A Guide to Ethical Decision Making for Insider Research (Epilogue)
By: Jane Zeni
Publication: Ethical Issues in Practioner Research
A GUIDE TO ETHICAL DECISION MAKING FOR INSIDER RESEARCH
Source: Epilogue from Ethical Issues in Practitioner Research, ed Jane Zeni (Teachers College Press, 2001), pp. 153-165.
Practitioner research has become a major mode of inquiry in American education. As classroom teachers discover the intellectual excitement of studying their own practice and the power of collaborative action research with other insiders, many decide to pursue their inquiries through grant proposals, publications, or graduate theses. At this point, however, many are bewildered by the advice on "research ethics" dispensed by various colleagues and institutions.
Most universities and school districts have an institutional review board (IRB) that monitors research proposals using questions designed for traditional scientific experiments. Researchers are asked if their tests are dangerous, if their subjects will be given drugs, if the treatment will be traumatic. Researchers are asked to state precisely which data they will collect, which techniques they will use. But research by insiders--which may be called "practitioner inquiry," "action research," "teacher research," or "classroom ethnography"--does not fit the IRB's model. Action researchers pursue a question through an often-meandering route, finding appropriate data sources along the way. When researchers investigate their own practice, many of the traditional guidelines collapse. Yet practitioner research raises its own, often sticky, ethical issues which may never be addressed by review boards.
In my graduate classes, I find that teachers see the issues more clearly by locating action research on a matrix of research methods (see Figure 1). Action research draws on the qualitative methods and multiple perspectives of educational ethnography. When challenged, those of us who do action research take pains to distinguish our work from traditional quantitative research: We explain that we don't deal with big numbers, random samples, or manipulated variables, but with the human drama as lived by self-conscious actors. Perhaps it is just as important to distinguish action research from traditional qualitative research: We aren't outsiders peering from the shadows into the classroom, but insiders responsible to the students whose learning we document.
Figure 1. Educational Research Methods: A Methodological Matrix
Figure 1 illustrates modes of research across two dimensions: qualitative/ quantitative and insider/ outsider. Action research usually falls in the lower-right quadrant of the matrix: qualitative research by insiders.
Such "insiders" may be preschool teachers, assistant principals, reading specialists, high school math teachers, curriculum coordinators, coaches, university professors -- any of us who study our own practice as educators. We find the ethical safeguards of the outsider doing quantitative, experimental research (random selection, control groups, removing the personal influence of the researcher) either irrelevant or problematic for us as insiders. In the same way, the ethical safeguards of the outsider doing qualitative research (anonymous informants, disguised settings) are subverted as soon as the inside author is named; in addition, anonymity may defeat the insider's goal of open communication with students, colleagues, and parents. Ethical guidelines need to be rethought for the special case of research by practitioners in their own workplaces.
When does good teaching become research? The line is hard to draw until a study is underway. Research tends to involve
An ARC committee examined human subjects reviews and ethics policies from local universities and from the American Anthropological Association, the Oral History Association, and the American Educational Research Association. I began writing the guide, bringing drafts to ARC seminars for discussion. Feedback came from a wider audience of teachers and administrators in conferences, graduate courses, and teacher research groups.
What at first seemed a rather straightforward exercise in translation proved a formidable task. The more I tried to address the different contexts and communities in which practitioners do research, the more convoluted our ethical guidelines became. As teacher educators, we began to see that a "new paradigm code of ethics" would itself become "procrustean" (Gregory, 1990, p. 166). I finally abandoned the goal of an alternative "human subjects" review. Even if an adequate ethical code could be written, having it enforced by administrators who were not grounded in action research might do more harm than good. How, then, could we protect the rights of students without inhibiting the rights of teachers to gather and reflect on data from their own classrooms?
The guide offers a set of questions as a heuristic for reflection. A research team or dissertation committee can work through the guide with anyone who is planning a project. Most questions ask the researcher to discuss a potential ethical problem, to consider alternative actions, and to explain his or her choices.
The following "Questions for Review and Reflection" use the categories of a typical IRB ethics review only as a point of departure. Part I requests an overview of the project. Part II examines the role and location of the researcher within the research setting. Part III asks about methods, and whether the research falls within the everyday decisions of a teacher or whether there is some further intervention. Part IV examines what the IRB calls subjects and the impact of the research on relationships with students, colleagues, and administrators. Part V considers the consequences of the research for participants and ways to reduce risks either through informed consent or through openness, dialogue, and acknowledgment. Part VI deals with publication and the issues of credit, privacy, voice, and multiple perspectives. Part VII poses some questions that have been generally ignored in IRB documents, but have been especially problematic for researchers studying their own practice.
Comments. This section can help beginners grasp the mind-set of action research, recognizing that their study will not provide simple "yes" or "no" answers, that each cycle of research will lead them to a deeper inquiry, and that the questions themselves are likely to change. They may need to redefine their initial problem so that they "own" it and can therefore take action to address it. Hubbard and Power (1993) portray this initial phase of research:
Comments. Practitioner research is inquiry into one's own practice. Therefore we begin by looking at ourselves and what we bring to the research--personally, culturally, and professionally (see Zeni & Prophete, Chapter 10 in this volume). Traditional experimental research sees the ideal researcher as neutral, unbiased, objective, but as teachers we are personally involved in our classrooms. Instead of trying to distance ourselves, we need to articulate our own position and analyze how it differs from that of other participants in the research.
As Gesa Kirsch (1999) explains, "The goal of situating ourselves in our work and acknowledging our limited perspectives is not to overcome these limits--an impossible task--but to reveal to readers. . . what factors have shaped the research" (p. 14).
Our students and colleagues are more than "subjects." Sharon Lee and Seena Kohl (see Chapter 6) suggest these distinctions:
On the other hand, Lou Smith argues that "field research is so different from the usual experimental approaches that many individuals, even responsible professional educators, do not understand what . . . they are getting themselves into" (1990, p. 151). He stresses the need for dialogue, moving beyond "contract" relationships to "covenants" of trust (pp. 149-150). In this volume, Lee (Chapter 6) and Smith (Chapter 9) portray the misunderstandings that can occur in the absence of this dialogue.
Qualitative researchers have long considered anonymity the norm, essential to protect "informants." Concepts from outsider social science spilled over into guidelines for teacher research (e.g., Hubbard & Power, 1993, pp. 60-61). Today some researchers, especially those working in collaborative and feminist modes, are challenging the assumptions. Why should a teacher quote published writers with credit and citations, but quote her own student writers under pseudonyms? Can anonymity conflict with intellectual property rights?
Yvonna Lincoln (1990, pp. 279-280) agrees that "privacy, confidentiality,
and anonymity regulations were written under assumptions that are ill
suited" to qualitative research. She suggests that colleagues, administrators,
and parents participate "as full, cooperative agents," our co-researchers.
Action research can support democratic, student-centered pedagogy when teachers periodically share their drafts with students or colleagues. Lather (1991) sees "the submission of a preliminary description of the data to the scrutiny of the researched" (p. 53) as an emancipatory approach to inquiry and a source of "face validity" (p. 67).
A growing trend in practitioner research is "multivoiced" publication, incorporating not only the perspectives but also the texts of colleagues, students, and others. Sometimes these reports take the form of a script or simulated dialogue (Harris, Lowenstein, & Scott, Chapter 11 in this volume); sometimes they weave together several authors' statements on a common topic (Zeni & Prophete, Chapter 10); sometimes they use quotations and layers of feedback (van den Berg, Chapter 8). Incorporating other voices, especially when their views differ from that of the researcher, can make a report richer, more nuanced, more authentic (McCarthy & Fishman, 1996).
Paul Anderson (1998) calls for an ethical standard "beyond the Federal regulation" (p. 72). Along with obtaining whatever consent is legally required, we must protect our relationships of trust with those vulnerable to exploitation, especially students.
Marian Mohr states it this way: Teacher researchers are
teachers first. They respect those with whom they work, openly sharing
information about their research. While they seek understanding and knowledge,
they also nurture the well-being of others, both students and professional
colleagues (Chapter 1 in this volume).
Collaboration and communication are the best guides to preventing the ethical dilemmas of practitioner research.
The guide was originally prepared for the St. Louis Action Research Collaborative (ARC) and the Gateway Writing Project, the local site of the National Writing Project. The topics addressed reflect the suggestions and experiences of the ARC's Teacher Educators' Seminar, especially Lou Smith (Washington University), Sharon Lee (Webster University), Kathryn Mitchell-Pierce (Clayton Public Schools), Sunny Pervil (Maryville University), and Mike McGrath, Jori Martinez, and Owen van den Berg (National-Louis University). Douglas Wartzok (University of Missouri-St. Louis) also gave helpful feedback.
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