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November 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 3

Choose Your Own Adventure: Action Research for PD

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Delving into their own questions can help teachers take ownership of their practice.

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It's Wednesday morning before school-contract hours. Five sleepy teachers make their way into the school conference room. Their colleague, Emma, welcomes them with snacks and a PowerPoint reviewing the action research process. Today the group digs into articulating questions about their teaching. Everyone has lots of questions, but how do they pick one and turn it into something they can study? Not all the teachers fully understand the process in which they're about to engage, but they are in the room because they want to better understand their teaching and their students' learning. They want to focus on what matters to them and their practice. They are willing to dive into the unknown, led by their colleague, because they have faith that the time they spend looking deeply at their practice will have far-reaching benefits for their students. This group of teachers is leading their own professional development through action research.
Teaching has intensified in recent years (Apple, 2009), with more paperwork, more standards, more processes, and more meetings. This intensification leaves little space for teachers to meaningfully engage with their own learning. Too often, professional development means "sit-and-get" workshops that may or may not target the strengths and needs of any one particular teacher in the room. Knowles, Holton, and Swanson (2011) argue that there are six principles of adult learning: adults need to know the reason for learning something; adults need to be responsible for and involved in their own learning; experience (including error) provides the basis for learning activities; adults are most interested in learning those things having immediate relevance to them; adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented; and adults respond better to internal versus external motivators. Despite these rather well-known principles, traditional professional development exercises often miss the mark and can amount to lost opportunities for growth and change. Even professional learning communities, which were intended as spaces where teachers could come together to share expertise and engage in substantial conversations about practice and student learning outcomes, have too often been derailed into structured team meetings with externally created goals (Servage, 2006/2007).
But what if teachers could lead their own learning? What if they could be knowledge generators instead of only knowledge consumers? A group of teachers at Providence Elementary School, a large Title I suburban elementary school in Virginia, made this shift when they launched an action research group. While action research has become ubiquitous in university teacher-education programs due to its promotion of data use and reflective practice, it is unfortunately much less common for teachers to initiate this process in their schools. There are various reasons for this gap, including school cultures, workload, and time demands. Given these constraints, Providence's experience offers valuable insight into how action research with colleagues can work as job-embedded professional learning within the demands of daily teaching.

Valuing Curiosity

Emma was in her third year of teaching when she gathered a group of her colleagues together to study their practice. Spurred by an email from her principal about the importance of grit to student learning, Emma started researching the topic online: "I clicked on that article, and then I clicked on another one, and then two hours later I was like, I still don't know how to do grit!" She wanted to move past the rhetoric and explore what developing grit really looks like in 3rd grade mathematics. When she met with her principal to discuss her interest, he encouraged her to start an action research group—inviting colleagues to join so they could explore their own problems of practice. Emma contacted her former teacher-education program for resources and was put in touch with Stephanie, a teacher educator with experience in action research, who shared resources, ideas, and subsequently studied their journey.

Purposeful Attention to Questions

Action research is "a process of systematic inquiry, usually cyclical, conducted by those inside a community. … [I]ts goal is to identify action that will generate improvement the researcher believes important" (Hinchey, 2008). Typically, in a school-based setting, the action research process begins with a question or problem of practice that a teacher or group of teachers are interested in exploring to improve student learning and teachers' pedagogical knowledge. The teacher seeks out more information about that question by consulting with professional resources and academic research. Based on what is learned, the teacher tweaks her question into something more "researchable" and designs an action plan to address the question in her classroom. She then implements these newly informed actions with the intention of improving student outcomes.
To monitor the results, the teacher collects and analyzes data, reflects on the findings, and determines the next steps or the next question(s) (see fig. 1). The action research process is often depicted as a sequence, but in reality this process mimics the life of a classroom—it's nonlinear and messy as teachers move through and between steps. Recognizing that learning, research, and classroom life are interconnected and complex is one of the points, and strengths, of teacher research.

Figure 1. The Action Research Process

el201811_dodman_fig1.gif
Source: Stephanie Dodman

Establishing Trust and Motivation

Emma led Providence Elementary's action research group for two years. Five teachers—who trusted her and were intrigued enough to "just give [action research] a try"—voluntarily joined the group, including Amy. Emma and Amy were the only two participants in the first year who had any previous knowledge of action research, although they'd never done it.
Trust among colleagues has been found to be essential in strong teacher learning communities (Vangrieken et al., 2017), but trust in the processes of peer interaction is equally important (Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012). The school administration had already cultivated a baseline of trust among teachers by encouraging them to open their doors, by supporting frequent nonevaluative specialist and peer observations, and by hosting outside-of-school social events. Due to this positive culture, even the teachers across the large school who did not work together regularly trusted that the process in which they were engaging with their colleagues would lead them somewhere that was collectively important.

Refining Questions

The group met regularly over the course of each year, sometimes outside of school hours. Each meeting had an explicit purpose and agenda, but that agenda was flexible enough to respect the needs of the group and their individual projects. Emma allowed the group members' questions, challenges, and successes to drive the meetings, stressing that they were learning the process together.
One important beginning step was selecting one of the many questions each teacher had and forming it into something "researchable"—a question that is clear, focused on student outcomes, practically significant and feasible, and ethical. This was perhaps the most daunting for some group members since it would shape the course of their research. To clarify their thinking, teachers each wrote their initial question on chart paper, posted it on the wall, and then circulated silently to read their peer's questions and jot down clarifying questions. This helped to refine their wonderings.
For example, for Emma's initial year-one research question, How do intentional math communities affect student grit/problem solving?, teachers asked Emma what she meant by an "intentional math community," what she saw as the relationship between grit and problem solving, and how she would know if grit and problem solving were being affected by the math communities. This last question surfaced an assumption about research being experimental. In action research, experimental design (control and treatment groups) are not necessary, nor desired, due to the nature of research in one's own classroom. This was an important opportunity to clarify this element of action research design.
Based on the group's feedback, Emma broke her final question on grit into managable components: How do intentional math communities affect students' persistence, approach to problem solving, feelings about math, and math achievement? Questions that her fellow teachers pursued included:
  • How does increasing problem solving in my students' day-to-day lives affect their ability to take on more academic challenges?
  • How does building a classroom community affect academic progress?
  • How will providing and preparing authentic publishing opportunities impact students' transference of writing mechanics?

Principal Support and Encouragement

Principal support matters significantly to the success of an action research group. There are structural resources that are needed (for example, time to meet with colleagues or "think time") and there are also emotional needs—teachers must feel that this work is valued and worth their time. Teachers at this school looked to the well-respected principal for backing. Having encouraged Emma to start the project, the principal created time within the school day for the group to meet and affirmed the value of the group through his attendance at meetings and end-of-year research-sharing sessions. He would also regularly ask the teachers how their research was going.
During year two, Emma started a new action research project, this time examining her practice through lesson study, in collaboration with Amy. Their implementation of lesson study required the participation of colleagues to observe and offer feedback—something they needed within-school time to do. The principal offered classroom coverage for observing teachers and approved their action research as eligible for continuing education credits. The success of the projects, Amy felt, could be attributed in part to a meeting between the bottom-up initiative of the teachers and the top-down encouragement and support of the principal.

Reflecting: Allowing the Process to Affect You

Over the two years, Emma and Amy learned a great deal about the action research process, and they also realized that the process revealed and affirmed knowledge about themselves as teachers. For Emma, action research stretched her perspective on otherwise monotonous data-review meetings. She shared, "Because I now know what it is like to look at one thing so deeply and think about it so carefully, I go to my 'happy place' during data meetings. Instead of focusing only on kids getting number three correct or incorrect, I look bigger. Is there a pattern here? What is their performance saying about their learning and my teaching, and what we are doing or not doing for them?"
Most important, the action research process changed the teachers' practice and led to positive student outcomes. During the first year, Emma used her research on grit to guide her investigation of problem solving in math. The student data she collected during the year demonstrated that, through her use of community- and communication-building strategies such as sentence starters and peer coaching, her students strengthened their math skills, enhanced their feelings of safety in math, and increased their persistence in tough math tasks. Similarly, Amy's first-year exploration—of how peer conferencing can affect students' perceptions of themselves as writers and improve their writing skills—saw strong results. Her data indicated that students became more self-aware of their writing and increased their willingness to write for extended periods. What Emma and Amy learned affected their teaching not just for these action research endeavors, but in the years beyond as well.
The action research group was not without challenges; in many ways, the group was building the ship while it sailed. But their efforts were successful because they structured their professional learning as a part of their teaching, not apart from their teaching. This distinction matters. Action research utilizes teachers' own questions about their work and about student learning as they transform their classrooms into dynamic learning laboratories. The process empowers teachers to choose their own learning adventure based on their interests and needs. This group embodied the possibility of teachers initiating and leading their professional development on their own terms. They demonstrated that it's not only possible, but powerful.
References

Apple, M. W. (2009). Controlling the work of teachers. In D. J. Flinders and S. J. Thornton (Eds.), The curriculum studies reader (3rd ed.) (pp. 199–213). New York: Routledge.

Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hinchey, P. (2008). Action research primer. New York: Peter Lang.

Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2011). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (7th ed.). New York: Routledge.

Servage, L. (2006/2007). Making space for critical reflection in professional learning communities. Education Canada, 47(1), 14–17.

Vangrieken, K., Meredith, C., Packer, T., & Kyndt, E. (2017). Teacher communities as a context for professional development: A systematic review. Teaching and Teacher Education, 61, 47–59.

Learn More

 Emma Zuidema teaches 3rd grade at Providence Elementary School in Fairfax, Virginia, and is a lead mentor and teacher leader.


 Amy Kleiman teaches 4th grade at Providence Elementary School in Fairfax, Virginia, and is a lead mentor and district induction coach. She was named the 2016 Rotary Club of Fairfax Teacher of the Year.

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