5 benefits of doing action research in the classroom
Teachers are constantly tinkering, creating, learning, and growing. Action research is a slightly formalized version of what skilled teachers do every day.
By honoring action research as systematic professional inquiry, we empower teachers to improve their practice. It’s easy to get started undertaking a small, powerful action research project in your classroom. Let’s see what it can look like.
What it looks like and why it’s worth it
Classrooms are complex social environments. In addition to subject matter and developmental expertise, teachers possess very specific knowledge about the learning dynamics of a classroom. Teachers understand that everything from the culture of the school to the current dating status of particular class members may influence the success of a lesson.
This complexity means that large-scale education research has limited applicability on a day-to-day basis. There are just too many contextual factors affecting the implementation of any generalized approach. This means that most of the daily dilemmas of teaching, top-down policies and large-scale research are not detailed or nuanced enough to be useful.
Here are 5 benefits of doing action research in the classroom
1. Action research powers professional growth
Action research is a powerful form of teacher-driven professional development.
In Action Research for Professional Development, Jane McNiff suggests starting with the question “How do I improve my work?” She argues that action research is fundamentally a professional improvement strategy.
At the Middle Grades Institute each summer, participants seeking graduate credit use the Institute to launch their action research. Then, they present their findings to peers at a statewide gathering in January of each year.
2. Action research makes change manageable
Action research helps teachers focus on one aspect of their practice they would like to improve. Specific questions and a finite time period bind each iteration. This ensures natural pauses for reflection and planning.
Victoria Smith, a Language Arts teacher at Crossett Brook Middle School in Waterbury, Vermont, focused her research on a single unit where she experimented with a choice model which had been inspired by the art teacher at her school.
Michael Crocker, at The Cabot School, in Cabot VT, focused his research on a single day. He examined whether and how digital devices could enhance a field trip.
In the rapidly shifting world of education, action research helps prioritize which changes are worthy of extra attention. Action researchers pick a slice of their practice and dive into the research literature, then they use data to evaluate success and draw conclusions.
3. Action research promotes collaboration
The systematic nature of action research promotes purposeful collaboration.
A team from Hazen Union Middle School, in Hardwick, Vermont, sought to create a new interdisciplinary unit called “I Belong,” so they worked together on an action research project to document and study the results.
Educators can also collaborate between schools to share and compare related approaches. Check out this study looking at how student goal-setting is enhanced by digital tools, conducted by educators from Wallingford Elementary School and Shrewsbury Mountain School, in central Vermont.
4. Action research loves being shared
If you’ve ever wondered how to improve a certain aspect of your practice, then it’s entirely likely another teacher is wondering how to improve that exact same aspect of their own practice.
Get together and share
The Middle Grades Conference each January provides a venue for discussing action research and professional learning by teachers from around the state. Educators prepare presentations showcasing their driving question as well as the method they used to investigate it. They also prepare a short summary of their findings. The topics they pursue impact not only their own teaching but also intersect with issues and initiatives affecting teachers statewide.
Educators at Mill River Union High School showcased both the qualitative —
and quantitative —
nature of their action research project. It examined the effect of formal professional development on the amount and nature of tech integration at the school.
In my experience, it is one of the best conferences to attend or at which to present. It’s a low-key way for educators to be seen as and receive recognition for, being experts in their classrooms. It also gives educators a way to peer into other classrooms and see solutions to common issues in teaching.
Get a chance to publish
Sam Nelson, a social studies teacher at Shelburne Community School in Vermont, recently published his action research in the journal Middle Grades Review. The article details his evolution in creating opportunities for students to practice within a proficiency-based learning environment.
5. Action research can power systems change
The share-ability of action research makes it a useful vehicle for influencing school and district policy, as argued in this ASCD article, Guiding School Improvement with Action Research.
That Mill River Union High School study on the effectiveness of professional development allowed the team to document the positive impact of intensive professional learning. The results allowed them to advocate for continued support moving forward.
Similarly, a team at Lamoille Union Middle School pioneered Student Led Conferences at the school. Their thorough data collection showed nearly unanimous support by parents and students, providing a strong rationale to expand the practice.
Experts in systemic change recognize that rapid cycles of experimentation and evaluation are more effective than detailed long term action planning. Some schools are even incorporating action research into their evaluation system.
The call to action (research)
Imagine the transformative potential if all teachers have the time and support to conduct action research. In the mean time, I hope that you have the chance to engage in professional inquiry that will benefit you, your teaching, and your students.
Next week, we’re going to break down the action research process into workable steps, so that wherever you are with your practice, you can begin designing your own small, manageable action research project to power up your teaching. Until then, consider the starting point, and think of one aspect of your teaching practice you’d like to improve.
What will you research?