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Journal of Ethnographic & Qualitative Research

2012, Vol. 7, 64–79

ISSN: 1935-3308

EmpowEring Educators through tEachEr rEsEarch: promoting QualitativE inQuiry among K-12 Educators

E. Jason Clarke

Colorado State University

The desire to find pedagogically effective uses of technology in K-12 educa- tion has exposed the need for reliable professional development programs that empower teachers to identify the problems and needs they have in their classrooms, apply a process of systematic inquiry in order to discover solutions to those problems, and to share those findings with other teach- ers in their departments, schools, districts, and around the world. This qualitative study of 37 team leaders who each led groups of 4-6 educa- tors through a professional development program designed to promote teacher research-based qualitative inquiry at a large Colorado school dis- trict found that the program empowered educators, promoted the effective use of technology, helped motivate and engage students, and through each participant’s teacher research report, produced valuable qualitative data.

The twenty-first century has brought about dramatic changes in education. A new genera- tion of teachers and students enter our schools with different expectations and ideas regarding the use of technology. Kuttan and Peters (2003) argued that the changes in our society brought about by the advent of the internet are compa- rable to those brought about by the invention of the printing press in their scope and magni- tude. These dramatic and fundamental chang- es in our society demand equally fundamental changes in our education practices. Howland (2009) pointed out the importance of educators

E. Jason Clarke is a Doctoral Student in the School of Education at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. Correspondence concerning this article should be ad- dressed to eclarke@psdschools.org.

adapting their practice to address this societal shift and argued that the failure to use educa- tional technology in our schools due to nostal- gia and intransigence on the part of educators amounts to professional malpractice. Indeed, the use of technology is a defining characteris- tic of twenty-first century education (Goddard, 2002) and should be required of contemporary educators (McKenzie, 2002) if the United States is going to compete in the twenty-first century globalized economy (Friedman, 2007). Despite the overwhelming evidence of the need for technology in our classrooms, there are clear indications that educators are not using technology as often, or as effectively, as might be hoped. Lowther, Inan, Strahl, and Ross (2008) cited a study by the United States De- partment of Commerce showing that among 55 identified industry sectors in the United States, education is the least technology-intensive. If schools are supposed to prepare students for



work in twenty-first century industries, they clearly are far behind in adopting and using technology-centered practices in daily class- room instruction. Students moving from low- tech schools into high-tech industries are like- ly to have serious deficiencies in their skill sets when employers ask them to apply technology solutions. Goddard (2002) argued that discom- fort in new situations is natural for human be- ings, which might explain Christensen’s (2002) and O’Hanlon’s (2009) observations of teach- ers’ resistance to adding technology into their instruction. To further document this technol - ogy deficiency, Nuckols (2008) and Thompson (2005) argued that a majority of teachers only have basic technology skills and that while they can use grade book programs and send and re- ceive emails, the majority of educators lack ad- equate twenty-first century skills. There is broad consensus in the literature that if professional development is to effective- ly promote the use of educational technology, it must empower teachers and respect them as capable professionals. For example, Goddard (2002) argued that attempting to force or re- quire teachers to adopt technology programs can backfire. Hall and Elliot (2003) argued that effective technology implementation can be ac- complished most effectively in a flexible envi- ronment that encourages individual approach- es to technology. Heydon and Hibbert (2010) advocated professional development programs that utilize a variety of resources based on the situation at hand rather than forcing educators to focus on a limited number of prescribed pro- grams and products. Nuckols (2008) rejected command and control leadership as a strategy for motivating teachers. O’Hanlon (2009) of- fered evidence that teachers forced to adopt technology programs are more likely to resist, and Lowther et al. (2008) argued that teach- ers who perceive that they have no choice in adopting technology programs are less likely to make a rigorous effort to do so. The idea that leaders can simply fiat the use of technolo- gy by ordering teachers to increase their use of technology in the classroom is therefore highly questionable. On the other hand, educators empowered and respected as professionals are more like- ly to make innovative changes in their practice and find ways to incorporate technology into

their teaching practice. Bolman and Deal (2008)

argued that teachers are professionals, and that they work best in environments in which they have autonomy and can make their own judg- ments concerning the best ways for students to learn. Amankwatia (2008), O’Hanlon (2009), and Nuckols (2008) all argued in favor of dem- ocratic, cooperative models for the implementa- tion of technology programs; teachers who are treated as professionals and integrated as col- laborative partners in technology program de- sign and implementation are more likely to buy into the process and will be more effective


putting those principles into practice. Hall

and Elliot (2003) and Sherry, Billig, and Tava- lin (2000) emphasized the importance of shar-

ing specific best practices with colleagues and encouraged making the teacher a co-learner in


collaborative training environment. In ad-

dition, Amankwatia (2008), Nuckols (2008), and O’Hanlon (2009) all advocated experien- tial, long-term training that provides teachers with opportunities to share, experiment, prac- tice, and gradually develop as education tech- nologists rather than one-shot trainings that ad- dress general, abstract ideas and do not provide continuing opportunities for experimentation, learning, and practice. School leaders must find and implement long-term professional de- velopment programs that empower teachers to find innovative and creative ways to use tech- nology in order to meet the individual needs of their students so that our schools can start ad- dressing the needs of the twenty-first century workplace. The rise of the information age in the twen- ty-first century necessitates the use of technol- ogy in the classroom in order to adequately prepare students for the work they will be ex- pected to do. Unfortunately, education contin- ues its bound practice of only using low tech measures and teachers continue their lack of in-

corporating technology into their daily teaching practice. Therefore, it is imperative that school leaders find collaborative and democratic pro- fessional development programs that empow-


teachers to experiment, find innovative ways


use technology, and share their best practic-

es as part of ongoing, long-term, and experi- ential learning opportunities that promote the use of educational technology in the classroom. Teacher research is one very promising program

empowering educatorS through teacher reSearch


that may meet this need for empowering profes- sional development. MacLean and Mohr (1999) defined teacher research as the cultivation of the principles of qualitative scientific inquiry among educators in order to empower them to find data-driven and classroom-tested solutions for solving the pressing problems they identify in their own classrooms. White (2011) observed that teacher research is one of the most cele- brated developments in teacher education and professional development to emerge in recent decades because it empowers teachers, and encourages innovation and creativity to solve problems. While an emergent body of literature exists about the effectiveness of teacher research as a professional development strategy for educa- tors (e.g. White, 2011), a lack of discussion still exists about how teacher research could result in more infusion of educational technology in the classroom to meet the needs of twenty-first century learners. My goal in pursuing this line of inquiry was to examine the potential impact of teacher research as a professional develop- ment strategy in order to promote the effective use of technology in the classroom and to be- gin to help fill that gap in the existing litera- ture. The most promising new professional de- velopment innovation to come along in recent decades should naturally and appropriately be applied to the most pressing need in present- day education, but little knowledge is current- ly available about how effective such a program might be. The purpose of the present study was to ex- amine one program that was designed to mar- ry the principles of qualitative teacher research with the need to promote technology among classroom teachers in order to explore how ef- fective the program is in promoting the use of technology among classroom educators. Specif- ically, I gathered and analyzed extensive data in order to assess the impact of the Digital Learn- ing Collaborative (DLC) and applied qualitative research methods within a constructivist para- digm in order to examine the lived experiences of participant teachers and to evaluate whether the program meets the needs identified in the literature for an effective educational technolo- gy professional development program.


I applied qualitative methods consistent with those described as constructivist with the intention of recording the lived experienc- es of participants and evaluating the perceived impact of the program on participant exper- tise with and use of educational technology. My goal was to produce contextual knowledge based on patterns that emerged from the quali- tative observations I made through an interac- tive discourse with program participants. Con- sistent with the constructivist paradigm, I did not want my preconceived values to be hidden or disguised behind an assumed veil of artificial neutrality (Lincoln, Lynham, & Guba, 2003). Instead, I asserted that the values of democra- cy and individual empowerment were central to the development of my research questions, method, analysis, findings, and conclusions. My intent was to bring attention to the reader that in my own subjective and context-bound judgment, based on my experiences as a school teacher, a lifelong student, and a human being, that these values inform my opinion of what is good and what is effective in the field of edu- cation for both students and teachers. Oppres- sion and control are dehumanizing to individu- als who find their perspectives devalued, beliefs degraded, and best interests undermined for the benefit of the powerful in systems that are not based on democratic principles. Locating this study within the constructivist paradigm en- abled me to examine the impact of the program on my participants who I perceived as human beings with emotions, values, varied experi- ences, and complex motivations and goals, not merely objectified and quantified units of pro- ductivity to be impartially measured in order to determine the quantity of their output for the sole benefit of my research agenda. It was for this reason that I chose to frame my findings through a discussion of the participants’ spe- cific words and writings. Thus, although the findings may not adhere to the conventional scientific standards of external validity and ob- jectivity, they are consistent with Lincoln et al.’s (2003) quality criteria of trustworthiness and authenticity.

Program Description and Participants

The Digital Learning Collaborative (DLC), a teacher research based professional


development program, was implemented in a large Colorado school district among a self-se- lected group of 24 classroom teachers, each of whom led a team of 4-6 teacher researchers at their home schools. By forming teams of re- searchers at their home schools, the influence of the DLC spread beyond the primary partic- ipants, which expanded the influence of the program within the district. Participants were self-selected based on their interest in pursu- ing educational technology professional devel- opment credits, and received a small stipend for their participation in the program. The program is designed to provide motivated K-12 educa- tors with an opportunity to pursue profession- al development aimed at promoting education- al technology, and uninterested teachers are not required to participate. The program facilitators assert that this self-selection increases partici- pating teachers’ buy-in and helps ensure that teachers have a positive and open-minded atti- tude from the beginning of the program. A team of four teacher researchers from the Colorado State University Writing Project (CSU- WP) in consultation with Cindy O’Donnell-Al- len, Associate Professor of English at Colorado State University, developed and implemented the year-long teacher research program, which began in the second year of teacher participa- tion in the DLC. In total, three cohorts partic- ipated in the program throughout a three-year period. The present study focuses on the sec- ond cohort and included 200 participants in 37 teams across 20 schools. The program of teach- er-directed and teacher-implemented qualita- tive inquiry draws heavily in its design from Teacher-Researchers at Work (MacLean & Mohr, 1999) and is based in the tradition of teacher re- search as an empowering mechanism for edu- cators to learn how to apply systematic inqui- ry to their practice in order to generate genuine research questions, gather and analyze data, share findings, and propagate best practices. The goal of the program is to teach team leaders the principles and methods of qualitative teach- er research and to help them design, develop, conduct, analyze, and share a year-long study at their home school, giving them applied and experiential practice in using the techniques of teacher research to develop and share best practices.


The year-long teacher research portion of the program included nine monthly meetings. The first meeting lasted two full days and team leaders learned the philosophy, methods, and strategies of teacher research. After the initial meeting, team leaders met once a month in the evening after school in order to receive ongoing instructions, get structured work time, and ask questions and seek clarification as their research projects unfolded. The final meeting of the year included an opportunity to present the results of each team leader’s teacher research project to the entire group of team leaders, the program facilitators, and interested district employees. This program meets the criteria identified in the literature for an ongoing, experiential, partici- patory, collaborative and empowering program of professional development with opportunities to share best practices (Amankwatia, 2008; Nu- ckols, 2008; O’Hanlon, 2009).

Data Collection and Sampling

I collected qualitative data through obser- vations, interviews, surveys, and documents. I continuously conducted observations through- out the year-long program at each meeting, re- corded the words and actions of participants and facilitators, and conducted informal inter- views and open-ended questioning to increase the quality and depth of the qualitative data gathered. I also distributed electronic surveys three times during the course of the year in or- der to provide essential triangulation of the ob- served data with anonymous responses from participants and expand the scope of the data beyond the team leaders who attended the monthly meetings in order to get a sense of the impact of the program on team members at par- ticipating schools. Participants also frequently posted documents to a cloud-based document library that were accessible to program par- ticipants, facilitators, and me. Together, these four sources provided a deep and multi-facet- ed data set from which to construct meaningful interpretations. In order to focus the inquiry on an investi- gation of the lived experiences and perceptions of participant teachers as they worked their way through the DLC program, I selected a purpose- ful homogenous sampling method. The crite- rion for inclusion in the study was participa- tion in the DLC program and all 37 team leaders

empowering educatorS through teacher reSearch


were observed, informally interviewed, and/or electronically surveyed through the course of the evaluation. I analyzed the impact on mem- bers of the school-based teams with the use of

open-ended surveys that I electronically distrib- uted to approximately 200 individual members of each team at the beginning, middle, and end

Another source of data regard-

ing the impact of the program on team members came through the teacher research reports each team produced and posted to the cloud-based document library. I analyzed them in order to evaluate the quality and depth of the research projects that participants produced through the course of the program. These reports recorded the research questions, the methods, and the re- sults of each team’s research project and were summarized and shared in a presentation to the whole group of team leaders at the final May meeting. In addition to transcribing exact-word ac- counts of what participants said, I observed each meeting and recorded descriptions of both the context of these quotations and the accom- panying participants’ actions and behaviors. I then followed-up with additional open-ended questions when appropriate, in order to clarify ideas or to gain insight into the motivations be- hind participants’ actions and comments.

of the program.


I analyzed and coded the data according to themes that I noted as emerging from the data analysis process itself rather than from any cod- ing process based on preconceived and arbi- trary categories that I might have expected to find before the study began. I identified and constructed the major themes according to Cre- swell’s (2008) qualitative research guidelines and included the process of coding the data and generating themes based on perceived pat- terns that I noted as naturally emerging from the data. I achieved triangulation by develop- ing themes in the context of all four of my data sources in order to understand the full depth and complexity of the observed phenomena. Once I established these basic themes, I began coding and organizing quotations con- taining the actual words of participants accord- ing to those themes so that these constructions could be confirmed or disconfirmed and ulti- mately illustrated from the participants’ own

unique perspectives. I further interpreted the data in the context of the relevant literature and past studies in order to establish where the data fit into the body of existing knowledge related to professional development and educational technology.

Internal Validity

To increase the credibility and accuracy of the data, I regularly and systematically pro- duced descriptions, records, and reflections with the intention of recording the participants’ experiences and interactions as accurately and thoroughly as possible. I conducted the data collection and subsequent analysis according to Creswell’s (2008) guidelines for the effective conduct of qualitative research. I established internal validity through the triangulation of both the types of data and the methods of data collection as Creswell (2008) recommended. To address the concern that participants might not be completely open with me during meetings due to various social or professional concerns, I collected the electronic survey data without identifying characteristics attached to partic- ipants’ responses. I then compared the first- hand accounts and personal interviews to the survey data in order to improve the quality and accuracy of the data analysis. Next, I compared this data to the written reports that were pro- duced and posted in the cloud-based document library, yet another source of corroborating in- formation to the data set. Finally, I confirmed the presence of the relevant themes through member checking with school district facilita- tors of the program and members of the teach- er research team. We discussed the emergent themes I noted as additional evidence of the findings’ reliability and credibility.


The results of the study indicate that the DLC had an impact on the use of education- al technology in the classroom among partic- ipants in the yearlong teacher research-based professional development program. I identified five core themes that help define the most im- portant ways in which the program influenced participating teachers: Empowerment, teach- ers as researchers, the use of technology, work- load, and engagement. I examine each theme in turn with direct quotations to illustrate the


participants’ reports of their lived experiences and perceptions of how the program impacted them and affected their teaching practice.


Participants used a range of technology tools and applications, which revealed the ef- ficacy of democratic, participatory, teacher-di- rected inquiry, as opposed to top-down pre- scribed programs. Each participant developed an individual and unique approach to inte- grating technology in the classroom, and each teacher selected a research question based on the specific individual needs he or she identi- fied through the process of developing a person- alized research question. This process made the teacher research project personally relevant for each individual participant and ensured that he/she was empowered to focus on questions relevant to actual teacher practice. When prompted to discuss the DLC expe- rience compared to previous experiences with professional development in terms of partici- pant empowerment, Julie (all participants have been assigned alternative names using a ran- dom name generator) became effusive in de- scribing the empowering structure of the teach- er research-based professional development program after all of the final presentations had been shared:

How much did [the facilitators] talk to- day? How much did we talk? We’re the teachers here, it’s our thing. We chose what we wanted to do and it was led by us. We didn’t just sit and listen to what they wanted us to learn. The opportunity to share her research and listen to other practicing teachers share their research was a more empowering professional develop- ment experience for Julie than sitting and lis- tening to a presenter. Brian used an interesting metaphor in de- scribing how the program worked to empow- er participants to find their own path and direct their own research: “Most professional devel- opment is like a funnel moving everything in one direction and focusing down on one little thing. This program turns the funnel in the oth- er direction, the outcomes are limitless.” Rath- er than sitting and learning specific best prac- tices that may or may not be relevant to each individual teacher, teacher research empowered


Brian to find his own path, discover and study his own best practices, and relate his profes- sional development to real problems and genu- ine questions of his own choosing. Not all teachers liked the open-endedness of the inquiry process and some participants de- sired more guidance and sought clear-cut an- swers. Mary, a kindergarten teacher, expressed her frustration with the lack of definite answers:

“It drove me nuts, the lack of direction. Just be- ing told to explore like that scared me.” Not all teachers felt empowered by the possibilities and the freedom to explore and find their own solu- tions; Mary was overwhelmed by the limitless possibilities and the lack of specific steps to fol- low. She reported in her findings that she did not think the use of technology had a noticeable impact on the quality of her students’ writing:

Our individual conferencing had more impact than [the technology] did. Writer’s workshop is essential to stu- dent learning. Working with the teach- er and getting attention from the teach- er is the most important thing for kids, much more than the use of computers. As she continued her presentation, howev- er, she mentioned improvements she had ob- served in terms of student engagement and enthusiasm. When pressed to clarify her find- ings she continued to insist that the technology had not provided the benefit, that it was the in- creased individual attention students received from her that had made the difference: “If any- thing the research helped me learn more about my conferencing and how to help kids improve their writing. It was more beneficial to me as a teacher than to the students. It improved me.” The process of teacher research did seem to help Mary improve her teaching practice, even though she did not think that the use of technol- ogy was an important part of that. The DLC’s focus on educational technology is a precondi- tion of the program that somewhat limits par- ticipants in demanding research questions that focus on the use of technology. Mary’s experi- ence revealed that despite top-down arbitrary restrictions, teacher research has the potential to surpass limitations and restrictions and take directions that cannot be anticipated. Jesse, one of the district DLC facilitators, confirmed that the specific use of teacher re- search to promote educational technology is

empowering educatorS through teacher reSearch


potentially limiting: “We did kind of just add the technology thing onto this. Who knows what would happen if we just opened things up and let them pursue whatever questions they want to pursue? It is a bit arbitrary.” Because the Instructional Technology department over- sees the DLC, the promotion of technology was an assumed goal from the inception of the DLC program. The specific application of the teacher re- search program to promote educational tech- nology does appear to have efficacy for other educators in the DLC program. Joe, for exam- ple, expressed his enthusiasm with the program and the opportunity to explore his own research question: “When people are allowed to choose they step up to the plate. When you give them something they care about and are passionate about they want to do it, and they do.” One qualitative difference between Joe and Mary was that Joe is a self-described technology en- thusiast who loves technology gadgets and en- joys exploring the possibilities of technology both in the classroom and in his own life. Mary, on the other hand, described herself as less comfortable with and knowledgeable about the use of technology: “It was a bit of a disappoint- ment. How can I, after two years of this, still not know anything about [educational technol- ogy]?” It may be that the success of teacher re- search is somewhat dependent on the self-mo- tivation and interests of the teacher researcher, a question that I address in the future research section of this article. Considering the need identified in the literature review to find ways to encourage reluctant teachers to use educa- tional technology more effectively, this ques- tion is an important one and warrants further examination. Martha is a good example of a teacher who initially struggled with the openness and free- dom of the teacher research process, but ulti- mately felt empowered by the ability to explore her own questions and develop her own study:

At first it was tough. I need linear in- structions. I need to know what I am supposed to do. It’s hard for someone [who is] OCD [Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder], but looking back on it I was able to change and grow so much as a teacher. I learned so much.

The experience appears to have empowered Martha to find her own path even when at first she thought she needed more direction.

Use of Technology

Two participants reported they did not ob- serve that the program significantly increased their use of technology in the classroom or their educational technology skills, but those individ- uals were the exception to the rule. Overall, participants agreed that the program consider- ably increased their use of technology and their skill in using and applying educational technol- ogy tools and applications. Surveying the range of studies participants in the DLC conducted re- veals that they used a broad array of technolo- gy, including document cameras, laptops, tab- let computers, classroom clickers, podcasting, video production and editing, cloud-based doc- ument sharing, blogging, social networking, educational games, and web resources. This breadth indicates that the teacher research pro- gram enabled participants to find their own, in- novative approaches to incorporating technol- ogy and that the DLC program is self-directed, open-ended and flexible, which is consistent with the characteristics of effective professional development identified in the literature. For example, Noreen experienced a dramat- ic change in her ability to use technology; she found herself using a range of technologies and reported that their use had become ubiquitous in her classroom: “Kids are using the laptop, document camera and speaker pretty much all day long sharing their work, presenting, shar- ing research on the computer through the docu- ment camera. The have made movies and slide shows.” The range of technologies employed and the amount of time spent using technology shows the profound impact that the program re- portedly had on Noreen’s use of technology in her classroom. Max reported a similarly high rate of tech- nology use in his classroom: “Amazing! We use the computer, doc camera, projector and my own flip camera almost every day.” This was equally true of Kelly who expressed her be- lief in the importance of integrating technolo- gy in today’s classrooms: “I try to use tech- nology in most all lessons. I really believe that we need to teach to 21st Century learners and that as teachers we have to be up to speed with


tech.” Darryl agreed that technology had be- come a daily part of his classroom instruction:

It’s been huge. I use my technology daily and students get real-time and re- al-life exposure to information. I use it for building background knowledge with pictures, videos, and music. I use the microphone and audio for read alouds or books on tape. I use my doc- ument camera to demonstrate writing. These three examples demonstrate the variety of solutions all participants discovered and the enthusiasm and dedication with which they pursued the integration of technology into their classrooms. One of the participants who reported that his integration of classroom technology had not increased considerably during the program re- vealed under further questioning that this out- come was not because he did not use technolo- gy in the classroom. Hugh reported that he was already using an ample amount of technology before the program began and that he had not increased it as a result of the DLC: “Truthfully, there’s not much difference. It was part of my practice all along.” An audit of the survey re- sponses revealed that participants who report- ed initially high levels of educational technol- ogy skills and use of technology did appear to report smaller increases as a result of the pro- gram, making the relative benefits to teachers who already use a lot of technology in the class- room unclear. This finding warrants further in- vestigation, and I will address it in the future re- search section of this article.

Teachers as Researchers

As a requirement for participation in the DLC program, participants produced a research report that they presented at the final meeting and shared with the group on the cloud-based document library. Taken as a whole, these re- ports revealed that individual teachers were able to produce and disseminate valuable qual- itative data with other educators who, in turn, could potentially benefit from the insights and information generated through the systematic inquiry of the teacher research process. Initial- ly, some teachers appeared to struggle with the methodology of qualitative research, howev- er. Many of the participants’ first draft research questions revealed the tendency to be locked


into notions of authoritative, fact-based sci-

ence, the ideal of objectivity, the desire to prove causality, and a preference for quantifiable evi- dence that Blanchard, Southerland, and Grang- er (2009) argued can limit teacher inquiry. In short, many of them appeared to be locked into

a positivist paradigm of research that was in-

compatible with qualitative methodology. For example, Roslyn described her concern that her research would not be legitimate science:

“Without a control group or some other way to show that it works I won’t be able to prove any- thing.” This observation demonstrates Roslyn’s desire to imitate the process of experimental de- sign, which has important ethical ramifications for teacher researchers who may not be justified

in withholding interventions or opportunities from random groups of students for the sake of scientific experimentation (Maclean & Mohr, 1999). Likewise, Mary articulated her concerns

about the validity of qualitative research on the first day of the program when the process of writing a qualitative research question was ex- plained: “This is crap!” When asked to ex- plain her reaction she responded that it did not fit her idea of science: “It’s so watered down.

It doesn’t really tell us anything.” Mary’s com-

ments revealed misgivings toward qualitative methods and showed that not all participants came into the program with a belief in the value of qualitative research. I noted a similar conception during the lat- er stages of the DLC when Jamie expressed concerns about being able to write-up her find- ings. She appeared concerned that she had not produced any reputable data because she had not produced any quantifiable data: “I didn’t use any codes. What my students do can’t be put in numbers; it’s not about achievement for them.” When pressed for more specifics she revealed that she worked with students with cognitive disabilities and that the idea of in-

creased achievement was not meaningful in her context: “If they are paying attention that’s

a good thing; most of them can’t write or do

math. Written material is over their heads.” However, through exposure to the methodol- ogy of qualitative teacher research, Jamie be- came more comfortable with it and the value of observation. Her final research report showed that she was able to produce intriguing qualita- tive data indicating that her use of technology

empowering educatorS through teacher reSearch


did increase student engagement: “My students will never use Google Docs, but they already en- joy the contact they have had with the ActivS- late [A wireless, notebook-sized tablet]. They are much more involved in their learning when they have an active part in it.” Jamie’s expe- rience reveals that the development of teacher researchers and the cultivation of an apprecia- tion of paradigms beyond positivism and meth- ods other than quantitative can help introduce educators to qualitative methodologies and en- able them to see the value of observing, record- ing, reporting, and analyzing the lived experi- ences of individuals within specific educational contexts. Amy exemplified evidence of thoughtful, systematic inquiry and concerted efforts to de- velop more effective teaching practices: “It is certainly making me more aware of my stu- dent’s engagement and progress with technolo- gy. I am thinking differently about how I can use technology with my students.” A similar senti- ment from Christian indicates how the teacher research process made him more aware and en- couraged him to continually improve his teach- ing practice in research-based ways: “Through my research I discovered that kids weren’t learning and that my teaching method was not effective. I will now check their learning very frequently to make sure I am being effective in how I teach.” This sentiment reveals that the process of teacher research can be ongoing, and that these techniques and procedures can in- form teacher practice in the future beyond the scope of the DLC program itself. At the final meeting of the DLC both Mari- cella and Joe reported they were already shar- ing their technology expertise with other teach- ers. Maricella reported she had become known in her school as knowledgeable about educa- tional technology issues: “I’m already shar- ing my work with computers with other teach- ers who need to use technology but don’t know where to start.” Joe was already starting to worry about how his growing reputation for tech-savvy might impact his workload: “Some- times I don’t want them to know. Then they start to come to you for every little thing and it is like, ‘Hey, I have my own work to do.’” Com- fort and skill with technology was in demand in Joe and Maricella’s school and they both began

to spread their knowledge at their home schools beyond their immediate DLC teams. Mary, who struggled with the use of tech- nology, found efficacy in the teacher research process in areas that extend from, but do not specifically relate to, the use of education tech- nology. In her work using video feedback and verbal conferencing with her struggling writers she began to critically think about her writing rubric and made changes and added nuances that made it even more effective:

I’ve always used the six trait rubric [A grading rubric that focuses on six “traits” of effective writing: Ideas, or- ganization, voice, word choice, fluency, and conventions], but I found myself wishing that I had a better one. It just didn’t show the growth that our con- versations showed. I’m trying to make it more specific, not just, ‘Does it have an introduction,’ but listing the specif- ic qualities of good introductions. Six traits didn’t go in depth enough; it was too vague. This reflection is a model of the teacher re- search practice and it reveals how the teach- er research process can help teachers make thoughtful changes to their practice. Emilia’s reflection demonstrates how learn- ing the process of teacher research changed her mind set and gave her different approach- es to developing best practices: “I have begun to look at things differently in my classroom. I now have the tools to look deeper into things I notice and do research. From there I can try to prove or disprove wonderings that I have.” The teacher research process gave her a new approach and a new set of tools to solve the problems that she encounters in her classroom every day.

Teacher Workload

One reality of the teacher research process is that it requires the investment of time (Ma- clean & Mohr, 1999) and if the data revealed any major drawbacks to the DLC program, it was the amount of time teachers spent and the difficulty of finding ways to integrate that extra time into their busy schedules. Martha explained that she would not under- take the DLC research program again knowing how much work it entailed: “It’s the amount of


time it takes. Lots of personal time; I wouldn’t agree to do it again knowing how much work it was. I’m glad I did it, I learned a lot, but I wouldn’t do it again.” Teachers are very busy and have little time to spare and for Martha a research project was a lot to tackle. She did per- sist through the program, however, and later ad- mitted that she planned to continue using ele- ments of the program in the future, though on a smaller scale. At the end of the program, when I asked participants to remember and describe how they were doing halfway through the DLC pro- gram in five words or less, the aggregated and anonymous answers of five of the participants are revealing: “Overwhelmed, but invested;” “What did I get myself into;” [sic] “Like it was too much;” “In over my head;” “Misinformed, disappointed and concerned.” These com- ments give a glimpse into the sense of anxiety that appears to have taken root among the par- ticipants. At the monthly meetings there was a palpable sense of nervousness and expressions of concern about the workload and the amount of time the projects took could be overheard in the conversation during breaks and transitions. Among the program facilitators concerns about the stress participants endured became a fre- quent topic of conversation. This sense of anxiety was not universal, however; a similarly aggregated set of respons- es to the same question revealed a different mindset among five other participants who in- dicated that they were comfortable, competent, and confident halfway through the program:

“Somewhat comfortable;” “I get parts of it;” “Confident in using the tech to further my in- struction;” “That I was a lot more competent than I gave myself credit for being;” “I was get- ting a grasp on Macs.” These responses indi- cate that the sense of anxiety was not universal, and that for certain participants the experience was rewarding even at this demanding mid-way point. Joe had advice for future DLC teacher re- searchers to help reduce the anxiety. He sug- gested that if teacher researchers tackle small chunks of the process throughout the year rath- er than waiting until the end to get things done, their stress levels would be lower: “Break ev- erything down into small parts and don’t get overwhelmed by the whole process. Get things


done in advance so they won’t feel like [it is] too much toward the end of the school year.” Martha asserted that her lack of understanding from the outset regarding the workload involved in teacher research was a factor contributing to her stress level. She suggested that being men- tally prepared for the extra effort might help:

Understand what teacher research is and the work involved before you start! I was unaware of the extra work and was stressed. It all worked out in the end, but future DLC members should understand the time and extra load commitment. The pervasive sense of anxiety did not last and eventually most of the participants pulled through and ended up reporting positive in- sights about the program. I asked the same five anonymous participants who expressed anxi- ety during the mid-way point to describe their perspective at the end of the program in five words or less and their responses were much more positive. They described feelings of re- lief, pride, and increased confidence: “More practiced but still overwhelmed;” “It was ben- eficial;” “Relieved and proud;” “Better about my tech knowledge;” “Enlightened, grateful to be finished.” Stress and anxiety turned to re- lief and pride by the end of the program when participants had the opportunity to share their findings in the final crucial step in the teacher research cycle. Not only did teachers overcome their anx- iety about research, but each participant who responded to the final survey reported that he/ she planned to continue the practices of the program in the future. Christian confirmed this sentiment when he reported that he planned to apply the process to future problems that he would encounter in the classroom: “I am al- ready much more aware of my practices in class and I will continue to try out any new hypoth- eses I have in order to see if what I think and what is are the same thing.” The teacher re- search process can become a habit for educa- tors, which can have a lasting impact on their approach to teaching.


Almost all participants reported increased student and teacher engagement as a result of participation in the program. They reported

empowering educatorS through teacher reSearch


more engaged and active students, although the impact of that engagement on student achieve- ment was not immediately clear. Participants reported that both teachers and students were energized, as exemplified in an excerpt from a report by a team of elementary school teach- ers who describe the positive impact the teach- er research project had on both teachers and students:

We discovered that our students, even the most reluctant, become excited and eager to participate in the writing pro- cess when these various digital tools are made assessable. [sic] This pa- per concludes with the teachers feel- ing inspired, driven and focused on in- tegrating technology throughout their teaching. This school-based team produced data indicat- ing that technology had increased student en- gagement and affirmed a commitment to the continued integration of educational technology. Jeanie reported a similar experience as a re- sult of her DLC experience: “My students are engaged. I am realizing the power of technol- ogy used in the right way.” For her, the tech- nology by itself was not enough; it was also the power teacher research gave her to find effec- tive uses for the technology that made the dif- ference. Darren’s experience corroborated this finding and emphasized the importance of orga- nization, planning, and introspection to devel- op more effective uses for a variety of technol- ogy resources:

Students are more actively engaged. This also makes me more organized and allows me tools to plan out more well-thought out lessons. I like being able to access a variety of resources for teaching, such as videos and flipcharts that enrich my lessons. The teacher research process engages both teachers and students in the use of technology in ways that may support critical thinking and improve education. Another aspect of educational technology that cannot be overlooked is its power to decen- ter the teacher and place students at the cen- ter of learning. Just as teacher research-based professional development places the teacher- as-learner at the center of a discovery and ex- ploration process, teachers can use technology

to create that same experience for their own students. Carmella reported that her students were motivated and engaged when the technol- ogy was used to place them at the center of the classroom as creators and sharers rather than mere recipients of knowledge: “They are moti- vated to learn with technology. They enjoy pre- senting and sharing their work. The quality of their work has improved because they know they will be sharing.” Maricella reported a sim- ilar level of engagement: “[Students are] so much more engaged when the technology is be- ing used. We must use technology all the time to reach this new generation to prepare them for today’s world.” Maricella’s insight confirms that teacher research may be an effective way of meeting the need to update our education prac- tices to meet the needs of twenty-first century learners. It is worth noting that 22 of the 24 teachers who responded to the survey reported that their students were more engaged as a result of the DLC program, yet only about half reported that their students were learning more. This find- ing shows that there is not necessarily a direct connection between engagement and learning in the minds of DLC participants. Joe’s experi- ence with clickers sheds some light on this phe- nomenon, as he observed that engagement and achievement are not inextricably linked: “Click- ers dramatically increased engagement, but did not increase scores. Students tended to rush to be first to answer rather than take time to think about the right answer.” This overzealous en- gagement illustrates the distinction between engagement and actual learning; the students were engaged, but in some ways their over-en- gagement detracted from their performance on the assessment. But Joe’s teacher-research in- stincts revealed themselves immediately when he followed this observation up with a newly emerging research question related to the nov- elty of the technology and asked what the long term impact of the technology might be: “May- be it’s just because the technology is so new to them. If we kept using the clickers would that effect wear off over time? Would scores improve at that point?” This insight revealed the devel- opment of a new research question about the extent to which engagement equates with ac- tual learning, which Joe can pursue consistent


with the cyclical and ongoing nature of quality teacher research.


This study produced compelling qualita- tive evidence that the DLC professional devel- opment model of team leaders encouraging teacher research in school-based teams of pro- fessionals empowers educators to implement educational technology practices in thought- ful, systematic, and ultimately effective ways. The themes revealed that the program empow- ered participating teachers, and was effective at turning educators into teacher researchers, in- creased and improved the quality and quantity of technology used in classrooms, and that the largest impact on students appears to have been increased engagement in classroom activities. The biggest concern that arose was that teacher research is time consuming, and participation in the program required a substantial commit- ment of time, which added to participant teach- ers’ already heavy workload. The vast majority of participants in the DLC professional development program report- ed they experienced an increase in both their comfort with technology and the frequency of its use in their classrooms. Therefore, the DLC program appears to have been an effective re- sponse to the call for increased use of technol- ogy in the classroom for twenty-first century learners (Howland, 2009; Goddard, 2002; McK- enzie, 2002). Education in the United States has struggled to adapt to the dramatic societal shift brought about by the advent of comput- ers and the internet (e.g., Lowther et al., 2008) and it is imperative that we find effective ways to promote the use of technology in the class- room. It appears that teachers who participate in teacher research-based professional develop- ment are very likely to be effective at finding new ways to use technology in the classroom. Some participants reported that the focus on educational technology was somewhat lim- iting compared to a teacher research program that would have allowed them to focus on any- thing they chose. There is nothing inherent in the teacher research program that limits its use to technology applications, and its use for this specific purpose is not well documented in the existing literature. Professional development that lacked this focus would not, however, meet the need for the promotion of educational


technology in twenty-first century schools. There is ample evidence, however, that teachers who learn the teacher research process could then use that same process for solving other problems, or answer other questions they iden-

tify in their daily classroom practice (MacLean

& Mohr, 2009; White, 2011). Teacher research is

a very flexible program, and although this study

has focused on its use in promoting technology, an important message for facilitators and par- ticipants is that its use for that specific purpose should not necessarily exclude its use in pursu- ing other valuable research goals. Findings in the literature have indicated that teacher empowerment is an essential el- ement in successful professional development

for educators (Amankwatia, 2008; Bolman & Deal, 2008; Nuckols, 2008; O’Hanlon, 2009). Teachers treated as professionals, given autono- my to find innovative and creative solutions to their own problems, and who engage in collab- orative, democratic, and cooperative profession- al development opportunities are more likely to make meaningful and effective changes to their daily instructional practices. For many educa- tors the opportunity to engage in self-directed exploration of best practices is empowering and engaging and promotes genuine and ongoing improvement, in contrast with prescribed pro- grams in which teachers sit and listen or read the advice of experts whose tips may or may not be applicable to their individual classroom. The range of technology solutions that my par- ticipants found, and the range of research ques- tions they addressed, reveals the variety of paths that teachers can take in effectively integrating technology. Hall and Elliot (2003) argued that effective technology implementation is most ef- fective in a flexible environment that encourag- es individual approaches to technology. An im- portant message for administrators and others in charge of professional development program- ming is the power and flexibility of teacher re- search as opposed to more narrowly focused or prescribed approaches to promoting technology usage. A message in the experiences of my partic- ipating teachers is the value of sharing teach- er research findings with others. This sharing of best practices is a crucial part of the teach- er research process (Maclean & Mohr, 1999), meets the need identified in the literature for

empowering educatorS through teacher reSearch


a cooperative, participatory, and collaborative

approach to professional development (Hall & Elliot, 2003; Sherry et al., 2000), and demon- strates that practicing teachers can become ef- fective researchers through the use and applica- tion of the teacher research process. Not only does this benefit participating teachers who are empowered, and who become part of a dem- ocratic community of researchers, it also aids other educational professionals who can benefit from the range of valuable findings that emerge from teacher research projects. The more in- dividuals who participate in scientific inquiry, the more rapidly and effectively it will move us forward. There is a substantial and growing body of

evidence about the effectiveness of teacher re- search in promoting the data-driven develop- ment and sharing of best practices among ed- ucators (e.g. White, 2011). Little is known, however, about the effectiveness of teacher re- search professional development in promoting the use of educational technology. The pres- ent investigation offers preliminary evidence that indicates teacher research can be an effec- tive way to increase the use of technology in

schools and teachers’ technology skills. It is im- portant to note, however, that the participants in the DLC program were all volunteers, and were therefore inherently more likely to be self- motivated and willing to engage in the teacher research process. Teachers who are required to engage in such a time-consuming process might not respond to the program in the same way that my participants did, and the assumption that all teachers would benefit from a teacher research professional development program is not warranted based on the results of the pres- ent study. Researchers advocating for the value of qualitative research methods in the constructiv- ist paradigm have had to overcome substantial resistance from certain quarters of the scientif-

ic community that have not been receptive to

constructivism or the use of certain qualitative methods in the social sciences (Lincoln et al., 2003). My teacher participants appeared to have similar concerns about the legitimacy or value

of the qualitative methods that are central to the

teacher research process. Students are not labo- ratory subjects, and objectivity is not a perspec- tive that teacher researchers are encouraged to

adopt. Experimental designs using quantita- tive methods, including control groups and ran- dom sampling, are not the sole goal of all teach- er research, but some of my participants did reveal a tendency to think of scientific inquiry in positivist, experimental terms only. This ten- dency not to recognize the value of qualitative methods among positivist-minded thinkers is at the root of the paradigm wars of the late twen- tieth century (Lincoln et al., 2003) and those same positivist inclinations may persist among teachers who are not familiar or not comfort- able with qualitative methods. Blanchard et al. (2009) observed that teachers who are primed with a background in critical theory or post- modern thought are more likely to be receptive to the ideas of qualitative research and to un- derstand the value of contextual data which, al- though it cannot be universalized the way that experimental statistical data sometimes is, can still provide valuable and transferable informa- tion to educators. An important consideration for program facilitators is to provide a sufficient background in the strengths and value of qual- itative inquiry to social science and not to as- sume that participating teachers will be familiar or comfortable with qualitative methods. Par- ticipants who appeared to be stuck in a posi- tivist framework, with experimental design as their model of what research looks like had dif- ficulty understanding the value and importance of their subjective observations, and the signifi- cance of their own lived experiences as valuable data for analysis. The most noteworthy impact on students in participants’ classrooms was increased engage- ment. Teachers discovering and exploring new and innovative ways to incorporate technolo- gy during the program found that students gen- erally responded with increased enthusiasm to these innovations. There is evidence that the technology itself increased engagement, and that introducing new teaching and learning strategies increased student interest. Amank- watia (2008), Foote (2008), Friedman (2007), and Lowther et al. (2008) all observed that the goal of technology implementation should be to remove the teacher from the center of classroom activity and enable students to become explor- ers, gatherers, and analyzers of the wealth of in- formation available to them electronically. Stu- dents engaged in active learning are more likely


to develop skills required to take advantage of opportunities for learning that technology has created. An implication that needs further in- vestigation is whether this increased engage- ment results in increased achievement among students. The findings of the present study in- dicated mixed results in this area and were not conclusive. Students who are not engaged do not learn, so certainly increased engagement can be seen as a positive result. Engagement in and of itself, however, is a necessary, but not sufficient condition of student achievement. Not all engaged students are necessarily learn- ing, particularly if they are engaged in non-pro- ductive activities or non-educational pursuits. An important message for educators is to em- phasize the educational part of technology and remember the mere use of technology in and of itself is not necessarily productive. A message that emerges from my partici- pants’ narratives is the need for time in which to conduct teacher research projects while also balancing preparation, grading, and teaching time. Participants reported that the projects re- quired a significant amount of time to complete and added to their workload. MacLean and Mohr (1999) argued that education profession- als need to proactively assert the need for more time to conduct teacher research and that pro- viding teachers with the opportunity to partici- pate in teacher research should be a priority for administrators and school officials. These in- vestments would ultimately pay off in increased student engagement and more effective teaching practices, which would ultimately benefit both teachers and students. Discussion in the lit- erature documents that experiential, long-term training that provides teachers with opportuni- ties to share, experiment, practice, and gradu- ally develop as education technologists is more effective than one-shot top-down training pro- grams directly supports this finding (Amank- watia, 2008; Nuckols, 2008; O’Hanlon, 2009). Simpler and less time consuming professional development might seem like an easy answer for school leaders who are seeking ways to help teachers improve, but effective professional de- velopment requires a long term commitment and a substantial amount of time and energy must be devoted to it if it is going to be effec- tive. Given the current climate of budget cuts, increased workloads, and reduced planning


time for educators, however, many school dis- tricts may not be ready to invest in a teacher research-based professional development pro- gram. Therefore, it is important to echo Ma- cLean and Mohr’s (1999) reminder that we can- not wait for reform before we start using these practices to improve student learning. Teacher research can become a part of every educator’s teaching practice, and once its basic tenets are mastered, teaching with thoughtful, systematic, data-driven reflection can become an instinctu- al part of everyday teaching practice that is well worth the time and effort. In summary, this investigation provided an indication that teacher research-based pro- fessional development can be an effective way to promote the use of educational technology in our schools. It empowered teachers to find innovative ways to incorporate technology in their classroom, gather and analyze data, and share best practices with other professionals re- garding the most effective technology usages. It filled an important gap in the literature about the effectiveness of teacher research as a possi- ble solution to the pressing need to increase the use of technology in our schools and revealed that although it is not a simple quick fix or easy solution, it appears to be an effective one.

Limitations & Future Research

I recognize multiple limitations with the present study. First, because the participants in the DLC professional development program were volunteers, it is impossible to know what impact, if any, the program would have on oth- er groups of teachers who did not or would not volunteer for such a program. Furthermore, the purposeful sampling method of only individ- uals who participated in the program is non- scientific and therefore, the findings cannot be generalized. The results of the study should be considered in context and individual readers must make judgments regarding the applicabili- ty of these findings to other contexts and among other groups of educators. Future research in the area of teacher research-based profession- al development for the promotion of education- al technology should explore the impact of self- motivation and interest among participants in teacher research-based professional develop- ment programs in order to shed more light on the question of whether a program like this one

empowering educatorS through teacher reSearch


could motivate reluctant educators to integrate educational technology in their teaching. Another direction for future study would be to explore the effectiveness of the program on individuals who already possess high levels of technology skill. Could those individuals be motivated to pursue even more exciting and in- novative ways to use technology, or does the principle of diminishing returns minimize the effectiveness for participants who enter the pro- gram with a high level of initial skill with tech- nology? Initial findings from this study indicate that the program may be more effective at im- proving the use of technology among those who began the program using little or no technol- ogy in the classroom, but among participants who were already using a lot of technology it might not have resulted in improvement. What requires further study is whether this is an is- sue that should affect the decisions school lead- ers and potential participants make regarding which teachers should participate in this kind of professional development. One major consideration that must be ac- knowledged is the dearth of evidence regarding the impact of the program on student achieve- ment. There is evidence to support the claim that the program increased student engage- ment. Engagement however, is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for learning and the ulti- mate impact of the program on student achieve- ment is not immediately clear. Student achieve- ment can be difficult to assess qualitatively, and this might be a direction for future quantitative studies that could be designed to measure stu- dent achievement in classrooms whose teach- ers participate in teacher research-based profes- sional development compared to those who do not participate. It is also important to remem- ber that although achievement is an important goal, other factors contribute to quality educa- tion and education researchers should be care- ful not to put unwarranted emphasis on stan- dardized test scores as the sole measure of a programs’ success or failure. Finally, I located the present study within the constructivist paradigm; there may, how- ever, be important contributions to scholarship that could be made by examining it through an alternative paradigm lens. Critical theory, in particular, may prove efficacious in helping to deconstruct the social constructs which leave

educators at the mercy of budget cuts, one-size- fits-all professional development trainings, pre- scribed curriculums, and short sighted stan- dardized testing goals which leave no room for teacher research. The finding within the pres- ent study that teacher research is empowering to educators leads logically to the conclusion that there may be opportunities for scholars to advocate for the liberation of educators in the face of social forces that may deny them the empowerment they could otherwise obtain through teacher research. Although this con- struct is outside the scope of the present study, it is a direction which may prove fruitful in the future.


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