On the first day of my Action Research course, I always ask my students—all educators—to write on the following prompts: What do you think of when you think of research? What are your experiences with research?
Many of them conjure up images of science labs with hypotheses to test, stacks of books and printed articles to read, and lonely hours hunched over a computer. Those with a humanities or social science background usually describe research as a process of collecting and summarizing the ideas of others, in order to build support for an argument or a recommendation. Those with a background in the physical sciences often describe a process of forming hypotheses, testing those hypotheses, and describing what is found in “objective” terms that require the researcher to remove him/herself from the equation, except as a possible source of error.1 In either case, most describe research as an “isolating” process, something they have “labored through,” written up, and turned in to a professor or placed on a shelf, rarely to be shared or discussed with their peers. In addition, most describe research as a process that concludes when the data or evidence has been collected and analyzed, the conclusions stated, and the implications and next steps reported. Researchers’ responsibilities seemingly end here; it is the responsibility of others to implement researchers’ recommendations. In short, it is the work of practitioners, those who work in the contexts being studied, to take action and to effect change.
It is not surprising, then, that for many teachers the concept of “action research” can seem like an oxymoron. Indeed, educators express excitement and relief upon learning what action research is—that it engages educators as researchers and scholars, that it is rooted in their daily wonderings and practical concerns about teaching and learning, and that it can be a powerful tool for transforming schools and schooling.
In contrast to more traditional forms of research that tend to emphasize the development of theory over practical application, action research is a systematic inquiry conducted for the purpose of not just understanding, but improving, organizations and their practices. Moreover, action research is designed and conducted by “insiders” who analyze the data to improve their own practice and the systems in which they work. Teacher action research—which usually involves on-going cycles of inquiry, action, and reflection (see Fig. 1)—has been described as “a natural extension of good teaching” (Hubbard and Power, 1999, p. 3), a tool for improving schooling for students and their families (Noffke & Stevenson, 1995), a venue for professionalizing teaching by promoting a teacher-generated knowledge base (Grossman, 2003), and a vehicle for critiquing, challenging, and ultimately altering elements of schooling that perpetuate inequities (Kincheloe, 1991).
While teacher action research has been around for decades, it has gained momentum in recent years as educational reforms have increasingly taken the form of external mandates, positioning teachers as implementers rather than designers of change efforts and curricula. In their review of teacher research since the 1980s, Cochran-Smith & Lytle note, “the intellectual and educational projects that fueled the current U.S. teacher researcher movement had in common a critique—either implicit or explicit—of prevailing concepts of the teacher as technician, consumer, receiver, transmitter, and implementer of other people’s knowledge” (1999, p. 16).
The experts and policymakers who develop and mandate reforms are not the only ones implicated in this critique; the emergence of teacher research also served as a challenge to the authority of universities as the exclusive gatekeepers and contributors to the knowledge base of teaching. The sentiments expressed by Berthoff (1987) and quoted here by Cochran-Smith and Lytle parallel those I hear often from teachers: “teachers do not need more findings from university-based researchers, but more dialogue with other teachers that would generate theories grounded in practice” (1999, p. 15).
At the HTH Graduate School of Education, we have chosen to make action research the backbone of our M.Ed. programs precisely because it challenges the distinctions between theory and practice, between knower and doer, that are perpetuated by many universities and Schools of Education.3 We believe that the practice of teaching is inherently laden with theory, and that useful theory develops from practice. We also believe that teacher researchers, as insiders, are in a unique and powerful position, not only to contribute to the knowledge base of teaching, but also to use that knowledge to effect change within their classrooms and schools.
The challenge for K-12 schools and for Schools of Education then becomes: How do we support teacher researchers in generating understandings and actions that will lead to improved practice and the positive transformation of schools? This is no small task. Teacher action research is a powerful tool, but if it is used merely to affirm teachers’ pre-conceived notions and assumptions, it may perpetuate inequities and sustain the status quo. Moreover, if research questions do not emerge from teachers’ practice and their professional concerns, the research is likely to feel contrived and to have little impact on teachers’ learning or decision-making. If we want teacher action research to be transformative, we must structure it in ways that promote teachers’ ownership of their learning and that facilitate teacher reflection and conversation. Below, I briefly discuss a few ways we at the HTH GSE are striving to do just that, by putting forth a new model of schooling—one that nurtures both students and adults as learners.
In Experience and Education (1938), Dewey argued that in order for reflection to be educative—that is, to facilitate future learning and decision-making—it must be rooted in experience. This is true for youth and adults. Too often in schools, students and teachers are asked to reflect on situations and issues disconnected from their daily lives, to engage with abstractions rather than their own experience. Furthermore, schools often treat reflection as a passive process, a mere “mulling over” (Rodgers, 2002). Students and teachers are asked to reflect on situations, to think about what they learned and what they would do differently, and even to write their thoughts and next steps down. However, they are rarely asked to share their reflections with their peers or to apply their reflections in the creation of something new. Reflection is treated as something you do when the learning is done, not as something that is a continual and integral part of the learning itself.
This view of reflection stands in sharp contrast to the process Dewey (1933) describes as active, rigorous, disciplined, grounded in data, and by necessity, involving action. In light of critiques that teaching is more art than science,4 it is interesting to note that Dewey’s phases of reflection5 (1933) closely parallel those of the scientific method and of action research: reflection begins with an experience and the interpretation of that experience; questions, as well as possible explanations and hypotheses, arise from the experience; and finally, hypotheses are tested, a new experience ensues, and the process begins again.
For teachers, the experience that triggers reflection may be a lesson gone wrong, an interaction or outcome they find puzzling, a student they don’t quite understand, or a problem they see in their classroom or school environment—in short, a “wondering they wish to pursue” (Hubbard and Power, 1999). Such wonderings, generated from their own practice, become the basis for teachers’ research questions. Teachers in our M.Ed.. program are pursuing questions like: How do students experience “choice” in my classroom? How do students experience open-ended math problems? How do students feel about working in mixed and single gender groups? How do teachers experience their first year in HTH schools? What structures do HTH teachers use to help students know what is expected of them in class?
Each of these questions involves collecting, analyzing, and reflecting on data from various sources to develop a richer understanding of how we, as educators, can improve our practice and better meet the needs of students and colleagues. Educators make decisions everyday, but we rarely take the time to think about why we make the decisions we do, what evidence we use to support our decisions, and who benefits (and who does not) from those decisions. Action research, like reflection in Dewey’s sense of the word, brings these questions to the foreground and in so doing, reveals multiple perspectives, generates new questions, and promotes informed action and continual learning.
In my work with teachers, I have witnessed how the on-going inquiry and dialogue that occurs in the context of teacher action research not only revitalizes individual teachers’ practices, but also serves as a catalyst for collaboration, teacher leadership, and school-wide reform.6 However, these processes do not happen on their own, particularly in schools characterized by a culture of isolation, where teachers are rarely provided the time or space to learn from one another. Conversation, like teacher research, needs to be nurtured in order to flourish. As Fullan (2001) notes, changing schools and the culture of schooling requires more than policies and standards; it requires opportunities for teachers to learn new ways of working together.
In our HTH K-12 schools and in the HTH Graduate School of Education, we intentionally provide structures and set norms to facilitate conversations between colleagues. Our K-12 teachers design curricula and teach in teams, participate in study groups on topics of their choosing, and meet for one hour each day before students arrive to workshop dilemmas and projects, discuss teaching practices, and reflect on student work. In the HTH GSE, teachers bring the questions they are most curious about into our graduate classroom. These questions drive both the conversations and the curriculum. Teachers learn about research methods and design not only by reading about these topics, but by designing their own studies, developing interview questions and surveys, collecting and analyzing various types of data, and presenting their work to colleagues. At every step in this process, teachers are sharing their work and ideas, reflecting on the connections between their research and their practice, and serving as critical friends who challenge one another to be better researchers and better teachers.
As teachers engage in action research with the support of the schools in which they work, a new culture begins to emerge—one of collaboration, where teaching is a public practice and a shared responsibility, where teachers are leaders in efforts to improve teaching and schooling. We have all heard the following in various contexts: real, sustainable change comes from within. If we want educational research that not only informs practice, but transforms schooling, then we need to engage those within schools in meaningful research.7
“Teachers of today and tomorrow need to do much more learning on the job, or in parallel to it—where they can constantly test out, refine, and get feedback on improvements they make. They need access to other colleagues in order to learn from them. Schools are poorly designed for integrating learning and teaching on the job. The teaching profession must become a better learning profession—not just incidentally, at teachers’ own individual initiatives, but also in the very way the job is designed.” (Fullan, 2001, p. 266)
What would schools—both K-12 and Graduate Schools of Education—look like if they were designed to further adult learning on the job? We at HTH believe they would look much like our nation’s top research hospitals, where adult learning is situated within a clinical site. In such institutions, adults are practitioners and researchers, healers and contributors to the profession’s knowledge base. The distinction between practice and theory is blurred; each informs the other and each is better as a result.
This is why we have chosen to establish a Graduate School of Education within our K-12 schools, where adults can learn from students and from one another, and where teacher research is not on the margins of individual teachers’ practice, but central to the work we do together as educators. Through this work, we hope to improve our schools, refine theories of teaching and learning, and develop standards for rigorous research that reflect our ultimate goal of becoming, as Hubbard and Power (1999) have said, “more complete teachers.” We are excited by the prospect of pioneering this new type of institution and of transforming schooling for adults and students, one question at a time.
Anderson, G., & Herr, K. (1999). “The new paradigm wars: Is there room for rigorous practitioner knowledge in schools and universities?” Educational Researcher, 28(5), 12-21.
Berthoff, A. (1987). The teacher as RE-searcher. In D. Gosmani & P. Stillman (eds.), Reclaiming the classroom: Teacher research as an agency for change (pp. 28-38). Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook.
Caillier, S.. Gott, R., Humphries, G., Perkins, E., Pollard, K., Pollard, J., & Schumpelt, S. (2005). Students’ perceptions of the arts: (Re)visioning an arts-focused charter school. In S. Christiansen (ed.) Windows on Our Classrooms: An Anthology of Teacher Research Studies (pp. 151-168). UC Davis CRESS Center for Teacher Research.
Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. (1999). The teacher research movement: A decade later. Educational Researcher, 28(7), 15-25.
Dewey, J. (1933). How we think. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books. (Original work published 1910).
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York, NY: Touchstone.
Fullan, M. (2001). The new meaning of educational change. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Grossman, P. (2003, January/February). Teaching: From a nation at risk to a profession at risk? Harvard Education Letter. Retrieved February 26, 2008, from https://www.hepg.org/hel-home/issues/19_1/helarticle/teaching_238.
Hubbard, R., & Power, B. (1999). Living the questions: A guide for teacher-researchers. York, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
Kincheloe, J. (1991). Teachers as researchers: Qualitative inquiry as a path to empower- ment. London: The Falmer Press.
Noffke, S., & Stevenson, R. (1995). Educational action research: Becoming practically critical. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Rodgers, C. (2002). Defining reflection: Another look at John Dewey and reflective thinking. Teachers College Record, 104(4), 842-866.
Rubin, B. & Jones, M. (2007). Student action research: Reaping the benefits for students and school leaders. NASSP Bulletin, 91(4), 363-378.
i. These ideas about research reflect the conventions of the different disciplines in which students are trained, as well as students’ experiences learning and working within those disciplines in schools and in worlds of work.
ii. This figure is an adaptation of a diagram originally produced by Paul Gorski and Barbara Swanson, wonderful colleagues whom I was fortunate to work with in Hamline University’s M.Ed. program in St. Paul, Minnesota.
iii. We can see this distinction at work in that universities are credited with providing theory, while K-12 schools are charged with integrating those theories into their practice. However, it also appears within many Schools of Education, where there are often distinctions between tenure-track faculty, who are expected to conduct research and generate theories about schooling, and “practical” faculty whose primary responsibility is to train and supervise developing teachers. Indeed, the expansion of teacher research has led to what some are calling a “paradigm war” between the “formal” research promoted by universities and the practitioner-based or “practical” research practiced in schools and in some teacher education programs (Anderson & Herr, 1999).
iv. Whether this is a legitimate critique of teaching is beyond the scope of this piece. However, I will note that at HTH we believe that good teaching is both art and science, and that the distinction between the two—like most distinctions—is not useful and in many ways, hinders innovative thinking and practice.
v. In How We Think (1933), Dewey describes six phases of reflection: 1) an experience, 2) spontaneous interpretation of the experience, 3) naming the problem(s) or the question(s) that arises out of the experience, 4) generating possible explanations for the problems or questions posed, 5) ramifying the explanations into full-blown hypotheses, and 6) experimenting or testing the selected hypothesis.
vi. See Caillier et. al., 2005 for further discussion.
vii. Students can also play a powerful role in transforming schools through action research as research participants, as partners with teachers, and by conducting their own research studies of their schools and communities. Indeed, Fullan (2001) refers to students as one of the most “vastly underutilized resources in school reform efforts.” See Rubin & Jones (2007) for a review of student action research in schools and communities and its many benefits.