Self-study Teacher Research as a Tool for Teacher’s Professional Development
What is self-study teacher research?
Self-study teacher research is a form of practitioner research. It is about systematically studying one’s own practice in order to make it better. It is an “intentional and systematic inquiry into one’s own practice. Included in this definition is inquiry conducted by individual teacher educators as well as by groups working collaboratively to understand problems of practice more deeply” (Dinkleman, 2003: 16).
Self-study formally came into research practice when a group of scholars, known as “the Arizona Group,” met to discuss common difficulties experienced by new faculty members (Loughran, 2004). “The birth of the self-study in teacher education movementaround 1990 has been probably the single most significant development ever in the field of teacher education research”, says Zeichner (Zeichner, 1999: 8). However, this methodology has not taken a complete shape yet since it is in the process of emerging. “Despite the development, refinement and clarification that has occurred…it is clear that the “one true way, the template for a self-study method, has not emerged” (Loughran, 2004a, p. 17, cited in Cindy, Sally & Clare 2009 p. 11). Rather, self-study tends to be methodologically framed through thequestion/issue/concern under consideration so that it invokes the use of a method(s) that is most appropriate for uncovering the evidence in accord with the purpose/intent of the study.
As self-study researchers, what we study is not just about understanding what we do it, but also about how we can improve it. It promotes an inquiry within one’s own teaching context that requires critical and collaborative reflectionin order to generate knowledge. According to Hamilton and Pinnegar (1998b, cited in Pinnegar& Hamilton, 2009), self study is “the study of one’s self, one’s actions, one’s ideas, as well as the ‘not self’. It is autobiographical, historical, cultural and political”.
Features of self-study
Is the self-study researcher a narcissist? What is the use of personal inquiry in the wider context? Various misconceptions like the above seem to have discouraged the self-study researchers. However, self-study is not a narcissist’s project. Instead, self-study has some characteristic features that have made it an unbiased and open research, applicable to the wider context. In this regard, Samaras (2013) has mentioned that self-study includes the following components:
- a) personal situated inquiry,
(b) critical collaborative inquiry,
(c) improved learning,
(d) transparent research process, and
(e) knowledge generation and presentation.
Self-study draws on personal experience of the teacher in the classroom. Teachers generate their own questions arising from the problems or the gaps they have faced in their classroom teaching. This gap – between what they are and what they want to be – is the space for conducting self-study.
One of the main features of self-study research is that it requires “collaboration” with colleagues, or the use of others as “critical friends,” so as to make the research trustworthy and valid
(Mishler, 1990; Schuck& Russell, 2005). Critical friends raise questions at the gap and provide the researcher with alternative perspectives. It is that perspective which creates a prism effect in the research and makes it like a “crystal” (Richardson, 2000, cited in Samaras, 2013).
Self-study research helps teachers reflect on their teaching practice, find “living contradiction” (Whitehead, 2008) in their practice and make attempts to minimize the contradictions. In this sense, self-study gives much focus on reflection; as Matteson, et al. (2011) rightly put, “Self-study’s emphasis on both reflection and application of reflection to practice is a central tenet.”
It is not that easy to study one’s own practice. Human beings hardly wish to make their weaknesses public, and self-study digs out one’s weaknesses, which, nevertheless, one wants to correct. Therefore, self-study needs open-mindedness, wholeheartedness and responsibility on the part of the teacher researcher.
After the research is complete, the self-study researcher presents his/her reports drawn from the systematic analysis of data. Data are collected through interviews, field notes, videotaping, observations, critical commentaries, and reflective journals to the wider community.
Self-Study for Professional Development
In Nepal, self-study has not received much attention. If the teachers want “to become the author of their actions” (Hargreaves and Fullan 1992:147, cited in Gnawali, 2001) they need to learn to develop themselves, by themselves. Professional development programs do not have any component to encourage teachers to improve their practice through their own efforts. As part of professional development, the National Center for Educational Development brings in a variety of training courses. However, the self-development component is the missing agenda of the center. “The conclusion we can draw is that there is no tendency of self-development through research and collaboration with colleagues” (Gnawali, 2001). Self-study, which draws on reflection and collaboration, is also the missing part in the professional development courses in the country. The concerned authorities must realize “there is an urgent need of some program that guides working teachers to improve their practices through investigation on the job” (Gnawali, 2001: 25).
Professional development refers to all the activities undertaken, from the stage of induction to retirement, so as to develop knowledge and skills related to the profession one is involved in. “Professional development can be defined as a career-long process in which educators fine-tune their teaching to meet student needs” (Maggioli, 2004: 5). Teachers have to fine-tune their classroom teaching through a number of ways. Professional development includes collaborative decision-making and inquiry-based ideas, among others (Maggioli, 2004: 6).
For Clark (1992:77), teacher development is a sort of “self-directed professional development”. Here, Clark means that the professional development plans so far generally are imposed from outsiders. The one who is to develop does not seem very concerned about his/her own professional growth. Unless the practitioner takes the initiative, professional development plans will be back to square one. Clark postulates three arguments to support his claim:
- Adult development is voluntary – no one can force a person to learn and grow.
- Each teacher is unique in important ways. It is impossible to create a single centrally administered and planned program of professional development that would meet everyone’s needs and desires.
- That (self-direction) is the way the best teachers already operate. (Clark 1992:77, cited in Gnawali, 2001: 28-29)
Teachers should be accountable for their students’ learning. It is their major responsibility. Self-study involves a self-reflective stance, both for self-responsibility and responsibility to others. It brings to the fore that change demanded by others is less effective than change that is self-initiated and self-motivated.
Professional development demands inquisitiveness on the part of the teachers. When teachers cease to be inquisitive about their practice, their practice ceases to be professional. Inquiry distinguishes professional practice from labor or technical work. Through self-study, teachers work to understand and improve their work as professionals, impact students’ learning, inform education and school programs, influence policy decisions, and reform education.
Thus, self-study research develops the teacher as autonomous practitioners who can independently make decisions, learn from their own actions, and solve problems which are unique to their situation (Richards and Nunan 1990:2, cited in Gnawali, 2001: 36). The improvement-oriented nature of self-study helps teachers improve their practice, thereby widening the scope of professional development.“When teacher educators adopt self-study as an integral part of their own professional practice, the terrain of teacher preparation shifts” (Dinkleman, 2003: 60). With self-study coming into the professional development arena, teachers will stop looking outside for their growth. Rather, they will start looking into their classrooms:their teaching, their problems, and their own success stories. Consequently, self-study promotes contextual professional development.
Professional development is not an overnight change. It is a continuous process. When teachers engage in self-study research for their professional development, its takes months, or years sometimes. Matteson et al.(2011) admit:
A second important characteristic of self-study is that it is conducted methodically, over time. It takes a certain amount of time to recognize one’s own biases, to move beyond initial self-assessments of one’s teaching to see a situation more clearly. It takes time to cultivate the humility to admit flaws in one’s own approaches and to view students with more compassion and less judgment (p. 60).
Self-study, additionally, gives priority to reflection. The teacher willing to engage in self-study has to be ready to reflect on his/her own teaching practice, trying to find living contradictions. One unwilling to highlight the taken-for-granted things can never develop professionally through reflection: “…reflective analysis of one’s own teaching develops a greater understanding of the dynamics of classroom practice and leads to curriculum change and that enhances learning outcomes for students” (Burns, 1999: 12).Researching one’s own classrooms and teaching contexts is something whichcan be considered as a realistic extension of professional practice.
Self-study research is a new methodology emerging in the field of research. It tries to put “self” in the wider context, and is based on the belief that we can change the world by changing the self. However, the one engaged in self-study research is not a narcissist, because self-study is a systematic study of one’s own practice, often with the help of a critical friend, for improvement. The curves of both self-study and teacher professional development meet at the nexus point of improvement, since both of them are improvement-oriented.Unless self-study is employed, professional development remains only a phrase. It is said that“you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Self-study motivates one to drink deeply of the waters of self perfection.
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(*Chiranjivi Baral is in his final semester for his MPhil in English Language Education (ELE) course at KU. Currently, he is the Head of English Department at Little Angels’ College and also a visiting faculty at Kathmandu University. Previously, he served as sub-editor for The Himalayan Times, an English daily newspaper. His areas of interest include: Teachers’ professional development, language policy & management, research methodology, and global Englishes.)