Telling It Like It Is: Action research and asking the right question
I was animating a short morning session on the practice of Action Research last week. It was Friday, to be exact, the kind of rainy morning you wished you were cocooned in a bathrobe somewhere or sipping a nice mug of tea.The attendees were all teachers participating in a formal research study conducted by Concordia University here in Montreal. I had long thought that one of the things that would round out this research in the eyes of practitioners was the voice of the participating teachers themselves. What was it like in the classroom when they introduced the new computer-based tools? What did they do about little Johnny who can’t sit still long enough to write his name, never mind do his Daily Five? And what about the noise? People love stories. Teachers love classroom stories.
But is it enough to tell a good story? For a story to be compelling for educators, it has to answer a question or, perversely, to ask one. This is where qualitative approaches to educational research come in. I decided to go with Action Research because of its simplicity and straightforwardness. In fact, rather than providing my work-session teachers with a definition of the term action research, I asked them to brainstorm what it might be, based on the two words that comprise the term. I noted their responses on a slide in the Keynote presentation we were working from:
Intuitively, working with what they knew, the teachers were able to come up with the basic salient features of action research in about two minutes flat. Together, we found that
“Action Research is a fancy way of saying: let’s study what’s happening in our [classrooms] and decide how to make [them] a better place.” (Calhoun, 1994)
One of the main goals of Action Research is to lead to changes and improvements in teaching practices, and thus make schools (or online classrooms) better places to learn. More powerful than the most sophisticated workshop PD, action research is the cornerstone of reflective practice. Teachers who ask questions about their own practice and then decide on ways to take action are taking a mighty leap into self-driven learning (the kind we wish for all our students, no?). And if those same teachers follow up their planning with concrete action and the gathering of data about what they did, with reflection and sharing rounding off the cycle, they are engaging in the same kind of professional learning practiced by members of other professions, such as doctors. After all, why should they have all the fun 😉
The official Action Research cycle often looks something like this:
If you want to do some action research in your own practice, whether you are a classroom teacher, a consultant, a pre-service teacher or any other type of educator, you will probably want to begin by asking a question. A good question has the following attributes:
- It comes from your own practice
- It is in your sphere of influence (i.e. you can do something about it)
- It assumes that you are where you are
A question from your own practice
Often we are told what is important by others. Equally often, some issues become trendy and frequently discussed. But these might not be important to you at this time. So ask yourself: “What is important to me? What do I care about? What do I feel will make the most difference?” and choose a question that speaks to your teacher’s heart, no matter what the pundits tell you is important. Your school is different from other schools and your group of students is unique. You have the best insights as to where you need to put your energies and you will approach the issue with more zeal if it comes from you.
A question that is in your sphere of influence
Asking a question like: “I wonder if a shorter school day would be beneficial to my very active cohort of students” might be very interesting indeed, but might not be possible to explore. Your question needs to be something that you can answer by taking action. You could ask instead: “How can I use the very active nature of my students to help them learn math?”
A question that assumes that you are where you are
It’s no good asking a question whose scope is so far beyond you that just looking at it makes you break out into a cold sweat. A novice computer user should not, for instance, ask: “How can I integrate a variety of Web 2.0 tools into and across my curriculum?”. He or she might be better off with: “How can I set up and use a classroom blog?” which is more focused and manageable for a novice. (And speaking of classroom blogs, here is a great one from Mary Ellen Lynch’s Cycle 1 classroom).
“Action research happens “in the swamp” where we live our day-to-day successes, frustrations, disappointments, and occasional miracles.” (Russell, 1997). I’ll be adding additional posts about action research between now and January. My challenge for you today is to ask a question from your practice and take the time this school year to engage in some action research of your own. Share your questions here! I would love to see them! We might discover some miracles along the way.
For more about Action Research:
Russell, Tom. (1997). Action Research: Who? Why? How? So What? An Introductory Guide for Teacher Candidates at Queen’s University. Found at http://resources.educ.queensu.ca/ar/guide.htm on October 7th, 2011
e-Lead: Leadership for Student Success – Action Research section. Found at http://www.e-lead.org/resources/resources.asp?ResourceID=9 on October 14th, 2011.
McNiff, J & Whitehead, J. (2005). Action Research for Teachers: A Practical Guide. London, David Fulton Publisher