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Guiding School Improvement Action by Richard Sagor
This week we will begin our Critical Friends discussion forums. Each week you will have the opportunity to share ideas, create community, and collaborate with your Critical Friends classmates in this course. In our Critical Friend Forums we all have the same mission and goal to successfully design a quality action research proposal and we contribute and collaborate as professionals and friends to support growth and improvement. Therefore, feedback to each other should be specific, meaningful, and supported by best practices in action research.
You will all benefit greatly by both giving and receiving this type of meaningful, supportive feedback to each other.
As a result, you can continuously improve your action research proposal each week and connect and collaborate with each other as professionals and leaders. Perhaps even more important is the fact that action research helps educators be more effective at what they care most abouttheir teaching and the development of their students.
Seeing students grow is probably the greatest joy educators can experience. When teachers have convincing evidence that their work has made a real difference in their students' lives, the countless hours and endless efforts of teaching seem worthwhile.
Whatever the scenario, action research always involves the same seven-step process. These seven steps, which become an endless cycle for the inquiring teacher, are the following: a Selecting a focus b Clarifying theories c Identifying research questions d Collecting data e Analyzing data f Reporting results g Taking informed action. Considering the incredible demands on today's classroom teachers, no activity is worth doing unless it promises to make the central part of a teacher's work more successful and satisfying.
Selecting a focus begins with the teacher researcher or the team of action researchers asking: What element s of our practice or what aspect of student learning do we wish to investigate? For example, if teachers are concerned about increasing responsible classroom behavior, it will be helpful for them to begin by clarifying which approachusing punishments and rewards, allowing students to experience the natural consequences of their behaviors, or some other strategythey feel will work best in helping students acquire responsible classroom behavior habits. Action researchers can accomplish this by making sure that the data used to justify their actions are valid meaning the information represents what the researchers say it does and reliable meaning the researchers are confident about the accuracy of their data.
Lastly, before data are used to make teaching decisions, teachers must be confident that the lessons drawn from the data align with any unique characteristics of their classroom or school.
To ensure reasonable validity and reliability, action researchers should avoid relying on any single source of data. Most teacher researchers use a process called triangulation to enhance the validity and reliability of their findings. Basically, triangulation means using multiple independent sources of data to answer one's questions.
Triangulation is like studying an object located inside a box by viewing it through various windows cut into the sides of the box.
Guiding School Improvement With Action Research
Observing a phenomenon through multiple windows can help a single researcher compare and contrast what is being seen through a variety of lenses. When planning instruction, teachers want the techniques they choose to be appropriate for the unique qualities of their students. All teachers have had the experience of implementing a research-proven strategy only to have it fail with their students. The desire of teachers to use approaches that fit their particular students is not dissimilar to a doctor's concern that the specific medicine being prescribed be the correct one for the individual patient.
The ability of the action research process to satisfy an educator's need for fit may be its most powerful attribute. For the harried and overworked teacher, data collection can appear to be the most intimidating aspect of the entire seven-step action research process.
The question I am repeatedly asked, Where will I find the time and expertise to develop valid and reliable instruments for data collection? Fortunately, classrooms and schools are, by their nature, data-rich environments. Each day a child is in class, he or she is producing or not producing work, is interacting productively with classmates or experiencing difficulties in social situations, and is completing assignments proficiently or poorly.
Teachers not only see these events transpiring before their eyes, they generally record these events in their grade books. The key to managing triangulated data collection is, first, to be effective and efficient in collecting the material that is already swirling around the classroom, and, second, to identify other sources of data that might be effectively surfaced with tests, classroom discussions, or questionnaires. A number of relatively user-friendly procedures can help a practitioner identify the trends and patterns in action research data.
During this portion of the seven-step process, teacher researchers will methodically sort, sift, rank, and examine their data to answer two generic questions: What is the story told by these data? Why did the story play itself out this way? By answering these two questions, the teacher researcher can acquire a better understanding of the phenomenon under investigation and as a result can end up producing grounded theory regarding what might be done to improve the situation.
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It is doubly sad that so many teachers are left alone in their classrooms to reinvent the wheel on a daily basis. The loneliness of teaching is unfortunate not only because of its inefficiency, but also because when dealing with complex problems the wisdom of several minds is inevitably better than one. The sad history of teacher isolation may explain why the very act of reporting on their action research has proven so powerful for both the researchers and their colleagues.
The reporting of action research most often occurs in informal settings that are far less intimidating than the venues where scholarly research has traditionally been shared. Faculty meetings, brown bag lunch seminars, and teacher conferences are among the most common venues for sharing action research with peers. However, each year more and more teacher researchers are writing up their work for publication or to help fulfill requirements in graduate programs.
When teachers write lesson plans or develop academic programs, they are engaged in the action planning process. What makes action planning particularly satisfying for the teacher researcher is that with each piece of data uncovered about teaching or student learning the educator will feel greater confidence in the wisdom of the next steps. Although all teaching can be classified as trial and error, action researchers find that the research process liberates them from continuously repeating their past mistakes. More important, with each refinement of practice, action researchers gain valid and reliable data on their developing virtuosity.
These three different approaches to organizing for research serve three compatible, yet distinct, purposes: 3. When each lesson is looked on as an empirical investigation into factors affecting teaching and learning and when reflections on the findings from each day's work inform the next day's instruction, teachers can't help but develop greater mastery of the art and science of teaching. In this way, the individual teachers conducting action research are making continuous progress in developing their strengths as reflective practitioners.
Peters and Waterman in their landmark book, In Search of Excellence, called the achievement of focus sticking to the knitting. Focusing the combined time, energy, and creativity of a group of committed professionals on a single pedagogical issue will inevitably lead to program improvements, as well as to the school becoming a center of excellence.
As a result, when a faculty chooses to focus on one issue and all the teachers elect to enthusiastically participate in action research on that issue, significant progress on the schoolwide priorities cannot help but occur. This should not be viewed as indicative of a problem. Just as the medical practitioners working at a quality medical center will hold a shared vision of a healthy adult, it is common for all the faculty members at a school to share a similar perspective on what constitutes a well-educated student.
However, like the doctors at the medical center, the teachers in a quality school may well differ on which specific aspects of the shared vision they are most motivated to pursue at any point in time.