Book by Viviane Robinson and Mei Kuin Lai
Review by Patricia J. Hudson
International Studies
Portland State University
Portland, Oregon

Advisors with a passion for improving student learning and achievement will find that they have much in common with Robinson and Lai. These authors are ardent about the use of problem-based methodology (PBM) by teachers and school leaders to investigate, examine and test their practices and implicit theories. PBM was designed by Robinson for educators as a tool to improve overall performance. Robinson argues that the best way for teachers to learn from research is to conduct it themselves. The authors found that this method led to improved student achievement in historically underachieving New Zealand schools.

The authors acknowledge that even though busy teachers have little time to pursue substantial research, research must become a part of teachers’ professional lives. Research improves student outcome, develops context-specific solutions, provides effective professional development, and helps sustain improvements in teaching and learning. The authors argue that even small scale findings have value and note that they found overlap between teachers in different settings who tackle common problems. One teacher expressed a common thought: “I am surprised when students do not understand my instructions—I assume they are clear. The problem is they are clearer to me, in my head, than they are when expressed to others” (pg 127). Robinson and Lai offer PBM as the answer to this common dilemma.

The book provides detailed PBM instructions that still allow for flexibility. PBM can accommodate different research methods with one central purpose: “to explain, evaluate, and improve teaching practices in ways that are rigorous as well as relevant to the particular context in which a teacher is working” (Pg 15). One type of learning tool presented is the ”ladder of inference” which starts with a pool of available information and climbs upward as the researcher selects, describes, interprets, evaluates, theorizes, and concludes. A similar model is illustrated as a ”ladder to increase validity.” The authors explain how to plan research ethically using a step-by-step study design, proposal template, sample interviews, questionnaires, observations, and data collection. They detail how to analyze trial data during collection noting that “While most data analysis happens after the information is gathered, it should begin while information is still being collected. It is too late once all your teacher interviews have been completed, for example, to discover that the information is too sketchy to provide convincing answers to your questions” (pg. 141).

The authors note that an invaluable component of research is the written research report. A written report can be a worthwhile challenge because it requires a sharpness of thought and expression; it creates a public record that contributes to the body of knowledge about the topic as it provides tangible evidence of accomplishments. Above all, a written report demonstrates possibility and encourages colleagues. The authors conclude that teachers who use PBM to rigorously inspect their own practice are the building blocks of “cultures of inquiry” (pg. 211).

Advisors who also teach will find value in this book as they look for ways to improve the effectiveness of their instruction. Those interested in implementing PBM will find that the book gives precise instruction including outlines, details, and summaries supported by real examples of success.

Practitioner Research for Educators; A Guide to Improving Classrooms and Schools. (2005). Book by Viviane Robinson and Mei Kuin Lai. Review by Patricia J. Hudson. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications. 240 pp., $34.95. ISBN # 0761946845
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