Collaborative Action Research
Learning Together: The power of collaboration in collaborative action research.
The collaborative nature of action research in the TLT context was clearly a powerful mechanism for participant professional growth. Teachers reported feeling motivated by their work together, feeling affirmed that they weren’t in it alone, that they were inquiring into topics and areas that colleagues also felt strongly about: “it’s motivating too, having other people around that are interested in the same things as you. It makes you feel like you’re thinking about the right things, and this isn’t off base.” (Teacher, focus group interview)
“It makes a difference that other people are taking that same journey with you…” “…that you are not alone.” “That’s the point, because if that was a disaster, what are we going to do. Even if it was my classroom, we as a team had to come up with, what are we going to do to make it not a disaster?” (Teacher discussion, Final focus group interview)
These quotes speak directly to the idea of collective trust – the professional and collegial trust that makes it possible for participants to take risks together and try new things. Through our work with collaborative action research, we’ve come to see trust as both a necessary precondition and a powerful outcome of teacher research. Without trusting relationships or the potential for trusting relationships, the work cannot continue – but trust is also built through the process as teams proceed to share the successes and failures of their work together. As the teams built trust, members became increasingly comfortable acknowledging gaps in their understanding, asking new questions, and relying on one another for answers. Participants reported a lessening of the pressure to ‘know everything’ and a sense of satisfaction in being able to share in the successful outcomes as well as the unexpected during the course of the project.
a) Mutual Support and Shared Ownership
Teachers supported each other in different ways. In some instances this support was direct such as visiting one another’s classrooms to help teach or observe a lesson. At other times, the support was less direct and took the forms of (i) debriefing in team meetings, (ii) sharing observations from lessons or from video episodes that helped to illuminate student understandings and misconceptions, and (iii) taking on various jobs that needed to be done to move the project forward.
Teachers saw each other as mutually supportive. Shared ownership of the project as well as a shared sense of responsibility for student success in general and in the project in particular, allowed teachers to make themselves vulnerable. Through their work together, they began to feel comfortable acknowledging gaps in knowledge or understanding, because they realized that they would be supported rather than judged and that team members would help to find answers. This led to a decrease in anxiety and a willingness to take further risks in the learning process.
Diversity of Perspectives
Team members appreciated the diversity of ideas that their colleagues brought to the table, and saw the contributions of their colleagues as bringing a richness of perspectives to the process of learning:
It’s the key, because the diversity of ideas that are generated really supports a more in depth and thorough study. I think if it was just me, myself and I doing this, the breadth of the investigation wouldn’t be as great and the learning wouldn’t be as great. The reality is and studies prove that the more ideas, the more brains there are, the better the product. (Teacher, final interview)
These types of statements show that the value of member contributions went beyond mutual support. Researchers observed groups who were increasingly willing to bring a critical stance to the table, to ask difficult questions, and this was highly valued in the cultures of learning being established by the teams:
We ask each other more challenging questions. Someone would bring something forward and then someone would challenge it. And that’s what kind of kept us moving to look at all different areas, not just go in one direction. …we were comfortable as a group with each other. (Teacher, final interview)
b) Learning from One Another
In many cases, in addition to learning from the experience of trying interventions with students and measuring changes throughout the inquiry process, teachers were learning directly from each other. They had opportunities to see respected colleagues trying things to improve their practice, and this gave some the confidence to try high-risk, high-yield strategies themselves:
So I think one period of problem solving is more powerful than 20 pages of kill and drill. I don’t think that I thought that I could teach using problem solving solely, and not necessarily solely but putting such an emphasis on it. But I’ve seen M do it. I’ve seen L do it. And that’s given me confidence to try it. Because up until that point I think I thought that it had it’s place, but that you needed to have the fundamentals before you could do it. Rather than learn the fundamentals while you’re doing it. So I think that big movement in my instruction has come through that. (Teacher, final interview)
Classroom Research: Closing the Gap Between Research and Practice
Collaborative action research reduces the historical gap between teaching and research because it involves direct involvement of teachers in research and direct involvement of researchers in teaching (Hubbard and Power 1999; Ross, Rolheiser and Hogaboam-Gray 1999; Sagor 1992; Wells 1994; Whitehead and McNiff 2006). Forging mutually beneficial relationships between teachers and researchers in the education community has proven to be a challenging enterprise. Historically, teachers and researchers have established their own worlds, their own communities of practice, their own ways of operating and communicating. The gap in communication identified by many educators and educational researchers results in a silo effect, where teacher knowledge remains at the practitioner level, researcher knowledge stays at a conceptual level, and each hold limited relevance on the other domain. Hayes and Kelly (2000) identified this as a division of labour between concept and practice in education. Further, some teachers feel that they have been treated as subjects in educational research with unrealistic demands of what they can and should do (Vaughn 2000).
By contrast, within the framework of collaborative action research, teachers and researchers work together in the classroom to explore problems, challenges and questions (Capobiano, 2007; Frankham and Howes 2006).
Identifying the Problem
Trent researchers met with the collaborative action research teams at the start of the projects to support them in developing their research questions. At these initial planning meetings, researchers led the teams through a series of questions (adapted from Sagor, 1992, Whitehead & McNiff, 2006) designed to get participants focusing on and articulating the problems they wanted to explore. We asked the teams to reflect on and discuss the following questions:
Whose problem is this?
What evidence do you have that this is a problem?
What do you suspect is causing the problem?
What is the goal for improvement?(What is it you want to see in the students?)
What do you propose to do about the problem? (What actions could you take?)
This discussion informed the development of a problem statement (a brief statement encapsulating the problem under focus in the classroom) and corresponding research question. The problem statement, then, was the driver of the action research planning. Sagor (1992) emphasizes the importance of taking the time to clearly articulate the problem of focus. This approach imbues the research question with meaning that is directly relevant to teacher practice; it is personally and professionally significant because the direction for the research is set by the teachers based on common problems. The teachers’ interest in finding solutions for these problems lent their inquiry a sense of urgency. Data indicated that “constructive urgency” was important in generating and sustaining momentum throughout the project. This involved a shared desire to improve student learning, a relatively short timeframe in which to implement strategies and measure changes, combined with the support of colleagues and researchers.
The researchers assisted teams in planning intervention strategies designed to address the problem they identified, and to plan data collection strategies suited to gathering evidence of teacher and/or student growth (often pre and post). This process was assisted by use of a template that teams filled out throughout the day.
The template provided opportunities for teams to record:
- their problem statement;
- their research question;
- a description of their intervention strategy;
- a description of their data collection strategy (teacher and student data);
- relevant literature and resources; and,
- next steps.
By completing this template on the first day, teams essentially left the first planning session with a comprehensive action research plan in place – that could easily be adjusted as needed.
In our research program overall, we have observed the success of teacher teams who follow a cyclical structure of co-planning/ co-teaching/ implementation/ debriefing with enactments (practice) in between team meetings, and so we expected to see this pattern repeat itself (and it did). One of the advantages of a cyclical structure is that regular and consistent meeting times are built in to the process, reducing the risk of disengagement resulting from passage of time or other pressures in teaching.
Types of activities observed at planning sessions included: exploring published research, teaching resources and manipulatives; reviewing math content; co-planning lessons, lesson sequences and assessment strategies, and; revisiting research questions to maintain or refine the team’s focus.
Implementing Plan of Action
Bridging Theory and Practice through Classroom Interventions: The ‘action’ part of action research
Unlike experimental research, where the researcher seeks to observe phenomenon without influencing processes or outcomes, collaborative action researchers seek to improve a situation in a particular setting through the research process; it is action-oriented. Sagor emphasizes the action part of action research, defining it as “investigations conducted by and for the people taking the action, on their own action to inform their future actions” (2005). Of course, participant learning through the process is an equally important goal. To achieve these goals, participants carefully plan interventions that they believe (a belief informed by theory as well as professional intuition) will improve problematic areas of teaching and learning.
Experimenting with New Strategies
In this respect, collaborative action research provided an impetus for teachers to try something new that they might not otherwise have tried. This opportunity was valued by teachers, even when it created disequilibrium or pushed them beyond their ‘comfort zone’, as reflected in the following focus group discussion:
T1: I think the important thing is just to try different practices. This has allowed all of us I think to see things in different ways that we maybe weren’t thinking before. Maybe taking small risks and realizing that it’s a good thing.
T2: It’s easy to get in a rut if you’ve been teaching a long time and you’ve had success and a comfort zone…it’s good to have someone make you or challenge you to step outside of your comfort zone….just like it’s good to get the kids to step outside of their comfort zone….so you tried something new and it didn’t work. Maybe you won’t do that again, but at least you tried something.
T3: That’s what we teach kids. Try it, take that risk.
In some cases, these were strategies that the teachers had been curious to learn more about but hadn’t had a chance to try in their classrooms. For example, one of the case study teams was curious about different consolidation methods for students, and the project provided the framework to try different strategies. One of the teachers had a strong interest in drama and the arts, and these were brought into team planning of different methods. The project provided opportunities to creatively apply teacher professional knowledge and to expand it by trying things they had been curious about but had not done before. In other cases, the project provided opportunities for teams who were interested in testing out theories from secondary research to exercise their own critical professional judgment in assessing the theories and how different pedagogical approaches met with success in the classroom. At one case study site, a team member had been reluctant about the team’s approach of starting with area rather than length in the measurement strand, but others were interested in trying it and the team decided to move forward. This team member reflected at the end of the study:
… thinking back to the very beginning, you might remember that I was a little bit cautious about starting with area, because the research I had read said not to, but we decided to try it. And I think that’s really neat to see where it has gone. And I guess that’s a good lesson too that one or two pieces of research maybe isn’t enough. So maybe we want to try this again, will we get the same results? (Participant, focus group interview)
This team had gone against the grain, tried something innovative, and possibly even controversial, and met with success. For this participant, the findings of their project affirmed the professional judgment of the team. Their findings served as a reminder to look at the curriculum and educational research with a critical eye.
While experimenting with new strategies, collaborative action research also provided teachers with opportunities to see what students were truly capable of doing, which often led to revised and heighten expectations of student ability. At it’s best, collaborative action research provided an opportunity to plan carefully and to teach with intent, with a focus on best practices; the depth of exploration and practice that collaborative action research allows leads to lasting enhancement of instructional practices.
Evaluating The Interventions
Our data indicates that powerful gains were made when teachers engaged in the difficult process of collecting and analyzing data to measure the effects of their interventions. The act of analyzing data related directly to the act of teaching; data analysis in the context of educational action research offered participants the opportunity to pay careful attention to students and student thinking. Many groups talked enthusiastically about learning from their students through the process of data analysis:
When we’ve seen large bodies of information collected and shared in a concise way – which we’ve had over these two years of being involved in the project – it makes me much more aware of what I’m going to be collecting and how I’m going to be presenting that to others. So it makes me more purposeful I think in the work that I collect and the samples I take from my students. I look at it from a different lens. (Teacher participant)
I think I enjoyed it [data analysis] the most. It gets back to the heart of being a teacher again. Here’s the student stuff on the table. (Teacher participant)
Earl et al. (2003) emphasize the need for “ongoing, job-embedded and intensive experiences” of professional learning – learning that “links inquiry with habit of mind” – as “precisely the kind of learning that appears to be required” to make significant and lasting improvements in education (88). Collaborative action research provides a model for professional learning that fits all of these criteria and can provide a framework for teachers to experience and engage in transformational change.
Given the complex nature of teaching and of the classroom itself, inquiry undertaken through collaborative action research may not necessarily lead to definitive answers, but rather, to new understandings of problems or to the uncovering of further or more refined questions. For all teams in the study, the findings of the first year of collaborative action research acted as a springboard into areas of inquiry in the second year. In some cases these were refinements of earlier questions, where teams became more focused on one area related to the problem they were investigated. In other cases, the process raised new questions or sparked other areas of interest.
Data Collection and Analysis
Research as a catalyst for teacher learning
By engaging in the research processes of data collection and analysis, in which teams examined teacher and student artifacts to determine the effects of their classroom interventions, teachers gained new understandings about data, its purposes and usefulness. Researchers observed a shift in participants of greater ownership of the data and the research process overall. As teachers gained familiarity and agency, they moved from perceiving ‘research’ as a domain that existed outside the classroom, to doing research and seeing where it fits with classroom practice.
a) Growing Teacher Independence and Comfort with Data Collection and Analysis Activity
At the beginning of this two-year collaborative action research project, many participants were uneasy with the idea of collecting and analyzing data and relied on researcher input and suggestions for data collection strategies (Field notes, 2008). Over two years of working together, researchers observed a shift in teacher participants’ understanding about types of data and evidence in classroom-based research. One teacher stated that she had learned that “data collection is not just numbers, not just statistics” (Final interview). With time, teachers drew on a broad range of data sources, and developed a more sophisticated understanding of types of sources in the specific context of the classroom environment that can inform research. For example, with the encouragement of the researchers, Year 1 included a foray into the use of video data for some teams. Though teachers may have been somewhat reluctant to use video as a data source initially, those who used it came to see it as a valuable piece of the puzzle that allowed them to circumvent the challenge of being a teacher and an observer at the same time. It also allowed participants to get around logistical challenges of getting into each other’s classrooms to observe live lessons; with video they could analyze it together after-the-fact and come very close to the experience of being directly in the classroom. These examples are powerful because they enabled teachers to move away from analyzing paper-based evidence to the more complex task of evaluating performance tasks and in-the-moment demonstrations of student learning.