At a time when Big Data rules, I look for small answers to big questions about how policies get translated into classroom practices. Big Data can be seen in massive surveys when thousands of teachers respond to questions that pollsters ask. And yes, there are huge data sets derived from major projects that video teacher lessons as well as from students who answer questions about their teachers when taking national and international tests.
But if you really want to know and understand teachers, teaching, learning, and students, one must spend time in classrooms listening and watching the key actors who create good-to-poor lessons. Big Data go for the generalization overlooking the particular that often matters to policymakers, researchers, and practitioners.
Classroom research is crucial to understanding how policymaker decisions aimed at improving instruction and curriculum (think Common Core Standards, 1:1 tablets for kindergartners, judging teachers on the basis of student test scores, and new courses teaching children to have “grit”) get put into practice. Unfortunately, as I scan the current research terrain, such labor-intensive research–such Small Data–is done less and less. In this post, I want to describe how I do (and have done) classroom research and why, I believe, it is important to do so.
I have been a social studies teacher for 14 years and a district superintendent for seven. While superintending, I visited classrooms two or more days a week. As a professor for 20 years, I went into schools and classrooms to complete research projects time and again. I have come to know a great deal about how teachers teach and students learn within age-graded schools from kindergarten through high school. Yet even with all of those experiences, I still have unanswered questions about teaching and teachers.
For example, for the past few months, I have sat in teachers’ classrooms observing how they teach history. Why history classrooms?
I taught history in three high schools located in two cities a half-century ago. I am reconstructing how I and many other history teachers taught in the late-1950s until the early 1970s through documents, surveys, artifacts, and dozens of other primary and secondary sources. No Big Data–just a steady and persistent accumulation of fragments to create a blurry snapshot of history teaching, one with insufficient pixels to give crisp resolution to what occurred in classrooms when students studied U.S. history, world history, and similar courses decades ago. Such a snapshot may not be worth a thousand words but it is more than policymakers, researchers, and practitioners know about history teaching in those years.
That snapshot would be of what happened in classrooms then. What about now? To capture how teachers teach history in 2014 has meant that I return to those high schools, interview teachers and sit in their classrooms to get a current picture that can be compared and contrasted to the reconstructed snapshot that I took a half-century ago. Here is what I do and why.
Consider how many ways there are to document how teachers teach history: videoing lessons; trained observers completing protocols of teacher and student behaviors as classroom activities unfold; experienced observers writing a running report of teacher and student behaviors and activities during the lesson; interviewing teachers how they teach; asking students how their teachers teach; and other ways as well. Each approach combines objectivity with subjectivity in capturing what happens in a classroom and making sense of what has been recorded (see here, here, and here–e0b4951dee530973a3).
I have used all of the above over the years, but have relied most on being in the classrooms and writing out in longhand or typing on my laptop what teachers and students do during the lesson. Each sheet of paper or laptop screen is divided into a wide column and a narrow column. In the wide column I record every few minutes what the teacher is doing, what students are doing, and teacher-directed segues from one activity to another. In the narrow column, I comment on what I am seeing. They include connections (or lack of connections) I see between what teacher says and what students do. I comment on whether students are on- or off-task and my sense of how attentive students are to what is happening in the lesson.
The major advantage of this approach is being in the room and picking up non-verbal and verbal asides of what is going on every few minutes as well as noting classroom conditions that often go unnoticed. I, as an experienced teacher familiar with schooling historically and the common moves that occur in lessons, can also assess the relationship between the teacher and students that other observers using different protocols or videos may miss or exclude.
The major disadvantage of this way of observing history lessons is the subjectivity and many biases that I or any observer brings to documenting lessons. So I work hard at separating what I see from what I interpret. I describe objectively classroom conditions from student and teacher desk arrangements through what is on bulletin boards and chalkboards and which, if any, electronic devices are available in the room. I describe, without judging teacher and student behaviors. And I observe more than one lesson. But biases, as in other approaches researching classroom life, remain.
After observing classes, I sit down and have half-hour to 45-minute interviews at times convenient to the teachers. After jotting down their history in the district, the school, and other experiences, I turn to the lessons and ask a series of questions about what happened during the period. I ask what teachers’ goals were and whether they believe those goals were reached. Then, I ask about the different activities I observed during the lesson.
In answering these questions, teachers give me the reasons they did (or did not do) something in lessons. In most instances, individual teachers tell me reasons for doing what they do, thus, communicating a map of their beliefs and assumptions about teaching, learning, and the content they teach. In all of the give-and-take of these discussions with teachers I make no judgment about the success or failure of different activities or the lesson itself.
No Big Data will come out of my research about the then and now of teaching history. But the Small Data will generate new and different questions about teaching and learning while offering glimpses of how teachers put into practice policymaker decisions.