This week's question and reading took me back to some of the best years of my career: Those during which I was immersed in action research in my English language arts classroom at Kenny Lake School. Those were wonderful days, in large part because classroom research was part of what kept me focused on improvement, and it was part of a school-wide research project involving the entire K-12 staff during one gloriously cool grant-funded, year-long project. The texts selected for this week's intro to classroom research were spot-on in helping me ground myself, once again, in exactly what classroom research is...and why it matters if we wish to improve learning for students and encourage professional growth for educators.
Classroom research was defined in a number of ways in the texts: "Research is the systematic collection and analysis of data to address a question" (Duke and Martin, 1998, p. 2); "Action research is conducted by the K-12 educators themselves, often in their own classrooms. In fact, teachers are the researchers examining their own practice in an attempt to improve their teaching and, ultimately, their students' learning" (Diana, 2011, p. 171). My favorite definition, however, comes from one of the best books on action research I have ever encountered...and one that I have read a few times to guide my own practice: "Research is a process of discovering essential questions, gathering data, and analyzing it to answer those questions. ... At its best, teacher research is a natural extension of good teacher research is a natural extension of good teaching. Observing students closely, analyzing their needs, and adjusting the curriculum to fit the needs of all students have always been important skills demonstrated by fine teachers" (Shagoury and Power, 2012, p. 4).
I count my lucky stars that when I was a mid-career educator, I was able to study at the Bread Loaf School of English. During the summer of 2001, I took an action research class at the Bread Loaf campus in Juneau taught by Dr. Jobeth Allen from University of Georgia. Our primary text for the course was Living the Questions: A Guide for Teacher-Researchers, and it is the text from which the definition (above) came. I love the book because it helped me understand action research (or teacher research or classroom research, or whatever one wishes to call it) as something that would help to improve my practice...and that would ultimately improve my effectiveness as a teacher, resulting in greater learning for my students. Who couldn't want that?!
The reality, however, is that an educator's day is packed...far, far, far beyond the "contract day." Early mornings of preparation for the day, late nights of reading and grading, and weekends filled with planning: How in the world is there possibly time for research? The answer that not only explains how, but why classroom research is valuable is phrased beautifully in Engaging Teachers: Creating Teaching and Researching Relationships (Bisplinghoff and Allen, 1998):
Research...will help us act with a new level of confidence that our decisions are based on data from our classrooms and our students, thoughtfully collected and considered by us. Research reteaches us how having questions can be a good thing. Most basically, having a question to pursue can actually give us some relief from the pressures of teaching in settings that are always accruing new requirements and mandates for this new program and that next initiative. Our research is ours. It can be a stabilizing feature of our work. It helps us filter the maze of demands we always seem to be facing. (p. 2)
Bisplinghoff, B. S., & Allen, J. (1998). Engaging Teachers: Creating Teaching and Researching Relationships. Heinemann, A Division of Reed Elsevier, Inc., 361 Hanover Street, Portsmouth, NH 03801-3912.
Diana Jr, T. J. (2011). Becoming a teacher leader through action research.Kappa Delta Pi Record, 47(4), 170-173.
Duke, N.K. & Martin, N.M. (2011). 10 Things Every Literacy Educator Should Know About Research. The Reading Teacher: A Journal of Research-Based Classroom Practice, 65(1), 9–22. doi: 10.1598/RT.65.1.2
Mohr, M. M. (Ed.). (2004). Teacher research for better schools. Teachers College Press.
Shagoury, R., & Power, B. M. (2012). Living the questions: A guide for teacher-researchers. Stenhouse Publishers