Promoting Equity through Teacher Research
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Thoughts on the Article | Barbara Henderson, Voices Executive Editor
This commentary by Megina Baker makes clear that teacher research has a new generation of scholars who are passionate about the methodology and are ready to lead us into the future. She emphasizes the contributions of teacher research to equity-based reforms, to professionalism in early care and education, and to meeting democratic ideals through the participation of a wider range of informed people ready to address our society’s hardest questions. She also shows how teacher research holds promise as a tool of international connection among teachers who are similarly engaged in this work of listening closely to children and who are committed to changing their practices based on their newly discovered perspectives.
Taking each of these in turn, Baker discusses how teacher research increases equity in our educational practice by providing a path to educational reforms that better support children and families from underserved communities. Teacher researchers must consciously ask questions that address biases, inequities, and invisibilities; consequently, we must be committed to adjusting our practices based on the results of our analyses. In this way, Baker shows that teacher research also supports early childhood education professionals to take a critically reflective stance throughout their careers. A dynamic and challenging profession like teaching requires this inquiry and self-reflection. And finally, Baker considers how teacher research allows for stronger participatory democracy at the national and international levels by connecting and amplifying a wider range of voices to be counted among the knowledge creators in educational theory and practice.
Preeminently, Baker argues that teacher research must increasingly and more explicitly foreground issues of equity and social justice. Teacher research publications, networks, and conferences must recruit, support, and make public inquiry conducted by educators of color, multilingual educators, and educators with a range of formal educational backgrounds and who work in a variety of early childhood settings. Furthermore, the teacher research inquiries we conduct must directly address structural inequities around racism, classism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, ableism, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination and bias. I would go further to say that to remain relevant, teacher research must explicitly align itself with critical theoretical stances that take inequities and the related issues of power and privilege as central to their framing. In embracing these critical stances, teacher research must also use research methods that challenge the taken-for-granted positivist research approaches and related modes of traditional academic representation. Teacher research should increasingly embrace forms such as multivocal narrative, arts-based inquiry, indigenous knowledge, and memoir. Used in these ways, teacher research can be an important tool to lead us toward a more just and peaceful world.
Early childhood educators around the world seem to be optimists. We are all living in such challenging times, full of social inequities, political crises, and ecological decline, yet each day, teachers of young children face the day with the power to positively influence the future of our democracy. Our future leaders are sitting on our laps, playing in the block areas of our classrooms, or looking with wonder at a beetle crawling across the playground. I find hope in my daily commitment to the early childhood education field—in my work as a classroom teacher, teacher educator, and teacher researcher.
Two recent initiatives, Power to the Profession and the NAEYC’s new position statement Advancing Equity in Early Childhood Education, mark a significant deepening in the national conversation about the many ways in which teachers of young children are professionals who can and must promote equity in early childhood education spaces. These statements are timely, bold, and aspirational—articulating clearly that early childhood educators must be the ones to practice and model equity every day for young children and families. By teaching young children how to name, reflect on, and embrace difference, we can build culturally sustaining spaces for children and families. Enacting these practices will take significant, sustained, and daily collective effort.
How fortunate that we already have a powerful tool to do this challenging work: the tool of teacher research. This commentary explores how teacher research is exactly the tool we need for moving the needle on both professionalizing our field and addressing societal inequities. First, let’s look back at prior teacher research on equity; then, we’ll consider three current teacher research examples that exemplify how this practice can, and should, be a core resource to the early childhood profession as we take on the essential work of sustaining our democracy and building a just society.
What is teacher research?
Teacher research is research conducted by practitioners for the purpose of understanding teaching and learning and sharing these understandings with the wider education community (Perry, Henderson, & Meier 2012). Importantly, teacher research positions educators as producers, not just consumers, of knowledge about teaching (Cochran-Smith & Lytle 1999). The purpose of teacher research is both to investigate issues of practice in classrooms and to contribute knowledge to the field. Teacher researchers may conduct their research individually or in a community. Further, they often guide their inquiry by using tools arising directly from teaching practice: for example, pedagogical documentation and thinking routines (Krechevsky et al. 2013), which provide powerful, child-centered data collection and analytic processes through which to investigate teacher research questions.
The purpose of teacher research is both to investigate issues of practice in classrooms, and to contribute knowledge to the field.
Traditions of equity in teacher research
Teacher researchers in our midst have been elevating our field for decades by taking on issues of justice. Consider Vivian Gussin Paley’s influential writing about her teaching experiences in Chicago (learn more about her work in the tribute to her that comprises the second half of this year’s compilation). In her books White Teacher (2000), The Girl with the Brown Crayon (1997), The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter (1990), and Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner (1984), Paley vividly describes her work as a practitioner who interrogated her own teaching daily. She tackled questions of race, dis/ability, gender, and inclusion by documenting her teaching and the children’s work, reflecting on that documentation, and sharing her findings with the wider world.
We all grow and learn when we read Paley’s work, and she is in good company. Take Cynthia Ballenger’s work on teaching in and with the Haitian Creole community in Boston (Ballenger 1999), or Ben Mardell and Mona Abu-Zena’s exploration into spirituality with young children (Abo-Zena & Mardell 2015). See Dana Bentley’s investigations of rights (Bentley & Reppucci 2013), or Tran Templeton’s work on poverty and privilege with preschoolers (Templeton 2013). Each of these teacher researchers have made significant contributions to the ways in which we think about teaching for justice in our early childhood classrooms, and current teacher research continues in this tradition. Let’s look at three examples of recent teacher research experiences that are contributing to this important work.
Investigating inclusion in public pre-K
Last year, Laura Merdkhanian, a kindergarten teacher in an inclusion classroom in the Boston Public Schools, participated in a course I teach on The Role of Play in Early Childhood. A major assignment in this course is learning to conduct teacher research, and Laura dove into the process fully. She collected video documentation and shared it with classmates in her inquiry group that met weekly over several months. Laura used those meetings as opportunities to explore issues of equity and inclusion in her classroom.
Here, Laura, who identifies as a Middle Eastern, bilingual, cisgender woman, describes her process as a teacher researcher and how it informed her teaching.
Isaac was the youngest student in my inclusion pre-K classroom. He was also profoundly deaf and began the process of cochlear implantation in July 2017. At the time of my research inquiry, his hearing age was 1 year and 6 months, compared to his biological age of 3 years and 11 months. Though he is highly intelligent and a very quick learner, he had missed social language and cues for most of his life at that time. I was noticing that he was often in conflict with many of his older, typically developing peers, who could not understand why he was acting impulsively and aggressively. I wanted to explore what was going on when my students were playing and wondered how I could use play to help promote prosocial interactions.
I was also nervous because Isaac was the only African American child in our classroom. . . . [I] was concerned that students would begin associating his level of play skills with the color of his skin. I was noting how often I heard a child say a negative comment about him. After taking a number of video clips of Isaac playing and analyzing these with my teacher research inquiry group, I knew he needed lots of prosocial language scaffolding, but also lots of opportunities for him to feel joy and acceptance. I supported his play while providing language models as well as creating experiences that highlighted his interests and areas of expertise. I made sure to show love and appreciation of who he was to strengthen our own relationship. I knew that relationships were at the heart of his behaviors. Over time, and with fading levels of support, he was able to authentically connect with his peers and develop real friendships. This dramatically decreased problematic situations in the classroom, and also the negative comments.
As she processed her teacher research in the inquiry group, Laura shared her analysis and how it was changing her teaching. And Laura’s research process and findings have implications far beyond her own classroom: other educators can learn from her careful attention to Isaac’s experiences during play and from her important finding about the power of joy to foster connection with peers.
Questioning gender stereotypes through play
A second example of teacher research that promotes equity comes from the small town of Billund, Denmark. The International School of Billund (ISB), which serves approximately 400 children ages 3–16 with a diverse international teaching staff and student body, has been involved in a school-wide teacher research collaboration with the Pedagogy of Play project, based at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (Baker et al. 2016). All staff at the school are invited to engage in teacher research using an approach called Playful Participatory Research to build a shared understanding and to promote learning through play for learners of all ages (Baker & Salas Davila 2018).
Recently, Gayle Hogan, a kindergarten teacher at ISB who is originally from Ireland, noticed that children in her class were enacting gender stereotypes in their conversations and play. For example, some of the boys had referred to pink as a “girl color.” Other children were having conversations about family roles around work and caretaking that reinforced gender stereotypes. Gayle wanted to push back against this trend and decided to use teacher research as a vehicle. She posed the following teacher research question: how can we challenge children’s gender stereotypes in kindergarten?
For the next few months, Gayle kept her camera handy to gather video and audio documentation of play situations in which gender conversations arose. She also gathered samples of the children’s drawing and writing and shared these with her Playful Participatory Research study group. Here’s an example from the notes she shared with the study group:
A group of children was doing this puzzle [which showed a family—two mothers and two children—having a picnic] . . . when Per overheard them saying, “Yes, this is the one with the two girl Mummys.” Per came straight over and said, “No, that's a boy and a girl . . . two girls can't be married.” Talya then said, “Yes they can.” Per left visibly disturbed by this notion. I recorded his conversation with the boys soon after . . . “It can only happen when they are little, right. . .?!”
Along with collecting and interpreting her own documentation, Gayle also read other research on gender stereotypes and young children, such as Ramsey’s (2006) and Gallas’ (1998) work. Gayle came to realize that in many situations, when she stepped back to listen and observe, children were often speaking up to counteract stereotypes. This finding surprised her. She realized that while she needed to be ready to offer a counter-story or to ask a question, it was valuable to pause and first let the children respond to each other, then consider next steps, such as a follow-up conversation with Per later on. When Gayle shared these findings with her colleagues, teachers working with children across grade levels were interested to learn what her teacher research had revealed. They realized that Gayle’s research had implications for their own teaching and the ways in which they were attending to and responding to children’s conversations about gender roles.
Uniting early childhood educators across contexts
A third example of teacher research as a tool for working toward equity brings us back to the Northeast US. I am engaged with my colleague Stephanie Cox Suárez in a new project to convene and facilitate a network of early childhood coaches and teachers across a range of early education contexts (e.g., public pre-K, Head Start, community-based and private programs, and family child care). We convene and facilitate cross-context teacher research study groups grounded in child-centered learning and driven by pedagogical documentation. The goal of this work is to establish a space where new teacher researchers can learn the tools of this practice, while those already engaging in teacher research have opportunities to reach beyond their own contexts to collaborate with colleagues in very different settings.
Teacher research is a tool that could enable more educators to have their voices heard as experts, speaking out with confidence grounded in vivid and valuable documentation from their own classrooms.
We believe that in time, a network like this will address some ongoing equity issues in early childhood education related to quality of and access to professional development. We are also committed to elevating professionalism by providing a platform to support early education teacher researchers from a wide range of contexts. Teacher research should be conducted in all settings, not just privileged and well-resourced schools. Further, teacher researchers from all settings should be visible to each other and to the wider field. Too many of the existing voices prominent in the teacher research literature are White; we see this network as a potential way to shift that trend.
As the network develops, it will be a dynamic platform to interrogate issues of equity in early education settings. We envision an online platform for sharing teacher research processes and findings from this work as well as an annual convening to share our research. Given that this work is in its infancy, we hope that others who are inspired to collaborate will reach out to us.
Advancing equity through teacher research
These examples capture some ways that teacher research can and should be a tool for practitioners to explore and confront issues of equity. If you feel inspired, give teacher research a try. How? If you are an early childhood teacher, consider reading some examples of teacher research or a book on how to get started (see, for example, Allen & Blythe 2004; Perry, Henderson, & Meier 2012; Krechevsky et al. 2013), then get together with some colleagues to choose a question to explore, like Laura and Gayle did in the previous examples. Document in your classroom, discuss with your colleagues, and share what you find beyond your classroom by discussing it at a staff meeting, presenting at a conference, or writing an article for Voices of Practitioners. If you are a school leader, consider setting up a structure of study groups for educators at your school to engage in teacher research together. For examples to guide school leaders, see Baker and Ryan (forthcoming) or Mardell et al. (2009).
As noted earlier, and as you may have seen in the examples from this article, far too many of the voices in early childhood teacher research are White voices (I, for example, identify as a White, bilingual, cisgender woman). This doesn’t need to be the case. One strength of the early childhood education field is the cultural and linguistic diversity of our teachers. Teacher research is a tool that could enable more educators to have their voices heard as experts, speaking out with confidence grounded in vivid and valuable documentation from their own classrooms. Let’s use this tool as we continue to work towards equity for children, their families, and for our profession.
Abo-Zena, M. M., & B. Mardell. 2015. “When the Children Asked to Study God, What Did the Parents Say: Building Family Engagement Around Sensitive Topics.” Religion & Education 42 (3): 289–307.
Allen, D., & T. Blythe. 2004. The Facilitator’s Book of Questions: Tools for Looking Together at Student and Teacher Work. New York: Teachers College Press; Oxford, OH: National Staff Development Council.
Baker, M., M. Krechevsky, K. Ertel, J. Ryan, D. Wilson, & B. Mardell. 2016. Playful Participatory Research: An Emerging Methodology for Developing a Pedagogy of Play. Cambridge, MA: Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education. www.pz.harvard.edu/resources/playful-participatory-research-an-emerging-....
Baker, M., & G. Salas Davila. 2018. “Inquiry Is Play: Playful Participatory Research.” Young Children 73 (5): 64–71.
Baker, M., & J. Ryan. (under review). “Understanding Teachers’ Experiences with Playful Participatory Research.” International Journal of Play.
Ballenger, C. 1999. Teaching Other People’s Children: Literacy and Learning in a Bilingual Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.
Bentley, D., & A. Reppucci. 2013. “'I Think They All Felt Distressed!' Talking About Complex Issues in Early Childhood.” Childhood Education 89 (1): 9–14.
Cochran-Smith, M., & S.L. Lytle. 1999. “Relationships of Knowledge and Practice: Teacher Learning in Communities.” Review of Research in Education 24 (1): 249–305.
Gallas, K. 1998. “Sometimes I Can Be Anything”: Power, Gender, and Identity in a Primary Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.
Krechevsky, M., B. Mardell, M. Rivard, & D.G. Wilson. 2013. Visible Learners: Promoting Reggio-Inspired Approaches in All Schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Mardell, B., D. LeeKeenan, H. Given, D. Robinson, B. Merino, & Y. Liu-Constant. 2009. “Zooms: Promoting School-Wide Inquiry and Improving Practice.” Voices of Practitioners, 4 (1): 1–15.
Paley, V. G. 1984. Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Paley, V. G. 1990. The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Paley, V. G. 1997. The Girl with the Brown Crayon. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Paley, V. G. 2000. White Teacher. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Perry, G., B. Henderson, & D.R. Meier (eds.). 2012. Our Inquiry, Our Practice: Undertaking, Supporting, and Learning from Early Childhood Teacher Research(ers). Washington, DC: NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children).
Ramsey, P. 2006. "Influences of Race, Culture, Social Class, and Gender: Diversity and Play." In Play From Birth to Twelve: Contexts, Perspectives, and Meanings, 2nd ed., eds. D. P. Fromberg & D. Bergen, 271–81. New York: Routledge.
Templeton, T. N. 2013. “Young Children as Forces of Nature: Critical Perspective in a Preschool Classroom.” Childhood Education, 89 (3): 185–87.
Megina Baker, PhD, is a lecturer in the early childhood program at Boston University and is a research fellow on the Pedagogy of Play project at Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has been an early childhood educator in the US and in Sweden. firstname.lastname@example.org