HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Action Research: A Method for Improving Teaching and Developing School Culture

by Richard Sagor Issue: Teacher Retention & Development

Contemporary school leaders often praise the virtues of collaboration and the use of data for decision making, yet it seems the more things change the more they stay the same. While it may appear that educational leaders are fixated on improving academic performance and promoting excellent teaching, the reality is that at most schools student performance is static and most classroom teachers fundamentally teach the way they did when they began teaching.

The solutions to school problems require the sensitivity and wisdom of those most attuned to the context.

Why this contradiction? Why the disconnect between rhetoric on the importance of data for decision-making and the need to change instructional strategies, and most schools continuing to operate as though everything was just fine? The two most significant factors, which explain why teachers and schools consistently resist change, are:

  1. Teachers see no compelling reason to change their practices.
  2. Most school cultures are hostile to meaningful collaboration.

Both of these obstacles can be addressed by school leaders by encouraging and supporting engagement in collaborative action research by teachers and faculty teams.

What is Action Research and Why is it Important?

The term “action research” has been in the literature for more than 60 years and is now utilized in one form or another in virtually all professions. I have defined action research as “any inquiry conducted by the people taking the action, on their own action, in an effort to improve their future actions.”

The fundamental difference between the conduct of action research and traditional empirical studies lies in the position of the researcher and the focus of the inquiries. In traditional research the separation of the researcher from the phenomena under study is seen as a virtue (it is assumed that distance enhances objectivity). I have heard it said this makes “action research” soft science. I had agreed with that assessment until I reflected on another profession where we demand the best scientific knowledge, medicine.

It struck me that the best doctors I have encountered use action research as a routine part of practice. When a patient goes to a doctor with a perplexing problem, what transpires? When confronted with a patient in distress, the doctor considers the medical knowledge base, any information garnered through tests and physical examinations, as well as his/her experience with similar patients. Then the doctor diagnoses the problem and develops a treatment plan. The doctor’s reasoning and treatment plan are, in reality, no more than educated hypotheses. The doctor (and patient) carries out the treatment plan and collects data (usually involving periodic examinations for re-testing). Finally, the doctor concludes that his/her hypothesis was correct or adjusts the treatment plan in accordance with the patient’s response.

That is action research, pure and simple. And I am very pleased that my doctors work in that manner. I certainly wouldn’t want my doctor to assume that I will respond as every other patient had. Very often the unique context (individual patient attributes) has as much to do with the success of a treatment as the pharmaceuticals prescribed. Any doctor who treats every patient as identical would be judged as grossly incompetent.

The problem-solving process necessary for doctors is even more applicable for educators and schools. Students differ radically in skills and attitudes, teachers differ dramatically in style and experience, and the content and skills being taught can vary from physical education to Talmud. Clearly, the solutions to school problems require the sensitivity and wisdom of those most attuned to the context.

How is Action Research Accomplished in Schools?

The model of action research that I have used with schools conceptualizes the inquiry process as containing four sequential stages:

  • Stage #1: Vision Setting/Identifying Achievement Targets
  • Stage #2: Articulating a Theory of Action
  • Stage #3: Taking Action/Collecting Data
  • Stage #4: Reflection and Reporting

Action research can be conducted by an individual teacher, by faculty teams, or even by an entire school staff. The focus for action research can range from teaching tefillah to mastering math, from learning conversational Hebrew to understanding science. In a learning organization all staff members should be engaged in studying some aspect of their work that relates to the school’s overall vision. To show how the action research process might be employed by teachers in a Jewish day school, I will use a use a hypothetical illustration: students learning about and coming to embrace tzedakah.

Stage #1 Vision Setting/Identifying Achievement Targets

The action research cycle begins by the participants (e.g. the individual teacher, the primary grade faculty, the entire staff, etc.) engaging in dialogue regarding actualizing the vision/targets. The goal here is to turn a vision into concrete measurable outcomes. Collegially the participants will develop answers to questions such as, What precisely do want a student to understand about tzedakah? How do we want the child to feel about tzedakah? What behavior changes do we hope to see in the students?

This results in the creation of a rubric that will be used to measure changes in knowledge, attitude, behavior and/or skill regarding the target (in this case, embracing tzedakah). Once a rubric has been created, it serves numerous purposes. Not only does it clarify the achievement target for the researchers, but it communicates to other parties (students, parents, colleagues) precisely what is expected.

Stage #2 Articulating a Theory of Action

It is only worth conducting action research on issues where we feel it is possible to produce significant improvement. Stage #2 requires much rigorous and disciplined thinking. Building a theory of action requires applying all that is known about teaching and learning (our profession’s knowledge base), adding the wisdom gleaned from our practice, and filtering this through what we know about the local context. What emerges from this dialogue is what is called a “graphic reconstruction.” A complete graphic reconstruction looks like a poster sized flow-chart or a mind-map. It reflects everything that must occur to produce the desired outcome (e.g., high scores on the tzedakah rubric). I call graphic reconstructions “implementation roadmaps” because they visually display the best route to a desired destination. The finished graphic reconstruction is a helpful instrument for alerting students, parents, and one’s colleagues precisely what you are planning to do to realize your goal.

Stage #3 Taking Action/Collecting Data

Even the most sound and clearly articulated theory of action remains a hypothesis until tested. Our goal as action researchers is to validate or invalidate the specific hypotheses contained in our theory of action. For this reason, it is important that action researchers be disciplined about collecting data on two things: our actions and intended student outcomes.

Let’s assume we are very successful. If all our students score at the top of the tzedakah rubric, how will we know what accounted for this success? We will only be able to answer this question if we can document exactly what transpired. This is why when conducting action research it is critical to follow the theory of action as written and/or document all changes made during the implementation.

Note: Teachers must be free to make changes when and if things aren’t working. Students shouldn’t be victimized by a teacher feeling compelled to follow though on an experimental protocol. Through the use of a journal the teacher-researcher is able to document what truly transpired. Those records lead to insights into which actions should be continued, modified, and/or deleted in the future.

The other area requiring disciplined deliberation pertains to intended student outcomes. Intuitively we vest more confidence in data that is corroborated by multiple sources. To provide a valid and reliable report on student performance we should triangulate our data collection (make use of multiple sources). Let’s imagine to assess our theory on helping students embrace tzedakah, we decide we want to understand changes in the students’ attitudes towards tzedakah. To accomplish this we might elect to do three things: interview students, survey parents, and review behavior data. These data sets will produce a far more comprehensive picture than would any one of them alone.

Stage #4 Reflection and Reporting

Two minds are inevitably better than one. If I am seeking to understand a phenomenon, the more sets of eyes that help me review my data, the greater the likelihood I will be alerted to nuances and unexpected findings. This is why conducting action research in teams is so powerful. Equally important, many of the goals we choose to pursue are not ours alone. In the case of tzedakah, as with much of the curriculum at Jewish day schools, success will ultimately rests on the ability of the faculty as a professional community to work together to provide a coherent and cohesive program. In schools where the ethic of action research has been internalized, faculty meetings become venues for action research teams to disseminate their learning. Faculties that work this way know that, as with all science, they will learn as much from the thoughtful initiatives that didn’t work as planned as from those that succeeded.

Conclusion

It has been said that teaching is the world’s second most private act. In too many schools, teachers work in isolation. Cultures of isolation breed unhealthy attitudes towards data. Needing to believe they are doing good work, isolated professionals will intuitively avoid considering data that might bring their competence into question. Absent a willingness to confront disconfirming data, neither learning nor change occurs.

However, in schools where the ethic of action research has taken hold, the attitude towards data and school change becomes fundamentally different. These schools have transformed themselves into “professional communities,” places where student success is no longer attributed to teacher charisma, but is viewed as evidence of alternative theories of action worthy of consideration.

There are many positive things about teaching in schools that collaboratively attack problems of teaching and learning. Not only does engagement in collaborative action research make the act of teaching far less lonely, but in schools where teachers learn and grow, students tend to prosper and improve. With each successful locally developed school improvement the faculty’s sense of community deepens, as does its commitment to the process of professional learning.

Throughout the millennia it has been the nature of the Jewish people to study together as a community, to gather together to debate, in an effort to generate deeper and more profound understandings. When the teachers at a Jewish day school elect to study their work collaboratively and do so in full view of their students, the students observe their teachers demonstrating a major tenet of our culture: our learning is never complete. ♦

Richard Sagor directs the Institute for the Study of Inquiry in Education in Vancouver, Washington, where he works as a consultant to schools and educational organizations on action research, school improvement, and student motivation. He can be reached at rdsagor@isie.org.

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Teacher Retention & Development

Teachers are the most precious resource of any school. The measure of a great school is its ability to recruit and retain great teachers who know their subject and craft, care deeply about all their students, and are passionately committed to their own development and the school as a community. Here, find guidance for finding, preparing and evaluating teachers, and keeping them happy and productive stakeholders.

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