Teacher research groups in a Chinese primary school: What if …?

Teacher research groups have been a feature of the Chinese school system for over 50 years, including outside the special regions (such as Shanghai and Bejing) with which westerners are most familiar. Sometimes traced to Soviet influence on the Chinese system, they continue to be a contractual feature of teachers’ work for which time is protected on the timetable. They have never been something teachers were just expected to do after school.

As with most things that any employee is contractually obliged to do, they become routine, automatic, to some extent lose their meaning, and can end up as ‘just another thing’ to prepare. From my own observations in Chinese schools and in translated conversations with teachers, Chinese teachers don’t necessarily see teacher research as their salvation from the pressures of a challenging job.

What has always interested me about the way that these research groups are often used in schools, however, is the focus on curriculum development. And in two ways. First, the broad trend underlying curriculum development in China after 1974 (and the reforms of Deng Xiaopeng) has been to embrace the movement known as progressivism. Not the caricature invented as a Twitter device by educational conservatives1 in England but the broad movement informed, in particular, by Dewey and then by ideas derived from western educational research such as ‘problem based learning’. Secondly, this broad, curriculum-focused trend giving direction to the work of many teacher research groups does not isolate the curriculum from pedagogy nor ossify it, again in distinction to some of the uses of ‘curriculum’ we see in England.

In research and development underway at Central China Normal University, Professor Qiming Mao has based an intervention on these teacher research groups in a small sample of primary schools to see how they may (or may not) be useful in the context of pre-service teacher education as well as school-based curriculum development. By incorporating a school’s student teachers into these groups and allowing the school’s teachers to determine the focus of the teacher research group’s work, Professor Mao is studying what and how the teachers are learning and to what ends. Each group meeting is being video- and audio-recorded and he (and I) are using the D-analysis protocol developed by David Middleton at Loughborough University to analyse the interactional data.

teacher talking to class
The teacher begins the lesson

In one group meeting and associated lesson at a primary school in a large central China city, we observed a teacher planning to teach a lesson to (the equivalent of) a Year 5 class. The lesson we observed consisted of a short introduction (using Powerpoint and video clips) of the history of paper-making and then a short demonstration of how to use the materials the teacher had assembled to make paper. The class was then divided into groups (determined by the teacher) and the children started to make paper according to the teacher’s guidance. She intervened in each group’s work then, with an eye on the clock, started to get the students to clean up and pack away. With about 7 minutes left of the lesson, she then asked one child from each group to say something that they had learned about the process of making paper that would be useful to know if they tried again. And then the lesson ended and it was morning break and we all went outside to see the most spectacular but normal (I was assured) morning break I have ever seen….

making paper
Getting very messy

The discussion and debate in the teacher research group that followed later in the day was unremarkable in two ways that I have encountered previously in China. First, the analysis of and feedback on the lesson from many of the teachers was brutal and unflinching in its genuinely open questioning. Second, when Professor Mao contributed to the discussion, his observations were met with the same brutal and unflinching critique. I have seen this response many times in China; the first time I was very anxious about the potential vulnerability of the observed teacher to the critique of her work (and it usually is a woman in Chinese primary schools). I needn’t have worried – and this cultural difference is something in which Professor Mao and I have become interested, comparatively.

The discussion was also remarkable in two ways, though. First, in that the close, shared observational focus on the lesson began with non-inferential judgements that were pedagogic in nature and shifted to the detailed deliberation of curriculum concepts and aims. What did the teacher want the students to learn? Was there a tension between a group activity focused on ‘making’ with the teacher’s avowedly historical aims for students’ learning? Were there missed opportunities in the lesson to raise issue of environmental sustainability (the paper being ‘made’ was, in effect, being recycled) – not in abstract terms but as an immediately useful question (the school was next to a rubbish dump and occasionally swarms of flies would invade the classrooms)? The discussion only ended when the siren went off to signal a lesson change

teacher res group
Teachers in the research group meeting room

Secondly, what became clear in talking to the student teachers at the end of this particular teacher research group meeting – and at the end of the sequence – was that they saw these meetings as an important way into participating in a professional discourse; as an opportunity to see teacher judgement and decision-making in action; and as a realisation that teacher judgement and decision-making are not technical exercises but value-laden ones in context.

What remains to be seen, however, is what is going on in the teacher research groups themselves and what traces of learning are evident in the interactional discourse. Although the Chinese context means this is not a ‘teacher-friendly’ intervention (i.e. one to which they are very likely going to be well disposed because it is new), the perceptions of the student teachers alone are not going to get us very far when trying to understand what is actually going on.

the posse
The CCNU posse/guides/translators/food-finders

Professor Mao’s research is ongoing and – fingers crossed – we will have an opportunity to talk about in at AERA next year.


  1. I use the term ‘educational conservatives’ as it is clear that it is possible to hold views that might be characterised this way at the same time as describing oneself as politically liberal.
  2. The photographs in this post are used with permission of the children, parents and school and the research approved by Central China Normal University.


One thought

  1. Thanks Viv! Your post has helped me to process my own experience in a similar group in Beijing early this year. Like you, I was taken aback by the frank discussions as well as the detailed analyses of teaching methods. I have been reflecting on how our own methods rarely touch upon the how of teaching.

    I am heading over to the World Association of Lesson Study conference at BNU in late November to learn and reflect some more.

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