Simon Borg: Supporting teacher research in English Language Teaching
ETAS Journal Volume 35, Number 3 (Summer 2018), pp. 40-42
How is teacher professional development defined and what forms can it take? And what are the conditions required to make it meaningful and effective?
Despite the nuances in definitions, there seems to be a general consensus in the literature that teacher professional development should be viewed as an ongoing process that contributes to positive changes in our teaching practices that can help improve the learning outcomes of our students. Does that explanation sound familiar to you i.e. making changes to improve students’ learning outcomes? This suggests that we, as teachers, know what changes need to be made and how to go about instigating a plan to put these changes into action.
I do believe that most teachers are aware of problems that need tackling in their teaching contexts. Perhaps this awareness is facilitated through regular reflection on what is actually occurring in their own practices. Perhaps, it is more evidence-based as a result of formative or summative assessments, or a combination of reflective practice and assessment results. Whatever the case, how do we address these problems effectively and how does this relate to professional development?
These questions and more are answered in Simon Borg’s article, Supporting teacher research in English Language Teaching, in the current Summer Journal. As the title suggests, the type of professional development activity that Simon discusses in this article is teacher research, which is also often referred to as teacher inquiry.
It was the word, support, that caught my eye and led me to take a closer look at Simon’s article. Although many teachers are most likely engaging in some form of teacher inquiry in-situ on a regular basis, undertaking a more robust and lengthier piece of research takes planning, motivation, and, as Simon suggests, support. In my mind, the notion of support conjures up images of a socially active teacher researcher who enjoys collaborating, is engaged and motivated as opposed to an image of an isolated researcher huddled down amongst dusty literature in a dimly lit room, dizzy from thoughts that just keep spinning around and around. I’ve obviously indulged myself with this portrayal of a teacher researcher but nevertheless, what other conditions do you think are required to help make teacher research meaningful and effective as a professional development activity?
I recommend that you take a moment to read Simon’s article. I really enjoyed the way that he uses an analogy from his own life to highlight just how personal this type of approach to professional development is and what conditions are necessary to help optimise such an approach. It’s about what suits you in your working landscape and weighing up whether the conditions will optimally support the project that you would like to undertake. It’s about you and your choices.
Enjoy the read!
ETAS Journal Editorial Board
Improving the feasibility of teacher research
The profile of teacher research in language teaching has increased substantially in recent years and in this article I discuss some key conditions that support this form of professional development. In particular I focus on the need for adequate time, appropriate beliefs, technical competence, and support for teachers.
Conditions for teacher research
This article is about teacher research, a professional development activity which teachers do through systematic inquiry into their own work in order to enhance teaching and learning.
Teacher research is an umbrella term which includes various ‘flavours’ of inquiry such as action research (Altrichter, Feldman, Posch, & Somekh, 2008), exploratory practice (Hanks, 2017), self-study (Lassonde, Galman, & Kosnik, 2009), and exploratory action research (Rebolledo, Smith, & Bullock, 2016). Much has been written about the way that teacher research can support teacher professional development (see Borg, 2017 for a brief summary) and numerous published examples document teachers’ positive experiences of the process (see, for example, various issues of the journal Research Notes which have been dedicated to action research). The transformative potential of teacher research is thus well-established. But it is also well known that the fulfilment of this potential is dependent on a number of conditions.
I will return to teacher research shortly, but an analogy will help frame the discussion that follows. Exercise is good for you. Despite this fact, it does not mean that the same kind of exercise is good for everyone. Similarly, it does not mean that every person is equally suited (mentally and physically) or responsive to certain types of exercise. I am a keen runner but cycling or swimming just does not work for me. Additionally, many people do not exercise (enough) even though they are aware of the benefits of doing so.
In my case, although I am regularly reminded by my physiotherapist that stretching daily is the key to staying injury-free and I believe that, I do not do stretching exercises very often. Technically, I find some of the positions and movements I have been prescribed hard to achieve; motivationally, I am deterred by the fact that I have to do these exercises alone. Knowing that I should be doing these exercises every day but am failing to do so somehow adds to the generally negative feeling I have about stretching.
To return to the focus of this article, professional development is undeniably good for teachers. But different kinds of professional development will be more or less suitable for particular individuals or groups of teachers. Teacher research is one option and, while I am a keen supporter of it, I am also aware that it will not be the right choice for all teachers. Just as my motivation to stretch is being thwarted by technical and social factors, so too the extent to which teachers engage in and benefit from teacher research will be shaped by a range of factors (Borg, 2013). In the space available here I am going to focus on four such factors: time, beliefs, technical competence, and support.
Throughout the discussion, I am treating teacher research as an activity that teachers are carrying out primarily to enhance their understanding of their work. Teacher research can also be conducted for academic purposes (for example, as part of a Master’s degree) but in such contexts a different set of motivations come into play that I will not address here. I also assume (and I know that, for various reasons, this is not always the case) that teachers are willing to engage in professional development; where that is not the case, promoting teacher research will be premature and should be preceded by an analysis of teachers’ attitudes and defining a strategy for making professional development a more attractive activity.
Teacher research requires time and an extended period of activity – it is not the kind of professional development that can be completed in a few days or in a week or two of continuous intensive work. The decision to do or promote teacher research, then, must be based on an awareness of the time teachers will need to commit and on a realistic understanding of where that time will come from. Teachers’ conditions in this respect vary enormously around the world. In some contexts, an official workload allocation for professional development exists; in others, teachers may be given a reduced teaching load to support participation in professional development; in many, though, such provisions are absent. This does not mean that teacher research is not possible, because I am also aware of contexts where teachers are willing to do professional development in their own time.
But, overall, expecting teachers to commit to teacher research when no time has been allocated for it is not likely to be very productive. One way of addressing time constraints in teacher research is to ensure that the project teachers commit to is commensurate with the time available; where time is limited, this will call for modest projects, but a good quality modest project will always be preferable to plans which are unfeasibly ambitious. Collaborative teacher research, where the workload is shared, can also reduce the demands made on individual teachers’ time. A third strategy that allows time to be used more efficiently is for teachers to integrate teacher research as far as possible into what they normally do.
The scope of teacher research must be commensurate with the time available for it. If sufficient time is not available for even modest teacher research projects, alternative professional development approaches should be considered.
Teachers will approach teacher research with varying beliefs about its nature and purpose. Their previous experiences of research may have been academic, complex, and of little perceived practical value and teachers may assume that teacher research is no different. Where necessary, then, helping teachers understand the ways in which teacher research is different from academic research is an important preliminary task. Another common belief teachers bring to teacher research is that its purpose is to prove something (something, very often that teachers think they already know).
But teacher research is not about proof; even very rigorous large-scale academic research must be cautious when talking about proof. For teacher research, the goal is understanding that can inform improved educational practice. An initial outcome of teacher research may even be uncertainty, as teachers acquire a deeper awareness of teaching and learning and realise that issues which they previously thought were simple are in fact much more complex. Once again, then, it is useful early in the process of teacher research for teachers to reflect on their beliefs about what teacher research is and its purposes and, with guidance, to adjust these accordingly.
More broadly, teachers will also have beliefs about the nature of professional development. For example, in many contexts practising teachers receive support through centralised in-service training. Teacher autonomy in such circumstances is minimal and teachers are not required to contribute in any substantial way to decisions about the content and structure of their training. In such contexts, transitioning to teacher research calls for a significant shift not just in practice but also in beliefs about professional development, the forms it may take, and teachers’ roles in the process (for a discussion of different beliefs about professional development, see Lieberman & Miller, 2014).
Teacher research is based on the belief that the classroom is a legitimate site for professional inquiry and that (with appropriate support) teachers should take charge of their professional learning (see Lieberman, Campbell, & Yashkina, 2017 for an example of how such beliefs about professional learning have been applied to an educational system).
Effective teacher research must be grounded in appropriate beliefs (by teachers and organisations) about its nature and purposes and about teacher-led and situated forms of professional development more generally.
As noted earlier, teacher research comes in different flavours and proponents of these have different opinions about how ‘rigorous’ teachers’ inquiries should be. There is, of course, no one correct answer here, but because the intention is to use the results of teacher research to inform (even very loosely) subsequent instructional decisions, it is essential that these results are trustworthy. This means that teacher research needs to be designed and conducted with some attention to rigour; for example, if the teacher is giving their students a questionnaire, this must be well-designed and analysed appropriately. Or if the teacher wants to do a group interview with students, it is important that the discussion enables everyone to participate and that an accurate record of what they say is captured.
What we are talking about here, then, is the technical side of teacher research – what is referred to in research methods books as research design, data collection and data analysis. It is important to note, though, that teacher research is much more than a technical activity (Groundwater-Smith, 2012). As I have already noted, teachers’ beliefs impinge significantly on the process and, because teacher research is inward-looking and has a subjective dimension, it can also evoke powerful emotions in teachers. The social dimension of teacher research (e.g. teachers’ relationships with colleagues and students) is also powerful.
In promoting teacher research, it is a mistake, then, to over-emphasise its technical side. Teachers do, of course, need a basic set of technical competences for teacher research, and will benefit from an understanding of, among others, how to design and administer simple questionnaires, conduct individual and group interviews with students, collect evidence through self-observation, use reflective journals to keep a record of their classroom experiences, and use student work to evaluate the impact of their teaching (for some ideas on the last of these, see Easton, 2009). Such matters are typically well covered in the many texts that exist to support teacher research (for example, Burns, 2010; Campbell, McNamara, & Gilroy, 2004; Hopkins, 2008).
Technical competence is an important dimension of teacher research, but it should not be emphasised to the extent that teacher research becomes a technical activity.
I am sure I would find it much easier to do my regular stretching exercises if I had more support: the presence of a trainer (though totally unfeasible) would make a big difference; instructional videos I could refer to would help too; a training partner who was also doing the exercises would be another source of support. In the absence of such elements, I have failed to follow my physiotherapist’s recommendations.
There are clear parallels with teacher research here and support for teachers is a key element in effective teacher research programmes (Borg, 2015). Mentoring is one form of support. For example, on the English Australia-Cambridge Assessment action research scheme (Burns & Edwards, 2014), teachers receive ongoing support from a mentor while in the Champion Teachers project in Chile (Smith, Connelly, & Rebolledo, 2014) local mentors play a key role in the process. The support mentors provide can take many forms, such as advice on technical matters, questions that force teachers to rethink their beliefs (about teacher research or aspects of their teaching), or moral support and encouragement at times of difficulty.
Support can come from other sources too: the institution itself, where the leadership is positively disposed, can make a big difference to teachers (e.g. by providing material resources or timetabling classes in a way that facilitates teachers’ projects). Colleagues are another form of support; they can (e.g. at staff meetings) provide an audience with whom teachers can discuss their projects; colleagues can also work together on collaborative teacher research projects (Burns, 1999).
This has many advantages, including the sharing of workloads and the added sense of responsibility that working in a group provides. It is also recognised today that when professional development is a social activity it is more beneficial not just for individuals but also in terms of creating a collaborative culture in schools. And there is increasing evidence that collaboration among teachers is a feature of effective schools generally (Darling-Hammond, 2013).
Support for teachers is a vital component of teacher research. It can be provided by mentors, school leaders, and colleagues, and makes it less likely that teachers will feel isolated or overwhelmed during their projects.
When the right conditions exist, teacher research is undoubtedly a powerful, transformative experience for teachers. It can give them new understandings of their work, boost their motivation and commitment, and enhance their sense of autonomy and professional competence. Where key conditions are absent, though, teacher research may be less effective and even a negative experience for teachers. It is important, then, for teachers and for those responsible for promoting teacher research, to assess the prevailing conditions in any given context (Borg, 2013 provides a set of questions that can be used for this purpose) and to make informed decisions about whether teacher research is a feasible professional development option and, if it is, how to make it work.
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Borg, S. (2013). Teacher research in language teaching: A critical analysis. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Borg, S. (2015). Facilitating teacher research: Course design, implementation, and evaluation. In S. Borg & H. S. Sanchez (Eds.), International perspectives on teacher research (pp. 98-112). Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
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Lieberman, A., & Miller, L. (2014). Teachers as professionals: Evolving definitions of staff development. In L. E. Martin, S. Kragler, D. J. Quatroche & K. L. Bauserman (Eds.), Handbook of professional development in education: Successful models and practices, prek-12 (pp. 3-21). New York, NY: The Guildford Press.
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Smith, R., Connelly, T., & Rebolledo, P. (2014). Teacher-research as continuing professional development: A project with Chilean secondary school teachers. In D. Hayes (Ed.), Innovations in the continuing professional development of English language teachers (pp. 111-129). London, UK: British Council.
About the Author
Simon Borg works as an ELT consultant, with a particular interest in the design, implementation and evaluation of teacher professional development. Full details of his work are available at http://simon-borg.co.uk/