In the Name of Action Research

Research is defined as 'scholarly or scientific investigation or inquiry.' Unfortunately, the term “research” creates anxiety for many teachers, in large part because of its inferred statistical analyses and all sorts of charts and graphs. They fear it; therefore, they avoid it! Other educators become quite cynical. “Research and statistics can prove anything you want it to!” they say. The stark reality is that experimental research designs have often created these fears as well as snide commentary. A theory is hypothesized, a design for study is created, data is collected and then analyzed (yes, most often with involved statistics!) and recommendations are made. Often, the design is sterile and far removed from the reality of classroom activities. Recommendations are made but never tried and then assessed. If practitioners do not fully understand the statistics and if the information is not applicable to their everyday teaching, it can be impossible to apply the research and make positive change.

On the other hand, action research is designed with the practitioner in mind. The setting is where the action is, in schools and in classrooms. A problem is identified, questions are posed, literature is reviewed and data is collected and analyzed. The analysis may or may not include involved statistics but it must be quantifiable in some way. Action, however, is key!

Although the label “action research” appears to have been newly created in education, it has been around for the last decade. It is a process that has proven to be quite dependable and very responsive to educational change, if done correctly. Schools have the responsibility of insuring progress that matches societal changes and subsequently, the learning needs of the students we teach. Unfortunately, many of us, either as individuals or as members of educational systems, are not reporting the right kind of data to be seen as accountable in the public eye. We might also be somewhat remiss in assessing our actions accurately and reliably. Systems often act as a result of certain pressures or because of what “appears” to be sound practice from another’s point of view. Any change instituted is ineffective or, at best, short-lived when this happens!

Action research, however, has been and continues to be a very effective conduit for insuring that any change made is based on reliable information. We must, however, understand what action research is not before we are able to comprehend what it can be.

Action Research is not... a School Board telling its administration and teachers that they will implement a national or state initiative that the “research” says is valid.
But it can be... if a School Board asks its administration and teachers to examine the current national and state initiatives and determine which initiatives ‘match’ their district’s classroom’s own needs and priorities through action research techniques.

Action Research is not... a building principal mandating a basal text that is based on “current research” because there is a “back to basics” community group in the neighborhood putting pressure on the school.
But it can be... if a building principal works with teachers to assess (through action research techniques) the degree to which “basic skills” are being taught in classrooms. Subsequently, that data is shared with community members to then determine next steps as a collaborative school team.

Action Research is not... a university professor coming into a school to gather raw data about a “hot” topic in education and then writing about it.
But it can be... if a university professor is invited in to facilitate the process of action research with teams of teachers and administrators specific to a need that exists in a particular school building.
In contrast to pressures or fads, action research operates on the premise that any suggested change is based on real and objective data, from a specific group of students or specific actions of a specific teacher or group of educators.

The terms “action” and “research” are paired together for obvious reasons: any “action” initiated is a result of situation-specific “research.” Data comes from sound assessment tools, making the researcher “accountable.” Determined teachers who take on a problem on behalf of the kids they teach are often the researchers. Their goal is to make instruction better either directly (through changes in methodologies and practices, for example) or indirectly (through curricular changes and/or restructuring processes). As a result, teachers are placed in true leadership roles to assist a school community in reaching its long-term goals. Most importantly, the assessment and consequent changes match the environment where the data is collected.

These changes are the result of real information that is gathered or “researched” by those teachers themselves, with their own kids or within their own teams or schools, all with their own unique personalities and opinions. Unless there is that ‘match,' any change initiated will be neither long-lasting nor effective.

As educators, we do not have the luxury of time to keep experimenting with change or to keep searching for new ‘fads’ without having a source that is reliable and valid. School Boards and those in leadership positions must support skilled teachers to be involved in their own action research - and then pay attention to those results and options for change. Those who do not know the process of action research must allow others to assist them to learn. Educators and systems will continue to spin wheels and react to opinion instead of fact until this occurs. If it does not, not only do we as a profession lose but our kids do as well.

Abstract by:
Vanessa Phelan Zerillo, Ed.D.

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