A number of years ago, I had the good fortune to teach a cohort of practicing educators in a Masters in Curriculum program. As a part of this program, teachers were required to complete a culminating project which included action research in their classroom. At the time, action research was a pretty novel concept and many of the teachers were a little intimidated by the thought of doing this kind of research with their students.
As the instructor, I wanted to make sure that the research they conducted was both well done and that the conclusions drawn were meaningful. To accomplish this, it was important to make sure they understood how action research is different than the more traditional method of comparing a control group of students to a group of students who are receiving some kind of treatment.
Action research is used in education because it’s often impossible to compare groups of students to each other as so many factors influence how students learn, and all of these factors can’t be controlled—home environment, motivation, background knowledge, and so on. Also, most educators wouldn’t choose to give only one group of students a “treatment” that they believe will be beneficial. Instead, with this type of research, the team uses an inquiry process with all their students and purposefully examines the resulting impact.
The action research process starts with the team identifying a research question or problem of practice they want to answer. They purposely start learning more about what’s already known about the problem they’re investigating. Next, they lay out the steps they will take with their students and the data they will collect to see if they’re actually making a difference for their students.
Since my experience with graduate students, action research has become well known and executed by teachers and teams across the country. In Learning By Doing (DuFour, et.al, p. 193), the architects of the PLC process define a professional learning community as “…an ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve.”
So, how does this idea of using cycles of action research actually play out for collaborative teams engaged in the PLC process? When most teams work in these recurring cycles of learning they choose essential learning targets being taught in their curriculum and develop common formative assessments to show which students have/have not yet mastered these targets. The response they plan for their students is provided based on the information they learn from student responses—they examine the misunderstandings or misconceptions students had about these essential targets. The team identifies the reason students are not proficient and plans responses that help students overcome their misunderstandings. Benchmark or other summative assessments are also used to monitor over time how well students have mastered the standards they are being taught and how well they are able to integrate them into new learning.
As teams learn together about their work, they often begin to ask additional questions such as, “How do we work with students reading below grade level?”, “How much practice do students need to be able to apply skills they’re learning to solve more difficult math tasks?”, and “Are students’ writing skills getting in the way of them effectively answering constructed response questions?” The action research they conduct to answer these questions often helps the team take a leap forward into being able to help their students.
An Example of How Action Research Works
So, let’s examine how a collaborative team might try this out. In our example, we’ll consider a team who is concerned about students who aren’t able to read text at grade level.
The team discusses how their current practices haven’t helped some students close the gap between their current reading level and grade level expectations. To get started with the research, the team takes time to learn together about what is currently known about the topic–in this case they might study several articles about close-reading strategies. As the team is leaning more, they discuss that while they have all been incorporating some close-reading strategies in their lessons, they haven’t done this in a focused way and haven’t used common formative assessments to see if, in fact, students are able to use these strategies on their own.
The team then collaboratively develops a plan to teach several specific close-reading skills over a period of time and plans to use common formative assessments to check whether students have mastered these specific skills.
Next, the team identifies specific close-reading strategies they will teach all of their students: using context clues to understand new vocabulary, chunking the text to make it more manageable, annotating the text with questions while reading, re-reading when students don’t understand a section of text, and reading the text more than once for different purposes. After they teach each strategy the team gives a common formative assessment on that strategy. Based on the results, some students who haven’t yet learned the strategy are provided additional time and support. Over a period of several months the team also uses summative or benchmark assessments to see if students are able to comprehend more complex pieces of text.
This balance of formative and summative assessments guides the team throughout their work. They regularly discuss results and change their plan when needed to add more time or change their instruction when appropriate. They realize that, without the common formative assessments, they wouldn’t know which particular skills certain students are struggling with, AND without the summative assessments, they wouldn’t know whether or not what they were doing was having an impact on student comprehension.
This action research process leads teams and schools to a culture where inquiry is the norm and problem solving is embraced. Teams are comfortable using their own common formative assessments both to identify students who need help on essential learning targets and to help them more effectively attack problems of practice they’ve identified. They are confident researchers who learn together—they are a professional learning community.
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., Many, T. W., & Mattos, M. (2016). Learning by doing: A handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work (3rd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.