Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Take class(room) action...

flickr image via jbj

I believe in the power of action research. Initiatives often start in one direction, but end up going in a completely different direction and we sometimes view this as failure, but within the context of action research, this shift in focus is often a good indicator of progress. Some are uncomfortable with the intangibility of this, but I like it. I like to think of the action research process as a cyclical path that puts to use the other four R's: reflect, retool, reframe and reclaim. These elements are key to keeping a project dynamic and malleable, but at the same time focused and purposeful in the effort to support quality education. 

My Alberta teaching colleague, Greg Miller (@millerg6) recently shared this video

The author in the video is Dylan Williams. He writes about assessment in schools; the virtues of formative assessment in particular. I agree with his message that the power of reform in schools lies mainly in teachers. There are many camps within education reform, but without getting into the debate about which one is most correct, I just want to draw attention to the fact that the single common denominator in any teaching reform effort is teachers. As individuals, and even more powerfully and effectively in collaborative groups, teachers have a distinct and brilliant education reform platform to work from because together, they are immersed daily within classrooms and schools. 

Useful feedback loops don't occur in isolation. The collective intelligence of a group will always provide a depth of feedback from different perspectives and bases of knowledge that help steer the research ship purposefully from informed and diverse perspectives. Action research is an exciting process with the power to inform, but also an under-utilized tool when teachers don't talk to each other. To leverage the power to do things better, teachers should embrace the action research process and initiate their own local, classroom-based projects designed to improve what they do. Sharing the results of this research with other teachers allows them to learn from our experiences also which essentially streamlines their reflective process in the event they choose to conduct similar research; it's the edu-conomy of scale in action.

Collaborative education reform is powerful. Action research is a collaborative process. Much can be accomplished in better, faster and cheaper ways when we put our heads together in education. Teachers have skills, knowledge and experience, but don't utilize them often enough to challenge each other; to step outside the box and do things differently in search of doing things better. Why should they? Because taking a different perspective or direction typically leads to greater insight, learning from mistakes and improved practice if we keep an open mind. Action research provides a conduit for stepping outside the box; making ourselves vulnerable together in the name of learning how to teach better and support kids better. 

When we fail to plan, we plan to fail. Of course this is true for research as it is for anything, however, I would also say that when we fail to adjust a plan, the plan is doomed to fail. The nature of action research is to adjust. The action in action research includes adjusting plans according to real time data and feedback that the research is providing. It's a participatory and collaborative process that works well when those involved understand the value the four R's of good action research. 

Reflection is looking back to empower learning forward. In research, its learning from mistakes by being honest about our process and willing to take a critical perspective. Re-tooling is the natural selection process in research; the ability after reflection to recognize that something isn't working, and then make re-calibrating changes to the research design or process. Re-framing is the process of creating an adjusted context for the research that reflects the new responsive process that reflecting and re-tooling has resulted in. Re-focusing is the product of distributed leadership within the group; a willingness from all sides to embrace and value the new or adjusted research direction. The four R's of action research are responsive strategies that allow us to function as classroom-based researchers understanding that all is not lost if the organic nature of teaching and learning causes (as it nearly always does) a deviation from the original classroom-based research plan.

Of course it's very important for teachers to stay abreast of current pure research, but in reality, teachers in the classroom are often distanced somewhat from the basic research that occurs at universities to increase understanding of fundamental pedagogical principles. They are consumed with the application of these principles as presented through various forms of professional development as new ideas and ways of thinking about education come on line. Perhaps participating in collaborative action (applied) research projects while doing the great work teachers do in the classroom everyday is a way to bridge ideas, theories and principles with real-time action to test their validity. Participatory action research is how this can be done, and it often, if not always can be done for little or no cost in dollars and cents, but it does require the will of people to get together and spend some human capital.

What will your next action research project entail?
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