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Before The Innovation Hits The Classroom: Altering teachers' self-image as an element of teacher enhancement.

author: Joni Falk, Brian Drayton
submitter: TEECH - Teacher Enhancement Electronic Community Hall
description: Presented at AERA, 1998.
published: 04/23/1998
posted to site: 04/23/1998

Before The Innovation Hits The Classroom: Altering teachers self-image as an element of teacher enhancement.

Presented at AERA April 1998
Joni Falk and Brian Drayton
TERC, Inc. 2067 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA 02140
Subject descriptors: teacher education/development, mentoring, high schools


Data from a sample of 57 high school teachers participating in a year-long teacher enchancement program in ecology show that teachers who sustained collaborative research pursuing their own research questions report changes in their professional self-identity, including increased competence and confidence and a sense of authenticity as teachers of science inquiry. Teachers sustaining their own research project, as well as teachers who became involved in scientist-initiated research, report changes in their roles vis-á-vis their students. On the dimension of role, teachers involved in research (their own or ecologist-initiated) differ significantly from teachers who chose to focus primarily on classroom innovation. Teachers in all three groups (those conducting their own research, those involved in scientist initiated research and those focusing on classroom imlementation) report implementing classroom innovations, including changes in content, pedagogy, or classroom organization with similar frequency. This study offers support for a model of teacher enhancement that encourages teachers to re- engage with scientific research themselves, before or in tandem with experimenting with inquiry in the classroom.


Our paper presents a study of the effects that teacher-ecologist research has on high-school teachers' perceived self-image and role vis-á-vis their students. It raises important questions about the need to affect teachers' perception of professional identity when attempting to alter science teaching. It offers support for a model of teacher enhancement that encourages teams of teachers to re-engage with scientific research themselves, before or in tandem with experimenting with inquiry in the classroom.

While many teacher enhancement programs assume an immediate transition from workshop to implementation of innovations within the classroom, the project from which our data is drawn encouraged teachers to spend a length of time learning new science content and research techniques before designing classroom innovations. Thus they were given the freedom and time to work with a team of teachers in collaboration with a local ecologist to nurture their own scientific understandings. Although it is well known that teacher change "takes time" (Hall and Hord 1989), it is less clearly documented what is happening during this developmental period that may enable effective change to take place. Our research focuses on this intervening period, between the time when the workshop ends, and when teachers are held accountable for instituting new curriculum or pedagogy. After the workshop teachers selected three different methods of sustaining their work with their teacher teammates and team ecologist: to pursue their own research question, to collect data for their ecologist's research, or to focus on classroom implementation. Our research examines how these three groups of teachers describe the effects of their choice on their professional identity, over the course of the eight months following the initial workshop; we analyze shared benefits as well as differences between these groups.


The Teacher Enhancement in Pedagogy through Ecology (TEPE) project was a three year teacher-enhancement grant, awarded in 1993 by the National Science Foundation to TERC, Inc., of Cambridge Massachusetts.1 The focal population for this project was high- school science teachers, and the general subject domain was ecology and field biology.

High-school science is a difficult environment in which to implement an inquiry oriented approach that includes open-ended projects or student research. At this level, the science content is increasingly sophisticated, which requires that teachers have a strong foundation of science knowledge. The addition of a research or project component to the classroom makes additional demands on a teacher, requiring skills akin to those of a director of research. In order to effectively coach student researchers, and relate student inquiry to the curriculum, a teacher must be able to shepherd students through the uncertainties that always arise as one tries to make new knowledge. A good grasp of techniques of measurement and observation is not enough. One needs to be ready to help shape researchable questions, design research plans, evaluate and implement data collection, analyze and present findings, and seek the resources needed to make all this happen.

It was the project's hypothesis that a shift towards inquiry would be facilitated by teachers' experiencing and engaging in open-ended research as adult learners, and by teachers' acquiring a greater depth of understanding about a subject domain, in this case the domain of ecology. Thus, the emphasis was not on mastery of a predetermined body of knowledge, but of engagement in research, with the science learning growing out of the investigation.

To this end high-school teachers were recruited in teams of four ("home teams"), and paired with a local ecologist ("team ecologist") for a year-long collaborative effort during which the teachers engaged in ecological research: the goal was for the teachers to have the opportunity to re-engage with science as adult learners, not to provide the teachers with material to use in the classroom. The teams were responsible for designing and implementing their learning experience. The project year fell into two phases. The first phase was a summer institute, conducted by TERC staff; the second phase ran through the academic year, and was conducted by each team individually. Teams reported to TERC periodically, and gathered twice during the year for weekend call-backs; in between, TERC staff were in touch with teams and individuals by telephone, mail, and electronic mail for trouble-shooting and consultation.

TEPE had several features that, taken as a whole, are not common in teacher enhancement programs (NRC 1996):

  • while it concentrated on the domain of ecology it did not seek to deliver specific curricula, classroom activities, or kits.
  • an emphasis on the importance of teachers conducting science without regard to the viability of these projects in the classroom
  • teachers worked in teams from their school in a year long collaboration
  • teams of teachers were paired with a local ecologist
  • teachers could choose to conduct their own research, collect data for their ecologists ongoing research, or use their team collaboration to develop activities within the classroom.

Phase I: The initial summer workshop. Participants came together for a two-week workshop at the Rensselaerville Institute near Albany, New York in the summer of 1995. The project as implemented in the 1995-6 academic year involved 90 teachers in 24 teams, from Texas and Massachusetts. Although the majority of teachers taught life science subjects, other subjects ranged from mathematics and English to chemistry and physics. While some of the teachers would have the opportunity to teach ecology, others were interested to learn more about this science domain and about inquiry approaches which were generalizeable to their own field of teaching.

Field techniques and research around three different habitats were emphasized in the first week. During the second week teams of teachers met with an ecologist that came from their geographical area and together they planned a sustained collaborative effort which they would continue throughout the year. While some of the plans included involving students in ongoing research, most were focused on continued learning for the team of teachers using the ecologist as a resource. The teams discussed their plans with TERC staff, and revised them so that all parties were satisfied with the plans.

Phase II: Beyond the workshop. After the workshop came the implementation of the year-long programs. In each case, when learning goals and research tasks were specified, they were defined by the teachers in collaboration with their ecologists. All science content to be learned would be in the context of their research goals. Although they would be in communication with TERC staff during the year, quality control, completeness, and depth of learning were all in the hands of the teachers: the only "evaluation" of their work would come at the end of the year, when they were asked to present their work in poster form to each other and the team ecologists, who provided informal feedback on content, clarity, and presentation. TERC staff emphasized that the year following the initial workshop should be viewed by the teacher teams as a "gift" to nurture their own professional development. There was the explicit freedom not to feel pressured to immediately bring back innovations into the classroom, but rather to continue researching and learning science collaboratively with their ecologist. Even given this freedom, we were aware that some teachers wanted to use the ecologist to help them create new activities and curricula that they could use with their students. Some teacher teams chose to pursue a research plan based on their own questions while other teams became interested in ongoing research that their ecologist was conducting. The dynamics of the teamwork with the ecologists has been described elsewhere (Drayton and Falk 1997, Falk and Drayton 1997).

Data sources

Data used for this study was gathered from teacher questionnaires and from two transcribed focus groups. In the middle of the year 1995-6, teachers were asked to write about how they had sustained their work with their teacher team and with their ecologist over the course of the year. Teachers' reported that they had chosen to:

  • continuing ongoing research with their team with consultation from their ecologist,
  • joining in a research project that was directed by their ecologist,
  • or were no longer focusing on research but rather focusing on classroom applications.
They then commented on how their choice affected them as a teacher. All responses were read and coded by two researchers, with high inter-coder reliability (90%). Patterns were noted in the data and four categories of responses emerged.

In the spring, we conducted focus groups to further explore the patterns noted earlier in the year. Focus group transcripts confirmed categories that were developed from reading open-ended questions, and also provided teacher narrative material that explored changes that the teachers made in their classroom practice which they felt to be a result of their research experience.


As described above, participants in the project were committed to working with their teacher team in a collaborative relationship with their ecologist throughout the academic year. Teams' strategies for this collaborative project took one of three approaches. Some had decided that they would use the ecologist as a resource to pursue a research question generated by the team. Others decided to join an ongoing research project which their ecologist was involved in. Still others chose not to conduct research, choosing instead to focus on exploring new curriculum material and activities to bring into their classroom, using the ecologist as a resource for ideas and material. Mid-year, teachers were asked to reflect in writing on how they had continued to work with their team and ecologist and how their decision had affected them as a teacher. Fifty-seven of 90 (63%) replied to this open-ended questionnaire.

Teachers doing their own research
Of the 57 respondents, 34 (60%) replied that they were continuing to conduct research investigating a question generated by their team with consultation with an ecologist. These research questions were varied, for example: an inventory of plant species on a study site which they planned to use for both teaching and research in the future; a study of water quality indicators up-stream and down-stream from a fish hatchery; a study of vegetation response to a controlled fire on a prairie fragment; a census of airborne pathogenic microbes. Almost all of this group (32 of 34, or 94%) reported that they were experimenting with new activities with their classrooms.

Teachers researching ecologist's question
Eleven of the 57 (19%) reported that they were primarily involved in collecting data for ongoing research that their ecologist was involved in. Participation in these project included some large scale efforts such as Texas Watch and some smaller efforts such as wetlands restoration or monitoring populations of rare plant or bird species. The reasons for the decision to join an ecologists' research program varied. Some wanted to be "part of something bigger," and see their data put to direct use; some felt that they would learn the most if they undertook work that was under expert supervision, some just found the ecologist's work interesting enough to get invested in themselves. Ten of these eleven also reported experimenting with new activities in their classrooms.

Teachers focusing exclusively on classroom innovation
Twelve of the 57 (21%) respondents reported that they were not continuing their research efforts with their team. Instead they had chosen to work with their ecologist and with their team members on ways to incorporate the experiences that they had in the summer (exploring habitats, identifying and following up on a research question) with their students. The reasons for this group's choice also varied. Some had become frustrated with their research project, or found it too time-consuming given teacher responsibilities. Others found it more rewarding to spend their time with their team and ecologist working on applications to the classroom rather than conducting research themselves.

We found that teachers' responses to the question "How has your choice affected you as a teacher?" patterned around the following four themes:
  1. Enriched network of human and physical resources. These teachers described benefits that they derived from having established a relationship to a team of teachers, to their local ecologist, or to knowledge of resources in the surrounding community.
  2. Altered sense of self-image of oneself as a teacher. These teachers commented on changes in self-esteem marked by feelings of increased authenticity, confidence, competence, or renewed energy toward teaching.
  3. Change of role vis-á-vis the students. These comments focused on the teachers inclusion of himself as not only lecturers of science but creators of science. Teachers mentioned the importance of sharing their own science learning with their students and began to see this as an important aspect of their teaching. In this fashion, these teachers saw themselves becoming role models as science learners. In addition, responses in this category mentioned an increased awareness of the student experience including the challenges and difficulties that students encounter.
  4. Specific curricular and pedagogical innovations. These included introducing journal writing, using the question-generating technique modeled at the summer workshop (called "21 questions") either in direct or modified form, using new sampling techniques, greater time devoted to hands-on activities, or a new emphasis on ecology.

Differences and similarities among the three groups
All three groups mentioned experimenting with new curricula and pedagogical techniques with similar frequency (own research 94%, ecologists' research 90%, classroom focus 100%), as well as benefiting from contact with a team of teachers and an ecologist (own research 55%, ecologist research 45%, classroom focus 50%). For these two dimensions there was no statistical difference between the three groups. Furthermore, we could identify no qualitative differences among the classroom innovations adopted by any of the three groups.

The group of teachers that had continued to investigate their own question were significantly more likely to describe a change in their self-image, than were teachers who had decided to focus on classroom applications (p=0.01 by Fisher's exact test). Teachers in the group pursuing their own research were most likely to mention a change in self-image (61%). Teachers engaged in collecting data for their ecologists research were less likely to describe this (27%) and teachers who focused on classroom applications were least likely to mention changes in self-image (8%).

Teachers conducting research (either pursuing their own questions or collecting data for their ecologist) were significantly more likely to discuss a change of role vis-á-vis their students, or an increased understanding of the student experience than were teachers who were focused on classroom application (p=0.01); 44% of teachers in the group pursuing their own research and 45% of teachers collecting data for their ecologist's research mentioned a change of role vis-á-vis their students in the classroom. None of the teachers in the group focusing on classroom applications discussed this theme.


This study provides insight into the process by which a group of high-school teachers move at their own pace into classroom innovation driven by the chance to extend their content knowledge and their skills as science practitioners. It provides evidence of the value of providing teachers with the opportunity to re-engage with science at their own intellectual level, rather than limiting teacher enhancement programs to learning activities for the classroom, or to the discussion of new pedagogical approaches. To explore these linkages, we will discuss the four themes that emerged in teacher writings and in a transcribed focus group where teachers reflected on how their sustained interaction with a team of teachers and with an ecologist affected them as teachers.

Enlarged professional network
Teachers in all three groups spoke of the benefits that they had received as a result of forging new connections and identifying an enriched array of resources. Teachers commented on how rare it was to be given the time to work and learn with their peers, as well as the multiple benefits that they had received from working in a sustained relationship with their ecologist.

Teachers who previously had felt isolated now described feeling connected and supported. These new connections to other teachers provided a boost in morale, someone with whom to brainstorm, and intellectual and emotional support.

"Having a team and a purpose beyond attendance rosters and grade change forms has helped during the rough spots this year."

"I am still collaborating. After [participating in the project] I am basically fearless when it comes to asking other teachers questions or for help."

The teachers' relationships to the ecologist brought many unanticipated benefits (Falk and Drayton 1997). These included the ecologists' sharing their enthusiasm about ecology, the sharing of science content and process skills, the connecting of teachers to multiple material and human resources, as well as a link to the culture of the scientific community.

A critical feature of the teachers' enhanced sense of effectiveness or competence had to do with their connection, through their ecologist, with the science culture within which the ecologist moved. This provided the sense of increased security that comes from having deeper resources to call upon, but was coupled with the teachers' sense, provided in part by their own increased competence, that this was a culture to which they could connect, or even belong, something that came as a surprise to many who had not engaged in research before.

In addition to tangible "resources," the relationships provided teachers with several forms of support including brainstorming, generating new ideas, helping with classroom applications, being a facilitator for the teacher teams to work together and negotiate decisions, and helping to validate teachers ideas.

Others described new connections that they acquired through their ecologist to contacts in the community and an increased connection to the local landscape which they felt they could now use as a resource in their classroom. Some quotes address this theme:

"At the first workshop I had read an article in the paper about the Columbia hardwood bottom. So I mentioned it to R. (the ecologist) and he says, 'Oh I know the guy that made that presentation...' And so this fellow came from U.S. Fish and Wildlife...and told us all about it. then everybody said 'Gee that's nifty. Let's go there' And so at the next workshop that's were we went and tromped around in the swamp. and so it was one thing leading to another within the group."

"Collecting data and working with my ecologist has opened my eyes to an entire new arena I never really knew anything about. I have vastly increased my knowledge base in this area and have cultivated many excellent resources.... I have added more 'cards to my teaching deck' and am able to play them in the appropriate situation. I think I have shifted my focus from just scientific information to the scientific process and all that includes... This has made me feel more involved with my surroundings. I'm no longer just teaching in a classroom, but I'm applying what I know for a useful purpose. Then I can take my experiences back into the classroom to show how it relates to what we're doing."

While all three groups remarked on the benefits of having new connections to both peers and scientists, those that pursued their own research were most likely to comment on how the experience had altered their image of themselves as a teacher. These comments were most frequent in the group that was conducting their own research (61%), less frequent in the group conducting their ecologist's research (27%), and less frequent still in the group that focused on classroom application (8%). There is a significant difference between the group pursuing their own research questions and the group that focused on classroom application (p=0.001 by Fisher's exact test). Although the difference between those conducting their own research and those collecting data for their ecologist was not significant (p= 0.08 by Fisher's exact test), it is suggestive of a trend. It is interesting to conjecture whether ownership over the research question was a factor that influenced self-esteem.

Teacher responses in this category describe a feeling of increased authenticity, confidence, competence or renewed energy toward teaching. This was more frequently mentioned by teachers who conducted their own research than by teachers who collected data for their ecologist's research project. This shift in self-image was not shared by the group who focused only on classroom changes and did not conduct a research project.

Teachers described how doing science had now became integral to their job definition. Further, pursuing science, and learning new techniques made them feel more confident that they could introduce such innovations into their classroom.

"Doing science is just so very different from reading about it, or reading a lesson plan. ...Experiencing it is just very different. And ... you can't help but transmit that attitudinally and every way in your teaching. It encompasses who you are as a teacher, it's more than just an attitude."

"Science is both a verb and a noun. I now 'do' science as well as 'know' about science"

"The decision 'to be selfish' and learn for myself has worked as I hoped it would- I am competent and certified in water quality testing, and that makes me more comfortable with bringing these techniques into the classroom. It also makes me mindful that I need to have students involved and be engaged in 'hands on.'"

In addition to making them feel more confident, these experiences reconnected teachers with their own love of science. Several participants expressed rediscovering both their love for the subject matter and for teaching it.

"This experience made me feel like a scientist! I had forgotten how much fun it is to use the scientific method to figure out a problem that you don't know the answer to! This feeling of 'I Love Science' can hopefully be transposed onto and into my students by allowing them to use the same methods that were allowed to use."

"We have had complete control over the project; this rarely happens in the school environment. Just having a sense of purpose has made a difference in the classroom-it reminds me of why I chose this profession- to teach and that teaching is supposed to be in learning."

Finally, teachers' self-image was influenced by the way they felt that their students were now reacting to them. The students were fascinated that their teachers were conducting science. Students expressed interest in what their teachers were doing, in the procedures they were using and in the results that they were obtaining. Many teachers shared their work with their students. Teachers said that they felt they had gained increased credibility and authenticity with their students.

"I think doing my own research has given me more credibility."

"We are practicing what we're teaching. And it makes me have more authority and the kids look up to me and say, 'You give of you own time to do this..'"

"The decision to concentrate on ourselves as researchers has made me more confident in my teaching and has also given me a sense of pride that I am doing volunteer work for the environment, instead of just talking about it in class."

Change in teachers' role vis-á-vis students
Forty-four percent of those who carried out their own research and 45% of those who collected data for their ecologist's research mentioned changes in their relation to their students. None of those who focused on classroom innovation mentioned this. The difference on this dimension between those conducting research and those focusing on classroom innovation was striking.

Comments in this category centered on teachers' assuming the role of mentor or role model to their students. They modeled what the doing of science looked like. Part of the role definition of a teacher now included sharing their doing of science. This is clearly related intimately with the sense of increased credibility described above. In fact, this connection suggests that students' attitudes towards their teachers may play a significant role in making teacher change possible, a linkage that deserves more study.

"Isn't there an element in there somewhere when we're doing it (ecological research) that the kids look at us and they say 'you don't have to do this....' and we answer quite honestly, 'yeah , but I can do this also. ....We are practicing what we're teaching.'"

"We are doing our own research project. This has made me feel more involved with my surroundings...I can take my experiences back into the classroom to show how it relates to what we're doing"

"Well, I think doing my own research has given me more credibility. Students seem to respond when I relate my own experiences."

In addition to becoming a role model to the students, reconnecting with science research allowed the teachers to remember the excitement, challenges, and frustrations of being a student. This includes the challenges of undertaking new kinds of learning techniques, such as writing in journals, or working as part of a team.

"Recording data, making inferences, etc. brings me back to the role of a student also. This helps me to both remember the fun of research and the pressures associated with it and deadlines."

"These decisions have helped me as a teacher to better understand scientific research and cooperative team work. I can empathize with my students when team projects are involved...I'm learning and can better understand what I require of my students."

Finally, this shift in teachers' perception of their role, and understanding of the students' experience often led teachers to loosen the control that they held over the class allowing students greater freedom to direct their own learning.

"My class discussions are much less structured by me, more structured by the kids' questions because I relate to how exciting it is to answer your own questions, since that's what we got to do..."

New curricular and pedagogical innovations
For some, the project brought a new awareness of ecology as a subject matter related to the evolutionary core of modern biology. For others, it provided a new sense of relevance and vitality for the classroom content; for others it provided a natural way to connect the classroom content to the local surroundings, with which their students were very familiar. Many teachers also found that the poster sessions in which they had presented their research findings to their peers to be a powerful learning tool, and tried to make use of that kind of peer discussion in their classes, both in biology and in other subjects.

"I have incorporated 21 questions, journal writing, portfolios, and field ecology into all my classes. My students may not cover as much this year, but their lives will be enriched because of time that we have spent in the field. They will not remember DNA replication after tomorrow's test, but they will remember that we tested the water at Howell Pond for chemicals that might damage the ecosystem and hurt the DNA of living things that drink the water from Howell Pond....Asking questions and trying to find answers-working as 14 year old scientists just makes sense to me."

"My experience with student research has really helped me let go of my 'need to cover' curriculum as I see the excitement grow in students. The mixing of numerous 'eco-units' with 'traditional' units helps refresh all involved to still allow reasonable coverage in our survey biology course."

Importance of the study and need for future research

While all teachers spoke of the value of new connections to teachers, scientists, and community resources, those conducting their own research were more likely to describe a sense of transformation by their experience. It was not only that they had more resources to call upon, but that they themselves were enlarged, they could play the role of scientist as well as teacher, they could engage in creating science as well as relating or recreating it. This enlarged role, in turn, influenced the way they chose to interact with their students. Both groups of teachers that sustained a research plan were significantly more likely to talk of a change of role vis-á-vis their students. They were now able to see themselves as role models, and their sense of increased competence bolstered them in that role. It was important for them that their students know about their research and that they make time to share with their students what it was like; some teams used the posters they had created during workshops to tell their story to their students as well as to their peers. They sensed that their students were interested in them and in their work, and the teachers felt that they had thereby gained credibility with their students. Of course, these encounters further enriched their sense of self-worth, competence, and confidence in themselves as teachers. While teachers in all three groups report bringing new activities to their classrooms, one is left to wonder how the increased self-esteem, increased appreciation of student experiences conducting research, and changes in role will shape the choice and use of new curricula and materials. Although there is a need for long-term study of such teachers, the data collected at this point in time gives some indications that they see important transferences from their own experiences to those of their students, with correlative changes in pedagogy and classroom practice. These indications suggest that the research- and adult-learning orientation provided by the TEPE project contains important ingredients for the kind of complex teacher change necessary to the realization of inquiry in the high-school science classroom.

In describing what they learned from their experience, these teachers articulated that they had a better sense of what inquiry could look like for their students, and how they could scaffold this kind of experience in the classroom. In addition, their increased confidence in conducting science investigations and their increased credibility with their students supported a role change, as many increasingly saw themselves as role models in the practice and learning of science, rather than lecturers or sources of information. In addition, the sense of expanded opportunities, roles, and resources makes teachers more aware of how their own professional lives can be enriched by these wider connections, which are contextualized by including research expertise as part of the teacher's self- definition. This then provides a conceptual framework within which the teacher can manage her own professional development both as a science teacher and as a science practitioner, which are two sides of the same coin.

Our project provided us a glimpse of some of the dynamics that may support teachers' making radical shifts in their classroom approach, which demand at the same time enhancement of the teachers' understanding of their role, and of their science knowledge, and of their facility with science research, beyond specific technical skills of measurement and calculation. Our sample is of course small, and further research would be required to test the long-term effects of the kinds of changes we report here on teachers' classroom practice, and on their habits of self-enhancement. We believe that the results to date are suggestive, however, of the power of teachers' reconception of their role and their resources to prepare them to experiment with challenging classroom innovation.


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  1. NSF/TE Grant 92-53280, Prassede Calabi: Principal Investigator, Brian Drayton: Project Director