Teacher Knowledge: From ‘Outside-In’ to ‘Inside-Out’

In their book ‘Inside Outside: Teacher Research and Knowledge,’ Marilyn Cochrane Smith and Susan L. Lytle outline a fundamental problem with our profession, namely that there has been an outside-in model of knowledge creation about what effective teaching is and a ‘top-down’ model of school improvement. Teachers they claim, have effectively been passive participants in the process of what constitutes good practice, and in research terms have been mere ‘objects of study.’

“The primary knowledge source for the improvement of practice is research on classroom phenomenon that can be observed. This research has a perspective that is “outside-in”; in other words, it has been conducted almost exclusively by university based researchers who are outside of the day-to-day practice of schooling.”

With all the millions invested in education research, it’s somewhat ironic (and symptomatic of the age) that some of the biggest agents of impact recently have been various grassroots movements, driven through self-organising, informal communities connecting through social media. The establishment of forums like ResearchED are now functioning as a sort of fourth estate to the traditional trifecta of School/Academia/Government, indeed major funding is now being invested to evaluate the impact of both school to school support models and also brokerage models of research engagement.

What is most significant about these initiatives, is that they are being driven by classroom teachers at a grassroots level working from the inside out, as opposed to traditional top-down model of ‘experts’ dictating from the outside-in.

This movement from ‘fringe to forefront’ is fuelled by a real desire from classroom teachers for not just knowledge, but practical, usable knowledge that speaks to them about their own experiences and has real, demonstrable impact on the pupils in their charge. For too long, the creation of knowledge about what makes effective teaching has been one-way traffic with researchers observing and codifying the phenomenon of the classroom, with very little input from teachers themselves.

Stenhouse’s argument was radical: He claimed that research was the route to teacher emancipation and that “researchers should justify themselves to practitioners, not practitioners to researchers.” *

For me the single most important element in this process is the autonomy for teachers to be able to ask their own questions and then carry out the process of collaborative, systematic enquiry to explore those questions. What we have had until this point has largely been characterised by teachers being given answers to questions they didn’t ask. It is vital that those questions come not just from outside-in but from the direct issues that teachers experience everyday in the classroom. As Cochran-Smith and Lytle remind us:

The unique feature of the questions that prompt teacher research is that they emanate from neither theory nor practice alone but from critical reflection on the intersection of the two.

However teachers can’t do it alone with the present workload level and lack of training/expertise in research methods. The experience and knowledge of experienced academics and education research departments can play a vital role in working alongside teachers helping them shape their focus and provide crucial support in terms of methodology, literature and the wider evidence base and hopefully helping to create a truly collaborative model of knowledge creation about effective classroom practice that is not solely outside-in.

Works cited: Cochran-Smith, M. and Lytle, S. (1993) Inside –Outside: teacher research and knowledge, Teachers College Press, New York *Stenhouse in Ruddock and Hopkins, 1985 p.19


  1. ijstock

    …and I think the essential point is that the questions teachers ask may be fundamentally different in nature from the questions that researchers, managers or politicians ask.


  2. Leah @LearntSchool

    Hey there, so great to see this message. I’m building momentum on this from a student perspective because I never understood what schools were trying to achieve. I never understood why my teachers were considered so incapable of of deciding for themselves and communicating what they will teach, who their lessons are for, when the course will be and how their students can expect to be measured and improve. Why were my teachers silenced in this way? It’s all very subtle, of course. It’s a slow, steady dis-empowerment. No dramatic ‘whack’ that would leave us horrified. And it’s sustained, in part, because people who are ‘picked’ and ‘awarded’ are supposed to develop a sense of superiority over the rest. Great debate… I’ll be keeping an eye on your work Carl.


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