What is Action Research?

what is action research methodology and what is action research in teaching and learning. and what is the importance of action research for teachers | pdf free download
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HelenaColins,New Zealand,Professional
Published Date:06-07-2017
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THEMES IN EDUCATION ACTION RESEARCH by Eileen Ferrance Northeast and Islands Regional Educational Laboratory At Brown University a program of The Education AllianceINTRODUCTION Action research is one of those terms that we hear quite often in today’s educational circles. But just what does it mean? If you ask three people to define action research, you may find yourself with three different responses. Typically, action research is undertaken in a school setting. It is a reflective process that allows for inquiry and dis- cussion as components of the “research.” Often, action research is a collaborative activity among colleagues searching for solutions to everyday, real problems experi- enced in schools, or looking for ways to improve instruc- tion and increase student achievement. Rather than dealing with the theoretical, action research allows practitioners to address those concerns that are closest to them, ones over which they can exhibit some influence and make change. Practitioners are responsible for making more and more decisions in the operations of schools, and they are being held publicly accountable for student achievement results. The process of action research assists educators in assessing needs, documenting the steps of inquiry, analyzing data, and making informed decisions that can lead to desired outcomes. This booklet discusses several types of action research, its history, and a process that may be used to engage educators in action research. Two stories from the field, written by teachers about their own reflections on the process, are given as illustrations of action research.Action Research What is Action Research? Action research is a process in which participants examine their own educational practice systematically and carefully, using the techniques of research. It is based on the following assumptions: • Teachers and principals work best on problems they have identified for themselves • Teachers and principals become more effective when encouraged to examine and assess their own work and then consider ways of working differently • Teachers and principals help each other by working collaboratively • Working with colleagues helps teachers and principals in their professional development (Watts, 1985, p. 118) Although there are many types of research that may be undertaken, action research specifically refers to a disciplined inquiry done by a teacher with the intent that the research will inform and change his or her practices in the future. This research is carried out within the context of the teacher’s environment—that is, with the students and at the school in which the teacher works—on questions that deal with educational matters at hand. While people who call for greater professionalization say 1THEMES IN EDUCATION that teachers should be constantly researching and educating themselves about their area of expertise, this is different from the study of more educational questions that arise from the practice of teaching. Implicit in the term action research is the idea that teachers will begin a cycle of posing questions, gathering data, reflection, and deciding on a course of action. When these decisions begin to change the school environment, a different set of circumstances appears with different problems posed, which require a new look. Indeed, many action research projects are started with a particular problem to solve, whose solution leads into other areas of study. While a teacher may work alone on these studies, it is also common for a number of teachers to collaborate on a problem, as well as enlist support and guidance from administrators, university scholars, and others. At times, whole schools may decide to tackle a school-wide study to address a common issue, or join with others to look at district-wide issues. What is Not Action Research? Action research is not what usually comes to mind when we hear the word “research.” Action research is not a library project where we learn more about a topic that interests us. It is not problem-solving in the sense of trying to find out what is wrong, but rather a quest for knowledge about how to improve. Action research is not about doing research on or about people, or finding all available information on a topic looking for the correct 2Action Research answers. It involves people working to improve their skills, techniques, and strategies. Action research is not about learning why we do certain things, but rather how we can do things better. It is about how we can change our instruction to impact students. Types of Action Research Part of the confusion we find when we hear the term “action research” is that there are different types of action research depending upon the participants involved. A plan of research can involve a single teacher investigating an issue in his or her classroom, a group of teachers working on a common problem, or a team of teachers and others focusing on a school- or district-wide issue. Individual teacher research usually focuses on a single issue in the classroom. The teacher may be seeking solutions to problems of classroom management, instructional strategies, use of materials, or student learning. Teachers may have support of their supervisor or principal, an instructor for a course they are taking, or parents. The problem is one that the teacher believes is evident in his or her classroom and one that can be addressed on an individual basis. The research may then be such that the teacher collects data or may involve looking at student participation. One of the drawbacks of individual research is that it may not be shared with others unless the teacher chooses to present findings at a faculty meeting, make a formal presentation at a conference, or submit written material to a listserv, journal, or newsletter. It is possible 3THEMES IN EDUCATION for several teachers to be working concurrently on the same problem with no knowledge of the work of others. Collaborative action research may include as few as two teachers or a group of several teachers and others interested in addressing a classroom or department issue. This issue may involve one classroom or a common problem shared by many classrooms. These teachers may be supported by individuals outside of the school, such as a university or community partner. The LAB at Brown has just such a relationship with several teams. School-wide research focuses on issues common to all. For example, a school may have a concern about the lack of parental involvement in activities, and is looking for a way to reach more parents to involve them in meaningful ways. Or, the school may be looking to address its organizational and decision-making structures. Teams of staff from the school work together to narrow the question, gather and analyze the data, and decide on a plan of action. An example of action research for a school could be to examine their state test scores to identify areas that need improvement, and then determine a plan of action to improve student performance. Team work and individual contributions to the whole are very important, and it may be that problem points arise as the team strives to develop a process and make commitments to each other. When these obstacles are overcome, there will be a sense of ownership and accomplishment in the results that come from this school-wide effort. 4Action Research District-wide research is far more complex and utilizes more resources, but the rewards can be great. Issues can be organizational, community-based, performance-based, or processes for decision-making. A district may choose to address a problem common to several schools or one of organizational management. Downsides are the documentation requirements (communication) to keep everyone in the loop, and the ability to keep the process in motion. Collecting data from all participants needs a commitment from staff to do their fair share and to meet agreed-upon deadlines for assignments. On the positive side, real school reform and change can take hold based on a common understanding through inquiry. The involvement of multiple constituent groups can lend energy to the process and create an environment of genuine stakeholders. 5THEMES IN EDUCATION Figure 1. Types of action research Individual Collaborative School-wide District-wide teacher action action action research research research research Focus Single classroom Single classroom School issue, District issue issue or several problem, or area Organizational classrooms with of collective structures common issue interest Possible Coach/mentor Substitute School District support teachers commitment commitment Access to needed technology Release time Leadership Facilitator Assistance with Close link with Communication Recorder data organiza- administrators External partners Communication tion and analysis External partners Potential Curriculum Curriculum Potential to Allocation impact impact school of resources Instruction Instruction restructuring Professional Assessment Assessment and change development Policy Policy activities Parent Organizational involvement structures Evaluation Policy of programs Side Practice informed Improved Improved Improved collegiality effects by data collegiality, collegiality, collaboration, collaboration, Information not Formation of and and always shared partnerships communication communication Team building Team building Disagreements Disagreements on process on process Shared vision 6Action Research A Brief History of Action Research The idea of using research in a “natural” setting to change the way that the researcher interacts with that setting can be traced back to Kurt Lewin, a social psychologist and educator whose work on action research was developed throughout the 1940s in the United States. “Lewin is credited with coining the term ‘action research’ to describe work that did not separate the investigation from the action needed to solve the problem” (McFarland & Stansell, 1993, p. 14). Topics chosen for his study related directly to the context of the issue. His process was cyclical, involving a “non-linear pattern of planning, acting, observing, and reflecting on the changes in the social situations” (Noffke & Stevenson, 1995, p. 2). Stephen Corey at Teachers College at Columbia University was among the first to use action research in the field of education. He believed that the scientific method in education would bring about change because educators would be involved in both the research and the application of information. Corey summed up much of the thought behind this fledgling branch of inquiry. We are convinced that the disposition to study…the consequences of our own teaching is more likely to change and improve our practices than is reading about what someone else has discovered of his teaching. (Corey, 1953, p. 70) 7THEMES IN EDUCATION Corey believed that the value of action research is in the change that occurs in everyday practice rather than the generalization to a broader audience. He saw the need for teachers and researchers to work together. However, in the mid 1950s, action research was attacked as unscientific, little more than common sense, and the work of amateurs (McFarland & Stansell, 1993, p. 15). Interest in action re- search waned over the next few years as experiments with research designs and quantitative data collection became the norm. By the 1970s we saw again the emergence of action research. Education practitioners questioned the applicability of scientific research designs and methodologies as a means to solve education issues. The results of many of these federally funded projects were seen as theoretical, not grounded in practice. The practice of action research is again visible and seen to hold great value. Over time, the definition has taken on many meanings. It is now often seen as a tool for professional development, bringing a greater focus on the teacher than before (Noffke & Stevenson, 1995). It is increasingly becoming a tool for school reform, as its very individual focus allows for a new engagement in educational change. Action research emphasizes the involvement of teachers in problems in their own classrooms and has as its primary goal the in-service training and development of the teacher rather than the acquisition of general knowledge in the field of education. (Borg, 1965, p. 313) 8Action Research Steps in Action Research Within all the definitions of action research, there are four basic themes: empowerment of participants, collaboration through participation, acquisition of knowledge, and social change. In conducting action research, we structure routines for continuous confrontation with data on the health of a school community. These routines are loosely guided by movement through five phases of inquiry: 1. Identification of problem area 3. Interpretation of data 4. Action based on data 2. Collection and organization of data 5. Reflection IDENTIFY THE PROBLEM GATHER DATA NEXT STEPS INTERPRET DATA EVALUATE RESULTS ACT ON EVIDENCE Figure 2. Action Research Cycle 9THEMES IN EDUCATION IDENTIFY A PROBLEM AREA Teachers often have several questions they wish to investigate; however, it is important to limit the question to one that is meaningful and doable in the confines of their daily work. Careful planning at this first stage will limit false starts and frustrations. There are several criteria to consider before investing the time and effort in “researching” a problem. The question should • be a higher-order question—not a yes/no • be stated in common language, avoiding jargon • be concise • be meaningful • not already have an answer An important guideline in choosing a question is to ask if it is something over which the teacher has influence. Is it something of interest and worth the time and effort that will be spent? Sometimes there is a discrete problem that is readily identifiable. Or, the problem to be studied may come from a feeling of discomfort or tension in the classroom. For example, a teacher may be using the latest fashionable teaching strategy, yet not really knowing or understanding what or how kids are learning. 10Action Research GATHER DATA The collection of data is an important step in deciding what action needs to be taken. Multiple sources of data are used to better understand the scope of happenings in the classroom or school. There are many vehicles for collection of data: interviews journals portfolios individual files diaries logs of meetings field notes videotapes audio tapes case studies photos surveys memos records – tests, report cards, attendance questionnaires self-assessment focus groups samples of student work, anecdotal records projects, performances checklists Select the data that are most appropriate for the issue being researched. Are the data easy to collect? Are there sources readily available for use? How structured and systematic will the collection be? Use at least three sources (triangulation) of data for the basis of actions. Organize the data in a way that makes it useful to identify trends and themes. Data can be arranged by gender, classroom, grade level, school, etc. 11THEMES IN EDUCATION INTERPRET DATA Analyze and identify major themes. Depending upon the question, teachers may wish to use classroom data, individual data, or subgroup data. Some of the data are quantifiable and can be analyzed without the use of statistics or technical assistance. Other data, such as opinions, attitudes, or checklists, may be summarized in table form. Data that are not quantifiable can be reviewed holistically and important elements or themes can be noted. ACT ON EVIDENCE Using the information from the data collection and review of current literature, design a plan of action that will allow you to make a change and to study that change. It is important that only one variable be altered. As with any experiment, if several changes are made at once, it will be difficult to determine which action is responsible for the outcome. While the new technique is being implemented, continue to docu- ment and collect data on performance. EVALUATE RESULTS Assess the effects of the intervention to determine if improvement has occurred. If there is improvement, do the data clearly provide the supporting evidence? If no, what changes can be made to the actions to elicit better results? 12Action Research NEXT STEPS As a result of the action research project, identify additional questions raised by the data and plan for additional improvements, revisions, and next steps. Benefits of Action Research Action research can be a worthwhile pursuit for educators for a number of reasons. Foremost among these is simply the desire to know more. Good teachers are, after all, themselves students, and often look for ways to expand upon their existing knowledge. Focus on school issue, problem, or area of collective interest Research done with the teacher’s students, in a setting with which the teacher is familiar, helps to confer relevance and validity to a disciplined study. Often, academic research is seen as disconnected from the daily lives of educators. While this might not always be true, it can be very helpful for teachers to pick up threads suggested in academic circles, and weave them in to their own classroom. It is also comforting for parents, or education administrators outside of the school, to know that a teacher is not just blindly following what the latest study seems to suggest, but is transforming the knowledge into something meaningful. 13THEMES IN EDUCATION Form of teacher professional development Research and reflection allow teachers to grow and gain confidence in their work. Action research projects influence thinking skills, sense of efficacy, willingness to share and communicate, and attitudes toward the process of change. Through action research, teachers learn about themselves, their students, their colleagues, and can determine ways to continually improve. Collegial interactions Isolation is one of the downsides of teaching. Teachers are often the sole adult in a room of children, and have little or no time scheduled for professional conversations with others. Action research in pairs or by teams of teachers allows time to talk with others about teaching and teaching strategies. By working on these teams, teachers must describe their own teaching styles and strategies and share their thoughts with others. As a team they examine various instructional strategies, learning activities, and curricular materials used in the classroom. Through these discussions with colleagues they develop stronger relationships. As the practice of action research becomes part of the school culture, we see increased sharing and collaboration across departments, disciplines, grade levels, and schools. 14Action Research Potential to impact school change As teachers get into action research, they are more apt to look at questions that address school and district concerns rather than questions that affect the individual teacher. This process creates new patterns of collegiality, communication, and sharing. Contributions to the body of knowledge about teaching and learning may also result. Development of priorities for school-wide planning and assessment efforts arise from inquiry with potential to motivate change for improvement’s sake. Reflect on own practice Opportunities for teachers to evaluate themselves in schools are often few, and usually happen only in an informal manner. Action research can serve as a chance to really take a look at one’s own teaching in a structured manner. While the focus of action research is usually the students, educators can also investigate what effect their teaching is having on their students, how they could work better with other teachers, or ways of changing the whole school for the better. Conversations can take on a different focus from attempting to “fix” to arriving at understanding. Improved communications Team work within the school or district brings individuals together for a shared purpose. Educators involved in action research become more flexible in their thinking and more open to new ideas (Pine, 1981). Studies by Little (1981) suggest positive changes in patterns of collegiality, communication, and networking. 15THEMES IN EDUCATION Stories from the Field Rebecca Wisniewski Charlotte M. Murkland School Lowell, Massachusetts hen I sat down to write about my experience with Waction research, I began by looking over my team’s final report, my meeting notes, and my e-mails to our con- sultant from the LAB at Brown. I am glad I did. Doing action research can be a little like labor. You forget what it was really like. The notes and e-mails reminded me of the messiness of our meetings and our struggle to pare down the project into something manageable. I am the Title I Resource Teacher for the Charlotte M. Murkland School in Lowell, Massachusetts. Our school is in the inner city and has about 530 students in pre-school to fourth grade. The Murkland has a Khmer bilingual strand and over 60% of our students are from homes in which English is not spoken. Our poverty rate is one of the highest in the city, at about 89%-92%, depending on the month. The Murkland is a new building with an experienced, stable staff that formed when the school was built six years ago. Although our school offers us many challenges, on most days, most of us are glad to be at the Murkland. “Do you like research?” asked my Title I facilitator, Eileen Skovholt. “Yes,” I said, “I loved research in college.” With those words I was on my way to becoming a teacher– 16Action Research researcher. That conversation led to a multidisciplinary team, made up of our vice principal, the city-wide Title I facilitator, an ESL teacher, a bilingual teacher, a special education teacher, and myself, being asked to attend the LAB Institute on Cultural and Linguistic Diversity: Problem Solving through Action Research, held at Brown University. At the conference, our group was taken with the idea that we could actually begin to conduct inquiries into our own teaching. We have so often felt pulled in one direction or another by the swing of the educational pendulum. By doing our own action research we could gain a better perspective into our own teaching and the students’ learning. The changes that we would make in our teaching would come out of our own work. Perhaps most impor- tantly, we would be working as a community of learners. During the conference, we began to talk about a group of bilingual Cambodian students in our third and fourth grades who were non-readers. Most of them were new to our school. They would, of course, be referred to special education for testing. The truth is, we see students such as these just about every year. At this age, time is short and the testing process is time-consuming. Even when the testing is completed, we still need to develop a program for them. Action research would provide us the oppor- tunity to try different strategies and see which ones actually brought about significant change for our students. After visiting Brown, we were invited to write the grant that led to this project. Several of us had never worked together before. The discussion that occurred as we were writing the grant generated many ideas. As we wrote the 17THEMES IN EDUCATION grant, there was a sense of common goals and a feeling that what we were about to do was important to our school and to our own personal growth. Our Approach Our research question became, “What can we provide for effective reading instruction for third- and fourth-grade English language learners who are limited readers or non- readers?” We began the literature research project by gathering articles that we felt would be of interest. We each read the articles and set aside a day to report our findings back to the group. We also collected as much information as possible on our target students. We looked at their past records and at their current programs. Then we had to determine where we would go from here. This was the most difficult time for our team. Up to this point we seemed to have moved along with only a few problems. Now, our meetings seemed to go in circles. We became very frustrated with our lack of progress. Our impatience caused discord among the members of the team. We were able to move past this point by allowing each member to choose a different strategy to research. We chose among strategies that we had either discussed or read about, and then worked with a targeted group of students. Each teacher collected data and then looked to see how her own practice might be improved. In retrospect, this was a good decision. Looking at your own teaching is real professional development. 18

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