Flying Solo: Teachers Take Charge of Their Learning through Self-Study Research

Article excerpt

Change begins from the inside. As Daniel Pink (2009) says, intrinsic motivation and drive come from autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Successful reform efforts originate from the ground up. Teachers are growing increasingly frustrated with an educational system that they perceive they are powerless to change. However, teachers are not powerless: The one thing teachers know they can change is themselves. What might happen if teachers are asked to choose to study their own dilemmas of practice in an effort to close their students' achievement gaps?

While there has been much discussion about teacher quality and its importance, there has been little conversation about how teachers are motivated to improve the quality of their own practice in order to improve student learning. Teachers are, after all, the direct players, the ones we want to be highly qualified, the ones who are held responsible for improving student learning while attempting to address a flood of standards. How are teachers encouraged to take charge of their professional development to improve the quality of their teaching and close their own achievement gaps?

Teachers, like students, are motivated to learn about things they care about and that matter to their lives. They are motivated about reforms that have instant applicability to their teaching and their students' learning. The best reforms may be initiated when teachers pose purposeful and applicable questions about their practice that empower a reform change in the first person. This cutting-edge paradigm is known as the self-study school of thought (Samaras & Freese 2006). Imagine if teachers were given these prompts:

1. What question do I most wonder about in my teaching practice?

2. What causes me to wonder about this question?

3. Why is this question important to me? What experiences and perspectives brought me to ask this question?

4. Who would benefit from addressing this question (e.g. me, my students, my school, a school division, society at large)?


Self-study teacher research is designed to encourage teachers to be agents of their own reform initiatives while working collaboratively with school colleagues. It has proven useful to an array of educators coming from multiple disciplines and programs (Kosnik, Beck, Freese, & Samaras 2006). In self-study, teachers critically examine their actions and the context of those actions as a way of developing a more consciously driven mode of professional activity, as contrasted with action based on habit, tradition, or impulse. Self-study allows teachers to plan, enact, and assess their pedagogical strategies with the support and critique of professional colleagues while examining the impact of their efforts on student learning. Although self-study is a recursive process, the following steps provide guidelines for teachers who are new to self-study research (Samaras, 2011).


STEP 1: Author your own question.

Self-study teachers initiate questions about their own practice, which they generate from observations of and personal experiences within their classrooms. The tensions teachers choose to examine are opportunities for professional growth and learning.

STEP 2: Work with a critical friends team.

Self-study requires critical collaborative inquiry. Self-study teachers work with critical friends in an intellectually safe and supportive community to improve their practice by making it explicit to themselves and to others through critical collaborative inquiries. Self-study is personal and interpersonal with learning, thinking, and knowing arising through collaboration and feedback from others. Working with colleagues helps extend and transform an individual's understanding. Critical friends encourage and solicit respectful questioning and divergent views to obtain alternative perspectives, and they work to help validate the quality and legitimacy of each other's claims. …