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Inquiry Project: Using Teacher Practitioner Research to Promote Multicultural Educational Values and Practices

HannahB's picture

Hannah Bahn
Multicultural Education
Inquiry Project


Research and Practice: How Teacher Practitioner Research can promote Culturally-Relevant Teaching


I am eager to engage in teacher practitioner research in my future classroom because the practice beautifully fuses my interests in applied education research and teaching. For many years, my entry-point into the field of education has been through academic, ethnographic research and then, later, applied education research. I love collecting peoples’ stories, expressed in a variety of mediums, and synthesizing them. For a long time, I thought I wanted to do this outside of the classroom.

But this past fall, when I was enrolled in the “Curriculum and Pedagogy Seminar” and a “Sociology of Education” course, I began to develop a newfound understanding of and appreciation for where and how educational change is created and sustained. As I read about top-down reforms that adjusted class size or the number of hours in the school day, I began to realize that these tweaks to the system matter little if they do not fundamentally inform classroom practice. This realization in conjunction with my growing knowledge of curriculum design and pedagogical practices prompted my newfound interest in becoming a teacher.

I have grown to appreciate the value of creating change from the ground-up. Taking these two, mutually-informing classes at the same time showed me that teaching not only has the potential to be super impactful but can also provide me with the same intellectual stimulation and challenge as research. Both teaching and research are complex, ever-changing, and, thus, so incredibly compelling. Both teaching and research require making sense of stories and people. It is this human-centered exploration that excites and inspires me. 

            This semester, in the “Education Fieldwork Seminar” and “Multicultural Education,” I made a further discovery: teaching and research do not have to be distinct, mutually-exclusive practices. I am excited about the possibility of using my passion for and experience with qualitative research to inform my teaching. So, I chose to further explore teacher practitioner research for my Inquiry Project. In particular, I am interested in what forms inquiry-based, teacher practitioner research can take and how these different forms might aid me in my quest to be a culturally-responsive, student-centered teacher.

The Foundations of Teacher Practitioner Research: “Puzzling Moments”

Teacher practitioner research can stem from a diverse set of starting points and will likely take a variety of forms. But many teacher researchers who have written about the practice cite a similar foundational point of inquiry: what Ballenger calls “puzzling moments.” Ballenger (2009) recommends that teachers regard children who are not doing well academically as “puzzling children.” She writes that “instead of quickly categorizing such children and their ideas as needing help, we must stay with an attitude of puzzlement and inquiry” (p. 2). This mindset and the ensuing model are founded in the core belief that children are always making sense, even if we do not immediately understand how or why (p. 5). It is from and within this framework that teachers will truly be able to engage meaningfully and openly with students and their own classroom practices. I do not think teacher practitioner research will work if it is not founded in a deep trust and curiosity in students.  

Many other authors also discuss the roots of teacher practitioner research and research questions in “troubling/puzzling” terms. Fecho (2004), for example, encourages teachers to “embrace the dissonance.” He writes that teachers need to look “closely and systematically at what in their classrooms seemed out of synch, grounded in struggle, or counter to expectations” (p. 28); and Ballenger similarly reflects that teacher research questions are not like the ones you encounter in graduate school or that originate in theory. Rather, she explains: “they were what I thought of as irritating or troublesome or funny—this was actually worthy of study, indeed in many cases these events were things we should feel compelled to study” (p. 5). Words like “dissonance” or “irritating” or “troublesome” have, at face value, a negative connotation. But I think what these authors are getting at is this notion of “puzzling.” What moments, students, comments, trends, etc. persist in your mind? What can you not make sense of and thus not shake? I think teachers are (or at least ought to be) naturally curious people—thus, I am confident that others and I will be consistently struck by these “puzzling moments” which can form the basis for our research.

A Variety of Questions, a Variety of Forms

            Because teacher practitioner research (at least the kind I want to conduct) blossoms out of these “puzzling moments,” the questions one asks and the conversations one has will vary greatly, as every student, teacher, classroom, and school differ. Thus, the ways one goes about exploring these questions can also vary. This is one of my favorite parts about teacher practitioner research—the potential for diversity!

            Bellinger, for example, conceives of teacher practitioner research in fairly traditional (or at least as traditional as teacher research can be) terms. She records her elementary school classroom, takes field notes both during and after class, and treats these sources as data to be re-visited, analyzed and explored. McEntee and Fecho, while using similar practices, also offer up many other forms—such as having peer teachers observe each other’s classrooms, or collaborating with parents to co-create ideas, standards, and values. In other words, one can due fairly traditional ethnographic research, where one collects concrete, transcribable data and synthesizes it; or research methodologies can be founded in conversations with other stakeholders, observers, and participants.

            But, at least in the readings I did, one necessity of teacher practitioner research remained consistent: having structured, yet open, spaces for reflection. Certainly many teachers think critically about their practice or puzzle over a specific moment in class but what seems to set teacher practitioner researchers apart from other teachers is that they more consistently and intentionally talk to each other about it. These teachers do not work as teachers in isolation. Rather, they present and work through their puzzling moments with others. They tap into and appreciate the insights of their peer teachers, students,  families, and communities. Their research is intentional.

Within these facilitated conversations, which are structured in the sense that they have a clear purpose, the process not the product is emphasized. In other words, the “clear purpose” is to engage in exploration and generate inquiries and potentialities from the conversations. As Fecho (2004) explains, teacher researcher conversations are not necessarily towards a certain end, nor should they be:

Other dialogues among ourselves occurred simultaneously with the interior dialogues, and often transacted with those discussions. The difficultly in recounting this process is that its linear progression is obscured by the simultaneous, transactional, and recursive nature of discussions. There is no tidy formula that is followed. We go into a meaning-making mode that includes past, current, and future discussions. We don’t perceive problems, go to the literature, collect the data, analyze them, and implement new practice. It is more muddy than that and thankfully so, for I think the complexity forces caution and attention.” (p. 29)

I love this idea of teacher practitioner research being “muddy.” I tend to be a fairly straightforward, linear person but I have come to appreciate that teaching is messy in the best way possible. Human beings are complex. If “puzzling moments” had clear, obvious answers, they would not be puzzling. What this quote from Fecho highlights is that teacher practitioner research is a process not a destination. The purpose is not to find answers but, rather, to continuously explore your students and your teaching practice in relation to each other.

Teacher Practitioner Research on my Terms

            In thinking about all of these books, I have begun to think critically about what teacher practitioner research means for me, personally. Next year I will be a 10th grade Modern World History teaching fellow at an independent school in California. For a long time, I was resistant to fellowship opportunities, such as this, because I thought I wanted a full-time job. But, as I began to think more openly about the value of these positions, I came to appreciate that many of them incorporate structured spaces for reflection: spaces for me to begin my career as not only a teacher but a teacher researcher.

At the independent school that I will be at next year, I will teach two of my own classes, team teach one class, and, rather than teaching a fourth class, I will be a student in a class with other fellows. This “fellow’s class” is a structured space within which I can reflect with my mentor on their observations of my teaching, review lesson plans, and more. I like this model for many reasons: 1) The lightened course load will provide me with more space/time to be reflective about my teaching; 2) Working with a mentor teacher who both team teaches with me and observes me will provide me with outsider/insider feedback that can inform my teaching and teacher research; and 3) This fellowship creates facilitated, group reflection spaces; I will not be teacher researching in isolation. As I have already said, I recognize that it can be challenging to fit concentrated reflection time into your day. I am excited that this format will prompt me to be thoughtful and to treat my classroom as a space for inquiry. There is space to be a researcher.

Furthermore, at the school I will be teaching at, teachers work in grade-level teams. All of the 10th grade teachers, across subject areas, have their desks in a work room together and the grade teams get together twice a week to discuss teaching and learning as well as specific students. I am excited that these spaces exist as I hope they will prompt me to engage more actively with my own teaching and will also open up opportunities for me to learn from my peer teachers.

But even without these structured spaces, and particularly if I work at schools that do not have these spaces, I still plan to seek out ways to do teacher research by finding mentor teachers to do peer observations with, or creating a TLI-type program at a school so that I can learn from and collaborate with students as peers. I am also extremely compelled by some of the work done in the McEntee book. I loved the chapter about the educators who invited parents to the school to co-create understandings/definitions/standards of “quality” writing. I also liked the “Watching Students Work” chapter. I am excited about expanding notions of teacher practitioner research to these types of spaces, so that I can push the bounds of my teaching and who I strive to learn from.   

Teacher Practitioner Research & Multicultural Education

            I have also been thinking a lot about how teacher practitioner research relates to multicultural education specifically. I think one of the biggest benefits of teacher practitioner, inquiry based research, as I have mentioned, is that “reflective practitioners combat passivity, constantly attempting to use their minds and to engage students in the same difficult activity, to dive deeper into their teaching practice and its effects, rather than drifting on the surface of practice” (McEntee et. al, 2003, p. xiv). I think, with whatever student populations I work with, I need to be constantly vigilant, thoughtful, and reflective, not just about content but about students and their relation to curriculum and me. For a long time, I was nervous about teaching because I worried that my own cultural positioning would be too different from my students. I see teacher practitioner research as grounding me in these differences and challenging me to deeply engage with them.

            Recently, I have been thinking a lot about what teacher research and “puzzling moments,” specifically, might look like in various settings. In particular, I anticipate that the “puzzling moments” at the independent school I will be working at next year, which has a primarily white, middle to upper middle class student population, will differ greatly from the puzzling moments I might identify in a classroom of primarily low-income students and/or students of color. These differing puzzling moments have to do with both my students’ and my cultural positionings. 

If I, someday, teach students with cultural backgrounds that differ from my own, I anticipate that the “puzzling moments” will be obvious cultural gaps—places where we are not meeting. I might not understand what a student is trying to say or I may misunderstand why students are turned off by a topic or, in contrast, particularly engaged with a topic. I may read into a students’ statement more than I should or disregard something I should not. My hope is that treating these moments as researchable moments to be further explored can help me understand my own gaps in knowledge and where I need to learn and ask more questions about my students. I also think that, in these settings, drawing on peer teachers will be particularly important. Specifically, I think it will be valuable to identify puzzling moments to work through these with a teacher who shares more cultural similarities with our students—someone who can help me understand where I need to improve and explore further.

In contrast, my job next year, in some sense, feels less intimidating because I feel that I share more cultural similarities with my students. On the one hand, this is a good thing, as there might be less obvious gaps in understanding between student and teacher. But assuming that no “puzzling moments” will exist is far more dangerous. This mentality is the passivity I am trying to avoid. The similarities that will exist between my students and myself do not mean that “puzzling moments” will not exist. Rather, the puzzling moments just may be harder to identify and harder to solve. I need to not take for granted my similarities with my students. I hope to use teacher research to help me continuously and authentically engage with my students. I want to continuously strive to teach in a way that matches my students’ needs.


            In conclusion, I see teacher practitioner research as fusing my interests in teaching and research. But, perhaps more importantly, I see the practice and process as grounding me in my fears about teaching—my fears of if I will be good enough, if my own cultural background will hinder my ability to connect with students, etc. Rather than running from these questions, I hope to use teacher research to dig deeper into the muddiness and to really explore myself and my students. It is in this muddiness that all of the interesting and complex things exist. I hope to find them, learn from them, and become a good teacher because of them.



Works Cited

Ballenger, Cynthia. Puzzling Moments, Teachable Moments: Practicing Teacher Research in Urban Classrooms. New York: Teachers College, 2009. Print.

Fecho, Bob. "Is This English?": Race, Language, and Culture in the Classroom. New York: Teachers College, 2004. Print.

McEntee, Grace Hall. At the Heart of Teaching: A Guide to Reflective Practice. New York: Teachers College, 2003. Print.