Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 13: The Reflective Practitioner/Action Research
Action Research: Hearing from Teachers about Improving Practice
Each of the professional articles just described offers ideas and recommendations that can stimulate reflection about teaching and learning. But they all suffer from a particular limitation: Although they often relate to teachers and classrooms, teachers’ role in influencing in designing and interpreting a study is minimal. In the world of educational research, persons other than teachers—typically professors, educational administrators, or other professional researchers—tend to speak on behalf of teachers. All three of the articles described earlier in this chapter had this feature. Persons other than teachers chose the research topics.
The information that emerges from this arrangement often still relates to teaching and learning, and may contain useful insights for classroom work. But by definition, it is framed by people whose interests and fundamental commitments may not be identical with classroom teachers. As a result, the studies are somewhat more likely to attend to problems posed by academic disciplines or by educational administrators. Two of the studies which we described earlier—the ones about moral development and about labels for disabilities—showed this quality. Classroom teachers are concerned, of course, about both moral development and categorizing of students. But if teachers had designed the two projects themselves, they might have reframed both of them to focus more explicitly on the challenges of classroom teaching. In studying moral beliefs, for example, teachers might have focused more squarely on how to foster moral beliefs in their students. In studying inclusive education, they might have focused more fully on the practical difficulties faced by teachers in assessing students’ learning disabilities with validity.
The Nature of Action Research
In view of these issues, a particularly important kind of investigation for teachers is action research (sometimes also teacher research), an activity referring to systematic, intentional inquiry by teachers for the purpose of improving their own practice (Stenhouse, 1985; Brydon-Miller, Greenwood, & Maguire, 2003; Russell, T. & Loughran, J. 2005). Action research is not to be confused with research about teaching and learning, which are investigations by professional researchers on topics of teachers, teaching, or learning.
Action research has several defining characteristics, in addition to being planned and conducted by teachers. First, it originates in the problems and dilemmas of classroom practice, or in chronic problems with certain students, materials, or activities. Second, its outcomes offer information focused on particular teachers and classrooms, rather than about teachers in general or students in general. Although this feature might make action research seem less useful as a source of advice or knowledge that is truly general, supporters argue that focusing on specific learning contexts makes action research more credible or valid as a source of practical information and ideas. It is, they argue, simply more attuned to the context of real classrooms (St. Clair, 2005). Third, while the audience for action research can certainly include professors and educational administrators, the audience tends to be other teachers (Fenstermacher, 1994; Ackerman & MacKenzie, 2007). Action research is therefore in an especially strong position to provide "insider" perspectives on educational problems.
Action Research in Practice
Action research makes a number of assumptions as a result of its nature and purposes (Richardson, 1994; Schmuck, 2006). To varying degrees, most such studies support some combination of these ideas:
- that teaching is itself really a form of research,
- that action research, like teaching itself, requires substantial reflection,
- that collaboration among teachers is crucial for making teacher research meaningful, and for the improvement of teaching, and
- that teachers' knowledge of teaching has to be shared publicly, especially when gained systematically through action research.
To see how these features look in practice, look at several examples of action research studies.
Example #1: Focusing on Motivating Students
A number of years ago, Patricia Clifford and Sharon Friesen published an account of their effort to develop a classroom program based on students' out-of-school interests and experiences (1993). Clifford and Friesen were co-teachers in a double-sized classroom which deliberately included children from first-, second-, and third-grades. Their interest in students’ out-of-school experiences grew out of three more basic questions about teaching, which they phrased like this:
- How can curriculum remain open to children's unique experiences and connect with the world they know outside the school? Too often, the official school curriculum lacked meaning for children because it seemed cut off from the rest of the world. The result was unmotivated students and poor learning.
- Why is imaginative experience the best starting place for planning? The teachers felt that imaginative experiences—make-believe play, stories, poems—provided access to children's lives outside school—their make-believe play, or their stories or poems. Perhaps somehow these could be connected to the goals of the official curriculum.
- What happens when teachers break down the barriers between school knowledge and real knowledge? In drawing on children's outside experiences, would children actually become more motivated or not? Would they take over the program, and fail to learn the official curriculum goals?
To answer these questions, the teachers kept extensive diaries or journals for one entire school year. These became the “data” for the research. In the journals, they described and reflected on their daily teaching experiences. The teachers also talked with each other extensively about classroom events and their significance, and the results of the conversations often entered the journals eventually during the research. In their journal, for example, the teachers recorded an experience with students about ways of telling time. In preliminary discussions the students became interested in how a sundial worked. So the teachers and students went outside, where they created a human sundial, using the students themselves. The teachers' journal kept a chronicle of these events, and noted the comments and questions which students developed as a result:
- - If you stood in the same place for a whole day you would see your shadow change places because the earth changes position;
- - Why is my shadow longer than I am in the evening, but shorter at noon?
- - Clouds can block the sun's rays so sundials won't work on rainy days;
- - How did people start to tell time?
As the year evolved and observations accumulated and were recorded, the teachers gradually did begin to answer their own three questions. They found, for example, that connecting the curriculum with children's interests and motives was most effective when they could establish a personal bond with a child. They also found that imaginative expression helped certain children to feel safe to explore ideas. And they found that blending school-based and personal knowledge caused children to learn much more than before—although much of the additional knowledge was not part of an official curriculum. With these conclusions in mind, and with numerous examples to support them, Clifford and Friesen published their study so that others could share what they had learned about teaching, learning, and students.
The study by Clifford and Friesen is interesting in its own right, but for our purposes think for a moment about their work as an example of action research. One of its features is that it formed part of the normal course of teaching: the authors were simply more systematic about how they observed the students and recorded information about classroom events. Another feature is that the research required conscious reflection over an extended time: their journals and conversations contained not only descriptions of events, but also interpretations of the events. A third feature is that the study involved collaboration: it was not just one teacher studying the major questions, but two. And a fourth is that the teachers not only developed their results and conclusions for themselves, but also shared them with others. These four qualities make the study by Clifford and Friesen a clear example of teacher research. Note, though, that sometimes studies conducted by teachers may not show all of these features so clearly; instead they may show some of the key features, but not all of them, as in the next two examples.
Example #2: Focusing on Development
Since 1981, Vivian Paley has published a series of short books documenting and interpreting her observations of young children in classrooms (1981, 1986, 1991, 1998, 2000, 2005). Paley was interested in how young children develop or change over the long term, and in particular how the development looks from the point of view of a classroom teacher. In one of these books, for example, she observed one child in particular, Mollie, from the time she entered nursery school just after her third birthday until after the child turned four years old. Her interest was not focused on curriculum, as Clifford and Friesen's had done, but on Mollie as a growing human being; "the subject which I most wished to learn," she wrote, "is children" (p. xiv). Paley therefore wrote extended narrative (or story-like) observations about the whole range of activities of this one child, and wove in periodic brief reflections on the observations. Because the observations took story-like form, her books read a bit like novels: themes are sometimes simply suggested by the story line, rather than stated explicitly. Using this approach, Paley demonstrated (but occasionally also stated) several important developmental changes. In Mollie Is Three (1988), for example, she describes examples of Mollie's language development. At three years, the language was often disconnected from Mollie’s actions—she would talk about one thing, but do another. By four, she was much more likely to tie language to her current activities, and in this sense she more often "said what she meant." A result of the change was that Mollie also began understanding and following classroom rules as the year went on, because the language of rules became more connected in her mind to the actions to which they referred.
Vivian Paley's book had some of the characteristics of action research—but with differences from Clifford and Friesen’s. Like their research, Paley's “data” was based on her own teaching, while her teaching was influenced in turn by her systematic observations. And like Clifford and Friesen’s, Paley’s research involved numerous reflections on teaching, and it led to a public sharing of the reflections—in this case in the form of several small books. Unlike Clifford and Friesen, though, Paley worked independently, without collaboration. And unlike Clifford and Friesen, she deliberately integrated observation and interpretation as they might be integrated in a piece of fiction, so that the resulting "story" often implied or showed its message without stating it in so may words. In this regard her work had qualities of what some educators call arts-based research, which are studies that take advantage of an artistic medium (in this case, narrative or story-like writing) to heighten readers' understanding and response to research findings (Barone and Eisner, 2006). If you are studying the use of space in the classroom, for example, then aesthetically organized visual depictions (photos, drawings) of the room may be more helpful and create more understanding than verbal descriptions. If you are studying children's musical knowledge, on the other hand, recordings of performances by the children may be more helpful and informative than discussions of performances.
Example #3: Focusing on Collaboration
In 1996, an example of action research was published that was intended simultaneously for classroom teachers and for university researchers, and which focused on the challenges of collaboration among educators (Ulichny & Schoener, 1996). A teacher (Wendy Schoener) and a university researcher (Polly Ulichny) explored how, or even whether, teachers and university researchers could participate as equals in the study of teaching. Wendy (the two used first names throughout when they published their experiences) was a teacher of adults learning English as a Second Language (ESL); Polly was a specialist in multicultural education and wanted to observe a teacher who was successful at reaching the ethnically diverse students who normally study ESL. Polly therefore asked Wendy for permission to study her teaching for an extended period of time—to visit her class, videotape it, interview her about it, and the like.
What followed is best described as an extended negotiation between teacher and professor for access to Wendy's class, on the one hand, and for mutual respect for each other's work, on the other. In the published article, the negotiations are described separately by each participant, in order to honor the differences in their concerns and perspectives. Before, during, and after the observations, it was necessary for Polly and Wendy each to adjust expectations of what the other person could do and was willing to do. As the authors put it, some things were "easy to hear" from the other and some things were "hard to hear." Wendy, as a teacher, found it easier to hear criticisms of her teaching if they came from herself, rather than from the higher-status university professor, Polly. Polly, for her part, found it easier to hear Wendy's comments if she matched Wendy's self-criticisms and evaluations with some of her own experiences. Polly therefore made sure to tell Wendy about dilemmas and problems she experienced in her own (university) teaching. Because they needed to adjust to hearing and talking with each other, the two educators eventually focused less on Polly's original purpose—studying multicultural teaching—and more on the problem of how teachers and university researchers might collaborate effectively.
Overall, this study qualifies as a piece of action research, though it is not fully focused on classroom teaching. For example, the teachers did collaborate and reflect on their experiences, but not all of the reflection was about teaching in classrooms. The rest was about the relationship between Wendy and Polly. While the problem selected was originally about classroom teaching—Wendy’s—it did not originate with the classroom teacher (Wendy) or concerns she had about her own classroom; instead it was chosen by the university researcher (Polly) and her desire to study multicultural teaching. The researchers did share what they learned by publishing their observations and ideas, but their published report speaks only partly to classroom teachers as such; in addition it speaks to academic researchers and educators of future teachers.
By pointing out differences among these examples of action research, we do not mean to imply that one is “better” than another. The point is simply to show how diverse studies by teachers can be, and to appreciate their differences. Whatever their specific features, classroom studies by teachers hold in common is a commitment to giving a voice to teachers as they reflect on problems and challenges intrinsic to classroom life. This goal can be accomplished in more than one way: through journals and other record-keeping methods, through oral discussions with colleagues, and through written reflections created either for themselves or for others concerned about teaching and learning. Diversity among topics and methods in action research studies should not surprise us, in fact, since classrooms are themselves so diverse.
- Stenhouse, L. (1985). Research as a basis for teaching. London, UK: Heinemann.
- Brydon-Miller, M., Greenwood, D., Maguire, D. (2003). Why action research? Action Research, 1(1), 3-28.
- Russell, T. & Loughran, J. (2005). Self-study as a context for productive learning. Studying Teacher Education, 1(2), 103-106.
- St. Clair, R. (2005). Similarity and superunknowns: An essay on the challenges of educational research. Harvard Educational Review, 75(4), 435-453.
- Fenstermacher, G. (1994). The knower and the known: The nature of knowledge in research on teaching. In L. Darling-Hammond (Ed.), Review of research in education, Volume 20, pp. 3-56. Washington, D.C.: American Educational Research Association.
- Ackerman, R. & MacKenzie, S. (Eds.). (2007). Uncovering teacher leadership: Voices from the field. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
- Richardson, V. (1994). Conducting research in practice. Educational Researcher, 23(5), 5-10.
- Schmuck, R. (2006). Practical action research for change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
- Clifford, P. & Friesen, S. (1993). A curious plan: Managing on the twelfth. Harvard Educational Review, 63(3), 339-358.
- Paley, V. (1981). Wally’s stories. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Paley, V. (1988). Mollie is three. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Paley, V. (1991). The boy who would be a helicopter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Paley, V. (1998). Kwanzaa and me. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Paley, V. (2000). The kindness of children. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Paley, V. (2006). A child’s work: The importance of fantasy play. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Paley, M. (1988). Mollie Is Three." Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Barone, T. & Eisner, E. (2006). Arts-based research in education. In J. Green, g. Camilli, & P. Elmore (Eds.), Handbook of complementary methods in education research. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Ulichny, P. & Schoener, W. (1996). Teacher-researcher collaboration from two perspectives. Harvard Educational Review, 66(3), 496-524.