The relationship between teaching and research is often assumed and just as often ignored. Research should and does influence teaching (and vice versa), but the gulf between the two can at times seem large. Teachers are told to use “research-based strategies” and yet such strategies may be presented to them stripped of the very sensitivity to context, analytic rigor, and thoughtful skepticism that are the hallmarks of quality research.
CEE members tend to view themselves as teachers, teacher educators, and researchers. As such, we bring to our work a keen awareness that classrooms are multi-dimensional and dynamic places, and that effective approaches to English language arts research honor human complexity, acknowledging the many influences that shape students’ learning and the differences among people, schools, and communities. We are likewise aware that using and conducting research well means being informed by a range of perspectives and empirical traditions as they address the particular challenges presented by communities, classrooms, and students.
This document outlines the relationship between research and teaching in English language arts. It is an attempt to provide a foundation for conversations about the characteristics of high-quality English language arts research, how teachers might use it, and how CEE can help to create and sustain communities of English language arts professionals who use and conduct research in meaningful and responsible ways.
What are the purposes of English language arts research?
Research informs practice and policy in the teaching and learning of English language arts.
The ultimate goal of research in English language arts is to enable teachers, teacher educators, and institutions to make sound decisions about the educational activities and experiences that will best serve students. Decisions informed by English language arts research range from systemic matters such as the selection of standards and benchmarks or the evaluation of instructional and assessment programs at the national, state, and local level, to the individual decisions each teacher and teacher educator must make about her or his particular classroom. While not all English language arts research focuses directly on student learning (for instance, some studies might explore teacher development, instructional materials, or workplace writing), all English language arts research is guided by an interest in the processes and challenges people experience in becoming literate citizens.
Research supports high quality English language arts instruction for all students.
Because learners have varying backgrounds, skills, and needs, an important purpose of English language arts research is to ensure that practice and policy decisions are appropriate for the full range of learners in a setting. English language arts research seeks to illuminate both differences among various groups (for instance, students learning English as a second language or students in rural schools) and common principles that can guide decision-making across a range of settings.
Research stimulates conversations among researchers and all involved in the teaching and learning of English language arts.
Research can stimulate discussion, challenge assumptions, reaffirm convictions, and raise new questions. It does so in part by revealing the complexity of English language arts teaching and learning. For example, research may explore the many factors that affect any one instructional decision; or it may describe the intricacies of personal history, culture, and psychology that reside within a single child. In portraying such complexity, researchers often draw upon multiple disciplines related to language arts, literacy, and schooling. These include English studies, education, linguistics, psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, and the arts. The potential for research to stimulate conversations and portray complexity becomes especially important when various constituencies beyond schools such as legislators, business leaders, and parents ask what research can tell them about the teaching and learning of English language arts.
What are the characteristics of English language arts research that promise to benefit teaching and learning?
Research that promises to benefit teaching and learning addresses issues that teachers and others recognize as important.
If English language arts research is to be used by teachers and useful in classrooms, it must focus on the complex issues teachers face on a daily basis. However, because education is a value-laden endeavor, different participants often hold divergent beliefs concerning the nature of teaching and learning and the relative importance of particular goals. The English language arts research community must be in constant dialogue with teachers, administrators, parents, and the public about the challenges faced by various constituencies and about the role research can play in responding to those challenges. It is especially important that those who traditionally have been given little opportunity to participate in decision-making, such as teachers and parents in poor communities, be invited to participate in determining the issues on which research should focus.
Teachers are more than passive recipients of published research—that is, they actively determine implications for classroom practice, provide guidance to the research community, and conduct their own classroom-based inquiries. Rather than looking to research to provide universal dictates, English language arts professionals approach research with an eye to enriching their understandings of their own students and classrooms as they develop strategies appropriate to their own students.
Research that promises to benefit teaching and learning is explicit in describing the assumptions and beliefs that guide the work.
Researchers should offer clear, complete explanations of why they are taking up particular research questions and why they believe the questions should be studied in a particular way. They should also explain how a given study contributes to our understanding of teaching and learning. When provided with explicit information about the assumptions and beliefs guiding the work, English language arts teachers can draw upon studies informed by a range of theoretical orientations and use multiple ways of seeing to enrich their understandings of their students and their practice. For example, a teacher interested in rethinking writing instruction might draw upon research that focuses on writing as an individual cognitive process as well research that focuses on writing as a social act. Together, these two perspectives (as well as others) would provide a rich, nuanced set of possibilities for teaching writing, as well as new lenses through which to observe students and their writing.
Research that promises to benefit teaching and learning is explicit in describing the methods by which the research questions are addressed.
English language arts teachers and others can glean useful insights from studies employing a range of methods, provided they are given explanations of how the methods chosen serve to address the realities of classroom practice, as well as evidence that the selected research methods are systematic, rigorous, and compatible with the study’s theoretical orientation. Discussions of methods (as well as discussions of findings and conclusions) should acknowledge that any given study or approach is necessarily tentative and incomplete, and that one must read across empirical traditions in constructing implications for classroom practice. Under no circumstances should a single methodology or theoretical orientation be put forth as invariably the most valuable in guiding teaching and learning.
Research that promises to benefit teaching and learning is marked by an overall quality of plausibility and trustworthiness—traditionally known as validity.
Like the questions asked and the methods used, the nature of validity is dependent upon the theoretical orientation underlying a given study. For example, experimental studies–those that involve administering a treatment to experimental as well as control groups and then measuring any differences in outcomes–are viewed as trustworthy if they can explain what happens to most students most of the time, under carefully controlled conditions. However, qualitative studies such as case studies or ethnographies are viewed as trustworthy if they can explain what happens to a particular individual or group (such as a class of students) under particular circumstances. For the former, generalizability takes precedence over the ability to account for individual differences and contextual complexity. For the latter, accounting for individual differences and contextual complexity takes precedence over the ability to generalize. An experimental study might explore whether smaller English language arts class in middle school tend to increase the amount of writing students do, while an ethnographic study might explore the many roles writing plays in one middle school classroom over time.
Recently, the term “scientifically-based” has been used as a way to suggest that some research–usually studies with experimental designs– is especially plausible and useful. However, it is important to note that the extent to which a study may be judged to be trustworthy depends not on the theoretical orientation of the study but on the extent to which the methods used are appropriate to the questions asked and the extent to which the chosen methods are rigorously applied.
Strategies for scrutinizing experimental studies are well known, typically focusing on issues such as the nature of the instruments employed, the rigor of analytic techniques, and the appropriateness of the conclusions ultimately drawn from the available evidence. Broadly speaking, standards for judging the rigor of qualitative studies are similar in many ways. In assessing qualitative research, one considers, for instance, the adequacy of the evidence undergirding key claims and arguments. Typically consisting of interviews, field notes, and other artifacts, trustworthy qualitative data are generally gathered over extended periods of time, and vary in terms of data type as well as data source. Rigorous qualitative research involves systematic, explicitly detailed data-analysis strategies, and balanced interpretations marked by careful consideration of alternative possibilities and of any contradictory information. To further convince readers of the plausibility of their interpretations, qualitative researchers often invite research participants to comment on emerging findings and interpretations (a practice known as “member checking”), engage participants as research collaborators, ask colleagues to critique emerging findings, and/or engage in self-reflexive analysis of research processes and relationships.
Research that promises to benefit teaching and learning is ethical.
University-based researchers must adhere to ethical guidelines monitored by campus committees (known as “Institutional Review Boards,”or IRBs), which typically require the informed consent of all participants; ethical guidelines are also available from the American Educational Research Association (see http://www.aera.net/aboutaera/?id=717). Many qualitative researchers take their ethical obligations one step further, arguing that given their close interactions with those they study, the ethical dimensions of their work cannot separated from the trustworthiness of findings and implications for classroom practice.
How do teachers and teacher educators use and engage in English language arts research?
Teachers and teacher educators study research.
Informed teaching requires the critical reading and discussion of studies conducted by a wide range of others (university professors, classroom teachers, researchers working in centers, professional associations, etc.) who use a variety of methods in their investigations. Teacher educators introduce pre-service and practicing teachers to this range of studies and to the conventions of the various schools of research. In addition, teacher educators help pre-service and practicing teachers recognize how research studies can relate to their own particular questions and concerns about the teaching of English language arts. Reading and discussion of this kind takes place in various settings, including undergraduate and graduate classes, teacher book clubs, or collaborative inquiry projects.
Teachers and teacher educators critique research.
Published research studies are presentations of the findings of particular inquiries conducted by particular researchers from particular perspectives. Therefore, teacher educators ask pre-service and practicing teachers approach research in a critical fashion. And because learning to evaluate research involves asking questions of the studies, teacher educators model the process with questions such as these: Who are the researchers? What are their backgrounds? What perspectives do they bring to the topic? What does the study assume about how the language arts are learned? How is the study designed? What does the study claim as its findings? Do the researchers see the findings as generalizable or tied to a particular context? How do the findings fit with your own experience as a teacher? What new questions does the study raise for you?
Teachers and teacher educators select research.
In recent years the process of locating and selecting high quality research has become more complex. The internet and electronic databases have made it easier to find nearly everything that has been published on a given topic, so the individual teacher is faced with the task of determining which documents are of high quality and which will be of use in a particular classroom. At the same time, disputes have arisen over what constitutes high-quality research. In order to strategically select appropriate and useful research, teachers first need to understand theories of teaching and learning. Teacher educators introduce pre-service and practicing teachers to a variety of theories of teaching and learning in order to help teachers (1) become knowledgeable about theory, (2) determine which theories best account for how the English language arts are learned, and (3) recognize the relationship between theory and research. In this way, teacher educators prepare teachers to select from among the body of research those studies that hold promise to improve their teaching and their students’ learning.
Teachers and teacher educators apply research.
Research becomes valuable for teachers when it is applicable to their work with students in their classrooms. As part of an ongoing cycle, teachers who study, critique, and select research do so in terms of questions that emerge from their own teaching. They continually ask, “How will what I learned from this study help my students?” Such application grounds research in practice and translates the theoretical into the real. Teacher educators help pre-service and practicing teachers in this process by asking them to read and critique research studies they encounter in terms of their own classroom questions and concerns.
Teachers and teacher educators conduct research.
As teachers begin to apply the research of others to their own classroom contexts, they inevitably come up with their own questions: “Does the research I am studying address the concerns I have about my classroom?” “If not, is there research that does? “If not, how might I find the answers to my questions?” As teachers ask such questions, they begin the kind of reflection that leads to the generation of their own research—often as teacher/practitioner researchers. Teacher educators who promote an inquiry-based approach to teacher education expect teachers to think of themselves as reflective practitioners who understand the need to study continually their own approaches. Practicing teachers who ask questions and then systematically study their own teaching generate new research about teaching that can be shared with others.
What is the role of CEE in promoting understandings of the relationship between research, teaching, and teacher education?
Perhaps the defining characteristic of CEE members is their participation in multiple English language arts communities. Most spend their week shifting from the teacher education community, to the research community, to the community K-12 teachers. Many have one foot in the college or department of education and one foot in the English department. And most have commitments to more than one aspect of the subject of English, maintaining interests in composition, literature studies, literacy, and so on.
As experienced border-crossers, CEE members are well-positioned to help promote better understanding of the relationship between research, teaching, and teacher education. We can do this:
- By teaching pre-service and experienced teachers about how to study, critique, select, apply, and conduct research at their own school sites.
The recent emphasis by federal and state officials on research-based practice has made it imperative that teachers understand not only how to use research to help their students learn but also how to critique the claims made by researchers and policy-makers outside the classroom who use research as means of influencing or even over-riding teacher decision-making.
- By sharing knowledge about research with policy-makers and the general public. CEE members’ wide knowledge of the research, K-12 education, and the language arts profession make them uniquely placed to educate legislators, administrators, and the public about what sound research looks like, what questions research can and cannot answer, and how publicly reported data can be interpreted and misinterpreted. This can be done through speaking to school and community groups, writing letters and articles for local newspapers, and participating in policy-making activities such as standard-setting and curriculum design.
- By collaborating with members of other groups when conducting research.
NCTE and CEE have a history of supporting and valuing collaborative research that brings together English researchers, education researchers, K-12 teachers, parents, and community members. Continuing this tradition is especially important during times (such as the present) when research is viewed in some quarters as an activity done only by research specialists and teacher expertise is viewed as something that may contaminate a research project rather than contribute to it.
This document was created in part as a result of the 2005 Conference on English Education Leadership and Policy Summit, Suzanne Miller, CEE Chair, and Dana L. Fox, CEE Leadership and Policy Summit Chair.
Participants and authors in the “Understanding the Relationship between Research and Teaching” thematic strand group of the CEE Summit included:
- Co-Conveners: Don Zancanella and John Mayher
- Anne Blanchard, Georgia State University
- Anne DiPardo, University of Iowa
- Cathy Fleischer, Eastern Michigan University
- John Mayher, New York University
- Nancy McCracken, Kent State University
- Janet Miller, Teachers College, Columbia University
- Patricia Lambert Stock, Michigan State University
- Tara Star Johnson, University of Georgia
- Anne Elrod Whitney, University of California at Santa Barbara
- Don Zancanella, University of New Mexico
- Leah Zuidema, Michigan State University
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