Telling it Like it Is, Part II: Action Research and Data Collection
In my previous post on Action Research in the classroom, I wrote about the idea of action research as a form of self-directed professional learning. I think that we learn to be better teachers by asking questions about issues we have in our practice, and then taking steps to answer these questions. The issues we have are unique to us, unique to our way of seeing the world and our particular school and class situation. Our unique preoccupations lead us to reflect and ask questions about how we might improve our practice. Good action research questions a) come from our own practice, b) are in our sphere of influence and c) assume that we are where we are. The question, of course, is just the beginning…
In one of the many lives I lead, I work with dance teachers on their practice as art educators. I run a teacher development series that takes place every six weeks throughout the year. It is a very participatory series, with discussions and sharing of thoughts and ideas about teaching dance to adult non-dancers (although… we believe that everyone is a dancer). I am a big proponent of reflective practice, an process articulated by Donald Schön in his book Educating the Reflective Practitioner. The main question I have about my own practice is “Is what I am doing encouraging the teachers to become reflective practitioners?”. I started by unpacking the question into several subquestions:
Answering some of these questions allows me to see what evidence I need to answer my main question. If I have a clear picture of what I am looking for in a reflective practitioner, I am more likely to know it when I see it. If I know what it looks like, then I am able to figure out what I need to do to find out if it is happening. This leads me to the very important step of data collection. Hopefully, as you read this, you have your own question in mind. Having your own question, no matter how embryonic or hazy, will allow you to see how different types or sources of data can be used to answer it.
I think of data collection like being at an all-you-can-eat buffet. You have many options, but not all of them are going to suit your needs or your tastes. Also, as we are naturally drawn to some food over others, so too, are we naturally drawn to some ways of collecting evidence over others.
The evidence buffet is long and loaded with steaming dishes of data. On one side you have those sources which are primarily words and called qualitative or narrative. The other side is heavy with data which can be counted, tallied or rated. This is called quantitative data.
The important thing is not to get bogged down in the array of choices available, but to select sources of data that fit a few key criteria.
1. The data must work to help you answer your question
Let’s return to my main question: “Is what I am doing actually encouraging the teachers to become reflective practitioners?”. Although I have a fancy new still camera and enjoy taking pictures, I am not sure that taking photographs would go towards answering that particular question. I would probably lean toward interviews, documents from teacher development sessions, along with activity on our private Facebook group. In other words, there has to be a match between what you hope to learn and the data you decide to collect.
One is the loneliest number, in love and in action research. Using more than one source of data allows you to be more certain that your conclusions will be accurate and will adequately reflect the reality you are studying. Researchers ideally aim for three sources of data. Three, unlike one, is a magic number.
3. Collecting data should be a natural part of your day
You are a teacher first. The best sources of data are those that occur naturally or can be built into the normal activities of the classroom. Snapping a photograph of your students during a Daily Five session, or making copies of key reflections for tracking are examples of data collection that do not interfere significantly with your work day. Another example is previously existing data, from earlier in the year or from previous years. In short, data collection should not take up too much of your time.
4. The data collection phase needs an end date
Action research is most manageable when finite, when it has a clear beginning and end. This does not mean that you cannot engage in research all the time. It just means that having a fixed timeline will help you either answer or refine your original question and lead to results. It will also help you plan out key moments of data collection – for example, collecting reflections at the beginning of every month to track their depth and quality.
You in your research
There is a belief shared by some that research should be free of bias and that researchers should strive for emotional and intellectual distance from that which is under study. Fortunately, the opposing point of view exists as well! I think that you should not divorce your values, beliefs and insights from your research. Your unique viewpoint and your privileged status as teacher-researcher is what will give your research an unmistakable ring of truth. Remaining aware of and communicating what you believe to be true about education and about learning, will also help you frame future research and find communities of like-minded educators. Like this one! Write and tell me how it’s going – I would love to hear from you.
Glesne, Corrine. (2010). Becoming Qualitative Researchers: An Introduction, 4th ed. Addison Wesley Longman Inc. New York, NY. 336 pages. Available from booksellers, e.g. Amazon
Schön, Donald. (1987). Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Towards a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions. Jossey-Bass. 376 pages. Available from booksellers, e.g. Amazon