Teachers as researchers

Pragmatic technicians or critical intellectuals?

Hilary Taylor - Head of Multi-professional Education, School of Education, University of Hertfordshire

Students in class


As schools become increasingly accountable and in need of methods for measuring effects of teaching strategy on pupil outcomes, teachers are looking for ways to evaluate policy and practices in relation to attainment and progress.

This article explores the potential tensions that this pragmatic approach to practitioner research raises for leaders of Education Masters programmes.

The article presents a discussion around the criticisms that have been levelled against educational research in recent years, and considers the implications of this criticism on leaders of research programmes and for practitioner researchers in the field.

It is argued that, whilst a technical, 'what works' approach to research is understandable in the current climate, Masters programmes have a role in developing a wider view of educational research and a critical view of policy and practice, enabling teachers to position their research within the wider context of the underpinning aims, values and principles of education.

My research interest

My research interest lies in the nature of teachers' professional development and the impact that practitioner research has on not only individuals' practice, but also their values and beliefs about the work that they do. This article raises questions around the role of Masters study in promoting 'critical intellectuals', particularly at a time when the profession is increasingly dominated by a culture of league tables and accountability.

I am motivated by a perceived change in the foci of teachers' research proposals in recent years; I have noticed that whilst many teachers are interested in critical enquiry, an increasing number are using the research module to evaluate government-led initiatives and the effectiveness of teaching strategy and interventions, rather than questioning or challenging the aims and principles upon which such interventions are based.

I raise a concern that, whilst teachers do engage in critical analysis of practice through their research projects, they are becoming entrenched in the growing positivist 'what works' or 'instrumental rationality' culture (Sanderson 2003:332) that has been encouraged through the growing government-led reforms since the late 1980s that have made schools and teachers more accountable (Hammersley 2007). My argument is that, whilst it is important for teachers to focus on outcomes for the pupils they teach, they also need to critically examine wider issues in the profession and the underpinning values that inform the strategies that they employ.

Educational research

Newby (2010) identifies three purposes to educational research: to explore issues, to shape policy and to improve practice. I suggest that there is also a place for research to be carried out for the creation and development of knowledge in the field, rather than the need to shape policy and practice directly.

For example, Mortimore (1999) promotes research's 'capability to create new knowledge or to challenge accepted ways of thinking'(1999:18) whilst Whitty (2006) proposes a distinction between educational research that focuses on improving policy and practice and a broader education research that looks at wider issues within the field. I would argue that, as teacher educators, it is important to explore these different approaches and aims of research within our programmes, providing teachers with the opportunity to take a critical view of current issues facing the profession.

Increasing demands over the last two decades that practice should be more evidence-based have caused central research funding to be directed at a type of research that is more positivist in approach - that is, that looks for consistencies in practice in order to find causes and predict outcomes. The question this raises is whether these methods are appropriate for the exploration of human activity such as teaching.

Hargreaves, in his 1996 lecture to the Teacher Training Agency (TTA), proposed that there should be a much closer link between research and practice and suggested structural changes to educational research that would create a more evidence-based profession, similar to medicine. His view that educationalists 'need evidence about what works, with whom, under what conditions and with what effects' (Hargreaves 1996) has provoked debates around whether such a direct and outcomes-based approach to research is possible, or indeed, desirable (Hammersley 1997; Elliott 2001; Evans and Benefield 2001; Sanderson 2003).

It is this focus on measurable outcomes that I have noticed within students' research proposals for their final Masters module. It has become evident on the Masters programme that practitioners are increasingly using research to attempt to find strategies to solve problems or issues in learning and teaching, and that these are usually driven by pressures of meeting targets, responding to inspection feedback and from government directives. For example, evaluations of phonics programmes, assessment strategies and support for gifted and talented pupils appear frequently amongst research proposals.

This approach however, assumes that there is a technical-rationalism to teaching that allows the 'what works' strategies to be identified and implemented in a general way. As Stenhouse (1981) argues, it is not possible to provide a 'technology of teaching' to guide the teachers, as strategies have to be adapted to meet individual needs and contexts.

Sanderson (2003) is also critical of this approach to evidence-informed policy making, stating that it is difficult to make causal links between policy interventions and outcomes, therefore making the generalisability of strategies problematic. However Oakley (2000 in Evans and Benefield 2001) argues that experimentation, such as that used in medicine, is necessary in the social sciences as interventions have to be evaluated through systematic means.

This seems to be what the Masters students are trying to achieve - looking for evidence that will support, or help them to develop, the strategies that they are implementing in the classroom.

However, Evans and Benefield conclude their discussion of this type of systematic review with a concern that a growing movement towards a 'medical model' of social research will, 'tend to reduce research questions to the pragmatics of technical efficiency and effectiveness. It will not encourage research which explores the wider social, philosophical or ethical issues which are implicit in all social policy decisions' (Evans and Benefield 2001:539).

Whilst I recognise the rationale for teachers wanting to engage in this pragmatic form of research,  my concern is that the impact is relatively short-term and context specific, and does not necessarily enable teachers to engage in a research experience that might challenge, or even transform, their values, principles and conceptions of classroom practice.

When working with teacher-researchers, we therefore need to discuss the aims and purposes of different types of research, in order for the teachers to be clear about approach that they are taking.

Ball (1995) and Oancea (2005) both highlight the different ways that the educational researcher is conceptualised. This is useful in providing a framework through which this issue can be explored. Oancea suggests that the researcher can be conceptualised as a 'technician' or 'critical intellectual.', reflecting Ball's view of the different ways in which research informs policy: on the one hand the measurement of attainment and comparison of institutions to ascertain the best course of action, and on the other the provision of a more theoretical underpinning that considers values and morals in education (Ball 1995).

By exploring these conceptions of the educational researcher, teacher-researchers can critically examine the implications of such a distinction upon their chosen research approach.

An interpretivist approach suggests that researching in a social context such as education, is fundamentally different from that within the natural sciences and that it requires a different approach (Bryman 2008).

Interpretivist research has emerged from the arguments that positivist enquiry cannot provide legitimate knowledge about the social world and a more inductive, qualitative approach is required to explore the complexities of social phenomena such as classroom practice. My view is that such an approach can help teachers to gain a deeper, and therefore more meaningful, understanding and interpretation of their experiences, rather than try to find quantifiable evidence to support a short-term, 'what works' strategy.

As Elliott (2001) suggests, education does not always need to be outcomes-based, and the effectiveness of teaching should not always be measured by student progress or outcomes, but should be considered in term of the values and principles that drive practice.  Elliott (2001) draws upon the work of Hargreaves (1996, 1999), Peters (1966, 1973) and Stenhouse (1975, 1979) to reconsider the purpose of education and the implication for research, and argues that contemporary researchers need to consider the link between the role of their research and educational aims and processes.

Similarly, Clark (2005) highlights a concern that teaching is becoming viewed as a technology and argues that values are central to educational research, implying that researchers should take a critical, interpretivist stance that explores underpinning principles of educational issues.

The potential impact of qualitative research

In order for teacher researchers to take this more exploratory and interpretivist stance, they need to have opportunities to explore the potential impact of qualitative research.

This can be a challenge, as teachers are working within a culture that values quantifiable outcomes and laws of good practice and lends itself to a more positivist, quantitative approach.

The tension occurs as qualitative researchers do not believe that there is a single truth (Newby 2010), and this is often what teachers are looking for to inform their practice. Whilst we encourage teachers to engage in in-depth case studies to develop a rich understanding of specific situations, the teachers themselves are not always convinced that this will provide useful findings or solve the problems or issues that they are facing in their practice.

This issue is intimated by Elliott (2001) in his consideration of the different views of what he terms, 'actionable evidence' (2001:83). He highlights the fact that Stenhouse's view of evidence differs from that of Hargreaves in that it is not simply based upon the effectiveness of strategies to secure outcomes, but is about the extent to which teaching approaches are ethically consistent with educational aims. Therefore, it is important to enable teacher-researchers to consider the type of evidence that they want or need to discover, and consider the extent to which they can go beyond evaluating the outcomes of existing strategies, and critically examine the rationale and underpinning principles that led to the implementation of the strategy in the first place.

It can been seen that positions around the purpose of educational research range from one that research should be integral to policy-making and strategy evaluation, to a view that research should be about developing educational knowledge for its own sake.  While some distinction can be made between research to inform policy (positivist, outcomes based, technical) and research to gain insights (interpretivist, exploratory, intellectual), it is evident that the boundaries are not always clear.  Hammersley (2007) suggests that most researchers sit somewhere between these two viewpoints and that they aim to contribute to knowledge about educational issues while providing benefit to practice by attempting to resolve issues.  It is exploring the balance of these viewpoints that I believe would help teachers to develop a broad perspective as researchers and enable them to position their enquiries within the debates around the aims and purpose of research in their field.

Promoting qualitative and interpretive research

In promoting the use of qualitative and interpretative research with my students, it is clearly important to consider the critique of the paradigm that has developed.

For example, quantitative researchers suggest that qualitative research can be impressionistic and subjective (Bryman 2008), and that it, 'has gone too far in abandoning scientific procedures of verification and in giving up hope of discovering useful generalisations about behaviour' (Cohen et al 2007:25). The philosophical assumptions of qualitative researchers therefore need to be recognised and defended, and teachers need to understand the extent to which their own preconceptions and values might influence their research.

Particular criticisms have been made against the notion of teacher as researcher (Stenhouse 1981), arguments suggesting that the teacher's personal values and own interest in the findings condemn the research to bias and subjectivity. However, Stenhouse (1981) argues that, in his experience, teachers on Masters or doctoral programmes have shown more dispassion in their enquiries than a professional researcher who has dedication to their particular theoretical standpoint.

It is possible therefore, for teachers to take an objective stance in their enquiries, even when exploring their own practice. What they need to do, is to consider their own position within their chosen research area, unearth and challenge their assumptions and preconceptions and make these explicit before they engage in their research.

In my view, small scale, practitioner research can be highly useful in enriching findings from more quantitative, positivist enquiries that take place in schools.

I would propose that we try to develop within our profession an, 'interpretive tradition in which we seek understand the world from the perspective of the participants, or to understand a set of ideas from within the evolving tradition of which they are a part' (Pring 2000:259).

I would argue that there is a great deal of value in teachers carrying out small-scale, context-specific enquiries to inform their own understanding and practice, but recognise that these enquiries need to be positioned within the broader context of how findings might be used more widely. I suggest that there is a need for greater partnerships and collaboration in research activity to help teachers to develop their enquiries in a way that develops their practice in a meaningful way and impacts upon the wider teaching community.

I propose that this is done through critical and collaborative enquiry, by extending the research repertoire of practitioners to look beyond the evaluation of directives, and engage in, what Stenhouse called, 'systematic self-critical enquiry' (1981:103).

My aim is for students to view research as an integral part of their role as a teacher (Elliott 2001), and part of their commitment to improvement in practice and the development of their own personal theory (Bassey 1995). Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1999) promote the notion of 'inquiry as stance' whereby teachers work collaboratively to develop practice that is informed by enquiry and underpinned by theory.  In this way, teachers can enhance their critical understanding of the work that they do, and articulate what they know and believe in a way that can be disseminated more widely.


To conclude, it is evident that, as schools have become more accountable and therefore in need of methods for measuring effects of causal factors on outcomes, teachers are increasingly working from a positivist viewpoint to evaluate practices. As a result, the nature of research that the students undertake is increasingly characterised by the 'what works' approach (Hargreaves 1999), and the question I have raised, is whether this is always appropriate for educational research.

An exploration of the aims of educational research has highlighted different conceptions of the teacher as researcher: that of technician or critical intellectual. Whilst I understand the rationale for teachers following the technical, 'what works' model in order to find causes and predict outcomes, I have argued that it is the positioning of research within the wider context of aims, values and principles of education that we should also be promoting.

I want teachers to develop an interest in critical enquiry that becomes part of their practice, rather than research being seen as a short-term pragmatic project that they undertake to justify classroom strategies. I have emphasised the value of teachers who are critical and are prepared to have their assumptions challenged.

It is my view that educational practitioner research should be about challenging beliefs and values through collaboration and the exchanging of ideas, so that practice can be critically examined in a way that creates a depth of knowledge about teaching and learning, and teachers gain a greater understanding of the complexities that underpin the work that they do.


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