Thursday, June 28, 2007

A rose by any other name

I recently was asked to talk to some teachers in my district about Action Research. I must say I felt some trepidation. I did an Action Research project some years ago, but I am not an expert by any means. The event was coordinated by University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) and I was going to have a UMBC professor as a partner for the session. My role would be to give the viewpoint from the trenches (i.e., a teacher who had actually been through the process). This made me feel better about not being an expert, but I it also made me realize I had another concern.

I was not convinced that Action Research was worth the effort required. I didn’t know if I wanted to “advocate” for something that I doubted myself. It turned out that all of the other teachers who might have served in my place were not available. Thus, I agreed to participate and do my best.

Well, I pulled out some books and looked at some websites as I prepared my presentation. I wanted my audience to understand that Action Research is not as intimidating as it sounds. Actually, reflective teachers do a less structured variation of it all the time which I prefer to call “teacher inquiry”. I realized that “teacher inquiry” was something that I do firmly believe in and have been doing and promoting for some time. I even was a finalist in Dell’s competition on “data-driven decision making” – another name for “teacher inquiry”. I had to look at my preconceptions to reconcile this contradiction.

When you call it “Action Research”, the connotation includes publishing a definitive conclusion for a larger audience, using the scientific method, and perhaps “randomized groups”. However, this connotation comes from the word “research” and those characteristics apply to “basic research” – not “action research”. The word “action” means that you act within your classroom. With “action research”:
· Publishing your results is optional
· The process is expected to be iterative – not a linear like the scientific method
· You don’t need to use randomized groups.

In other words, I had a problem with the name not the concept. My action research project had been time-intensive, but action research is still valuable on a smaller and less formal scale. I needed to examine what I valued about action research. First, the basis is inquiry. As a life long learner, asking my own questions about my practice is fundamental. I need to question in order to improve and should question in order to be a model for my students. Questioning without follow-up is worthless. Action in order to answer these questions is vital. Next, it follows that if you are going to spend effort on some action, it makes sense to evaluate if the action had the intended effect. The Question-Action-Evaluate triad just makes sense and really is what action research is all about.

This triad was something I could advocate. I needed my audience comprehend this understanding of “What is action research?” Not only that, but I wanted them to be empowered by what this meant. If practice could be improved by personal examination, then the individual could be a source of school improvement innovation. Each teacher did not need to wait to be told the best course of action by the district or “basic research”. These sources were tools in the process of improved practice, but one’s own “action research” was also a valid tool as well!

Note: After this line of reasoning, I was ready for my co-presentation. It went well and the audience went from saying that they never did action research to realizing that they have been doing action research all along.

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