Teacher Research: The Role of Higher Education
In November, NAEYC will publish a special tribute issue of Voices of Practitioners (VOP)— NAEYC’s journal of teacher research—in memory of Gail Perry, its former editor. NAEYC has long supported teacher research efforts in the early childhood field, as it advances the field’s understanding of child development and produces creative approaches to building high-quality learning experiences for young children. Teacher research also serves as a bridge between early learning practitioners and higher education, which is the primary pipeline for the early childhood education workforce.
In the preparation of educators, there is so much that prospective and practicing professionals should learn. For example, our students should be well-grounded in the content that they teach, have a deep understanding of how to assess children’s learning needs, and draw upon a wide range of instructional practices. Early childhood professionals should also have a strong understanding of child development to provide a foundation for choices they make about curricular content, assessment tools, and pedagogy. Finally, early childhood teachers and administrators must develop capacity to build relationships with children, families, and communities.
High quality teacher education programs can go far in supporting early childhood professionals to be prepared, yet we can’t prepare our teachers for everything. Educators always face unknowns—new dilemmas and complex situations. To be successful, teachers must address these problems with flexibility and forethought. One very good way to prepare early childhood professionals for these inevitable puzzles of practice is to equip them to be teacher researchers. While this venture is a joint responsibility for leaders of early learning programs and higher education, this post addresses the role of higher education.
Teacher Research Promotes Agency in Teachers
At a general level, developing teacher research skills supports our students’ readiness for complex situations and grows their effectiveness as teachers. It does so by promoting a sense of agency. Specifically, teacher research provides skills and a mindset that provide teachers with the confidence to take action on behalf of children and families. Thus, teacher researchers work alone, or in collaboration with colleagues, to address challenges and to seek opportunities that advance children’s learning and development.
Teacher Research Develops Inquiry in Teachers
Teacher research also builds teachers’ capacity to be reflective in their practice—to constantly ask why and what if questions as they observe their children and the classroom dynamics. It also provides a framework to help teachers evaluate their own teaching and consider how better to serve their children and families. Examples of such reflective and forward thinking professionals can be found in the articles of Voices of Practitioners. There, early childhood teacher researchers have tackled questions about how to develop and strengthen children’s conflict management skills (Holly Dixon’s article in the Fall 2016 issue), understanding how young children experience musical theatre (Rekha Rajan’s article in the Winter 2015 issue), and how to meaningfully incorporate technology in a transitional kindergarten classroom (Carlyn Joy Bracken’s article in the Summer 2015 issue).
Teacher Research Contributes to the Research to Practice Pipeline
Teacher research also expands our view of teachers as knowledge creators, because by its very nature, it is grounded in real-time classroom experiences—a beautiful example of how research should connect to practice. A stronger research to practice pipeline is desperately needed in our education system. Too often, education research—whether conducted by higher education, think tanks, professional organizations, or advocacy groups can fall into one or more buckets: it isn’t grounded in what is actually happening in classrooms; the research doesn’t examine critical questions around children’s learning or teachers’ practices; or, the findings of research are never translated for the most important audiences - teachers, school leaders, families, and children. When teachers conduct research in their own classrooms, these problems with traditional educational research can all be addressed.
Teacher Research Connects Higher Education and Local Practice Settings
Teacher research also provides a path for higher education professionals to create reciprocal partnerships with local early learning settings. Indeed, partnerships between the early childhood settings and higher education ought to be the most highly valued dimension of our preparation programs and should be beneficial to higher education and to the local settings. Higher education needs these relationships so that it can offer quality field experiences to candidates. Providing professional development that is centered on supporting teacher research at its partner sites is one way for higher education to uphold the reciprocal relationship and support sites in addressing their most pressing demands.
Teacher Research Builds Professionalism in Teachers
The act of teacher research contributes significantly toward building professionalism in teachers; that is, autonomy, decision-making capacity, inquiry-orientation, resourcefulness, advocacy, and ethical conduct. It is this sense of professionalism that is addressed in Standard Six of NAEYC’s Professional Preparation Standards. These are the standards by which NAEYC accredits associate degree programs and recognizes quality in baccalaureate and master’s degree programs. These skills and perspectives of professionalism and teacher research take our pre- and in-service teachers a long way towards being ready for children, classrooms, and schools, for the responsibilities of work, and the demands of the profession when they leave our programs. One example of the impact of teacher research in this area is described in an article in the Fall 2016 VOP tribute issue. In the article, Debra Murphy, a professor of early childhood education, writes about making teacher research a cornerstone of the early childhood associate degree program at Cape Cod Community College and how it has grown candidates’ sense of agency and their capacity to enhance young children’s learning experiences and how it has strengthened her own teaching.
With the upcoming publication of the 2016 tribute issue of Voices of Practitioners, I encourage higher education programs to reflect on how they incorporate teacher research into their curriculum. Specifically, teacher education programs for early childhood educators should consider using teacher research as part of their programs’ efforts to address Standard Six of NAEYC’s Professional Preparation Standards. More generally, teacher research can provide a framework that changes how we view teachers as professionals and the level of professionalism we expect in the field of early childhood education.
NAEYC will continue to elevate teacher research through Voices of Practitioners and a range of teacher research focused sessions at our national convenings. In addition, for higher education faculty who are attending NAEYC’s Annual Conference, ACCESS and NAECTE are holding a joint roundtable discussion on teacher research for their members. This roundtable will take place on November 2nd as part of these groups’ annual meeting events. You can find more information on their web sites.
I encourage NAEYC members to connect with Voices of Practitioners online at www.naeyc.org/resources/publications/vop. Voices articles are also now a part of every issue of Young Children. We are eager to hear from NAEYC members about other ways in which you would like NAEYC to elevate and support teacher research. Please reach out to us with your ideas!
Mary Harrill is Senior Director of Higher Education Accreditation and Program Support at NAEYC.