Collaboration In and Of Research and Teaching
Tasha J. Souza
Research and practice are often seen as being at opposite ends of the academic continuum. Bringing research closer to practice and practice closer to research can help to change our assumptions about the nature of research and teaching. This paper explores collaboration, or a social constructionist perspective, in research and teaching. Too often, as researchers and teachers, we believe that our research and teaching are performed independently and in isolation. Our research can benefit others and help to address real social problems when we work in collaboration with those whom we research. Further, our teaching will be more effective when we recognize that teaching is a collaborative construction. All classroom participants jointly create the learning environment. In addition, it is imperative that we begin to bridge research and teaching. As teachers in the classroom, we are also researchers in the classroom. Both of these roles can mutually inform one another.
This paper is divided into four sections. First, I describe the theoretical perspective (social constructionism) that guides the assertions made in this paper regarding research and teaching. Further, I discuss a collaborative approach to research and teaching and describe why the bridging of research and teaching can be useful.
Social Constructionism Simplified
The basic contention of a social constructionist perspective is implicit in its title, namely, that reality is constructed socially (i.e., created in interaction) and that researchers must analyze the processes in which this occurs (Berger & Luckman, 1966). The underlying assumptions of this approach are that people constitute, create, and produce themselves and their worlds through their conversational activity (Shotter, 1993) and that when people communicate, they are offering definitions of themselves and responding to definitions of other people. This perspective, of course, does not suggest that people do not exist separate from their conversational activity, but rather that the meaning and perceptions people have of themselves, others, and reality are communicatively created. Meanings and knowledge are co-constructed (constructed together) in interaction.
Social constructionism is social and focuses on both the process and the product of human interaction and communication (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1995). Social constructionism is social in that the primary focus is on communication and the relationship of people interacting rather than on the individual. Social constructionists focus on both process and product because at the same time that communication maintains reality, it "ongoingly modifies it" (Berger & Luckman, 1966, p. 153). Relationships and reality are viewed as created, constituted, and sustained by communication. We engage in communication processes that generate meaning and create knowledge (Penman, 1992). Communication creates and recreates our social world (Penman, 1992).
Shotter (1993) contends that social constructionists, in general, study the contingent flow of continuous communicative activity between human beings. Our ways of talking lend further form or structure to what we know about the world and what we know about the world is rooted in our ways of talking. Social constructionists recognize the constitutive role of social interaction in the construction of personal identity. That is, social constructionism highlights how "we make or remake ourselves in the process" (Shotter, 1993, p. 34) of communicating. According to Shotter (1993), "we constitute both ourselves and our worlds in our conversational activity" (p. 1). We are our communicating (Shotter, 1993).
A social constructionist approach does not allow communication to be seen simply as a matter of information transfer and exchange, rather it must be seen "as a process by which people can, in communication with one another, literally in-form one another's being" (Shotter, 1989, p. 145). In addition, social constructionism recognizes that people's past and present experiences color their understanding of the world in which they live and can affect their interaction with others. Therefore, if every interaction impacts who we are and our view of the world, we cannot overlook the fact that our research and teaching affect and are inexplicably connected with our identities, the identities of others, and our views of the world.
Collaborating in Research
The focus on the interactive processes of personal identity shifts researchers away from the individualist model of the person (i.e., an exclusive focus on the individual) and places communicative interaction at the center of an investigation. Research from a social constructionist perspective focuses on communicative transaction as complex, dynamic, and context-dependent. Because the process of research is just as important as the product of the research, the relationship between the researcher and researched must be foregrounded.
Individual action and reaction are no longer isolated or examined from a linear perspective. Instead, the complex interplay of the researcher, the researched, and the social world is acknowledged. From this perspective, research is seen as constructed (i.e., a co-construction) between researcher and researched. When research methods include the experience of the researcher as well as the researched, the research experience is a creation and discovery of the co-construction of meaning.
Collaboration in the research process is necessary in order to recognize and include the experiences of both the researcher and the researched.Collaboration is the reciprocal sharing of knowledge and experience between the researcher and the researched. Although researchers' understanding of what has been researched will always be incomplete, collaborating with research participants can provide the opportunity to compare and modify researcher perceptions with the participants so that shared meaning about the research becomes more apparent and a more complete understanding is available. According to Shields and Dervin (1993), the more we collaborate with the people we research, "the more we interact with them, the more we partake in their environment, the better, more accurate, and less exploitive the results will be" (p. 70).
If research is to be considered collaborative, the distinction between researcher and researched should become somewhat blurred. Both researcher and researched become participants in the research process. Completed research should not (and cannot) be an individual enterprise but the product of many minds. Shields and Dervin (1993) state that "in this way the dichotomous relationship between the researcher and object of study is replaced by a dialectical one where those researched become collaborators in the research project" (p. 67).
Researchers can vary in their degree of collaborative research. Reinharz (1992) contends that in collaborative research "the people studied make decisions about the study format and data analysis" (p. 181). These decisions can be minor, such as a slight modification of roles, or major, such as participants having a combined researcher/subject role.
The process of collaboration, regardless of degree, should account for the participants and the co-constructed experience. Ganguly (1992) asserts that we must be vigilant in our representations of ourselves but, more importantly, of those we research-the participants whose experience, subjectivity and/or oppression we seek to address. Although all representations are inherently incomplete, we must attempt to find the best strategies for vigilance in order to not reproduce simplistic, ethnocentric portrayals of the participants (Ganguly, 1992).
Research can benefit others and help to address real social problems when we work in collaboration with those whom we research. Research designs that emphasize a dialogic, dialectically educative encounters between researcher and researched can assist participants (and researcher) in understanding and changing their situations (Lather, 1988). This dialogue can bring forth consciousness raising and change because the researcher can recognize and forefront how the research process has influenced both the researcher and the research participants. Therefore, knowing that the research experience affects all of the participants involved, it is important to consider the possible ethical implications and outcomes of the research experience on the researched (as well as the researcher).
A Collaborative View of Teaching
Recognition of the co-constructed process of research and the influence research can have on participants is imperative. In addition, teachers also must recognize the co-constructed nature of the classroom. Current educational reform efforts are asking teachers at all levels to change. They are being asked to change what they teach and how they teach. What is central to each of these changes is a teacher's fundamental beliefs about knowledge, teaching, and learning. A collaborative view of knowledge allows authority for knowing, teaching, and learning to rest with all class participants rather than with only the teacher (Peterson, 1994). The role of discourse and negotiation of meaning becomes central to learning. Meaning cannot be removed from the worlds of the people who "constitute, shape, and live within its definitions" (Giroux, 1983, p. 184).
When a teacher takes a social constructionist perspective, he or she engages students as more than passive receptacles for information. Rather than treating communication as a process of delivering and receiving messages, communication can be treated as complex and dynamic in that all class participants co-construct meanings and knowledge together through communication. Knowledge is a social act in that it is inexplicably linked to the participants involved in meaning making. The class becomes a process of co-construction, examination, and reflection by teacher and students. When students are engaged in dialogues that permit them to make knowledge their own by speaking in their own voice and language, classroom communication can serve to empower students (Sprague, 1992).
A collaborative view of teaching is in sharp contrast to traditional views of teaching and learning. In the common "transmission" view of teaching (i.e., the belief that teachers transmit knowledge to students) and the "absorptionist" view of learning (i.e., the belief that students learn by absorbing new information), both students and teachers play relatively passive roles (Prawat, 1989). The teacher dispenses information and the students receive the information. A teacher needs to recognize that the communication in the classroom is an endless production of new meanings in order to understand how students are creating and making knowledge their own. Further, rather than covering a mass of material for students to absorb, the teacher's task becomes one of creating conditions that allow for students to construct knowledge that is powerful and meaningful.
Teachers that come from a social constructionist perspective recognize that all class participants continually affect and influence meaning construction and understanding. The classroom experience becomes a microcosm that brings students and teacher closer to what it means and how it feels when we confront the complexities of our similarities and differences. From this perspective, teachers and students are encouraged to explore and reflect on their own values and beliefs and recognize how those values and beliefs shape and are being shaped by others through communicative interactions.
A teacher that has a collaborative view of the classroom is more likely to use active learning techniques and instructional methods like discussion. Discussion teaching "is essentially a systematic way of constructing a context for learning from the knowledge and experience of students, rather than exclusively from the canons of disciplinary knowledge" (Elmore, 1991, p. xiv). In the process of discussion teaching, a teacher shares meaning and power. Discussion allows teaching to become an intrinsically social activity, jointly constructed between student and teacher (Sprague, 1993).
Thinking about teaching and learning as collaborative processes can change what we teach and how we teach. Teaching and learning are simplified when they are seen simply as a successful transmission of knowledge from teacher to student. A social constructionist perspective can help teachers to recognize the complexity and co-construction of teaching, learning, knowing, and being.
Bridging Research and Teaching
It is important to think collaboratively about research and to think collaboratively about teaching. In addition, research and teaching can be bridged and used in collaboration so that classrooms can become centers of inquiry. Perhaps because I am in the position of studying interaction in instructional contexts, I believe that teaching and research are inseparable components of scholarship in higher education. There can be numerous benefits when teachers undertake classroom investigations. When teachers use a collaborative research perspective in the classroom and become intellectually engaged in learning about teaching, teaching and learning will be enhanced because teachers can bring their informed, intellectual powers to bear on teaching issues.
Too often, research about teaching never makes it way back into the classroom where the research took place. Often, researchers enter a teacher's classroom and, usually after a short period of time, claim to know what is occurring in the classroom. The researcher leaves and most likely, the teacher never has the opportunity to learn from the researcher's observations and conclusions. In order for teachers to be informed about the particulars of their classrooms, teachers can acquire a research perspective in their teaching.
Teachers engaging in pedagogical analysis have the capacity to discover more about their students, their classrooms, their teaching, and their profession. When teachers take a research perspective into their classroom, they can follow the traditional research steps of forming a problem, developing methods for investigation, determining the results, reaching conclusions, and developing implications. This perspective can keep teachers from moving too quickly from a classroom problem to a solution without careful analysis of the complexity of the situation.
Research about teaching by the "experts" themselves is rooted in the real world of teaching and learning. It empowers teachers to generate good questions and produce informed answers that can benefit the class as a whole. Teachers that take on a research perspective are enabled as continuing learners which, in turn, enables students to become continuing learners.
Research and practice no longer need to be seen as being at opposite ends of an academic continuum. Bringing research and practice closer together and seeing them as complimentary can help to change our assumptions about the nature of research and teaching. I have used collaboration in my research and in my teaching and have found that the difference in coming from a social constructionist perspective versus a more traditional perspective is substantial. Our research and teaching can no longer afford to be performed independently and in isolation. Research and teaching can benefit others and help to address real problems when we work in collaboration with those whom we research and teach. In addition, when we begin to bridge research and teaching, we can come closer to understanding the complexities of our practice.
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