Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Inquiring Teachers: Making Experience and Knowledge Public

by Ann Lieberman - 2009

This paper is a commentary on the special issue on teacher research.

How teachers learn has become a subject of great importance in the United States. Some have described the professional development of teachers as “woefully fragmented [and] intellectually superficial” (Borko, 2004, p. 3) and stated that it “doesn’t take into account how teachers learn” (Ball & Cohen, 1999, p. 4), whereas others admit that we know a great deal about the characteristics of teacher learning but don’t really understand how to organize this information in such a way as to influence what teachers do (Elmore & Burney, 1999). Until now, most professional learning for teachers has been packaged and given to teachers by administrators as a result of policy mandate or by providing “experts” to teach teachers during professional development days. These methods oversimplify and underestimate how teachers learn, the conditions under which learning occurs, and how knowledge is developed and finds its way into a teacher’s repertoire.

The pieces of teacher research published here begin to develop a new way of thinking about how teachers learn and the conditions that support such learning. We not only come to understand how teachers frame their problems but also learn about the deep and humane respect and concern these teachers have for their students. By developing methods whereby teachers can study their own practice in the context of their own classroom and write about it, a new frame for the development of teachers’ learning and a new repository for a greater understanding of teachers’ knowledge are being created (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993; Hatch et al., 2005; Lieberman & Miller, 2001; Little, 2007). In these seven examples, we see not only how teachers frame the problems and dilemmas of practice but also how they go about intervening in their own classrooms in such a way that the data they collect and the interpretations they make improve their practice, add to our understanding of teachers’ knowledge, and provide important information for enabling policies.


As participants in the Teachers Network Leadership Institute (TNLI), teachers are encouraged to do research in their own classrooms with an eye toward developing their own learning and making this learning public for others. The group of MetLife Fellows who write in this special issue of Teachers College Record identified a fascinating set of problems. The problems are described by teachers—rooted in the context of their own school and classrooms. They are:

Developing social skills in a classroom of regular and special education students

Organizing a cross-age teaching situation in which eighth graders teach younger students (an idea learned during a trip to Japan)

Teaching students about how to more effectively engage in and lead discussions

Helping adolescents talk more reflectively during portfolio presentations

Learning what teenagers find valuable about after-school programming

Observing the metacognitive development of primary students

Studying the effects of playing the role of peer tutor on a retained third grader

In each case, the teachers planned major interventions in their classrooms, documented the growth and development of their students, and learned a great deal not only about their teaching and their students’ learning but also about how to improve students’ social, emotional, and academic growth. Teachers, framing their own questions and carrying out rigorous plans for studying them, enjoy a rich opportunity to learn in the context of their own work.

What can we learn from this group of teacher studies? And what will bring us closer to understanding not only how teachers learn but also how to craft and support policies that support and encourage such work?


First, in the case of these teachers, they all belong to a group of fellows who have been chosen to study some aspect of their own practice, collect data, interpret the data, and then find implications for improving policy. The TNLI could certainly be described as a professional learning community in that the teachers are encouraged to do research on their own practice—teaching them that their work is important and that knowledge can come from peers, traditional research, or the study of their own classrooms. In conducting research and sharing it with colleagues, teachers feel that the hard work of teaching is both dignified and made rich with possibilities for mutual learning. In learning communities, teachers turn to ideas, to collaborative inquiry, to peers—internalizing new ways of learning. Their authentic life, in all its complexities, becomes grist for the mill. This is clearly the first condition for learning—the opportunity for exploring one’s own questions through one’s own research—in this kind of work. But there are others of importance as well.  


In all these studies, teachers learned that they could do research on problems of practice that were of concern to them. All the studies take teachers through a research model with well-articulated steps: frame a question; read the literature to find out what others know; collect data; interpret the data; and examine the data’s implications for further learning and enabling policies. But the studies do more than teach teachers the classical research paradigm; they provide a frame for examining teacher experience and shaping it into usable knowledge for improving the social and academic skills of their students. In Stecz’s (2009) study, which illustrates her interest in the effects of her eighth-grade students’ teaching of younger children, she learns much about her own teaching and the leadership ability of her students. In the process, she comes to understand the connections among the ability to plan, leadership, and active learning. This reflection comes about as Stecz learns that she does not need to control everything her students do, but she does need to help set up the conditions for learning.

Research becomes an important tool for teachers as they are motivated by the formation of their own study and improvement of their own classroom perplexities. In Zindler’s (2009) study of her classroom, for example, she decides to examine just how inclusive her classroom really is. Working in a school that has been designated as an “inclusion” school, she studies her class of 24 students. As the general education teacher on a second-grade team, she teaches children from white-collar families, first-generation immigrants from Japan, Korea, and Pakistan, and children of diplomats. Seven of the students have been classified as “special education” students, with a variety of disabilities. Three of them live in homes where Spanish is the primary language; 5 come from poor families and are bused to the school. The presenting problem for Zindler is how to make the class truly inclusive—to break through the racial, class, and educational barriers that present themselves.

Through the creation of a number of activities designed to teach all the students “social skills,” Zindler laboriously sets to work not only creating activities but also documenting the impact of these activities on her students. She indeed found that students built friendships and experienced improved social connections through her efforts. But she also found that the special education students had created a social network of their own. Her analysis yields a complicated set of patterns, only some of which were amenable to change in her classroom. Her study then leads her to make some policy recommendations that appear to have the potential to help ameliorate conditions beyond her control. This kind of examination provides extraordinary experience in understanding the possibilities and limitations of “inclusion,” and it stretches Zindler’s knowledge and ours about how policy can help teachers, help special education students to be included in regular education classes, and help us understand the complexities of the social system of a classroom. This, and the other examples in this special issue, provides evidence for deep teacher learning as we read about and weave our way through the complex culture of classrooms in different contexts.


Teacher research has a long history in American education, but the dissemination of the research process and outcomes to broader audiences is relatively new. What we see in these and other published pieces of teacher research are “the possibilities of a radical challenge to current assumptions about the relationships of theory and practice, schools and universities, and inquiry and reform” (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993, p. 85; Goswami & Stillman, 1987). When teachers have opportunities to study their conflicts and dilemmas, they become more articulate about describing the complexities to themselves and to the public at large. In this way, teachers can develop a scholarly tradition of their own—one that makes their teaching public, both inviting others to provide critique and offering opportunities for others to build on their work. As Shulman (1999) has written, this kind of work helps to build a knowledge base of teaching professionals.


Throughout these examples, we see how, when teachers inquire into their own practice, they not only reveal to themselves the complexities and possibilities for improvement but also contribute to the field’s understanding of teaching and learning. When Flynn (2009) decides to study what happens when students lead their own discussions in her social studies class, she learns (as do we) how the activities that she scaffolds affect students’ academic and social growth and the norms they hold as an adolescent group. We learn some important nuances of classroom discussion. As Flynn explains, “Discussions don’t really ‘unfold’ gently and organically, but are formed through a process of tugging and tearing and forming as students grapple with what’s being discussed, how to discuss it, and how to ensure that they can come out of the discussion relatively unscathed.” Looking deeply into classroom activities illuminates both what to do in the short term and how to understand the complexities and dynamics of the learning environment.

As teachers learn to examine their immediate problems of practice as researchers, reformers and policy makers can learn to make more explicit the complexities of classroom teaching and learning while they provide the conditions to support such development. Perhaps teacher research, in the context of a professional learning community, can help teachers become continual inquirers into their own practice. Perhaps the public and policy makers can learn to acknowledge and appreciate the passion, intelligence, and humanity that teachers typify as they set up the conditions for learning. And perhaps, through the publishing of such work, we can all learn that we might just have found the key to professional development that matters and that works, as well as a way to build the knowledge base of practice.


Ball, D., & Cohen, D. (1999) Developing practice, developing practitioners: Toward a practice-based theory of professional education. In L. Darling-Hammond & G. Sykes (Eds.), Teaching as the learning profession (pp. 3–31) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Borko, H. (2004). Professional development and teacher learning: Mapping the terrain. Educational Researcher, 33(8), 3–15.

Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. (1993) Inside/outside: Teacher research and knowledge. New York: Teachers College Press.

Elmore, R., & Burney, D. (1999) Investing in teacher learning: Staff development and instructional improvement. In L. Darling-Hammond & G. Sykes (Eds.), Teaching as the learning profession (pp. 263–291). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Flynn, N. K. (2009). Toward democratic discourse: Scaffolding student-led discussions in the social studies. Teachers College Record, 111(9).

Goswami, D., & Stillman, P. (1987). Reclaiming the classroom: Teacher research as an agency for change. Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook.

Hatch, T., Ahmed, D., Lieberman, A., Faigenbaum, D., White, M. E., & Pointer-Mace, D. (2005). Going public with our teaching: An anthology of practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lieberman, A., & Miller, L. (2001). Teachers caught in the action: Professional development that matters. New York: Teachers College Press.

Little, J. W. (2007). Teachers’ accounts of classroom experience as a resource for professional learning and instructional decision making. In P. A. Moss (Ed.), Evidence and decision making. The 106th yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Part I (pp. 217–240). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Shulman, L. (1999). Taking learning seriously. Change, 31(4), 10–17.

Stecz, S. (2009). What happens when eighth graders become the teachers? Teachers College Record, 111(9).

Zindler, R. (2009). Trouble in paradise: A study of who is included in an inclusion classroom. Teachers College Record, 111(9).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 8, 2009, p. 1876-1881
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15508, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 3:23:31 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Ann Lieberman
    Stanford University
    ANN LIEBERMAN is an emeritus professor from Teachers College, Columbia University. She was a Senior Scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for 10 years. She is now a senior scholar at Stanford University. She was president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in 1992. She is widely known for her work in the areas of teacher leadership and development, collaborative research, networks and school–university partnerships, and the problems and prospects for understanding educational change. Her recent books include: Teacher Leadership and Teachers in Communities: Improving Teaching and Learning, both with Lynne Miller.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue