Research as We-search

Michelle McNamara
Sep 4, 2015 · 4 min read

How I learned to stop worrying and love teacher research

My least favorite class in my teacher certificate program was ED-690 “Teacher as Researcher.” The professor was fantastic, but the subject matter was infuriating: teachers learned how to do research in their own classrooms and I was pretty certain we were doing it wrong.

Having worked in research previously (and having a stunning lack of intellectual humility), I believed that “real” research designs used randomized control (RC) groups. This real research required highly trained academic researchers who had carefully (and completely randomly) selected which participants would receive which treatment, and also usually kept their participants in the dark as to the purpose of the experiment.

But the importance of random-assignment and controls and keeping participants blind to the treatment never came up in my Teacher as Researcher class. Instead, we talked about measuring our own students’ outcomes at two time points and then comparing the differences (without even looking for statistically significant changes). It felt like a glorified science project.


As with so many things I thought I knew in 2007 (“Skinny jeans will never be popular!”), I was very wrong.

The best research is research that poses a thoughtful question and attempts to answer that question systematically. Often times that means answering questions in ways that do not use an RC. An RC study is a rigorous way to explore a hypothesis and it can help to reduce questions about how widely applicable and accurate a study’s findings are but an RC does not necessarily answer a hypothesis beyond a doubt — no study is perfect. So, while it is and should be considered the gold standard for showing causal relationships, its existence does not negate the utility of all other kinds of research.

At it’s heart, research is about knowledge seeking and sharing, and that’s important work for all interested in evidence-based practice. By focusing exclusively on large-scale RC studies for proof, huge limitations are put on who can contribute to the knowledge of what works since one generally needs a certain level of education and money to be able to conduct such a study. But many people who ask thoughtful questions lack the PhD and grant funding to conduct an RC study.

This is why I love teacher research. Teacher research allows a wider group of people to participate in the important work of asking and answering questions about what works in classrooms. And when it comes to finding evidence-based practices, the more researchers the better. It also allows a method for harvesting the wisdom of teachers who have developed expertise in how their students learn and how best to teach their subject matter. Though a teacher research study may not meet a “gold” standard of rigor, it can provide important information as to what constitutes a promising practice or help develop theories about when and why a practice works.

And this is exactly why Character Lab is investing money in teacher research through the Teacher Innovation Grant. This year’s winners are engaging in their own teacher research projects to evaluate their approaches for building character strengths. We’ve given our Innovators a foundation in research methodology and helped them choose measures to use for their studies by inviting them to UPenn for two days of training and collaboration. This year, we’re working with a varied group of educators that teach a variety of grades and subjects across the country.

To name just a few of our seven projects, we’re working with Susan Carlé in Carson, CA to evaluate how her American literature unit on the Scarlet Letter helps her 11th grade students build their perspective-taking ability. We’re also working with Tracie Slattery and Vanessa Seward in Fayetteville, AR to evaluate how their Question Board procedure, which allows their 5th and 6th grade students 15 minutes each week to ask and discuss questions about anything that interests them, will ignite their students’ curiosity.

The research studies that Susan, Tracie and Vanessa are conducting will help Character Lab — and everyone else — evaluate how well their approaches work at building their students’ strengths. Character Lab wants to learn more about how teachers can successfully integrate approaches for teaching character into their classrooms, and the studies our Innovators are conducting will provide valuable insights into how this work is done, and done well.

At this point, many of our studies are already underway and we’ll post updates on our Innovators’ approaches and their studies. And, if you’re interested in conducting your own teacher research project with Character Lab, consider submitting a proposal for the Teacher Innovation Grant this fall! (We also believe in paying teachers properly for conducting their studies, so the opportunity comes with a $10,000 stipend, plus any money for the resources needed to actually do the project.)

Far from a glorified science project, teacher-designed and led research is a critical component of making classrooms better for all kids. We hope you continue to follow along as we explore what teacher research looks like in the character space.

Thanks to Rachel Young

Michelle McNamara

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