Action Research: The Ultimate Problem-Solving Strategy for Educators
“The desire of teachers to use approaches that ‘fit’ their particular students is not dissimilar to a doctor’s concern that the specific medicine being prescribed be the correct one for the individual patient. The ability of the action research process to satisfy an educator’s need for ‘fit’ may be its most powerful attribute.” –Richard Sagor
Every learning environment is a gold mine of useful data. Each day a student attends a course, he may be engaged or distracted, interact productively with peers or experience difficulties in social situations, complete assignments proficiently or poorly, and express enthusiasm or disinterest for the material being covered. As educators, we notice these small bites of data, and even record them in our grade books from time to time, but how often do we systematically collect this data in order to assess our own methods?
“Evidence has shown that teachers who elect to integrate the use of data into their work start exhibiting the compulsive behaviour of fitness enthusiasts who regularly weigh themselves, check their heart rate, and graph data on their improving physical development,” says Richard Sagor, author of Guiding School Improvement with Action Research, in a piece for ASCD. “For both teachers and athletes, the continuous presence of compelling data that their hard work is paying off becomes, in itself, a vitally energising force.”
Energising forces are hard to come by these days. Teaching has always been a challenging profession, but now we’re seeing more complex problems related to student behaviour, parental and societal expectations, financial constraints, and professional development.
“Worse still,” Sagor says, “the respect that society had traditionally placed upon teachers is eroding, as teacher bashing and attacks on the very value of a public education are becoming a regular part of the political landscape. Consequently, teacher burnout has become the plague of the modern schoolhouse.”
Many teachers now ask, “Am I making any difference?” “How do I know I’m succeeding without credible evidence?” “Is there a way to track my own progress that doesn’t involve nerve-wracking evaluations and high-stakes tests?”
That’s where action research comes in.
What is it, you ask? Only one of the most promising problem-solving strategies of the century– but also one of the most neglected.
The Living Educational Theory
Kurt Lewin, a professor at MIT, first coined the term “action research” in 1944. His rather dense definition described it as “comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action and research leading to social action that uses a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action and fact-finding about the result of the action.” No wonder the concept has had so much trouble catching on in education circles.
More succintly, Sagor says it’s “a disciplined process of inquiry conducted by and for those taking the action,” the primary reason for which is to improve and refine your own actions. It was first used in the social sciences as an alternative to the traditional research model, which involved a bunch of outside experts sampling variables and reflecting on theoretical situations. Action research offered a more active, moment-to-moment process of theorising, data collecting, and inquiry occurring not in the lab but in the field. Through this method, knowledge and insight were gained “through action and for action.” In other words, experts stopped trying to imagine how to act in various situations and began actually putting themselves in those situations. Social science research became a series of hands-on experiments, emphasising real-time data collection, reflection, and action.
Dr William Barry was one of the first social scientists to envision the potential action research could have on educational practice. He popularised a particular approach called Living Educational Theory (LET), which he described as “a critical and transformational approach to action research.” Using this approach, teachers would be forced to challenge the status quo of their educational practice and to answer the question, “How can I improve that I’m doing?”
According to Barry, “Researchers who use this approach must be willing to recognise and assume responsibility for being a ‘living contradictions’ in their professional practice, thinking one way and acting in another.” The mission of a teacher using LET, then, would be to overcome workplace norms and behaviour which contradicted their values and beliefs. Doing so would allow them to “wake up,” so to speak, and improve the learning of their students. But, most critically, these improvements could only be measured as such if there was clear evidence of workplace reform, improved student learning, and transformational growth of the teacher themself.
Living educational theory as defined and created by Professor Barry is part of the curriculum of multiple courses at Notre Dame de Namur University in Silicon Valley, California in their credentialing program for teacher education. When student teachers use this approach, they undergo a six-step process of action and reflection:
1. Recognise the problem: “My values and beliefs as an educator are oppressed by my passive acceptance of the status quo and the use of oppressive power to change my identity.”
2. Accept responsibility: “I describe my contribution in promoting the status quo and my role in using oppressive power against others… to illuminate my living contradictions.”
3. Develop a solution: “I develop a solution to transform and improve myself, influence the transformation and improvement of the fellow human beings with whom I interact and the social and work places I share with people.”
4. Work toward that solution: “I enact praxis in the direction of the solution I developed from a critical theory perspective.”
5. Evaluate your progress: “I evaluate the pragmatic outcomes of the solution… and the implications.”
6. Change and repeat: “I modify my use of power, pedagogy, valid and reliable assessment, and leadership to maximise social justice, ethical processes and results, and improve performance and knowledge as a result of my emerging living educational theory (LET). As an iterative process, I start the cycle again within reasonable time constraints.”
Fortunately, Sagor’s break-down is far less dense, and makes it easier to see how we can apply the theory to our every-day practices. First, let’s look at how he envisions action research benefitting education.
The Three Purposes of Action Research
According to Sagor, action research can be adopted by an individual teacher, a collaborative group of colleagues sharing a common concern, or an institution’s entire faculty. These three different approaches to organising for research serve three compatible, yet distinct, purposes: creating reflective teachers; building professional cultures; and making progress on institutional priorities.
1. Creating Reflective Teachers
“When individual teachers make a personal commitment to systematically collect data on their work, they are embarking on a process that will foster continuous growth and development,” Sagor writes. “When each lesson is looked on as an empirical investigation into factors affecting teaching and learning and when reflections on the findings from each day’s work inform the next day’s instruction, teachers can’t help but develop greater mastery of the art and science of teaching. In this way, the individual teachers conducting action research are making continuous progress in developing their strengths as reflective practitioners.”
2. Building Professional Cultures
“Often an entire faculty will share a commitment to student development, yet the group finds itself unable to adopt a single common focus for action research. This should not be viewed as indicative of a problem. Just as the medical practitioners working at a ‘quality’ medical centre will hold a shared vision of a healthy adult, it is common for all the faculty members at a school to share a similar perspective on what constitutes a well-educated student. However, like the doctors at the medical center, the teachers in a ‘quality’ institution may well differ on which specific aspects of the shared vision they are most motivated to pursue at any point in time. Institutions whose faculties cannot agree on a single research focus can still use action research as a tool to help transform themselves into a learning organisation.
“When the teachers in an [institution] begin conducting action research, their workplace begins to take on more of the flavour of the workplaces of other professionals. The wisdom that informs practice starts coming from those doing the work, not from supervisors who oftentimes are less in touch with and less sensitive to the issues of teaching and learning than the teachers doing the work. Furthermore, when teachers begin engaging their colleagues in discussions of issues, the multiple perspectives that emerge and thus frame the dialogue tend to produce wiser professional decisions.”
3. Making Progress on Institutional Priorities
“Increasingly, institutions are focusing on strengthening themselves and their programs through the development of common focuses and a strong sense of esprit de corps. When a faculty shares a commitment to achieving excellence with a specific focus– for example, the development of higher-order thinking, positive social behaviour, or higher standardised test scores– then collaboratively studying their practice will not only contribute to the achievement of the shared goal but would have a powerful impact on team building and program development. Focusing the combined time, energy, and creativity of a group of committed professionals on a single pedagogical issue will inevitably lead to program improvements, as well as to the institution becoming a ‘center of excellence.’ As a result, when a faculty chooses to focus on one issue and all the teachers elect to enthusiastically participate in action research on that issue, significant progress on [institutional] priorities cannot help but occur.”
Specific Uses for Instruction
More specifically, action research can be used to do things like meet the needs of a diverse student body or achieve success in a standards-based system.
“The days are gone when it was possible to believe that all a teacher had to do was master and deliver the grade-level curriculum. It is now imperative that teachers have strong content background in each of the subjects they teach, be familiar with the range of student differences in their [course], and be capable of diagnosing and prescribing appropriate instructional modifications based upon a knowledge of each child’s uniqueness.”
To make things more difficult, standards-driven accountability systems have become the norm in most jurisdictions. “The stakes in the standards movement are high. Students face consequences regarding promotion and graduation. Teachers and [institutions] face ridicule and loss of funding if they fail to meet community expectations.”
Action research can help. If we encourage experimentation, inquiry, and dialogue in meeting these challenges, and conduct our own research on best teaching practices, then we’ll be well on our way to addressing these problems.
“Crafting solutions to these dynamic and ever changing… issues can be an exciting undertaking, especially when one acknowledges that newer and better answers are evolving all the time,” says Sagor. “Great personal satisfaction comes from playing a role in creating successful solutions to continually changing puzzles.”
Now that we know a few of the ways action research can serve education, how exactly do we use it to improve our teaching? Below are Sagor’s seven steps.
The Seven Steps of Action Research
“Practitioners who engage in action research inevitably find it to be an empowering experience. Action research helps educators be more effective at what they care most about– their teaching and the development of their students. Seeing students grow is probably the greatest joy educators can experience. When teachers have convincing evidence that their work has made a real difference in their students’ lives, the countless hours and endless efforts of teaching seem worthwhile.” — Richard Sagor
Step 1: Select a Focus
The action research process begins with serious reflection directed toward identifying a topic or topics worthy of a busy teacher’s time. Considering the incredible demands on today’s classroom teachers, no activity is worth doing unless it promises to make the central part of a teacher’s work more successful and satisfying. Thus, selecting a focus, the first step in the process, is vitally important. Selecting a focus begins with the teacher researcher or the team of action researchers asking:
What element(s) of our practice or what aspect of student learning do we wish to investigate?
Step 2: Clarify Your Theories
The second step involves identifying the values, beliefs, and theoretical perspectives that you hold about your chosen focus. For example, if you are concerned about increasing responsible student behaviour, it will be helpful for you to begin by clarifying which approach– whether using punishments and rewards, allowing students to experience the natural consequences of their behaviours, or some other strategy– you feel will work best in helping students acquire those desirable habits.
Step 3: Identify Research Questions
Once a focus area has been selected and your perspectives and beliefs about that focus have been clarified, the next step is to generate a set of personally meaningful research questions to guide the inquiry.
Step 4: Collect Data
“For the harried and overworked teacher, ‘data collection’ can appear to be the most intimidating aspect of the entire seven-step action research process,” Sagor says. “The question I am repeatedly asked, ‘Where will I find the time and expertise to develop valid and reliable instruments for data collection?’ gives voice to a realistic fear regarding time management.”
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
“Professional educators always want their instructional decisions to be based on the best possible data. Action researchers can accomplish this by making sure that the data used to justify their actions are valid (meaning the information represents what the researchers say it does) and reliable (meaning the researchers are confident about the accuracy of their data). Lastly, before data are used to make teaching decisions, teachers must be confident that the lessons drawn from the data align with any unique characteristics of their [institution].”
Step 5: Analyse Your Data
“Although data analysis often brings to mind the use of complex statistical calculations, this is rarely the case for the action researcher. A number of relatively user-friendly procedures can help a practitioner identify the trends and patterns in action research data. During this portion of the seven-step process, teacher researchers will methodically sort, sift, rank, and examine their data to answer two generic questions:
What is the story told by these data?
Why did the story play itself out this way?
By answering these two questions, the teacher-researcher can acquire a better understanding of the phenomenon under investigation and as a result can end up producing grounded theory regarding what might be done to improve the situation.”
Step 6: Report Your Results
“The reporting of action research most often occurs in informal settings that are far less intimidating than the venues where scholarly research has traditionally been shared. Faculty meetings, brown bag lunch seminars, and teacher conferences are among the most common venues for sharing action research with peers. However, each year more and more teacher researchers are writing up their work for publication or to help fulfill requirements in graduate programs. Regardless of which venue or technique educators select for reporting on research, the simple knowledge that they are making a contribution to a collective knowledge base regarding teaching and learning frequently proves to be among the most rewarding aspects of this work.”
Step 7: Take Informed Action
“Taking informed action, or ‘action planning,’ the last step in the action research process, is very familiar to most teachers. When teachers write lesson plans or develop academic programs, they are engaged in the action planning process. What makes action planning particularly satisfying for the teacher researcher is that with each piece of data uncovered about teaching or student learning, the educator will feel greater confidence in the wisdom of the next steps. Although all teaching can be classified as trial and error, action researchers find that the research process liberates them from continuously repeating their past mistakes. More important, with each refinement of practice, action researchers gain valid and reliable data on their developing virtuosity.”
“The time is right for action research,” Sagor says. “The teachers… that seize this opportunity and begin investing in the power of inquiry will find that they are re-creating the professional practice of education in their locale as a meaningful and rewarding pursuit.” Those who don’t enter the 21st century willing to invest in the “wisdom of practice,” he warns, will find it increasingly difficult to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.