ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Empowering Teachers to Be Researchers

Winter 2018

By Brent Kaneft

The body fuels the mind, or so I’ve been told. I don’t really think about why exercise makes me feel great. Experience has been my guide. Yes, I’ve learned how physical output increases endorphin production in the brain, and how those endorphins mask pain and help boost positive feelings, but I don’t dwell on the facts—I live this experience every morning when I go jogging. That’s my research. But is that enough?
This is how most of our research about teaching is done, too: by experience and trial by error (and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it). I don’t disagree, necessarily, with this approach, but this past summer, when my department decided to read Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education by Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher, I was awakened to and challenged by a new approach to the classroom, one steeped in Mind, Brain, and Educational (MBE) research. The book focuses on why certain practices are better for learning than others (such as low-stakes formative assessments), and why some practices (such as pop quizzes) don’t have as much to do with learning. Whitman and Kelleher’s research didn’t overhaul my methods in the classroom—I tweaked a few things, but much of what they discovered about best practices reinforced what I was already doing. However, being informed about why some pedagogical ideas, based on sound research, are better than others made me feel more professional, like I had ownership over my craft. The one section that proved foreboding, however, was Chapter 12, “Teachers Are Researchers.” Really? Can’t I just stay in my classroom and read books like Neuroteach and be fine? According to Whitman and Kelleher, I can’t. So, like I do with most things, I pushed forward, even though I wasn’t quite sure how this “Teacher as Researcher” role might look.

Changing Learning Approaches

Every Tuesday at 5:30 a.m., I play racquetball with Marcel Duhaime, an engineering teacher whose love for 3-D printers and robotics rivals my love for The New York Times Book Review. He’s a nut, but a good nut: A teacher who cares more about student learning, creativity, and pedagogy than his own subject expertise. When we need a break from beating each other on the court, we have plenty to discuss.
Last year I changed the way I assess student learning. For years, I had used a traditional grading model based on a 10-point scale. It wasn’t until I began teaching AP Language and Composition that I decided to try something that focused more on effort, process, improvement, and learning than on an end-all-be-all grade. I adopted a version of “mastery-based” learning, and Marcel and I have spent hours talking about this new approach.
In “mastery-based” learning, students must “master” competencies for the course. The majority of my competencies come straight from the College Board, but I have added emotional and social competencies that foster a classroom environment that is safe, encouraging, and positive. Each student must provide objective (outlines, drafts, essays, and such) and subjective (journal reflections, peer recommendations, teacher feedback) evidence that proves how well they’ve learned the course competencies.
Though most “mastery-based” classrooms don’t use grades, keeping the grade was a mandate for me to change to this new approach. At the end of the semester, students show a portfolio of their work and decide what grade they think they deserve based on a rubric. In my first year, students kept their work in a three-ring binder. Student notebooks overflowed, so in my second year, I decided to use a digital portfolio to help students stay organized.

Examining New Tools and Techniques

Two years ago, our school had formed a Digital Portfolio committee, but it was one of those groups that meant well but never got off the ground. Nobody had the time. We met once, as I recall, asked a few questions, shared a few ideas, and never met again.
One morning this past summer, when Marcel was beating me in racquetball, I decided to slow down the game by telling him about my idea to use digital portfolios as a tool to support my grading system. The work Marcel does with students would look great on a portfolio. It would be a way of displaying what his students can do. Plus, he noted, it would be perfect for college admissions. As I anticipated, Marcel was ready to try it with his classes. We decided to meet the next day to discuss details.
As we began our meeting, Marcel mentioned that our art director had been using digital portfolios in her classroom for two years. Come to think of it, I remembered she was the reason we started the committee. “We have to get her on board,” I said. She agreed to join us, and then the others came: a history teacher, a chemistry teacher, and an assistant director for college guidance. We became a group of researchers.

We needed to first define our purpose. Then we needed to figure out how the portfolio should be set up and if we should all use the same web builder. Then, we’d map out how we’d measure success and discuss how a digital portfolio improves student learning.
Student work could be shared with an authentic audience, and students could connect with subject area-specific web communities. They could also reflect on their work, through blogs or by adding more work to their portfolios, and magnify the work of which they’re most proud. They’d be able to engage in creative design.
We decided on some guidelines and opened a Google Doc as a way of journaling what’s working, what’s not, and what we’re hearing from students. We informed our academic dean about our committee. She has been instrumental in dispelling the idea that digital portfolios are “deal-breakers” for college admissions (at least, not yet). She’s also raised great questions about student privacy. From there, we scheduled two dates in the fall to discuss our progress. In the meantime, not only would we implement the digital portfolio in our classrooms, we would also collect as much information as possible about how other schools are using this tool and whether it’s proving effective.

The Benefits of Teacher Research

In Neuroteach, Whitman and Kelleher emphasize the importance of teachers as researchers. Research is what “professionals” do. They write:
Teachers doing research—or, if you prefer, reflective iterative practice—is the key principle [to the “transformative nature of the [research] process”]. Three elements elevate this: cohorts of research teachers in school to collaborate together, support each other, and help provide a corner of creative buzz; access to scheduled, regular opportunities to disseminate their findings to a wider audience to aid motivation; and access to a mentor, either in person, online, or both, to play the professor-to-a-grad-student role, aiding with both research process and content knowledge.

We are following the script: We have our group; we present our findings to each other; and we have a mentor, our academic dean. In this process, I realized that talking about doing research creates more fear than just doing it. Research doesn’t have to be published in a book. The “transformative nature” Whitman and Kelleher refer to is about how research changes the way you see your role as teacher. This small research project has improved my sense of mission, my morale, and my relationship with my colleagues.
Digital portfolios might increase student learning—particularly as a means of reflection, I’m finding—and each member of our group has either implemented this tool in the classroom or helped us research its benefits. What we discover from experience, student feedback, peer schools, and academic research will be collected and presented to our curriculum team in the spring. The work is invigorating, and it has not been a major addition to my workload. For one, Google Docs allows us to see how it’s going with the other members of the team without formally meeting.
Imagine how your school would benefit if it organized several small teams like ours to work on one aspect of teaching: technology, assessment, grading, or whatever it may be. Empowering teachers to research not only increases faculty morale, it builds the professionalism of your school culture. It says, “What we do matters.” Perhaps most importantly, research gets teachers out of their classrooms—their safe silos—and challenges them to question teaching methods they’ve long considered effective. We live in an educational environment where experience is no longer an acceptable answer to why you teach the way you do. And that can be scary, but schools that promote research as part of the job can alleviate that fear and replace it with confidence. But just talking about it hurts your culture more than it helps. Schools that care about how their teachers teach and how their students learn will create—not find—the time for research.
Brent Kaneft

Brent Kaneft ([email protected]) chairs the English Department at Christ School, an all-boys boarding school in Arden (North Carolina).