by Ron Klemp
In the 1997 ASCD Yearbook titled, Rethinking Educational Change With Heart and Mind, Richard Sagor states that "One would have to look long and hard to find a single school endeavor that incorporates more of the essential findings of the change literature than collaborative action research." (Sagor, 1997). He maintains that the work of action research builds upon felt needs, which result in mutual adaptation leading to enhanced teacher efficacy. Whereas past thought linked teaching to more of what Sagor calls a "blue collar mode," represented by teachers working in isolation, being excluded from knowledge production, and being subjected to an external quality control, new thought has created more participatory pathways for teachers. The new thinking, embedded in reform, has placed teachers in the position of producing knowledge of the profession, and moving to an internal quality control as a participant and maker of policy.
In pursuit of our quest for enhanced professionalism and the advancement of teaching, one facet of our exploration consisted of a project with our teacher network. The "Teamin' and Theme-in" network is in it's fifth year of existence, with a membership fluctuating between forty and seventy five teachers. Participants are from various schools throughout the district, as well as teachers from outlying districts. The networks meet one Saturday a month, and each participant can earn up to three units of graduate extension credit per semester through California State University, Northridge., Some of our members have been in the network the entire four years, while for others the average length of stay is two years.
The network began as a middle school network focusing on reform from grades six through eight. The second semester of the network focused on Multiple Intelligence Theory, and teachers shared their lessons in a culminating dissemination at the final meeting in June.
Each year the network has taken a different focus, though by nature the emphasis remained relevant to issues of classroom practices that influence and develop instruction, curriculum, and behavior management. We have put on workshops with Dr. Kit Marshall on performance assessment, have had a dialogue with Mike Rose, author of NEA recommended books Possible Lives, and Lives on the Boundary. In 1997 we attended a presentation conducted by Dr. William Glasser, author of Schools Without Failure, and Control Theory in the Classroom. The "TNT" network has also participated in a drama workshop featuring inter cultural communication and role playing activities, and also experienced a workshop form the LA.. Opera which not only exposed kids to opera, but allows them to create operas based on content area related themes (imagine an opera between a cell nucleus and a mitochondria titled "Phantom of the Organelles!).
During the past two years we have moved toward a more specialized approach dealing with collaborative action research. According to Association of Curriculum and Supervision Development, action research is inquiry or research in the context of focused efforts to improve the quality of an organization and its performance. Action research has potential to give educators the opportunity to reflect on their practice and bring about changes based upon this reflective process. The sharing of the information creates potential for a sphere of influence around attempts to further define practice, so even those research projects where the intended result is not reached offer great insight for fellow teachers.
The steps outlined in Sagor's chapter, on which we based our model include the following six steps:
In our model, teachers identified a particular issue or problem which they wished to research, and then would follow the CAR six step process. Step one was the identification of theirarea of research. In our discussions, we had to ensure that the topic was one which the teacher could control, i.e. having more kids come to school having eaten breakfast would not necessarily be a topic that the teacher could influence given certain constraints. But time on task related to a particular intervention could be feasible.
- Formulating the problem
- Planning for data collection
- Collecting data
- Analyzing the data
- Reporting results
- Taking action (Sagor, 1997).
Second, the teachers determined what the intervention would be. For example, some teachers wanted to determine if a reward system would heighten participation. Another group decided to work on implementing the Directed Reading Sequence (Klemp, 1997) to see if comprehension would increase in content area reading. The discussion topics became a matter of guiding the teachers through real interventions and making sure that they understood specifically what they were doing.
After the intervention was clearly delineated, the next step featured a triangulation of the data. Teachers were to determine three assessments they could use, which could include any measurable or observable responses to the treatment. Some teachers used attendance figures, participation grids, grades, and case study formats which included student interviews. Some teachers logged regular observations during class sessions.
In the fourth step, teachers analyzed their results, where conclusions were drawn, and determinations were made as to the effectiveness of the intervention. Following this step, the research and the data were disseminated in a culminating presentation, where each teacher presented their research to the network and conducts a discussion or question answer session. Finally, the teachers determined their action steps based on their results.
After the first semester, and the first culmination, the teachers were given a questionnaire containing six questions. The questions listed below were used to see if there was linkage between the collaborative action research project, and teachers' sense of professionalism.
The questions on the survey were:
I explained to the teachers that the questionnaire was actually a part of my own action research project concerning teachers' understandings of the term professionalism as it applies to their situation. The first question, and really the heart of the survey, is question number 5, "What does the phrase 'teacher professionalism' mean to you? This query generated responses which carried a couple of different themes. One theme that came across was of responsibility, stating that teachers need to be responsible for "our own growth." Some cited the concept of teachers continuing to learn, apply results, and examining the learning of "our students." Along with these ideas came the sentiment of always striving to improve, to look for a better way of enhancing and increasing one's competence.
- How did you identify the issue or problem you researched?
- Upon reflection about your research, what aspects of the process could/do you think could be most useful to other teachers at your school?
- What are some of your thoughts about disseminating your research?
- What are some of your thoughts about hearing others teachers' research projects?
- What does the phrase "teacher professionalism" mean to you?
- How could (or did) this project create any greater sense of professionalism for you?
Another overriding theme to this question of professionalism was collaboration. Teachers cited the need to interact on a professional level with teachers and colleagues to present information to reinspire excitement and enthusiasm. One participant made specific mention of the positive feedback as being important and validating. As one teachers stated, "Teacher professionalism means the willingness to share and pool individual information in the creation of a joint teaching/learning experience." This teacher also acknowledged the benefits to children as well as teachers.
All of the respondents were eager to hear the reports during the dissemination of the action research projects. Comments based on question 4 included "I concentrate on the ones which are most applicable to my teaching assignment.", and "it helps me realize we all have problems-and solutions." Other comments noted that the sharing is important because we all learn when we all share problems from similar perspectives.
The sixth question concerning the tie between this project and the notion of "teacher professionalism" also yielded some positive responses. For instance, one participant noted that the project helped address their own perceived needs rather than ones assumed by others. Another reflected that since she was working on the research with her colleague, she felt she was continuing to grow professionally "and I was actively involved in the research project. ...at the end I had the feeling that I was indeed more knowledgeable about an issue that was important to me." Perhaps the most telling reflections came from those teachers who understood the need to make changes in their practice; "My project created a greater sense of professionalism for me because I realized that I needed to adjust my instruction techniques to meet the needs of my students. I also observed my colleagues and discussed some of their techniques with them in order to improve my own." Other comments indicated the appreciation of a structure for doing self evaluation, with the added comment that "sharing the information strengthens the profession." Another bonus was that several people indicated that they came away with ideas that they could begin to use.
Other questions related to the action research projects provide insight into some of the thought processes of the participants, but are not necessarily significant to the main issue of teacher professionalism. What did become apparent was that teachers who identified real problems gave a lot of thought to how they were going to create an intervention, and gave careful consideration to whether or not it worked. Because negative results also reveal good information, as one teacher discovered who tied her research to students' self-selection of grammar skills instruction. The important thing is that everyone learns, makes a shift in their thinking, and then moves on while continuing to reflect. What remains is a means to formalize the establishment and maintenance of networks to maximize participation on the part of more teachers, to keep teachers as learners, thinkers, and open to sharing.
Richard Sagor notes in his chapter that the research itself is not the difference in moving teachers into critical thinking about their practice and profession. Rather, it is the climate of the workplace "steeped in professional discourse" which brings about a transformation to deepening conversation about practice. Collaborative Action Research should give teachers answers to questions which require classroom based inquiry. But most important, enlivened discussions which move away from the "ain't it awful" fare, to conversations relevant to student outcomes and teacher practice which stimulates new thinking about practice, change, and their context for educational reform.
Sagor, Richard. (1997). Collaborative Action Research for Educational Change. In Hargreaves, A. (ed.), ASCD Year Book: Rethinking educational change with heart and mind.. (pp. 169-191). Virginia: ASCD.