Action Research as Teacher Professional Development
Paper presented for EDER 603.12
Action Research: Theory and Practice
Hans Smit: Instructor
Graduate Division of Educational Research,
University of Calgary,
April 10, 2001
Action research can be defined in many terms, but generally can be determined as a systematic inquiry that is collective, collaborative, self-reflective, critical and undertaken by participants of the inquiry, with the goal of understanding of practice in order to improve that practice. Educators of today are inflicted with a barrage of imposed curriculum, standardized tests and demands to improve practice. Action research is seen as a tool that facilitates improvement of practice and professionalism through collaborative disciplined inquiry and thoughtful action. There are some caveats that need consideration before action research is implemented. The role of the researcher requires delicate consideration of the power structure and relationship that develops between researcher and participants. The form and function of the collaborative process has its rewards and its pitfalls. Action research within an educational framework requires the inclusion of theory to augment practice for effective transformation in teaching and learning. Effective action research projects require that the participants initiate and design the process, including collaboratively defining the goals and outcomes, within the context of their own classroom and school environment.
The teaching profession has been under increasing pressure as the century turns. Pressure on teachers comes from the paradox of teaching to standardized tests juxtaposed with teaching for understanding. Pressure on time and resources comes from self-managing schools, where the expectation of teacher as leader is present. Pressure comes from the introduction of information technology and the expectation that teachers have the skills and knowledge to prepare students for a technology oriented society. Pressure comes from the expectation of inclusiveness for all students in the classroom, with insufficient physical and emotional support to implement this expectation. Pressure also comes from the expectation to improve professionalism through collaborative and continuos professional development. Teachers are under considerable stress to maintain a personal and professional balance under the pressures that are imposed on them. How might their stresses be eased while they also strive to improve teaching, learning and excellence for their students?
School Reform and Professional Development
The literature of education is littered with discussions of school reform. School reform is a response to a perceived need to move education away from the "egg crate" system of the industrial, teacher-centered model of educating children, to a student-centered, problem-solving, learning-for-understanding based system of learning (Fullan & Hargreaves, 1991). Some of this change in teaching and learning is as a result of the "information age", which provides access to immense and often unreliable data. Students need to be taught how to access, process and disseminate information in a way that increases their knowledge and the knowledge of others. School reform is also based on a need to move the teaching profession from the isolation of the "egg crate" to a more collaborative and sharing environment, one that will support and encourage them in dealing with the increased stresses of their profession (Johnson, 1993). Changes in school structure have been largely unsuccessful in the past because these changes have been imposed from a system level and have not reached the classroom (Fullan & Hargreaves, 1991). For change to occur, if indeed change is what is necessary, teacher professionalism and autonomy need to be respected and voiced. A method of achieving this grass-roots potential for change and improved professionalism is through professional development.
Action Research and Reflective Practice
A potential model for professional development lies in action research. Action research is a growing field of educational research with the aim of using disciplined inquiry to improve educational practice (Calhoun, 1993). The concept of research is traditionally a search for new knowledge that is disseminated to a broader audience. Action, on the other hand, denotes a process of doing something with the evidence that promotes a change (Noffke, 1997). Action research had been described as an "informal, qualitative, formative, subjective, interpretive, reflective and experiential model of inquiry in which all individuals involved in the study are knowing and contributing participants (Hopkins, 1985, as cited in Gable, 1995). According to Kemmis & McTaggart (1998a, p.5 ) the participants can be "teachers, students, principals and other community members – any group with a shared concern". A large element of action research is the process of collaboration (Kemmis & McTaggart, 1998; Noffke, 1997; Senese, 1998) within the teaching community, although the argument can be made that collaboration is not entirely necessary for action research, that the important element is that change has occurred (Calhoun, 1993). Kemmis & McTaggart (2000) have developed a succinct definition that is most applicable to the context of education:
"Action research is a learning process, the fruits of which are the real and material changes in (a) what people do, (b) how they interact with the world and with others, (c) what they mean and what they value, and (d) the discourses in which they understand and interpret their world" (p.596).
Action research is a form of reflective practice that is well known and often second nature to teachers (Johnston, 1994) but with the addition of a strong emphasis on collaboration and dissemination of found knowledge. Reflective practice amongst teachers is used to improve teaching and learning in the classroom through a cycle of critical inquiry followed by reflection (Cordingley, 1999; McMahon, 1999). Action research, on the other hand, implies deliberate planned intent to solve a particular problem and with an outcome of strategic action. Reflective practice and reflexivity is the "non-rigorous inquiry" aspect of action research (Schön, 1987 as cited in McMahon, 1999, p.168). Cordingley (1999) argues that adding the research aspect to reflective practice reduces teachers to the lower end of the academic hierarchy, a place where they may not wish to be. Cordingley (1999) also questions whether teachers need to engage in action research, that change in practice is normally done through reflective practice.
Selling Action Research
The traditional models of professional development include workshops, inservices and university courses that are designed to help teachers examine policies, routines and practices through the help of academic researchers and experts. In order to facilitate change in beliefs and practice, educators need a model of professional development that brings groups of teachers together collectively, thus affording them opportunities to reflect and collect data on situations that are immediate to their needs (Brockerville, 1997). Action research as a form of professional development is "concerned with the everyday practical problems experienced by teachers, rather than the ‘theoretical problems’ defined by pure researchers within a discipline of knowledge" (Johnson, 1993). Immediately we see the tension between traditional approaches to research and action research, or, in more general terms, the qualitative research of ethnography, phenomenology, heuristics and epistemology (Watt, 1997). Kemmis and McTaggart (2000) review different forms of action research that pertain to educators. Classroom action research is concerned with interpretive inquiry based on teachers’ self-understanding and judgement, with the goal of improving individual practice. This describes reflective practice, but Kemmis and McTaggart (2000) criticize this form of research for having too narrow a context and for applying practice without theory. Participatory action research includes reflective practice with "shared ownership of research projects, community – based analysis of social problems, and an orientation toward community action" (Kemmis & McTaggart, 2000, p. 568) but is criticized for a lack of research rigor. A tension between these two is the individual versus the social aspects of study. In the context of action research for teacher professional development, both of these research methods are applicable. Classroom action research addresses the individual teacher in the context of improving teaching and learning within the classroom. Participatory action research addresses the need for a system or school concern for transformational change.
Classroom and participatory action research are very suitable to school situations because of their
Where these opportunities are facilitated in a community with a shared vision, action research can be a successful tool for professional development. That shared vision, through collaborative discussion, needs to be focused on improving teaching and learning for students (Fullan & Hargreaves, 1991; Johnson, 1993). That shared vision may also include a focus on improving professionalism (Calhoun, 1993; Johnson, 1993). Calhoun (1993) states that there are five elements that need to be considered before implementing an action research project:
Through this framework of inquiry, data collection, reflection and action, improvements can be made in the complex classroom situation and to the professional culture of the school (Gabel, 1995; Johnson, 1993).
A Soured Sales Pitch
"Action research is an intellectually demanding mode of inquiry, which prompts serious and often uncomfortable questions about classroom practice" (Nixon, 1981 as cited in Watt, 1997). These uncomfortable questions are one of the many reasons that action research can be a "hard sell" as a form of professional development. Much of the literature that describes action research projects discuss the inclusion of an external researcher, usually from a university, who initiates the research project and becomes a participatory observer (Day, 1998; Sachs, 1997; Burnaford, 1999; Calhoun, 1993; Devlin-Sherer, Spinelli, Giammatteo & Johnson, 1998). An external researcher introduces the feeling of imposition and enforcement of change by "having the vision and implementing someone else’s vision" (Sachs, 1997). This invites a separation between the reality of the teacher and the reality of the academic/researcher and introduces the question as to why and for whom change is necessary. The presence of the external researcher is based on Kemmis and McTaggart’s (2000) belief that action research requires both practice and theory and therefore an expert to lead that theory through a "formal partnership". Success in action research projects is limited if the process is mandated, but is more successful if teachers take responsibility for planning and implementation themselves (Watt, 1997; Wellburn, Leslee. Riecken & Farragher, 1993).
The formal partnership of an academic research brings with it other difficulties. Teachers may view the researcher as indoctrinator (Day, 1998) or "complicitous", where the researcher determines the transformation within the project (Sumara & Davis, 1997). In either case, the perception of power lies firmly within the researcher and not the teacher. This invariably leads to a destabilization of the relationship, resulting in possible risks to the personal and professional self-image and self-esteem of the teacher.
Criticism of the process of action research itself lies in potential for reflection to be too introspective and not confrontational of thinking and learning. For critical reflection to be effective, the practitioner must take into account both the "broad institutional and social contexts" necessary to decisions about change (Day, 1998). There needs to be a balance between self and social aspects of the reflective process. The social aspects also includes political contexts (Noffke, 2000), but there is the danger that the political aspects support academic knowledge rather than the interests of the teachers. Danger also lies in the potential for educational policy makers to advocate action research as a method to improve teacher practice without explicitly considering the broader context of that practice (Day, 1998).
A favourite selling point for action research for teachers is the inclusion of collaboration to a traditionally isolationist environment. "It is assumed that improvement in teaching is a collective rather than an individual enterprise, and that analysis, evaluation and experimentation in concert with colleagues are conditions under which teachers improve" (Rosenholtz, 1989 in Fullan & Hargreaves, 1991, p.44). There are some caveats, however, on the process of collaboration. Collaborative relationships between mentor/researcher and teacher may be superficial, safe and inconsequential, largely because collaboration takes time, and time is usually not available (Gorodetsky, et.al., 1997; Neopolitan, 2000). Fullan & Hargreaves (1991), in their book What’s Worth Fighting for in your School, discuss problems that are involved with working together. Balkanization occurs when a few teachers tend to form their own culture of colleagues, for example, the subject-department syndrome in large high schools. Comfortable collaboration occurs in a broader school culture, but tends to confine itself to staff-room meetings and talk around the copy machine, rather than expanding into each other’s classrooms. Contrived collaboration describes those situations where collaboration has been imposed by administration. Teachers know the problems surrounding collaboration, as they try group collaborative projects in their classrooms with mixed success. Using action research as a model for collaborative techniques for their students is a strong motivation to give the process a try.
Action Research and Theory
Teacher professional development has a strong emphasis on practice. Theory tends to be the domain of the academic researcher. Teachers do not always question whether their practice is compatible with or contradicts their beliefs and values about teaching and learning (Gordodesky, et.al., 1997). There is a need to theorize about their practice as a form of empowerment and in the process move modernist research constructs towards a postmodernist approach to research (Kemmis & McTaggart, 2000). Modernist (scientific) research generates knowledge that is objective, generalizable, reliable and valid – knowledge that is inadequate to the understanding of human behaviour (Stringer, 1999). Postmodern theory attempts to examine the messiness of human behaviour. Foucault (1972) postulates that there can be "no objective truth because there is an essential relationship between the ways in which knowledge is produced and the way power is exercised" (Foucault, 1972 in Stringer, 1999, p.196). To have a more complete understanding of the relationships between truth, power, knowledge and the "intersubjective relations among people" (Habermas in Stinger, 1999, p. 201) requires that teachers must include an examination of "the ordinary, every-day, taken-for-granted ways in which we organize and carry out our private, social and professional activities (Stringer, 1999, p. 202). There is no one theoretical framework within this new paradigm of postmodernism. "Each individual action researcher is creating her or his own living theory in the explanation for their professional learning in their educational enquiry" (Whitehead, 1998). Exploration of a living theory includes reflections on standard educational theories, personal practice, values and beliefs. Van Manen (1990) suggests a framework around which a living theory through researching lived experiences can be created.
Hermeneutic phenomenological human science in education is, therefore, not simply an "approach" (alongside other approaches) to the study of pedagogy. That is, phenomenology does not simply yield ‘alternative’ explanations or descriptions of educational phenomena. Rather, human science bids to recover reflectively the grounds which, in a deep sense, provide for the possibility of our pedagogic concerns with children" (Van Manen, 1990 as cited in Whitehead, 1998, p. 6).
Using the theoretical concepts of hermeneutic phenomenology, educators may approach an understanding and knowing that can be used directly in the process of improving the quality of teaching and learning.
A criticism of introducing different approaches to research through action research lies in the time that is required to acquire new ideas and research methods. Teachers feel inadequate to the task, relying on an external researcher to provide the link between theory and practice (Sachs, 1997). The classroom experience is grounded in practice, and, although the introduction of theory may satisfy the inquiring mind, this can occurs only when time and intent is present.
Barriers to new ways of thinking and doing are often based on a "resistance to knowledge" that has been identified by Carson (1997) and Hargreaves (1991 in Cordingley, 1997). Hargreaves determines that resistance comes from the need to unlearn certain patterns that have developed through experiences. Changing these patterns is difficult and requires continuous professional development in a contextual and collaborative setting (Cordinley, 1997). Carson (1997), on the other hand, discusses resistance to knowledge as "an active refusal of information". He claims that there are "negotiatory spaces" that fall between knowledge that exists and knowledge that is required. Exploration of these spaces is essential for "renewing and reforming teaching, and to avoiding an endless repetition of questionable school practices" (Carson, 1997, p. 83).
Action Research and Positive Practice
There are many successful examples of action research projects in schools that are reported in the literature. Three Canadian examples are used to determine success using action research as a model for professional development at a system, board and personal level. The Edmonton Public Board Project Pegasus is a system-based model for professional development that links theory and research to the practice of integration of technology into teaching and learning. It "acknowledges that time, experimentation, risk-taking, and collegial support are all important if teachers are going to embrace the use of new technologies for learning". (Pegasus web site: http://www.epsb.edmonton.ab.ca/pd/pegasus/). It is a collaborative model involving teachers, administrators, support staff, consultants and students. The web site justifies the use of action research as a professional development tool because it encourages teachers to reflect more on their teaching practice, looks for other ways to use technology and gives substantial thought to the effective use of technology. Teachers also become aware of the value of taking the time to gather students’ perceptions about their learning. The site contains examples of projects, an on-line handbook (Carson, Connors, Smits & Ripley, 1989) and on-line seminars, with the intent of having professional development at the tip of a finger for any teacher who needs it.
Five public elementary schools in Ontario’s Grand Erie District School Board took a group focus around early literacy (Mills, 1999). The action research project was initiated, designed and developed by the teachers with no external influences. Through regular meetings the teachers defined "gaps" that limited literacy, in particular that guided reading did not happen in all classrooms because of a lack of resources. The teachers decided to collect data using video and audio taping, journal keeping, questionnaires and standardized tests with the result that:
We view our action research to be a success in many ways. Students improved their reading comprehension and were aware that they had done so.. Teachers gained expertise in learning a new strategy for teaching the reading process and discovered new ways to observe and record data.. We can look back, however, and see that many more questions arise from our study. Should teachers be given more ownership at the onset of the process? Is Grade One too late to begin early literacy? Are other resources needed to meet an even wider range of pupil levels and needs? I am sure that upon examining our data even more closely, we will conclude that we too must continue our journey up the learning spiral which action research spins for us, seeking answers to new questions and always looking to improve student learning.
Through this project, teachers were empowered by their own involvement, both in theory and in practice. Their professional development became a lived experience, not an imposed performance.
A teacher in Ontario, who learned about the process from a Masters course, undertook a personal action project (Jamieson, 2000). Jamieson eagerly tried to incorporate personal reflections through journals as she undertook a cooperative integration of technology into her grade 2 classroom. Jamieson worked with another teacher as they began a journey, with their students, into Journey North Internet exploration (http://www.learner.org/jnorth/orientation/About.html) which incorporated constructivist, student-centered learning into a social studies project. Jamieson’s reflection on the success of this venture was very positive in terms of her professional development:
As I consider the influence of this experience on my teaching career, I see that I have been provided with a valuable framework to continuously transform myself as a teacher. I am no longer tied to the limitations of prescribed professional development. I have developed skills this year that will allow my understanding of my teacher knowledge to deepen and evolve into a life-long process of inquiry. Posting questions embedded in my practice and exploring them with the learners in any year will provide answers and more questions.
Common to all of these projects is a teacher-centered approach to professional development, where action research has become a living practice on a day-to-day basis.
The traditional instructor-led workshop model for professional development has not proven to be an effective method for teacher learning because of the lack of follow-up and immediate relevance to the classroom context. Effective professional development must primarily focus on student learning and be directed by the teachers themselves, based on their individual needs. A tool for teacher centered professional development is action research, as this allows for autonomy, professionalism and active and engaged learning in how teaching and learning is transformed in the classroom. Action research incorporated inquiry learning that is already intrinsic to teachers’ practice with collaboration and sharing of problems, data collection, theoretical, personal and professional reflections, action and an renewal of the spiral together to improve student and teacher learning.
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