Published Online: September 5, 2012

What Teachers Need to Know About Action Research

As a veteran teacher, I have plenty of instructional strategies under my belt, but this past year I needed new tools. A group of students (mostly English-language learners) were struggling to achieve even minimal growth in reading. As 3rd graders, they were entering the testing phase of schooling—but were two or more grade levels behind.

My colleagues and I knew we had to boost these students academically in order not to lose them socially.

Multiple teachers were collaborating to serve the students, yet it seemed as if everyone was trying their own variations on the same approach. I wanted to sift through the redundancies and streamline my end of their instruction.

I decided to get back to the basics. Specifically, to better understand how learning happens at the neural level—and to translate some recent research findings into practice in my classroom.

I was about to conduct what is known as Action Research (AR), although I didn't learn this term until my project was underway. AR is not a new concept to many teachers, but grand stuff for those of us whose graduate courses in research were, ahem, one or two decades in the past.

AR is more proactive than reactive. It is deeply and systematically reflective, and pertains to real concerns, challenges, and goals within your classroom. Typical goals of AR include evaluating outcomes, enhancing student achievement, and improving educational practices.

Although I'm no expert, I certainly gleaned some valuable lessons from testing the AR waters.

AR is best when it's optional. It should be driven by your own desire to tackle an issue in your classroom or school. You—not an outsider—are designing the project to improve your own teaching practice. Allow it to be your own.

Ground yourself with a specific question. Your own classroom challenge will inform this question, of course, and initial background reading will give it nuance and depth. A definitive research question provides an indispensable focal point for your action plan, and its clarity will rein you in during inevitable wanderings.

Ask an individual, or even a team, to join you. I had a tremendous learning experience on my own last year. But a Professional Learning Community could conduct much more productive AR, especially if co-teaching occurs and students switch frequently among teachers. This ensures continuity of practices, encourages collaborative perspectives and ideas, and provides collegial motivation.

Make your goals public. My quest was encouraged by a grant that allowed me to attend a conference and purchase months' worth of reading materials. This made me accountable. My goal had become public, initially to my funders, then to my colleagues. And my teaching became transparent like never before.

Stick to the gist of the plan. The typical process of AR is cyclical: question, plan, reflect, take action, observe, reflect some more, rethink and re-plan, repeat. My experience was that reflection occurred throughout the cycle—I questioned everything, from students' emotional affect, to my methodology, to the amount of content presented. I wanted to change course several times. Be open to the unknowns (and take notes for later!), but resist temptations to try something different until it's time to do so.

Relate your learning to your students' learning. The AR process sometimes overwhelmed me, until I compared it with my students' journeys. I considered the risks I press them to take, the vulnerabilities they may feel, and the power of their (and our) community. I thought about the questions I ask them and encourage them to ask of themselves. This helped me continue—and remember to embrace failure.

Let students know what's going on. I felt it was important and respectful to tell my 3rd graders what I was doing. I believe this also boosted their metacognition, as they saw themselves learn explicitly in different ways and compared the whats, hows, and whys of their own learning. Remember that the AR relationship is not that of "observer and subjects"—all participants are learners.

Allow for obstacles. No matter how well you plan and analyze, the AR process involves human beings. Consider obstacles to be unavoidable. Approach them as opportunities to rethink your strategies or to think more deeply before moving forward.

Results from AR are rarely conclusive, so anticipate the desire to ask more questions, dig deeper or extend your research, and improve your instructional practice in new ways. This shouldn't preclude the sharing of your findings with others.

AR is timely to implement, in spite of everything on your plate. Whenever there's a problem, curiosity, or question, you can begin. Results may or may not be immediate, and it can certainly be a challenge to balance instruction with research planning and analysis. But the process will improve your confidence, affirm you as an engaged, reflective professional, and help strengthen your resolve regarding specific classroom goals and outcomes.

I learned a lot last year. Of course, I didn't come close to finding a panacea. But I did discover several strategic tweaks I could make to my instruction, some of which are outlined in Teachers as Brain-Changers: Neuroscience and Learning and What Neuroscience Tells Us About Deepening Learning.

I gained unexpected insights, too, thanks to learning about the process of AR. Consistent, systematic reflection has provided renewed purpose to my teaching, as I realized how "unaware" I had become.

And I have more questions than when I started, which is how AR becomes a delightfully cyclical addiction.

The word "research" used to be daunting to me. It reminded me of dusty tomes, eccentric professorial rants, and meticulous APA formatting. But now I realize that AR can be a way to practice what I preach, take my own learning deeper, and improve my effectiveness as a teacher. I hope you'll give it a try, too.

See you at the drawing board.

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