Before cracking open Mertlers book on action research I knew nothing about this concept, which is ironic because I do it all the time. As teachers we are always reflecting on what we are doing, looking for ways to improve it and testing out new methods in the classroom. Based on feedback or the results we modify our methods and continue to evolve our teaching styles and methodologies. I never realized this was called action research.
Typically those trained in the field of research methodology tend to impose their generally abstract findings to all the schools and teachers, failing to take into account the differences between them which would call for adaptations and variations in their theories. Since it therefore rarely applies, the research is most often dismissed as untrue or irrelevant to real life teaching.
In contrast, action research is simply research carried out by a practitioner in the field they are actively studying – not by an outside researcher. Action research is a participative, collaborative, deeply relevant and dynamic process combining the simple steps of planning, action, observation and then reflection. This in turn modifies and guides the next plan of action.
Another definition for action research which I came across is the act of encouraging teachers to examine the dynamics of the classrooms, critically think about the actions and interactions with students, confirm and or challenge existing ideas or practices and take risks in the process.
As I stated earlier I have found that teachers already engage in this type of process every day – this simply makes it more systematic and official. I think the reason teachers don’t do the actual research parts more often is simply the lack of time. In our country very little time is given to the professional development and reflective part of our practice. Teachers are on the go 24/7 for 10 months straight and then often times during the summer as well. However this type of research improves education by bringing about effective change and it is seen as authoritative and valid by other practitioners in the field because it is done by teachers for teachers. It is important and necessary and school districts would do well to encourage their teachers to engage in it on a regular basis by providing time for them to do it.
The four stages of action research are:
- Identify the area of focus
- Collect data
- Analyse and interpret the data
- Develop a plan of action based on the findings
Within those four stages there are nine essential steps. The two that will prove most challenging for me are the first one and the fifth one. The first step is to identify and limit the topic you wish to study – the goal is always to improve something but the study must be narrow in focus. I need to come up with a research question that I seek to answer with every aspect of the research.
The fifth step is about collecting data – what needs to be collected and how do I collect it? This can be anything from observations and field notes to interviews, surveys, existing documents and finally formal assessments and rubrics. I need to have a purpose behind each item that I gather and a way to collectively make sense of what I am looking at in light of my research question.
Because teaching is such a multifaceted practice, just narrowing it down to focus on one aspect is challenging for me. My broad goal is to measure the difference and the effectiveness of teaching with a blended, active-learning, student-centered method as opposed to the traditional teacher-lead, teacher-centered classroom. In foreign languages I teach four main skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening – input, comprehension, and output are all assessed in many different ways. Narrowing all this down to just studying one aspect is very daunting. Even though I have been experimenting with variations of blended learning in my classroom since last January (almost one year), I have not found an effective way to measure the results of my experiments. I am hoping that learning to do action research gives me some tangible tools to do just that so that I can show with concrete evidence the benefits of what I feel is a superior way of teaching.
Mertler, C.A. (2016). Action research: improving schools and empowering educators (5th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.