Whenever we read, “research says . . . ,” we assume that what follows is synonymous with good instruction, assessment, or practice. However, given the differences among communities, schools, classrooms, and teachers, that same phrase can be used to turn those differences into deficits. For example, counting the number of words spoken to young children by their caregivers turned into the concept of “the word gap” (Hart & Risely, 1995). But now the word gap is used to blame young children growing up in poverty for entering school already behind their middle- and upper-class peers. The notion of grit, the personality characteristic that claims to help students tough out difficulty, is another example of research turning differences into deficit. Growth mindsets research from which grit comes is robust work (Dweck, 2007). But now children of color and children growing up in poverty who have difficulty in school are blamed for not having enough grit to succeed.
Teachers in classrooms often object when research labels their students or their teaching or when claims that “research says . . . ” actual lack any evidence of that research. So when a researcher comes knocking, we can understand that teachers might hesitate to answer the door. Yet answering can be valuable. Actively choosing who walks into your classroom to do research brings you into the conversation about research-based instruction. This can be good for your teaching by empowering you to reflect on and improve your practice (David & Zoch, 2015).
A tale of two researchers
We’d like to demystify the formal research process for educators. Ann is a former high school English language arts teacher who is now an assistant professor of education teaching preservice middle and high school teachers; Melody is a former bilingual Spanish/English elementary teacher who now teaches literacy education courses at the university level. We frame our discussion of research participation with stories — both positive and negative — of two teachers’ experiences. Our work with the teachers began as two separate ethnographic studies of their teaching practices, so we spent a lot of time in their classrooms and interviewed them multiple times. Both teachers saw participation as advocating for good teaching and contributing to the larger community of researchers. They also found it valuable for reflecting on their practice (Schön, 1987).
Ann’s work with Annabeth
I — Ann — conducted research in Annabeth’s 8th-grade English language arts classroom over four years. Annabeth and I met in graduate school, became friends, and then developed a researcher-participant relationship. During those years, I studied how Annabeth planned for digital writing assignments, how she sustained writing instruction across interruptions for testing, and how she used reading/writing workshop. I was in her classroom once a week or more and met with her often outside of class. We talked through her teaching and planning and how she navigated the various instructional mandates and her own beliefs about literacy instruction.
When asked about her research participation, Annabeth said she saw the value in opening her classroom to a researcher, although she found it challenging to do so. She also recognized how important it was for the teacher to make this decision herself:
I want to encourage open doors since in our past, they’ve always been closed: “Close your door, and do what you want.” I want open doors more. I’m struggling with it, and it’s hard. I’m not really good at it, but I do want us, our profession, to be more open.
Annabeth saw opening the door as valuable because of our strong, trusting researcher-participant relationship. She noted, “I always felt confident in your opinion, in your insight, in your ways of seeing things.” Further, she acknowledged the instructional challenges she faced: “I know I don’t always enact [workshop] like I wish I could.” Her response was both thoughtful and vulnerable and demonstrated a level of trust in the research I was doing.
In reflecting on my research in her classroom, Annabeth said, “it was good to have you there to. . . . point us in the direction of resources . . . and what we might envision with our students.” During those four years, my presence facilitated her reflection on her practice, which helped her navigate the varying demands on her time, instruction, and student expectations.
This trust, however, was not something Annabeth could always count on. With other research experiences, Annabeth said “all these [researchers] with their other philosophies” were in her room at the invitation of the district administration. The researchers tended to position Annabeth as unknowing, needing to be taught a particular instructional strategy “because you’re not doing it well.” Annabeth recognized, too, that the kind of lessons they wanted her to teach weren’t working with her students. The lessons were based on a scripted reading program that used standardized reading strategies and questioning techniques. So Annabeth resisted the research: “It’s like I’m trying not to get the researcher what she wants because I don’t believe in what she wants.” Annabeth did want me to “get what I wanted” because she trusted me and my work.
Melody’s work with Eva
Eva, a 4th-grade bilingual teacher, had a trusting personal and professional relationship with Melody, having taught at the same school for several years. She described her decision to open her door to me in the following way: “It goes back to the fact that I knew you, we share the same vision, and your vision celebrates. Your vision isn’t like deficit thinking.”
I spent about six weeks in Eva’s classroom to observe her literacy teaching and interview her. I was interested in learning how Eva taught writing and how this reflected her personal beliefs and identity as a teacher. Eva understood the objectives and goals of this research.
But, like Annabeth, Eva also felt judged when participating in a research study in which researchers observed her and administered reading assessments to her students. Eva felt coerced into this research. “The research was weird for me because they never told us the objective, purpose, or goal. I had no idea what they were looking for.” She contrasted her two experiences: “I knew the purpose of your visits, but I’m not sure what the other researcher wanted or what her purpose was.” Clearly, Eva wasn’t well-informed about the study or about whether she had any voice in choosing to participate or not.
Despite Eva’s negative experiences, she still believed that research was valuable, and she felt empowered to share her story. She said my research from her classroom on writing pedagogy, teacher beliefs, and identity “should be sent to superintendents. Too many teachers fear change, so go to those who can more quickly bring about change.” She supported the purpose of this research and chose to make her practice visible to a larger audience because she understood the importance of how that might improve practice on a broader scale.
Before you say yes
If you’re considering participating in a research project, be sure that you understand your rights as well as those of students, the kinds of data a researcher might collect, and your role in the collection of those data.
As a result of blatant breaches of ethics in the conducting of research (for example, the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study), the U.S. government enacted laws protecting research participants (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2009). These laws are based on three principles: respect for persons, beneficence (having the welfare of the research participant as a goal), and justice.
The federal government and individual universities have enacted mechanisms to ensure that researchers follow these principles. Each university has an Institutional Review Board to ensure that any research on humans by faculty, staff, or students is ethical and will not abuse or harm participants. All researchers are required to obtain approval from their board before proceeding with their research. Part of this process requires informed consent from participants, which means research participants sign consent forms to provide their consent and indicate they understand that their participation is voluntary and that they can withdraw at any time. This consent form also should outline any risks and benefits participation holds for the participant. Also, participants know what the process will entail — what researchers will be looking at and what they’ll ask participants to do — well enough to make an informed decision about whether they wish to participate. Informed consent is communicated and collected by means of a letter that explains the study and includes contact information for the primary researcher (often listed as “principal investigator”) as well as for the Institutional Review Board. Participants sign the letter to provide their consent.
But informed consent isn’t limited to information in the consent letter. As a participant, you can ask questions of the researcher until you feel you’re fully informed. You’re within your rights to ask about any data that are collected or the time needed to collect those data. Other questions might include, Who else is participating? Are there other participants in your school, grade level, or district? What are researchers looking at or for? You should also feel free to ask researchers about their background or other research they have conducted. Understanding a research study well enough to give informed consent is difficult for most participants; conversations with researchers will most likely help you understand what will happen and why (Flory & Emanuel, 2004).
Remember, too, that your participation is voluntary. No one can make you participate, not even a principal or district official. The “voluntary” part of consent is as important as the “informed” part. In fact, the letter of consent should directly state that you don’t have to participate and that you may withdraw at any time. You should not feel coerced, fearful that you might not get a good evaluation, be punished in some way for not participating, or receive some other negative consequence. Further, the voluntary nature of research participation means you can refuse to allow a researcher into your classroom, even if they have the school district’s permission.
Neither Annabeth nor Eva knew their participation was voluntary in the other research studies. Both signed consent forms but did not believe that saying no was an option. Both felt coerced by their district to participate and sign the consent form. There was no suggestion that their consent might actually be voluntary rather than mandatory.
Despite feeling uncomfortable with the other research studies, Annabeth and Eva participated. However, had they understood their rights, they may have declined to participate or requested more information about the research studies. If you are asked to participate in a research study and you do not think you have enough information about the study to make an informed decision, you can request to meet with a researcher. You can question them about the project, what data will be collected, how much time it will take, and the purpose of the research. If you are uncomfortable with the research for any reason, you can always decline to participate. You are not required to give a reason for doing so.
In addition to university Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), school districts often have a process for research approval, with varying levels of formality. University-based boards require evidence that some representative of the district or school has given permission for the research to take place. Anytime a researcher wants to come into your classroom, you should ensure that the researcher has gone through the appropriate channels ahead of time, including obtaining Institutional Review Board consent as well as permission from your district or administration.
Your students’ rights
When researchers want to study your students, you may be asked to explain the study to parents or distribute and collect consent forms. If the children are minors, their parents need to sign a consent form; some students also may be asked to sign an assent form to participate. If you don’t feel comfortable with this role, you can decline it. During the research, you also may be asked to supply student work samples, allow researchers in the room to observe students, or permit researchers to question students during class.
Just as you can decline to participate in research, students and their parents also can decline. In fact, some probably won’t agree to participate, which may require accommodations for data collection. For example, you may have to reorganize your room so that only students who consented to participate are captured on the researcher’s video. Similarly, work from students who have not consented should not be included in the data the researcher collects, unless that work has been completely anonymized. Although the effects of research participation on students are not well studied, it’s possible that, like Annabeth and Eva, students can either be empowered or wary. Your efforts to understand the research process affect your entire classroom culture and climate.
A word about data
Two important concepts that IRBs apply to data include privacy and confidentiality. Privacy means participants can control when a researcher collects data. So, even if you agreed to participate in the research but do not want to be interviewed after a long day at school, participants can say no and reschedule. Confidentiality means the researcher promises to keep the data secure, limiting access to it and protecting the identities of the participants. To ensure confidentiality when sharing research at conferences or in articles, researchers use pseudonyms for participants, schools, and communities, unless participants ask to be identified.
There are risks when participating in educational research. One risk could be the stress associated with being studied. Another risk of research participation is a colleague, parent, or administrator identifying you in an article or conference presentation, despite the use of a pseudonym. You may not want others scrutinizing your practice or classroom. Or, if you criticize administrative decisions or district mandates, you may worry about retaliation. These reasons are why researchers are required to ensure the confidentiality of the data they collect and try as much as possible to protect your identity.
At the same time, participating in research has benefits. Annabeth and Eva believed participating in our research helped them reflect on and improve their practice. Other benefits can include monetary compensation, such as a gift card, or materials for your classroom. Lastly, participation in research enriches the conversation about teaching and learning, a benefit extending far beyond your classroom walls.
Ready to open your door?
Up until now, we’ve discussed how teachers might handle being approached to participate in a research study. But you may want to find a researcher to work with you in the event you consider research to be crucial or you feel you have something important to share.
Participating in professional organizations, such as the National Council of Teachers of English or the National Writing Project, is one way to network with researchers. You can also develop relationships with researchers at local universities. Perhaps the easiest way to meet faculty is by enrolling in classes at the university. You also can check for other opportunities at the university, like speaker series or professional development workshops. Finally, if your local university has a teacher certification program, you can always offer to open your door to a preservice teacher. University faculty will often visit classrooms to observe preservice teachers, so hosting such a teacher is an opportunity to meet and get to know faculty.
You also can reach out to faculty on your own. The university’s school of education web site will have background information for professors, including courses taught, areas of research, and publications. Look for someone whose interests align with or complement your own. You can often download the syllabus for the courses the professor teaches or find articles the professor has published. When you find someone whom you think would be a good fit, email them, introduce yourself, and explain your interests. Being invited to develop a relationship with a local teacher is usually a valuable connection for faculty. Finally, you could reach out to a doctoral student who is developing his or her dissertation study. Sometimes contacting a faculty member can lead to this kind of connection.
More empowered, less intimidated
We hope this information will make teachers feel more comfortable about opening their doors to researchers. At the same time, we hope to support teachers in resisting research that focuses on deficit views of teachers, students, and schools.
Research offers teachers opportunities to reflect on their practice, as in the case of Annabeth; it also gives teachers a say in how that research should be shared, as in the case of Eva. By inviting researchers to study teaching practices that work in local contexts, teachers can change the “research says” conversation into one that honors teachers and students — and the teaching and learning they do together.
David, A.D. & Zoch, M. (2015). Understanding teachers’ perspectives on being researched: A case study of two writing teachers. Teaching/Writing: The Journal of Writing Teacher Education, 4 (2), 161-181.
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of growth. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Flory, J. & Emanuel, E. (2004). Interventions to improve research participants’ understanding in informed consent for research: A systematic review. Journal of the American Medical Association, 292 (13), 1593-1601.
Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.
Schön, D. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2009). Part 46: Protection of human subjects. www.hhs.gov/ohrp/regulations-and-policy/regulations/45-cfr-46
Originally published in November 2016 Phi Delta Kappan 98 (3), 28-33. © 2016 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.