You don't need a tweed jacket to be a researcherin thousands of schools across North America, practising teachers conduct studies on best practices, alternative approaches, and effective learning strategies. Classroom teachers have experiences and opportunities unavailable to researchers in a university setting, and action researchsite-based, teacher-conducted researchcan have a valuable impact on the educational community.
Yet many teachers don't see their work as real research, and many other teachers have great ideas for research projects but don't know where to begin. For these teachers, Engaging in Action Research demystifies the world of educational research and provides support, guidance, and encouragement. From creating a research plan to reporting findings, this book provides step-by-step instructions to help teachers conduct research projects in the classroom, using strategies that work. Get ready to investigate, analyze, and share!
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About the Author
Jim Parsons, PhD is a professor in the University of Alberta's Faculty of Education. His research and writing interests are in the areas of online education, student engagement, and instructional leadership. A teacher educator who has researched and taught throughout North American, China, and Scotland, Jim is the president of the Northwest Association of Teacher Educators and the former president of the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement.
Kurtis Hewson has been a teacher, vice-principal and principal in several Alberta schools over the past 13 years. A 2010 ASCD Outstanding Young Educator Award finalist, he is currently a faculty associate with the University of Lethbridge.
Lorna Adrian has served in a variety of teaching roles for nearly two decades. She is the past chair of the executive council of the Alberta Assessment Consortium and the Coordinator of Learning Services for the Livingstone Range School Division.
Nicole Day has been a high school English and Drama teacher for 16 years and an AISI Learning Coach with Wild Rose School Division. She is currently a graduate student in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: You as researcher
Why do many teachers and school leaders find research daunting? How can this book help?
To present research as a doable task
From “out there” to “in here”
Mention the word research to practising teachersworking diligently in classrooms with studentsand you may hear something like this in response: “What have they learned now about what we should be doing?”
This response comes from a view of educational research as a mysterious exercise reserved for revered scholars in ivory towers who collect and decipher, and disseminate to the masses, information on best practices. This view thinks of research as scrupulous, lengthy investigations of far-off, unknown subject groupsas something they do out there, far from the realities of the classroom. Research, in this view, is the work of the academically elite and, although it informs and guides the work of teachers and schools, it still needs adaptation to the unique contexts and circumstances of each educational community.
Enter site-based, teacher-conducted research (what we call site-based action research in this book). More and more, educators are ripping down the curtains to expose the Great Oz, cutting through the mystification of research and finding value in study related directly to the everyday work they do with students and their colleagues. Educators, groups of educators, and educational systems are recognizing the power of conducting their own researchfocusing with intentionality on specific questions and issues they face, and determining links between effective practice and student learning. Research, and the resulting teacher professional learning, has shifted in here, conducted with real students, staff, families, and community members. Rather than making sense of findings delivered by scholars and experts, professional teachers involved in site-based action research are engaging in meaningful study that has observable impact on those closest to them.
But I'm not a researcher...am I?
Consider the following profiles of some everyday teachers and school leaders. As you read them, allow yourself to think about how researchers could emerge from the backgrounds and desires of these educators. Can you see yourself anywhere in these descriptions?
Pamela: focusing on home reading
Pamela has taught in a number of primary classrooms over the past twelve years. Her colleagues affectionately call her classroom “the other library.” Over her career, Pamela has amassed a sizeable classroom-reading collection that she uses with her students. She is a staunch believer that students should develop strong reading skills early in their school career, and, as a result, she implements instructional strategies and structures aimed at this goal. Over the years, she has begun to sense a decline in the amount of reading that students are doing outside of school. Didn't it seem like just ten years ago students were reading more at home than they are today? She is curious to see if her insight is more than just her singular perspective, and she hopes to help children read more and better. Are her colleagues also noticing the same trend? Has there actually been a drop in reading, or is it just a decline in the traditional practices that she associates with reading (such as curling up with a book alone or with an adult)?
Martin: flipping the classroom
Martin is the head of the mathematics department at a large urban high school. He works closely with six colleagues who share his passion for algorithms and problem solving. Over the past three years, this group has informally debated issues related to their individual instruction and the school's math program in general, often leading to sharing best practices and resources. The latest topic dominating their professional dialogue is the concept of the “flipped classroom”: moving instructional components of teaching to online forums for students to access outside of class, and using class time for homework and practice with support from teachers and peers. Basically, the concept is to “flip” when teaching and homework happen. A growing number of schools are successfully using flipped classrooms, and the concept is interesting for this relatively progressive department. Martin is interested in exploring this concept with another member of the mathematics department, effectively developing a two-person team to investigate its merits. Could the flipped-classroom concept become a model for effective mathematics instruction in their department? Could it work for other subject areas at their high school? What have other schools done with flipped classrooms that has improved student learning? Finally, what should Martin and his colleagues do to get parents on board with a pilot of this innovative concept at their school?
Janice: a collaborative coaching model
Janice is an instructional coach. For the past four years, she has worked with teachers in a relatively small rural school district. Her role involves modelling lessons, supporting teachers with differentiated instructional strategies, designing assessments, and anything else aimed at improving teacher effectiveness across the schools she works with. Janice has found that she is most effective when coaching teams of teachers, rather than individual teachers. Although coaching individual teachers accounted for the bulk of her job in her first two years, she is now coaching more teams than individualsand Janice has discovered that working with teams has led to greater collaboration within schools, more peer support that relies less on her involvement, and expanded coaching expertise at each site. She has also found that her time is more effectively used. She knows that most surrounding districts, and her colleagues in similar roles, still heavily focus on one-to-one support. She has begun to write about her experiences working with teams, rather than just individuals, on her professional blog. Other districts have approached her to lead professional development in this area.
Although Janice feels that she knows the benefits of team coaching, she is really interested to hear the thoughts of teachers she has worked with. Are they experiencing benefits from team coaching? Did those who received individual and team support have a preference, or feel that one method had a greater impact on their growth? What key elements, learned from coaching her colleagues, would be most beneficial to share with other instructional coaches?
Paul: a cross-district approach
At a meeting of district superintendents, Paul discusses the growing population of English-as-a-second-language (ESL) students with a group of four superintendents and associate superintendents. Each district has engaged in multiple strategies and initiatives designed to support this student population, but with varying success. Overall, the group's sense is that no one is successfully meeting the needs of their ESL learners. Rather than continuing to address this issue in their geographically determined silos, Paul suggests that the districts pool their resources to investigate the issue together, determining what practices really make a difference in schools across their districts and researching best practices from other jurisdictions. The informal group of leaders agrees to schedule a meeting to explore their “napkin idea” further, inviting the key personnel in each of their organizations to attend.
The professionals and situations we have described in these examples are not extraordinary. In fact, such inquisitive evaluations are happening in classrooms, schools, and school districts every day, involving practitioners such as you. Our experience suggests that education researchthe systematic investigation of best practices, exploration of alternatives, and sharing of what “works best” with students and teachersis increasingly something we, as educators, consider a regular part of “what we do.”
However, a common response is: “But what I'm doing isn't research!” In other words, real research entails secret scholarly handshakes only shared with those in tweed jackets carrying recording devices and leather attaché cases; my research lacks the academic rigour of real research. Our intent with this book is to deconstruct the myth and mystique of educational research so that research fits more comfortably in the hands of teachers like you. We believe that your work as a researcher can have substantial impact on the greater educational community. So investigate, analyze, and share!
The rewards and challenges of research
Research, many tell us, is foreboding, like the spectre of Christmas Yet to Come. Research means facing the unknown. Even if you know what you want to do, there are lingering questions about how to do it. Then there is the writing-it-up part. For those of you who have not lived in an academic world of words, the task can seem like a test of your abilities. Engaging in Action Research offers a collection of ideas and processes that have worked for us and for practitioners like you. It contains step-by-step procedures that outline, from start to finish, your own research task. We hope this book helps you.
If you're reading this book, you are probably already grappling with that task. First, we offer some advice: take solace in the fact that many teachers, with similar background and abilities, have completed the task currently before you. In fact, you might be wise to go on a little field trip to look at the fruits of their labours. Read some research conducted by colleagues who worked in an area similar to yours. Second, we give you this promise: if you do your part, like those who have gone before you, you will be able to complete your research and share your findings. You will then know the secret handshakebut, of course, we can't tell you that right now.
You can do this
Whether you are a classroom teacher, school administrator, divisional coach, or district-level leader, you will be designing, conducting, and reporting a site-based investigation. You will be doing research. Many of you believe that such research is new, which can feel overwhelming. But in a way you have been preparing for this research for a long time. Research is less rocket science than carefully planned, rigorously attended activity. That means that if you have a good project (one worth doing) and you do it well (with care and consideration), you will be able to complete work that “contributes to the literature” (the defining feature of valuable research) and that you will be proud of. No one talks much about the pride of a job well done, but don't underestimate the motivational aspect of prideful work.
Our standard advice to new researchers is don't get goofy. Don't panic, or gratuitously waste energy. You need your energy and calmness of thought. It is one thing to enjoy a hike through the woods; it is quite another to be lost and wandering around in the dark forest. Think of this book as your guided hiking trail, and think of completing your project as a hike along this trail. It will sometimes be tiring, and you should know that up front. Perhaps at some point you will even feel like turning around. But if you know that you are not lost and that eventually you will arrive at the end of the trail, you will be able to look around and truly enjoy the vistas.
Engaging in Action Research is written to offer a brief, clear, and detailed look at how to complete your own self-directed, site-based action research. It provides a framework that will help you complete your own personal written report. The result will be dual: you will have contributed to the literature, and you will have engaged in professional growth. We wish you the best of luck moving from out there to in here.
Table of Contents
1. You as researcher2. Introducing action research3. Starting a research plan4. Completing a literature review5. Designing your research method6. From plan to action7. Managing your research project8. Collecting your data9. Analyzing your data10. Reporting your findings11. Pacing yourself