Action Research: Professional Learning from Within

By becoming question-askers and problem-solvers, students and teachers work together to construct curriculum from their context and lived experiences.

– Nancy Fitchman Dana

13266113_10209362500521785_3561560696307026816_nOver 20 teachers recently celebrated their learning as part of their work with an action research course. They presented their findings to over 50 colleagues, friends, and family members at a local convention center. I was really impressed with how teachers saw data as a critical part of their research. Organizing and analyzing student assessment results was viewed as a necessary part of their practice, instead of simply a district expectation.

Equally impressive was how some of the teachers shared data that suggested their interventions did not have an impact on student learning. One teacher, who explored student-driven learning in her middle school, shared survey results that revealed little growth in her students’ dispositions toward school. What the teacher found out was she had not provided her students the necessary amount of ownership during class.

Another teacher did find some positive results from her research on the benefits of reflection during readers workshop. Students wrote in response journals and engaged in authentic literature circles to unpack their thinking about their books they were reading. At the end of the school year, the teacher was starting to observe her students leading their own literature conversations with enthusiasm. This teacher is excited about having some of these same students in 2016-2017, as she is looping up. “I am really looking forward to seeing how these kids grow within the next year.”

A third teacher shared her findings regarding how teaching students how to speak and listen will increase their comprehension of reading and their love for literacy. One of her data points – student surveys – was not favorable toward this intervention. Yet her other two pieces of data (anecdotal evidence, volume of reading) showed positive gains. Therefore, she made a professional judgment that her students did grow as readers and thinkers. This teacher is also reflecting on the usefulness of this survey for next year.


In these three examples, I couldn’t help but notice some unique outcomes of this action research course:

  • Teachers were proudly sharing their failures.

With the first teacher who focused on student-driven learning, she developed a greater understanding about her practice than probably possible in a more traditional professional learning experience. She learned what not to do. This teacher is stripping away less effective methods in favor of something better. And the reason she is able to do this is because she had a true professional learning community that allowed her to take risks and celebrate her discoveries.

  • Teachers didn’t want the learning to end.

This goes beyond the teacher who expressed her excitement in looping with her current students next year. Several participants in this action research course have asked if they could take it again. The main reason: They felt like they just found the question they really wanted to explore. It took them most of the school year to find it.

  • Teachers became more assessment literate.

The term “triangulation” was never referenced with the teacher who focused on conversations to building reading comprehension and engagement. Yet that is what she did, when she felt one set of data was not corroborating with the other results and her own professional judgment. Almost all of the staff who participated in action research had 3-5 data points to help make an informed conclusion about the impact of their instruction.

I also learned a few things about myself as an administrator:

  • It is not the professional development I offer for staff that makes the biggest difference – it is the conditions I create that allow teachers to explore their interests and take risks as innovative practitioners.
  • My role often is to the side of the professionals instead of in front of them, even learning with them when possible. For example, we brought in two professors from UW-Madison to lead this course. The best decision I made was recognizing that I was not the expert, and I needed to seek out those who were.
  • Principals have to be so careful about providing feedback, as we often haven’t built up enough trust, we can make false assumptions about what we are observing, and/or we do not allow teachers to discover better practices on their own terms.

In a world of standards and SMART goals, it is frowned upon when teachers don’t meet the mark regarding student outcomes. The assumption in these situations is that the teacher failed to provide effective instruction. However, the fault in this logic is that learning is not always a linear process. We work with people, dynamic and unpredictable beings who need a more personalized approach for real learning. Facilitating and engaging in action research has helped me realize this.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District, also in Wisconsin (http://mineralpointschools.org/). He also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Matt tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

3 thoughts on “Action Research: Professional Learning from Within”

  1. I love to hear of teachers sharing their experiences with learning. The failures are just as important, maybe even more so, for learning as the successes. I think the first point you make about PD you set for your teachers is transferable to teachers setting work for their students.

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  2. The three things you learned about yourself as an administrator are so important to your leadership and growth. You understand that teachers, like students, have to own their own learning. You also know that your influence is only as good as the trust your teachers have in you. I wish more administrators knew these things.

    Like

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