletters, and been sent many publications and works-in-progress by friends and colleagues across the country. I've also been a participant, writing and thinking a lot about teacher research with teachers and other practitioners as well as teacher educators and have been involved in a range of inquiry communities over time. Of late I have been researching my own practice, sometimes in collaboration with co-teachers and teaching assistants in classes I offer as a faculty member in a graduate school of education.

The sheer quantity of what is going on in K-12, adult education, colleges, and universities that involves teacher research is truly amazing: journals, articles, conferences, professional development programs, institutes, workshops, courses, informal study groups, on-line chat groups and bulletin boards, dissertations, state initiatives, and networks -- local, regional, state-wide, and national -- are springing up all over the place. They attest to a palpable excitement and widespread interest and to the likelihood that what is occurring is more the status of a movement than a passing fad or something random or serendipitous.

To say that this dynamic field lacks a clearly defined shape, however, would be an understatement. Various proponents and participants associate teacher research with an array of agendas, including teacher professionalism, educational reform, diversity and multicultural education, participatory education, constructivist pedagogy, and other new approaches to teaching and learning, the standards movement, alternative assessment, university-school collaborations, program and professional development, as well as critical, feminist, participatory, post-structural approaches to pedagogy, curriculum, and research, and others. At the same time as this movement can be described as validating, provocative, useful, and enlightening, it is also messy, noisy, in struggle, and sometimes contentious.

So making sense of the work of various individuals and groups, sorting out the language and the different traditions and assumptions, becoming sophisticated and critical readers of teacher research requires an inquiry itself -- asking questions, interrogating assumptions, understanding contexts and purposes, as well as juxtaposing and bringing the work into dialogue with one's own experiences as a teacher and learner. What I will try to do here is to provide a bird's eye view of the field, a conceptual map for reading and interpreting the "texts" of teacher research.

The Who

Teacher research as I see it is a living, breathing, evolving phenomena, not a method or technique or even necessarily a genre or emerging paradigm. So widespread and various, with so many varieties, histories, roots and relatives, it is not something that anyone simply "defines." Probably the only thing the many iterations have in common is the who: the fact that the researcher is a teacher or other practitioner who is doing research in her own setting, in relation to her own practice, and sometimes with her own students. The researcher is an insider to the setting, someone who knows the place and the players from close connections over time, who is involved in the situation, and who cares about the work at hand.

It is a commonplace that most research on schools and programs and classrooms has been done by outsiders. But the call for insider research is hardly new, traceable at least as far back as the writing of John Dewey early in the century. Believing in the importance of teacher reflection and in the significance of observation for shaping teachers' theories about their practice, Dewey urged educators to be both consumers and producers of knowledge, at once teachers and students of classroom life. Lawrence Stenhouse, John Elliott, Steven Corey, Patricia Carini, James Britton, Donald Schon, and Dixie Goswami, to name a few, have made similar arguments from their different perspectives and locations. In addition, parallel educational movements, such as those led by African-American scholars and other scholars of color, feminists, and many grassroots activists and reformers have also argued for the primacy of insider perspectives, in part by pointing out the particular need for teachers from these communities to explore their own questions and mine their own knowledge to bring about meaningful change.

When teachers systematically and intentionally inquire into their practice, often in concert with colleagues, they value and draw on their own ways of seeing and knowing. Instead of being the researched, the objects of study, the recipients and implementors of knowledge produced by others, they become the researchers and generators of knowledge by making visible to themselves their emic or insider perspectives. Teachers' perspectives are nuanced, up close and personal; on site, day after day, they can watch things build and twist, unfold and come together again, over significant periods of time and in the intensely familiar context of their daily work. Attending to the immediacy and complexity of the scene, keeping a steady focus on learners and learning, and layering teacher inquiry with student inquiry are often the distinguishing if not distinctive features of research that places teacher or other practitioners at the center of the undertaking.

The What

Other than who does it, everything else about teacher research seems to vary endlessly: what it's called, where it happens, why it happens, and what it looks like. Most obvious is the steady proliferation of labels used to describe this type of work, including teacher research, teacher inquiry, practitioner research, practitioner inquiry, qualitative practitioner research, action research, critical action research, collaborative action research, participatory action research, emancipatory research, practice-as-inquiry, reflective practice, educative research, classroom inquiry, researcher-in-practice, inquiry-based professional development, and more.

Sometimes these labels signal something very deliberate; in other cases, they carry little intentionality at all. Most often, the term teacher research is used to describe investigations of practice in the tradition of qualitative, interpretative, and ethnographic methods and methodologies. Others deliberately substitute the term inquiry for research. For some, choosing the word inquiry is a self-conscious attempt to distinguish or disassociate this work from academic or university-based research they regard as irrelevant, inaccessible, or impositional. For others, calling the work inquiry is an effort to make a more visible and explicit connection between the stance of the teacher who is doing the inquiry and the inquiry stance of the learners involved. Terms such as collaborative, critical, participatory, and practitioner, that are used to modify inquiry or research, carry their own theoretical orientations and methodological implications. To read teacher research that positions itself within one of these traditions, it is useful to figure out what it may mean to the writer as well as what it's connected to in the research literature.

The Where

Some teachers do research alone, but most teacher research occurs in groups or communities. Teacher research thus varies considerably by its locale or context, or more specifically, by the particular social and organizational structures that support the work. Some groups are intentional sites for research -- set up as part of a professional development program or by teachers in content-based networks. Other groups -- such as study circles, committees, or curriculum projects -- may not initially set out to conduct inquiry but over time evolve into inquiry communities. Teacher research also occurs in university settings, in teacher education programs as well as research courses offered as part of continuing education. Teacher research has also become a part of many district, city, state, and even national reform initiatives, often in connection with innovations related to standards, constructivist teaching, or performance-based assessment.

The Philadelphia Teachers Learning Cooperative is a longstanding and independent teacher organization which reflects a particular intellectual tradition and specific approach to conducting inquiry into daily practice. This group draws on the work of Pat Carini and the Prospect Center and School in Bennington, Vermont, where a philosophy of learning, for both children and adults, has been developing over time. Reflective descriptive methods called the documentary processes, which are thoughtfully conceived approaches to structured oral inquiry, are used to promote understanding of learning and both inform and are informed by teaching practices. This group has existed for more than 20 years, meeting every Thursday afternoon at a teacher's house, and is and has always been initiated and organized by teachers for teachers.

The Breadloaf Rural Teacher Network, coordinated by Dixie Goswami, a primary voice in the teacher research movement, is a structure for teacher research grown from the summer Breadloaf School of English at Middlebury College in Vermont with three satellite campuses in rural Mississippi, Massachusetts, and South Africa. Often returning for four to five summers, teachers do their research during the school year. Linked across sites by an electronic network called Breadnet, many Breadloaf teacher researchers focus on teacher- and student-generated collaborative and community-based projects that combine action research, service, and advocacy.

The Adult Literacy Practitioner Inquiry Project (ALPIP) functions as an intellectual community for practitioners and university-based faculty and graduate students as writers, researchers, and reformers in the areas of literacy, language and culture. Three different contexts -- a national research center, a teacher to teacher collaborative, and a field university partnership -- have informed and shaped ALPIP's approach to teacher research over time. The project offers year-long seminars and other inquiry-based activities for teachers, tutors, and administrators from a wide range of urban literacy programs in Philadelphia, including community college developmental reading and writing programs. ALPIP has a spinoff at the state level and has also joined with others to start a national "network of networks" to foster collaboration among a diverse set of organizations exploring relationships of inquiry and practice.

Any structure teachers find or build to support their work has its own distinctive contours and conventions, assumptions, purposes, and practices. A teacher collaborative that begins in a teacher center and remains organized entirely by teachers, for example, conducts inquiry differently from a broad-based network affiliated with a university graduate program or a school-university partnership. The written texts of each teacher community reflect the local culture from which they emerge. In reading teacher research, it seems to me necessary to notice where the work takes place and what it's connected to -- even when the authors do not make an explicit link between the particular study and the ethos of the community in which they are participating. Thinking and posing questions about the setting or context becomes an important way to better understand the nature of the work, given that the field and the respective locales that support teacher research are so diverse.

The Why

On some level, all teacher research shares a common purpose -- to improve practice and thus students' learning and life chances. This commitment to improving educational practice signals, more or less explicitly, a commitment to change something. Change as a concept has been widely theorized and debated in the educational literature as well as elsewhere. In teacher research, a commitment to change is represented both as a unifying force that brings people together across borders and boundaries as well as something of a catch all category which does not take into account conflicting beliefs and agendas. Questions that drive these conversations include: what counts as change? to whom? when? where? what is the change for? and how should it occur? Likewise, these questions and issues are inevitably implicated in understanding the purpose of teacher research in its various iterations.

Figuring out the purpose of teacher research -- of what it means to improve practice -- involves a hard look at how change is envisioned in its frameworks, practices, and products or outcomes: what are teachers' purposes in doing research? what are they hoping will happen as a consequence of their efforts? what is to be changed? In the teacher research field, it is particularly useful to pay attention to who or what is positioned as the primary "target of change:" the individual teacher or practitioner, the institution or institutions in which teachers work, or broader societal structures. My intention is not to create a framework for the purpose of sorting but rather to pay attention to where the energy in the research is going in order to develop appropriate lenses for looking at and understanding the work. It is also to suggest that these categories are overlapping and that having a specific focus on one layer does not preclude the possibility of having wider impact.


Much teacher research focuses on individual teachers and their classroom practice as the primary site for change. In this view, at its broadest level, the purpose for teachers doing research is to improve their teaching. For example, many teacher researchers observe and document learners' lives in and sometimes outside of classrooms to understand how they and their students construct understandings of educational processes. This self-reflection and analysis can bring about a more complex or textured view of daily practice, including its tensions, ambiguities, and contradictions. It can reveal how teachers and their students negotiate what counts as knowledge in the classroom, who can have it, and how their own interpretations of classroom life are shaped.

A purpose of inquiry for individual teachers is to understand their own theoretical frameworks and perhaps to change their own perspectives and actions. The purpose is not to do research, but to change themselves so that they can be better teachers or alter some dimension of classroom practice as a consequence of close observation and documentation. Often this individual change is sought through the workings of a teacher group. In dialogue, teachers may work together to question common practice, to examine their underlying assumptions, to deliberate about what constitutes so-called "expert" knowledge, to interrogate educational labels or categories, and to unpack the values and interests that are served through current practices of education. Working from their experiences, teachers try to change by refusing to take for granted what is usually taken for granted about teaching and learning. In doing so, teachers often change how they see their roles, frequently assuming positions of leadership in their programs, departments, and institutions.


Some teacher research takes the institution as its primary site for change. From this perspective, the vision of change that drives the activity is directly related to the reform or restructuring of schools, programs, or district practices and policies. The purpose for research may be to alter administrative, curricular, or programmatic structures that fail to provide or subtly constrain learners' access to current and future educational opportunities. The research sets out to make these structures more visible by questioning specific practices, such as those related to placement, assessment, counseling, or culturally appropriate curriculum and pedagogy. In addition, teachers may do research to change the cultures of teaching or learning in the program or school, to make their work more integrated or interdependent, or to document the struggles involved in creating a truly collaborative community where all teachers learn. Making public the contexts in which practitioners work and the forces that support and constrain collegiality represent a focus on institutional change.

Although never the sole or even primary focus of the researching activity, teachers' research often intentionally provokes questions about the ways research is conducted, valued, and promoted, by whom and for whom, and raises questions about who sets the agenda for educational inquiry and whose interests are served. Like the ongoing debates in the broader research field which concern issues of ethics, representation, and researcher-researched relationships, in raising these questions, teacher research inevitably disrupts the status quo, and provides tangible evidence for the viability of alternative approaches, discourses, methods, and genres for conducting inquiry.


Some teacher research makes the goal of addressing social justice its primary focus. Research is thus conducted to create and sustain a political and ethical discourse about the educational enterprise. With this purpose, researchers set out to reveal the ideologies and historical antecedents of the everyday and to understand what situations contributed to the ways things are. Teacher research in this vein is often collaborative and participatory, deeply connected to broad activist and advocacy efforts, local or otherwise, and often linked closely and explicitly to efforts for creating more democratic social systems, of which education is only one part.

Teacher research that takes social change as its primary focus often challenges large systems that perpetuate discrimination related to gender, race, and class, arguing for improved access as well as greater equity. Often the purposes for research are tied to correcting public or institutional documents and the ways they are used as well as for inventing written materials that more accurately and appropriately represent people's real questions, issues, and concerns. Sometimes the research is designed to analyze and make public the assumptions informing large movements such as workforce and family literacy campaigns, standards, teacher accountability, English Only legislation, and other structures or policies that contribute to the oppression and marginalization of individuals, families, and communities.


When asked for a definition of modernism, Milan Kundera is reputed to have responded that what is modern is what calls itself modern and is accepted as such. In a sense, whether we like it or not, that applies as well to the current field of teacher research. At this time there is little to be gained, I would argue, in consuming debates about what counts as teacher research and what does not. This is not to suggest that we need to ignore differences, nor am I arguing that we dismiss the already existing body of critique, much of which is very useful and thought-provoking. To the contrary, I am convinced that the primary agenda must be to pay significant attention to the teachers and other practitioners who are defining the field by redefining their stance to their work, making inquiry a priority, and using research to alter and improve practice, often in the face of considerable obstacles.

How we do this in part is by making the reading of teacher research a kind of inquiry itself, asking questions such as: what tradition or strand does a particular researcher or group identify with, and what does that mean? In what context is the research taking place, or in other words, how is it organized socially, intellectually, and culturally? Readers can also ask how this research is conceived or designed, given where and when it occurs. What form does it take and what methods does it employ -- and what possibilities do that form and method enable and / or eliminate?

Of particular salience are questions related to intent: why is this person doing this research? or why is this community involved in the work? What are the purposes for the students, programs, and organizations involved? In what ways is this research for and with, instead of "on" and "about"? And ultimately, whose and what purposes does the research serve?


My current perspectives on teacher research have grown from my long collaboration with Marilyn Cochran Smith and with the Philadelphia Writing Project teachers, whose 'reads' on teacher research have deeply informed my own. I am grateful to Elizabeth Cantafio for her insights and commitment to thinking through the issues raised in and by writing this piece.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL