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  • Writer's pictureallisonjolester

Lights, Camera, ACTION (Research)! - A Teacher’s Guide to Revolutionizing Practice

Pop quiz: What’s the secret tool behind the most innovative educators in the world?

Is it a magic wand? A powerful amulet? An incantation whispered under the full moon?

Although the notion of moonlit magic may seem appealing, the real answer is something far more grounded in reality and yet equally transformative: it's called Teacher Action Research (TAR), also known as Practitioner Inquiry (for this post, I will be using both terms interchangeably). But hold tight because once you grasp their essence, this dynamic duo can be as exhilarating as a fantastic journey through Hogwarts.

Brief History

To fully appreciate the power of TAR and Practitioner Inquiry, we need to take a more in-depth dive into educational history. The roots of Teacher Action Research can be traced back to the groundbreaking ideas of John Dewey in the early 20th century. Dewey, a philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer, championed the concept of experiential learning, advocating for a more active and engaged form of education where teachers were more than mere transmitters of knowledge but facilitators of student discovery.

Building on Dewey's work, Stephen Corey emerged in the 1940s and introduced the concept of Teacher Action Research. Corey, viewing teachers as key change agents, proposed that teachers could and should be researchers of their classrooms, actively investigating their practice to find better ways to engage and educate students. This marked a significant shift in the education landscape and brought a new level of professionalism and respect to the teaching profession.

Fast forward a few decades, and the landscape of education was once again shifted by the arrival of Practitioner Inquiry. This powerful approach emerged in the late 20th century, heavily influenced by the works of Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan Lytle. Their influential work, Inquiry as Stance: Practitioner Research for the Next Generation, advanced the idea that educators should not only investigate their practice but also critically question and challenge the status quo of the education system itself.

In Practitioner Inquiry, teachers become not just researchers, but activists and advocates, continuously reflecting on and improving their practices, while also advocating for better education policies. It empowers teachers to delve deeper into the complexities of their practice, asking tough questions and seeking innovative solutions.

Now, you might be thinking, "I am a reflective teacher. How is this different from what I do already?"

A reflective teacher often takes a moment to step back, assess their teaching strategies, observe student responses, and then adjusts their approach based on these observations. It is an important and valuable process, allowing for continuous improvement and adaptation. Reflection is, in essence, a process of self-evaluation and adjustment.

Practitioner inquiry, on the other hand, goes several steps further. This approach doesn't just look at one's own teaching methods but also examines the broader context within which these methods are being implemented. It considers how the educational environment, student backgrounds, policies, and societal issues impact the learning process.

In Practitioner Inquiry, teachers take on the role of researchers, systematically investigating these aspects of their classrooms and schools. They pose research questions, collect and analyze data, and draw conclusions that can be shared with the wider educational community.

Moreover, the lens of Practitioner Inquiry extends beyond the classroom walls. It compels educators to challenge systemic issues, question established norms, and advocate for educational reforms. It's not just about improving individual teaching practices, but also about transforming the educational landscape as a whole.

The work of Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan Lytle encapsulates this broader view. In Inquiry as Stance: Practitioner Research for the Next Generation, they propose that practitioner researchers adopt a "stance" on inquiry, one that involves a persistent state of questioning and challenging—leading not just to improved teaching strategies, but also to larger structural changes in education.

Kickstart Your Journey

TAR and Practitioner Inquiry are strategies that empower teachers to investigate their practices and craft changes based on their findings. It's about teachers taking charge of their development, not waiting for that once-in-a-blue-moon PD day. It's about being introspective, proactive, and, yes, a little bit daring.

As a devoted advocate for this pedagogical revolution, I've been working with teachers to wield the power of TAR and Practitioner Inquiry to reforge their practices. Together, we dive deep into the trenches of teaching, finding gems of insight, and harnessing these to create dynamic, responsive learning experiences.

What are the steps of Practitioner Inquiry/TAR?

Well, it may look something like this:

1. Identify Your Focus Area: Start by identifying a challenge or area of interest in your practice. It could be student engagement, assessment strategies, or any other facet that sparks your curiosity.

2. The Data is Your Compass: Collect data on your focus area. This can be as simple as journal entries, anecdotal records, student feedback, or observation notes. Be creative and rigorous in your data collection.

3. Analyze, Analyze, Analyze: Once you've gathered your data, it's time to play detective. Look for patterns, contradictions, and surprises that can inform your understanding of the situation.

4. Plan for Action: Based on your analysis, plan actions that you believe will lead to improvements. Remember, this isn't about huge leaps but small, targeted changes.

5. Implement & Reflect: Implement your planned actions and keep track of their impact. Reflect on the process, the outcomes, and what they mean for your practice.

6. Rinse and Repeat: TAR and Practitioner Inquiry aren't one-and-done processes. They are continuous cycles of improvement, so once you’ve finished one cycle, prepare to dive back in!

Wait, you may be asking, "Okay, but what does practitioner inquiry actually look like in practice?" Fair question!

Example time!

Let's meet Ms. Allen, a spirited English teacher eager to understand the influence of peer-led discussions on students' grasp of literary themes in her class. Her practitioner inquiry journey is nothing short of an intellectual adventure. Let's break it down step-by-step:

Step 1: Wondering

In the beginning, Ms. Allen was observing her classroom with no particular question in mind. But a tiny voice inside her started whispering of an itch, a discomfort—something was not as she wanted it to be. This was her 'felt difficulty,' a sense that her students could delve deeper into literary themes, understand them better.

She started by asking herself, "What do I really care about in my teaching practice?" "What bothers me?" "What area seems ripe for improvement?" Through this introspection, she realized she wanted her students to develop a more profound, more nuanced understanding of literary themes—a shift from knowing to understanding.

She then focused on her teaching methods, the primary one being teacher-led discussions. "Is it possible," she wondered, "that my teaching method might be influencing how students engage with the themes?" Her interest in peer-led discussions as an alternative came from some informal chats with colleagues and a couple of teaching forums she followed online.

To further explore this, she started taking photos of her classroom during discussion time. She wanted to capture students' engagement levels, their body language, their level of participation. Did they seem passive? Excited? Bored? Engaged?

She also began recording video of some of her classes (with proper permissions, of course). Reviewing these videos later helped her slow down and see things she'd missed in real-time. She noticed subtle things—like who was talking more, the variety of ideas presented, and who seemed disengaged during teacher-led discussions.

During these weeks of observation, she found herself coming back to the question of peer-led discussions. She couldn't help but wonder, "Would students grasp themes better if they learned from each other?"

And voila! After several iterations, her initial vague discomfort crystallized into a tangible research question: "How do peer-led discussions influence students' understanding of literary themes in our English class?"

This initial step, while time-consuming, was crucial. It laid the foundation for her inquiry, turning her from an observer into an active investigator. It wasn't about finding the 'right' question straight away, but about evolving her question based on her growing understanding of her felt difficulty. This process helped her craft a question that was meaningful to her, giving her a sense of ownership and motivation for the investigation that followed.

Step 2: Reviewing Literature She dives into existing literature on peer-led discussions in English classes and finds mixed results. Some studies suggest they enhance understanding; others show little impact. Her curiosity is piqued.

Step 3: Planning In this iteration, Ms. Allen chooses to immerse her entire class in peer-led discussions. No Group A or Group B, it's all hands on deck! She decides to observe the discussions, collect assignments, conduct themed tests, and even gather feedback directly from the students about their experiences.

Step 4: Gathering Data Ms. Allen dives into action. The class begins having peer-led discussions. She observes their interactions, facilitates where necessary, collects assignments, conducts tests, and also maintains a reflective journal of her observations and experiences.

Step 5: Analyzing As she starts examining the data, she notices that overall understanding of themes, as evidenced in assignments and tests, seems to have improved. But she also observes that the level of improvement varies among the students.

First Iteration This variety in improvement gets Ms. Allen thinking. She wonders, "Could it be that peer-led discussions are beneficial but impact students differently based on their learning styles?" She reshapes her question: "How does the influence of peer-led discussions on understanding literary themes vary among different types of learners?"

Step 6: Reflecting & Acting Based on this new question, she decides to observe her students more closely during discussions. She also introduces a learning style assessment to identify each student's preferred learning style. Armed with this new information, she continues her observations, focusing on the interactions between the students' learning styles and their engagement in the discussions.

Second Iteration Ms. Allen now notices that while many students flourish in this environment, a few seem to struggle. She realizes that some introverted or independent learners might need support to engage effectively in peer-led discussions. So, she introduces short training sessions to help these students participate more effectively.

Step 7: Sharing Findings Finally, she shares her findings with her colleagues, encouraging them to consider the individual learning styles of students when implementing peer-led discussions. She emphasizes the need to tailor these discussions to accommodate all learners, ensuring no one is left behind.

Throughout her practitioner inquiry journey, Ms. Allen not only becomes a detective and a scholar but also a better, more empathetic teacher. She experiences the joy of discovery, the thrill of challenge, and the satisfaction of impacting her practice and her students' learning positively. Her journey underscores the essence of practitioner inquiry—a relentless pursuit of improvement and innovation.

So there you have it! A beginner’s guide to becoming a pedagogical superhero through TAR and Practitioner Inquiry.

It’s time to abandon the comfort of the status quo and embark on an exhilarating quest of self-improvement. Because, dear reader, the journey to greatness isn’t about waiting for a magical solution; it's about crafting your own magic, one research cycle at a time.

Here’s to daring, exploring, and redefining the art of teaching!


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