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You are embarking on an exciting journey into action research. No matter what your current or future role is in early childhood education, action research is a framework you can use to take action that can lead to positive changes for young children and improvement in your school or center. You could focus on working with young children, families of young children, or early childhood education (ECE) teachers or staff. The opportunities for making a positive difference in any ECE role are endless.

PREPARE

In order to help you choose an area of focus and research question, re-review the following as needed:

Week 1 Instructor Guidance

Chapters 1 and 3 from the course text, Action research: A Guide for The Teacher Researcher

Chapter 5 from the ebook, Guiding school improvement with action research (Links to an external site.)

How to Do Action Research in Your Classroom (Links to an external site.), from the National Association for the Education of Young Children website

Read the following required resources:

Picking a topic is research (Links to an external site.) (Links to an external site.)

Narrowing a Topic and Developing a Research Question (Links to an external site.), from the UAGC Writing Center

Problem statement (Links to an external site.), by E. A. Wentz

Library OneSearch (Links to an external site.) tip sheet from the UAGC Library

Keywords are critical (Links to an external site.) (Links to an external site.)

REFLECT

Your area of focus and research question should be directly related to a situation that you would like to change or improve upon in your own classroom or organization. If you are currently not working in an early childhood education setting, you may use a contrived situation based on previous experience, articles you have read, or challenges you are aware of in the field that align with your career goals and interests. You may also draw inspiration from resources or articles that you have read or learned from in your previous MAECEL courses, your bachelor’s degree program, or in your professional studies and experiences. Perhaps you have a child in school, and you would like to improve something at their center or school. If you have other ideas for a population to work with, be sure to contact your instructor to get feedback and advice.

REMEMBER TO CHOOSE AN AREA OF FOCUS THAT

centers on teaching or learning in early childhood education,

is within your locus of control,

is something you are passionate about, and

is something you would like to change or improve.

WRITE: CONTENT EXPECTATIONS. THE FOLLOWING CONTENT AREAS ARE REQUIRED IN THIS ASSIGNMENT:

Significance of the proposed study: In one to two paragraphs,

Describe your current professional role and setting. If you are not working in early childhood education at this time, you can use a previous or future role that aligns with your career goals and interests.

Explain the purpose of your study and the student outcomes you want to influence.

Explanation of problem: In two paragraphs,

Explain a statement of the problem or situation that led to this interest or why you want to pursue this topic.

Population: In one paragraph,

Describe the target population (age/grade, quantity of participants).

Explain why you have chosen this target population for the study, including details about why this population is appropriate for the study.

One research question

Develop one research question that aligns with your area of focus and clearly addresses what you hope to answer and influence in this proposed study. The question needs to be answerable and it must appropriately represent the population or participants you identified.

RESEARCH AND RESOURCE EXPECTATIONS

Use of at least one scholarly, credible, or peer-reviewed source is required, in addition to the course textbook.

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1 Understanding Action Research
After reading this chapter you should be able to:
1.1 Describe the goal of educational research and the different approaches researchers use.
1.2 Define action research.
1.3 Describe the origins of action research.
1.4 Identify the similarities and differences between critical and practical theories of action research.
1.5 Describe the goals of and rationale for action research.
1.6 Describe the justifications for action research and steps you can take to make it part of your daily teaching practice.
1.7 Describe the four steps of the action research process.
This chapter introduces action research by providing an example of an action research project from a real teacher researcher, an exploration of the
historical and theoretical foundations of action research, a discussion of the goals and justification for action research, and an explanation of the action
research process.
What Motivates Unmotivated Students?
Deborah South
Deborah South, a teacher in a rural Oregon high school, was a participant in an action research class. She shares the challenges she
faced when, owing to a last-minute teaching assignment, she found herself working with a group of “unmotivated” students.
Deborah’s story illustrates the wide variety of factors that can influence students’ learning and a teacher’s willingness to critically
examine her teaching methods and how they affected the children in her classroom. Although Deborah’s interpretation of the results
of her study did not validate her practice, it did provide data that Deborah and the school’s principal could use to make changes to
the existing curriculum for unmotivated students.
students who are unmotivated and apathetic can be a difficult challenge for any teacher to overcome. These students typically can be
Teaching
disruptive and negative and often require an extraordinary amount of teacher time to manage their behavior. My concern with teaching unmotivated
students has existed almost since I began teaching 5 years ago. As an educator, one tries all kinds of possible strategies to encourage students to be
successful. However, these strategies do not work with unmotivated students who are apathetic and exhibit unacceptable behavior. Eventually the patience
runs out and, as ashamed as I am to admit it, I stop trying to find ways to reach these particular students. It soon becomes enough that they stay in their
seats, be quiet, and do not disturb anyone.
However, last term my attitude was forced to change. I was given a study skills group of 20 of the lowest achieving eighth graders in the school. This new
class consisted of 16 boys and 4 girls. My task was to somehow take these students and miraculously make them motivated, achieving students. I was
trained in a study skills program before the term started and I thought that I was prepared: I had the students, I had the curriculum, and I had the help of
an outstanding aide.
Within a week, I sensed we were in trouble. My 20 students often showed up with no supplies. Their behavior was atrocious. They called each other
names, threw various items around the room, and walked around the classroom when they felt like it. Their attitudes toward me were negative. I became
concerned about teaching these students. In part, I felt bad that they were so disillusioned with school and their future; I also felt bad because the thought
of teaching in this environment every day for another 14 weeks made me wish summer vacation were here.
Given this situation, I decided to do some reading about how other teachers motivate unmotivated students and to formulate some ideas about the
variables that contribute to a student’s success in school. Variables I investigated included adult approval, peer influence, and success in such subjects as
math, science, language arts, and social studies, as well as self-esteem and students’ views of their academic abilities.
I collected the majority of the data through surveys, interviews, and report card/attendance records in an effort to answer the following questions:
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How does attendance affect student performance?
How are students influenced by their friends in completing schoolwork?
How do adults (parents, teachers) affect the success of students?
What levels of self-esteem do these students have?
As a result of this investigation, I learned many things. For example, for this group of students attendance does not appear to be a factor—with the
exception of one student, school attendance was regular. Not surprisingly, peer groups did affect student performance. Seventy-three percent of my
students reported that their friends never encouraged doing homework or putting any effort into homework.
Another surprising result was the lack of impact of a teacher’s approval on student achievement. Ninety-four percent of my students indicated that they
never or seldom do their homework to receive teacher approval. Alternatively, 57 percent indicated that they often or always do their homework so that
their families will be proud of them.
One of the most interesting findings of this study was the realization that most of my students misbehave out of frustration at their own lack of abilities.
They are being obnoxious not to gain attention, but to divert attention from the fact that they do not know how to complete the assigned work.
When I looked at report cards and compared grades over three quarters, I noticed a trend. Between the first and second quarters, student performance
had increased. That is, most students were doing better than they had during the first quarter. Between the second and third quarters, however, grades
dropped dramatically. I tried to determine why that drop occurred, and the only experience these 20 students shared was that they had been moved into my
class at the beginning of the third quarter.
When I presented my project to the action research class during our end-of-term “celebration,” I was convinced that the “cause” of the students’
unmotivated behavior was my teaching. I had concluded through my data analysis and interpretation that the one experience these 20 children had in
common was participation in my study skills class. This conclusion, however, was not readily accepted by my critical friends and colleagues in the action
research class, who urged me to consider other interpretations of the data. For example, perhaps the critical mass of negativity present in one classroom
provided the children with a catalyst to act out against the teacher. After all, this was the only class shared exclusively by these 20 students. Afterward, I
shared the findings of my study with my school principal. As a result, she decided not to group these students together homogeneously for a study skills
class the following year.
As you can see, action research is a “wonderfully uncomfortable” (Lytle,
Lytle, 1997
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EC1) )
place to be—once we start our journey of investigation, we have no way of knowing in advance where we will end up. Action research, like any other
problem-solving process, is an ongoing creative activity that exposes us to surprises along the way. What appears to matter in the planning stages of an
action research investigation may provide us with only a hint, a scratching of the surface, of what is really the focus for our investigations. How we deal
with the uncertainty of the journey positions us as learners of our own craft, an attitude that is critical to our success. This text attempts to foster an
openness in the spirit of inquiry guided by action research.
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1.1 A Brief Overview of Educational Research
When you hear the phrase scientific research, you probably think of a scientist in a white lab coat (usually a balding, middle-age man with a pocket full of
pens!) mixing chemicals or doing experiments involving white mice. Traditional scientists, like the one pictured in this rather trite image, proceed with
their research under the assumption that “all behaviors and events are orderly” and that all events “have discoverable causes” (Mills & Gay, 2016
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001ED7) , p. 5). This
traditional belief that natural phenomena can be explained in an orderly way using empirical sciences is sometimes called positivism.
Human beings, however, are very complicated organisms, and compared with chemicals—and mice, for that matter—their behavior can be disorderly and
fairly unpredictable. This presents a challenge to educational researchers, who are concerned with gaining insight into human behavior in educational
environments such as schools and classrooms.
The goal of traditional educational research is “to explain, predict, and/or control educational phenomena” (Mills & Gay, 2016
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001ED7) , p. 5). To do this,
researchers try to manipulate and control certain variables (the factors that might affect the outcomes of a particular study) to test a hypothesis (a
statement the researcher makes that predicts what will happen or explains what the outcome of the study will be). Educational researchers focus on the
manipulation of an independent variable and its impact on the dependent variable. An independent variable is a behavior or characteristic under the
control of the researcher and believed to influence some other behavior or characteristic. A dependent variable is the change or difference in a behavior or
characteristic that occurs as a result of the independent variable. The word control is not used here in a negative sense; rather, it describes one of the
characteristics of traditional, quantitatively oriented research, in which the researcher must control the environment to be able to draw cause-effect
relationship conclusions. This cannot occur unless the researcher is able to control the variables in the study that might affect a causal relationship.
For example, researchers might be interested in studying the effects of a certain phonics program (the independent variable) on the rate at which children
learn to read (the dependent variable). The researchers may hypothesize that using this phonics program will shorten the time it takes for students to learn
to read. To confirm or reject this hypothesis, they might study the reading progress of one group of children who were taught using the phonics program
(the experimental group) and compare it with the reading progress of another group of children (the control group) who were taught reading without the
phonics program. Children would be randomly assigned to either the experimental or the control group as a way to reduce the differences that might exist
in naturally occurring groups. At the end of the experiment, the researchers would compare the progress of each group and decide whether the hypothesis
could be accepted or rejected with a predetermined level of statistical significance (e.g., that the difference between the mean for the control group and
the mean for the experimental group is large, compared with the standard error). Finally, the researchers would present the findings of the study at a
conference and perhaps publish the results.
This process may sound very straightforward. In classroom and school settings, however, controlling all the factors that affect the outcomes of our
teaching without disrupting the natural classroom environment can be difficult. For example, how do we know that the phonics program is the only
variable affecting the rate at which students learn to read? Perhaps some students are read to at home by their parents; perhaps one teacher is more
effective than another; perhaps one group of students gets to read more exciting books than the other; perhaps one group of children has difficulty
concentrating on their reading because they all skipped breakfast!
Action researchers acknowledge and embrace these complications as a natural part of classroom life and typically use research approaches that do not
require them to randomly assign students in their classes to control and experimental groups. Teacher researchers studying their own practices also differ
from traditional educational researchers (studying something other than their own practices) because they are committed to taking action and effecting
positive educational change in their own classrooms and schools based on their findings. Traditional educational researchers may not be able to impact the
subjects of their studies because they are outside of their locus of control. That is, traditional educational researchers can share the conclusions of their
studies, but it is up to the subjects to determine whether they will take action on the findings. Another difference is that whereas educational research has
historically been done by university professors, scholars, and graduate students on children, teachers, and principals, action researchers are often the
schoolteachers and principals who were formerly the subjects of educational research. As such, they participate in their own inquiries, acting as both
teacher and researcher at the same time. We should note, however, that traditional educational researchers can also collaborate with teacher researchers in
collaborative action research efforts. As Hendricks (2017)
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EDB) states, “The goal of
this type of research is to utilize the expertise of the collaborators and to foster sustained dialogue among educational stakeholders in different settings” (p.
7).
Research is also categorized by the methods the researchers use. Simply put, different research problems require different research designs. These designs
to educational research are often classified as either quantitative or qualitative research. Quantitative research is the collection and analysis of numerical
data to describe, explain, predict, or control phenomena of interest. However, a quantitative research approach entails more than just the use of numerical
data. At the outset of a study, quantitative researchers state the hypotheses to be examined and specify the research procedures that will be used to carry
out the study. They also maintain control over contextual factors that may interfere with the data collection and identify a sample of participants large
enough to provide statistically meaningful data. Many quantitative researchers have little personal interaction with the participants they study because they
frequently collect data using paper-and-pencil, noninteractive instruments. Underlying quantitative research methods is the philosophical belief or
assumption that we inhabit a relatively stable, uniform, and coherent world that we can measure, understand, and generalize about. This view, adopted
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from the natural sciences, implies that the world and the laws that govern it are somewhat predictable and can be understood by scientific research and
examination. In this quantitative perspective, claims about the world are not considered meaningful unless they can be verified through direct observation.
By comparison, qualitative research uses narrative, descriptive approaches to data collection to understand the way things are and what the research
means from the perspectives of the participants in the study. Qualitative approaches might include, for example, conducting face-to-face interviews,
making observations, and video recording interactions.
Table 1–1 (http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000000306#P700101339300000000000000000031D) provides
an overview of quantitative and qualitative research characteristics. Despite the differences between quantitative and qualitative research, you should not
consider them to be oppositional. Taken together, they represent the full range of educational research methods.
table 1–1 Overview of Qualitative and Quantitative Research Characteristics
Quantitative Research
Qualitative Research
Type of data Numerical data
collected
Nonnumerical narrative and visual data
Research
problem
Research problems and methods evolve as understanding of topic
deepens
Hypothesis and research procedures stated before
beginning the study
Manipulation Yes
of context
No
Sample size
Larger
Smaller
Research
procedures
Relies on statistical procedures
Relies on categorizing and organizing data into patterns to produce a
descriptive, narrative synthesis
Participant
interaction
Little interaction
Extensive interaction
Underlying
belief
We live in a stable and predictable world that we
can measure, understand, and generalize about.
Meaning is situated in a particular perspective or context that is different
for people and groups; therefore, the world has many meanings.
Source: Gay, Lorraine R., Mills, Geoffrey E.; Airasian, Peter W., Educational Research: Competencies for analysis and applications, looseleaf version, 10th Ed., © 2012. Reprinted and electronically reproduced by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., New York, NY.
Although quantitative and qualitative research designs need not be considered mutually exclusive, a study might incorporate both quantitative and
qualitative techniques. Studies that combine the collection of quantitative and qualitative data in a single study are called mixed-methods research
designs. Mixed-methods research designs combine quantitative and qualitative approaches by including both quantitative and qualitative data in a single
study. The purpose of mixed-methods research is to build on the synergy and strength that exist between quantitative and qualitative research methods to
understand a phenomenon more fully than is possible using either method alone. Although this approach to research may appear obvious (i.e., of course
we want a complete understanding of any phenomenon worthy of investigation), it requires a thorough understanding of both quantitative and qualitative
research. Table 1–2 (http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000000306#P7001013393000000000000000000354)
provides a summary of the key characteristics of mixed-methods research and an example of how it might be applied to an action research study.
table 1–2 Mixed-Methods Research Summary
Definition
Mixed-methods research combines quantitative and qualitative approaches by including both quantitative and qualitative data in a
single study. The purpose of mixed-methods research is to build on the synergy and strength that exist between quantitative and
qualitative research methods to understand a phenomenon more fully than is possible using either quantitative or qualitative methods
alone.
Design(s)
There are three common, basic types of mixed-methods research design:
Explanatory sequential (also known as the QUAN–>qual) design
Exploratory sequential (also known as the QUAL–>quan) design
Convergent parallel (also known as the QUAN+QUAL) design
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The method in uppercase letters is weighted more heavily than that in lowercase, and when both methods are in uppercase, they are
in balance.
Three advanced types of mixed-methods research designs are also frequently used:
Experimental design
Social justice design
Multistage evaluation design
Types of
appropriate
research
questions
Questions that involve quantitative and qualitative approaches in order to better understand the phenomenon under investigation.
Key
characteristics The differences among the basic designs are related to the priority given to the following areas:
The weight given to the type of data collected (i.e., qualitative and quantitative data are of equal weight, or one type of data
has greater weight than the other)
The sequence of data collection (i.e., both types of data are collected during the same time period, or one type of data is
collected in each sequential phase of the project)
The analysis techniques (i.e., either an analysis that combines the data or one that keeps the two types of data separate)
Steps in the
process
1. Identify the purpose of the research.
2. State research questions that require both quantitative and qualitative data collection strategies.
3. Determine the priority to be given to the type of data collected.
4. Determine the sequence of data collection (and hence the appropriate mixed-methods design).
5. Data collection.
6. Conduct data analysis that combines both kinds of data.
7. Write a report that is balanced in terms of qualitative and quantitative approaches.
Potential
challenges
Few researchers possess all the knowledge and skills to master the full range of research techniques encompassed in
quantitative and qualitative research approaches.
Researchers who undertake a mixed-methods study must have the considerable time and resources needed to implement
such a comprehensive approach to research.
Analyzing quantitative and qualitative data sources concurrently or in sequence and attempting to find points of intersection
as well as discrepancies requires a high level of skill.
Example
Nguyen (2007)
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EDB)
investigated the factors that support Black male students’ achievement in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD).
Nguyen’s study used MMSD databases for information about the success rates of high school Black males and discovered interesting
patterns about minority student achievement. Based on these quantitative patterns, Nguyen followed up with interviews of a sample
of young Black men whose standardized test scores indicated potential for academic success. Nguyen’s mixed-methods action
research resulted in the identification of strategies teachers can use to be more intentional in their efforts to connect with their Black
male students.
Source: Mills, Geoffrey E.; Gay, Lorraine R., Educational Research: Competencies for Analysis and Applications, Loose-Leaf Version, 11th
Ed., © 2016. Reprinted and electronically reproduced by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., New York, NY.
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Quantitative research designs also include; survey research, correlational research, causal-comparative research, experimental research, and single-subject
experimental research (Mills & Gay, 2016
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001ED7) ). In the field of
special education, it is common for action researchers to utilize a single-subject experimental research design. Single-subject experimental research
designs (also referred to as single-case experimental designs) are designs that can be applied when the sample size is one or when a number of individuals
are considered as one group. These designs are typically used to study the behavior change an individual exhibits as a result of some treatment. In singlesubject designs, each participant serves as his or her own control. In general, the participant is exposed to a nontreatment and a treatment phase, and
performance is measured during each phase. The nontreatment phase is symbolized as A, and the treatment phase is symbolized as B. For example, if we
(1) observed and recorded a student’s out-of-seat behavior on five occasions, (2) applied a behavior modification procedure and observed behavior on five
more occasions, and (3) stopped the behavior modification procedure and observed behavior five more times, our design would be symbolized as A-B-A.
Although single-subject designs have their roots in clinical psychology and psychiatry, they are useful in many educational settings, particularly those
involving studies of students with disabilities. Table 1–3
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000000306#P700101339300000000000000000039B) provides a summary
of the key characteristics of single-subject experimental research designs and an example of how it might be applied to an action research study.
table 1–3 Single-Subject Experimental Research Summary
Definition
Single-subject experimental research designs are designs that can be applied when the sample size is one or when a number
of individuals are considered as one group.
Design(s)
Single-subject designs are classified into three major categories: A-B-A withdrawal, multiple-baseline, and alternating
treatment designs.
Types of
appropriate
research
questions
These designs are typically used to study the behavior change an individual exhibits as a result of some treatment. Although
single-subject designs have their roots in clinical psychology and psychiatry, they are useful in many educational settings,
particularly those involving studies of students with disabilities.
Key
characteristics
Study includes a sample size of one, or the study considers a number of individuals as one group.
In single-subject designs, each participant serves as his or her own control.
In general, the participant is exposed to a nontreatment and treatment phase, and performance is measured during
each phase.
Single-subject designs are applied most frequently in clinical settings where the primary emphasis is on therapeutic
impact, not contribution to a research base.
Steps in the
process
1. Select and define a problem.
2. Select participants and measuring instruments.
3. Prepare a research plan, including selection of the appropriate single-subject research design (A-B-A withdrawal,
multiple-baseline, and alternating treatment).
4. Execute procedures.
5. Analyze the data.
6. Formulate conclusions.
Potential
challenges
A major criticism of single-subject research studies is that they suffer from low external validity; in other words, results
cannot be generalized to a population of interest.
Example
What is the impact of a functional mobility curriculum on five elementary-age students with severe, multiple disabilities?
Source: Mills, Geoffrey E.; Gay, Lorraine R., Educational Research: Competencies for Analysis and Applications, Loose-Leaf Version, 11th
Ed., © 2016. Reprinted and electronically reproduced by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., New York, NY.
It is important to note that the area of focus or research question identified by the action researcher will determine the most appropriate research design
(quantitative and/or qualitative) to use. While most published action research studies use narrative, descriptive methods, some studies are more
quantitatively oriented and use survey and quasi-experimental research designs, mixed-methods research designs, and single-subject experimental
research designs. Therefore, while this text emphasizes the use of qualitative research designs, data collection, and data analysis, it also includes
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quantitative research designs, data collection, and analysis (using descriptive statistics).
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1.2 Defining Action Research
Over the past decade, the typical “required” research course in many schools, colleges, and departments of teacher education has changed from a
traditional survey class on research methods to a more practical research course that either focuses on or includes the topic of action research. But what is
action research, and why has it captured the attention of teachers, administrators, and policymakers?
Action research is any systematic inquiry conducted by teacher researchers, principals, school counselors, or other stakeholders in the teaching/learning
environment to gather information about how their particular schools operate, how they teach, and how well their students learn. This information is
gathered with the goals of gaining insight, developing reflective practice, effecting positive changes in the school environment (and educational practices
in general), and improving student outcomes and the lives of those involved.
Action research is research done by teachers for themselves; it is not imposed on them by someone else. Action research engages teachers in a four-step
process:
1. Identify an area of focus.
2. Collect data.
3. Analyze and interpret data.
4. Develop an action plan.
KEY CONCEPTS BOX 1–1: A Summary of Action Research
What?
Action research.
Who?
Conducted by teachers and principals on children in their care.
Where?
In schools and classrooms.
How?
Using a variety of research designs to match the study’s area of focus, including qualitative methods to describe what
is happening and to understand the effects of some educational intervention, quantitative methods to test hypotheses
that rely on numerical analyses, and mixed-methods designs that combine quantitative and qualitative approaches to
data collection in a single study.
Why?
To take action and effect positive educational change in the specific school environment that was studied.
Before we elaborate on these four steps, however, we will explore the historical antecedents of action research and the theoretical foundations of current
action research practices. As you read these descriptions, consider which philosophy best fits your beliefs about action research, teaching, and learning.
Then consider how you might incorporate action research into your professional life. Key Concepts Box 1–1
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p70010133930000000000000000003c7#P70010133930000000000000000003D7) provides a summary
of action research.
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1.3 Origins of Action Research
The history of action research has been well documented and debated (cf. Adelman, 1993
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001E64) ; Gunz, 1996
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001E9A) ; Kemmis, 1988
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EB1) ; Noffke, 1994
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EDD) ). Kurt Lewin
(1890–1947) (http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EDD) is
often credited with coining the term action research around 1934. After a series of practical experiences in the early 1940s, he came to view action
research as a process that “gives credence to the development of powers of reflective thought, discussion, decision and action by ordinary people
participating in collective research on ‘private troubles’ that they have in common” (Adelman, 1993
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001E64) , p. 8).
The many “descendants” of early action researchers follow different schools of action research thought, including the American action research group,
with its roots in the progressive education movement, particularly in the work of John Dewey (Noffke, 1994
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EDD) ); the efforts in the
United Kingdom toward curriculum reform and greater professionalism in teaching (Elliott, 1991
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001E88) ); and Australian
efforts located within a broad-ranging movement toward collaborative curriculum planning (Kemmis, 1988
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EB1) ).
As is evident, the geographical locations and sociopolitical contexts in which action research efforts continue to evolve vary greatly. The primary focus of
all these efforts, however, regardless of the context, is on enhancing the lives of students. As Noffke (1994)
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EFE) reminds us, reading
the accounts of action research written by people housed in universities does little to illuminate the classroom experiences of teachers and what they hope
to gain from participating in action research activities. Therefore, this text focuses on teachers examining issues related to the education of children and on
partnering with teachers, administrators, counselors, and parents in the action research process.
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1.4 Theoretical Foundations of Action Research
The theoretical perspectives and philosophies that inform the practices of today’s teacher researchers are as varied as the historical roots for action
research. The following sections briefly review the two main theories of action research: critical (or theory based) and practical.
Critical Action Research
Critical action research is also known as emancipatory action research because of its goal of liberation through knowledge gathering. Critical action
research derives its name from the body of critical theory on which it is based, not because this type of action research is critical, as in “faultfinding” or
“important,” although it may certainly be both! The rationale for critical action research is provided by critical theory in the social sciences and humanities
and by theories of postmodernism.
Critical theory in action research shares several fundamental purposes with critical theory in the social sciences and humanities (Kemmis, 1988
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EB1) ). These similar
interests or “commonalities of intent” include the following:
1. A shared interest in processes for enlightenment.
2. A shared interest in liberating individuals from the dictates of tradition, habit, and bureaucracy.
3. A commitment to participatory democratic processes for reform.
In addition to its roots in the critical theory of the social sciences and humanities, critical action research also draws heavily from a body of theory called
postmodernism, which challenges the notions of truth and objectivity on which the traditional scientific method relies. Instead of claiming the
incontrovertibility of fact, postmodernists argue that truth is relative, conditional, and situational and that knowledge is always an outgrowth of previous
experience. For example, historically there has been little or no connection between research and practice in education—an apparent failure of research to
affect teaching. This is not news for teachers! Research has been viewed as something done on them, not for them. According to Kennedy (1997)
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EE1) , the lack of
influence of research on practice has been attributed to the following qualities of educational research:
It is not persuasive and has lacked the qualities of being compelling to teachers.
It has not been relevant to teachers’ daily practices—it has lacked practicality.
It has not been expressed in ways that are accessible to teachers.
The postmodern perspective addresses many of these concerns by advocating for research that challenges the taken-for-granted assumptions of daily
classroom life and presenting truths that are relative, conditional, situational, and based on previous experience. So, although research may provide
insights into promising practices (from research conducted in other teachers’ classrooms and schools), action research conducted in one’s own
classroom/school is more likely to be persuasive and relevant and to offer findings expressed in ways that are meaningful for teachers themselves.
Postmodern theory dissects and examines the mechanisms of knowledge production and questions many of the basic assumptions on which modern life is
based. Thus, it inspires us “to examine the ordinary, everyday, taken-for-granted ways in which we organize and carry out our private, social, and
professional activities” (Stringer, 1996
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EFC) , p. 156). Action
research gives us a means by which we can undertake this examination and represent the classroom teachers’ experiences that are contextually and
politically constructed.
The values of critical action research dictate that all educational research should be socially responsive and exhibit other important characteristics:
1. Democratic—Enabling participation of people.
2. Participatory—Building a community of learners.
3. Empowering—Providing freedom from oppressive, debilitating conditions.
4. Life enhancing—Enabling the expression of people’s full human potential. (Stringer, 2004
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EFE) , p. 31)
Although this critical theory-based approach has been criticized by some for lack of practical feasibility (Hammersley, 1993
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001E9C) ), it is nonetheless
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important to consider because it provides a helpful heuristic, or problem-solving, approach, for teachers committed to investigate through action research
the taken-for-granted relationships and practices in their professional lives. Key Concepts Box 1–2
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p70010133930000000000000000003ec#P7001013393000000000000000000412) summarizes the most
important components of a critical perspective of action research.
KEY CONCEPTS BOX 1–2: Components of a Critical Perspective of Action Research
Key Concept
Example
Action research is participatory and democratic.
You have identified an area in your teaching that you believe can be
improved (based on data from your students). You decide to
investigate the impact of your intervention and to monitor whether it
makes a difference.
Action research is socially responsive and takes place in context.
You are concerned that minority children (e.g., ESL [English as a
Second Language] students) in your classroom are not being
presented with curriculum and teaching strategies that are culturally
sensitive. You decide to learn more about how best to teach ESL
children and to implement some of these strategies.
Action research helps teacher researchers examine the everyday,
taken-for-granted ways in which they carry out professional
practice.
You have adopted a new mathematics problem-solving curriculum
and decide to monitor its impact on student performance on openended problem-solving questions and students’ attitudes toward
mathematics in general.
Knowledge gained through action research can liberate students,
teachers, and administrators and enhance learning, teaching, and
policy making.
Your school has a high incidence of student absenteeism in spite of a
newly adopted district-wide policy on absenteeism. You investigate
the perceptions of colleagues, children, and parents toward
absenteeism to more fully understand why the existing policy is not
having the desired outcome. Based on what you learn, you
implement a new policy and systematically monitor its impact on
absenteeism levels and students’ attitudes toward school.
Practical Action Research
Practical action research places more emphasis on the “how-to” approach to the processes of action research and has a less “philosophical” bent. It
assumes, to some degree, that individual teachers or teams of teachers are autonomous and can determine the nature of the investigation to be undertaken.
It also assumes that teacher researchers are committed to continued professional development and school improvement and that teacher researchers want
to systematically reflect on their practices. Finally, the practical action research perspective assumes that as decision makers, teacher researchers will
choose their own areas of focus, determine their data collection techniques, analyze and interpret their data, and develop action plans based on their
findings. These beliefs are summarized in Key Concepts Box 1–3
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p70010133930000000000000000003ec#P700101339300000000000000000042F) .
Voices from the Field
Critical Action Research
In this video, we see a teacher researcher embrace many of the principles that underlie critical action research. For example, the teacher researcher is
willing to challenge the taken-for-granted assumptions about the implementation of technology in her classroom and acknowledges that knowledge
about the “best effective strategies” will be developed through her own action research focused on student growth. In this way, the teacher researcher is
living a commitment to a participatory research process that provides “liberation” through knowledge creation that is relative, conditional, situational,
and an outgrowth of previous experience in her classroom.
KEY CONCEPTS BOX 1–3: Components of a Practical Perspective of Action Research
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Key Concept
Example
Teacher researchers have decision-making authority.
Your school has adopted a school-based decision-making approach
that provides teachers with the authority to make decisions that most
directly impact teaching and learning. Given this decision-making
authority, you decide as part of your continued professional
development to investigate the effectiveness of a newly adopted
science curriculum on students’ process skills and attitudes.
Teacher researchers are committed to continued professional
development and school improvement.
Based on the results of statewide assessment tests and classroom
observations, the teachers and principal at your school determine
that reading comprehension skills are weak. Collaboratively, the
staff determines the focus for a school improvement effort and
identifies the necessary professional development that will be
offered to change the ways teachers teach reading.
Teacher researchers want to reflect on their practices.
You are a successful classroom teacher who regularly reflects on
your daily teaching and what areas could be improved. You believe
that part of being a professional teacher is the willingness to
continually examine your teaching effectiveness.
Teacher researchers will use a systematic approach for reflecting on Given a schoolwide reading comprehension focus, you have decided
their practice.
to monitor the effectiveness of a new reading curriculum and
teaching strategies by video recording a reading lesson (once per
month), administering reading comprehension “probes” (once per
week), interviewing children in your classroom (once per term), and
administering statewide assessment tests (at the end of the school
year).
Teacher researchers will choose an area of focus, determine data
To continue the example presented earlier, you have focused on the
collection techniques, analyze and interpret data, and develop action effectiveness of a new reading curriculum and teaching strategies.
plans.
You have decided to collect data using video recordings of lessons,
regular “probes,” interviews, and statewide assessment tests. During
the year, you try to interpret the data you are collecting and decide
what these data suggest about the effectiveness of the new
curriculum and teaching strategies. When all of the data have been
collected and analyzed, you decide what action needs to be taken to
refine, improve, or maintain the reading comprehension curriculum
and teaching strategies.
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1.5 Goals and Rationale for Action Research
Although the critical and practical theories of action research draw on vastly different worldviews, these two distinctly different philosophies are united by
common goals that go a long way toward bridging whatever philosophical, historical, social, and regional variations exist.
Action research carried out according to both philosophies creates opportunities for all involved to improve the lives of children and to learn about the
craft of teaching. All action researchers, regardless of their particular school of thought or theoretical position, are committed to a critical examination of
classroom teaching principles and the effects that teachers’ actions have on the children in their care. The reality of classroom life is that teachers are
constantly confronted with practical and critical challenges, and it is up to the individual action researcher to seek out approaches that provide both
practical solutions and empowerment to address the critical social and cultural issues of classrooms today.
By now it should be evident that educational change that enhances the lives of children is a main goal of action research. But action research can also
enhance the lives of professionals.
Osterman and Kottkamp (1993)
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EAD) provide a wonderful
rationale for action research as a professional growth opportunity in their “credo for reflective practice”:
1. Everyone needs professional growth opportunities.
2. All professionals want to improve.
3. All professionals can learn.
4. All professionals are capable of assuming responsibility for their own professional growth and development.
5. People need and want information about their own performance.
6. Collaboration enriches professional development. (p. 46)
Action research is largely about developing the professional disposition of teachers, that is, encouraging teachers to be continuous learners—in their
classrooms and in their practice. Although action research is not a universal panacea for the intractability of educational reform, it is an important
component of the professional disposition of teachers because it provides teachers with the opportunity to model for their students how knowledge is
created.
Action research is also about incorporating into the daily teaching routine a reflective stance—the willingness to critically examine one’s teaching in order
to improve or enhance it. It is about a commitment to the principle that as a teacher one is always far from the ideal but is striving toward it anyway—it’s
the very nature of education! Action research significantly contributes to the professional stance that teachers adopt because it encourages them to
examine the dynamics of their classrooms, ponder the actions and interactions of students, validate and challenge existing practices, and take risks in the
process. When teachers gain new understandings about both their own and their students’ behaviors through action research, they are empowered to
improve teaching in several ways:
Make informed decisions about what to change and what not to change.
Link prior knowledge to new information.
Learn from experience (even failures).
Ask questions and systematically find answers. (Fueyo & Koorland, 1997
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001E8C) )
The goal of teachers and principals to be professional problem solvers committed to improving both their own practice and student outcomes provides a
powerful reason to practice action research.
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1.6 Justifying Action Research: The Impact of Action Research on Practice
At the beginning of a course on action research, I often ask teachers to reflect on what they do in their schools and classrooms; that is, what are the
assumptions they take for granted in their schools and what are the origins of those practices? Often the responses include the following:
In elementary grades, it is important to do the “skill” subjects in the morning and the “social” subjects in the afternoon because that is when
young children can concentrate better and learn more.
The best way to do whole-group instruction with young children (grades K–3) is to have them sit on the “mat” in a circle. That way, they are
close to the teacher and pay more attention to what is being said.
In high schools, the optimal time for a learning period is 43 minutes. Anything longer than that, and the students get restless and lose
concentration. Therefore, I think that the proposal for “block scheduling” is just an attempt to make us more like elementary school teachers.
If you simply share scoring guides with children, they will automatically do better on the test. There’s no need to change instructional approaches.
In a science laboratory, if children spend less time collecting data, they will develop a deeper understanding of the science concepts being taught.
Although these are real examples of just a few of the naïve theories about teaching and learning that I have heard, they also indicate the gap that has
existed between research and practice in the field of education. To what extent has teaching practice been informed by research? Is teaching informed by
folklore? Do teachers acquire the culture of teaching through years of participation and observation, first as students and then as neophyte teachers? How
did teachers get to be the way they are? Are some of the derogatory Hollywood portrayals of teachers and teaching (as characterized, e.g., in Ferris
Bueller’s Day Off or Mr. Holland’s Opus) really warranted? What is it about research that makes teachers, in general, snicker at the thought that it can in
some way improve practice? What is the potential for this discussion to put action into action research efforts?
According to Kennedy (1997)
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001E72) , studies of the
connection between research and practice and the apparent failure of research to affect teaching has provided the following insights:
Teachers do not find research persuasive or authoritative.
Research has not been relevant to practice and has not addressed teachers’ questions.
Research findings have not been expressed in ways that are comprehensible to teachers.
The education system itself is unable to change, or, conversely, it is inherently unstable and susceptible to fads.
Many teacher researchers may consider Kennedy’s hypotheses to be statements of the obvious; however, these statements provide yet another rationale for
why many teachers have chosen to be reflective practitioners: to address the intractability of the educational system. These hypotheses also speak to the
desire to put action into ongoing action research efforts.
Action Research Is Persuasive and Authoritative
Research done by teachers for teachers involves collection of persuasive data. These data are persuasive because teachers are invested in the legitimacy of
the data collection; that is, they have identified data sources that provide persuasive insights into the impact of an intervention on student outcomes.
Similarly, the findings of action research and the actions recommended by these findings are authoritative for teacher researchers. In doing action research,
teacher researchers have developed solutions to their own problems. Teachers—not outside “experts”—are the authorities on what works in their
classrooms.
Action Research Is Relevant
The relevance of published research to the real world of teachers is perhaps the most common concern raised by teachers when asked about the practical
applications of educational research—either the problems investigated by researchers are not the problems teachers really have or the schools or
classrooms in which the research was conducted are vastly different from their own school environment. In reviewing the past two decades of research on
schools and teaching, however, Kennedy (1997)
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001F08) cites the seminal
works of Jackson’s (1968)
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EA9) Life in Classrooms
and Lortie’s (1975) (http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EEE)
Schoolteacher as ways to illustrate the relevance of the findings of these studies. Kennedy’s review found that classroom life was characterized by crowds,
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power, praise, and uncertainty:
Crowds—Students are always grouped with 20 or 30 others, which means that they must wait in line, wait to be called on, and wait for help.
Power—Teachers control most actions and events and decide what the group will do.
Praise—Teachers give and withhold praise, so students know which of their classmates are favored by the teacher.
Uncertainty—The presence of 20 to 30 children in a single classroom means there are many possibilities for an interruption in one’s work.
Kennedy (1997) (http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EFA)
argues that one of the aims of research is to increase certainty by creating predictability within the classroom because “routines increase predictability and
decrease anxiety for both teachers and students” (p. 6).
One of the outcomes of action research is that it satisfies the desire of all teachers to increase the predictability of what happens in their classrooms—in
particular, to increase the likelihood that a given curriculum, instructional strategy, or use of technology will positively affect student outcomes. And
although these desirable outcomes come at the initial expense of predictability—that is, they have emerged from the implementation of a new intervention
or innovation—the findings of your action research inquiries will, over time, contribute to the predictability of your teaching environments.
Voices from the Field
Action Research Is Relevant
In this video, the teacher researcher talks about the important role action research plays in keeping her focused on making sure that the students in her
classroom are learning. Using an action research process, the teacher is able to satisfy her desire for predictability in her classroom knowing that when
issues arise in her teaching related to the implementation of curriculum and instructional strategies, she is able to have confidence in her research
findings. This knowledge is relevant to her classroom setting and contributes to her understanding of “best practices” in her classroom and their
positive impact on student outcomes.
Action Research Allows Teachers Access to Research Findings
Kennedy (1997) (http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001F10) also
hypothesizes that the apparent lack of connection between research and practice is due to teachers’ poor access to research findings. This apparent lack of
impact of research on teaching is, in part, credited to teachers’ prior beliefs and values and the realization that teachers’ practices cannot be changed
simply by informing them of the results of a study. After all, if we reflect on how we currently teach and what we hold to be sacred teaching practices, we
are likely to find that our beliefs and values stem from how we were taught as children (“It worked for me and I’m successful. I’m a teacher.”) and how we
have had teaching modeled for us through our teaching apprenticeships (student teaching).
Simply informing teachers about research is unlikely to bring about change. Therein lies the beauty, power, and potential of action research to positively
affect practice. As a teacher researcher, you challenge your taken-for-granted assumptions about teaching and learning. Your research findings are
meaningful to you because you have identified the area of focus. You have been willing to challenge the conventional craft culture. In short, your
willingness to reflect on and change your thinking about your teaching practices has led you to become a successful and productive member of the
professional community.
Action Research Challenges the Intractability of Reform of the Educational System
Kennedy’s final hypothesis is that the lack of connection between research and practice can be attributed to the educational system itself, not the research.
Kennedy (1997) (http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EB3)
characterizes the American educational system as follows:
It has no consensus on goals and guiding principles.
It has no central authority to settle disputes.
It is continually bombarded with new fads and fancies.
It provides limited evidence to support or refute any particular idea.
It encourages reforms that run at cross-purposes to each other.
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It gives teachers less time than most other countries do to develop curricula and daily lessons.
Given this characterization, it is little wonder that the more things change, the more they stay the same! Again, action research gives teacher researchers
the opportunity to embrace a problem-solving philosophy and practice as an integral part of the culture of their schools and their professional disposition
and to challenge the intractability of educational reform by making action research a part of the system rather than just another fad.
Action Research Is Not a Fad
One insight that Kennedy does not address when discussing the apparent failure of research to affect teachers’ practices is the belief of many classroom
teachers that researchers tend to investigate trendy fads and are interested only in the curricular approach or instructional method du jour. Therefore, it is
not surprising to hear critics of action research say, “Why bother? This is just another fad that, like other fads in education, will eventually pass if I can
wait it out!” But action research is decidedly not a fad for one simple reason: Good teachers have always systematically looked at the effects of their
teaching on student learning. They may not have called this practice action research, and they may not have thought their reflection was formal enough to
be labeled research, but action research it was!
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1.7 Making Action Research a Part of Daily Teaching Practices
The first step in making action research a part of daily teaching practices is to become familiar with the process and recognize how much action research is
already a part of your daily life as a classroom teacher. Consider this analogy that reveals how similar the act of teaching is to the act of doing action
research. In any individual lesson, you plan, implement, and evaluate your teaching, just as a teacher researcher does when undertaking action research.
You develop a list of objectives (a focus area), implement the lesson, reflect on whether the children achieved the objectives through summative evaluation
statements (data collection), spend time at the end of a lesson reflecting on what happened (data analysis and interpretation), and spend time at the end of
the day considering how today’s lesson will affect tomorrow’s lesson (action planning). Like action research, the act of teaching is largely an intuitive
process carried out idiosyncratically by both experienced and novice teachers.
I was recently reminded by a teacher enrolled in one of my action research classes that in my fervor and enthusiasm to illustrate data analysis and
interpretation in practice (based on some of my own research), I had unwittingly made her feel that research was something that could realistically be done
only by a full-time researcher who did not have a “real” job to contend with—namely, teaching 28 very lively first graders! The teacher felt that action
research was so difficult and time consuming that it was unreasonable to expect a mere mortal to undertake the activity. She felt as if she needed “Super
Teacher” to burst into the classroom and take over business! Not so. If the process of action research cannot be done without adversely affecting the
fundamental work of teaching, then it ought not to be done at all.
Throughout this text, we will explore practical, realistic ways in which action research can become a normative part of the teaching-learning process.
There will be an initial commitment of time and energy as one learns the process, but that time is an investment in enriching the education of students. To
realistically incorporate the process of action research into daily teaching practices, a few things need to happen:
Try the process and be convinced that the investment of time and energy is worth the outcomes. First, undertake an action research project that is
meaningful to you and addresses the needs of your students. Once the project is completed, you will see the contribution that your new
understanding of the subject will make to your teaching or your students’ learning (or, ideally, both!). Only then will you be fully confident that
action research is a worthwhile investment of your time and energy. Your beliefs and attitudes about action research will be changed after you
have tried it for yourself.
Know that action research is a process that can be undertaken without having a negative impact on your personal and professional life. For
example, action research, as it is described in this text, is not intended to be just “one more thing” for you to do. Teachers already have too much
to do and not enough time in which to do it! The action research process advocated in this text is intended to provide you with a systematic
framework that can be applied to your daily teaching routines. The investment of time as you learn how to do action research will be worth the
outcomes. The process may also produce unexpected positive outcomes by providing opportunities for collaborative efforts with colleagues who
share a common area of focus. This text provides strategies you can use to develop your reflective practice utilizing many of the existing data
sources in your classroom and school. It will provide you with a model that can be shared with like-minded colleagues who also are committed to
improving the teaching-learning process in their classrooms.
Ask your professional colleagues for support with implementation. Although such strategies as studying theory, observing demonstrations, and
practicing with feedback enable most teachers to develop their skills to the point that they can use a model fluidly, skills development by itself
does not ensure that skills transfer. Relatively few persons who learn new approaches to teaching will integrate their skills into regular practice
unless they receive coaching (Joyce, Hersh, & McKibben, 1983
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EAD) ). That is
why seeking support and guidance from other teacher researchers is critical to your success as an action researcher. These suggestions are
summarized in Research in Action Checklist 1–1
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p70010133930000000000000000004be#P70010133930000000000000000004D3) .
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1.8 The Process of Action Research
Now that we have defined action research, described its historical and theoretical foundations, and explained why teachers do it, let’s explore the process
of action research. Many guidelines and models have been provided over the years for teacher researchers to follow:
Kurt Lewin (1952)
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EB9) described a
“spiraling” cyclical process that included planning, execution, and reconnaissance.
Stephen Kemmis (1988)
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EB1) created a
well-known representation of the action research “spiral” that includes the essential characteristics of Lewin’s model. Kemmis’s model includes
reconnaissance, planning, first action step, monitoring, reflecting, rethinking, and evaluation.
Emily Calhoun (1994)
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001E72) described an
Action Research Cycle that includes selecting an area or problem of collective interest, collecting data, organizing data, analyzing and
interpreting data, and taking action.
Gordon Wells (1994)
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001F08) described
what he calls an Idealized Model of the Action Research Cycle, that includes observing, interpreting, planning change, acting, and “the
practitioner’s personal theory” (p. 27), which informs and is informed by the action research cycle.
Ernest Stringer (2004)
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EFE) described
an Action Research Helix that includes looking, thinking, and acting as “phases of the research [are] repeated over time” (p. 10).
John Creswell (2015)
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001E80) described
action research as a dynamic, flexible process that involves the following steps: determining if action research is the best design to use,
identifying a problem to study, locating resources to help address the problem, identifying necessary information, implementing the data
collection, analyzing the data, developing a plan for action, and implementing the plan and reflecting on whether it makes a difference.
Richard Sagor (2005)
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EEC) described a
four-step process that includes clarifying vision, articulating theories, implementing action and collecting data, and reflecting and planning
informed action.
Cher Hendricks (2017)
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EA1) described
an action research process that follows the principle of “systematic inquiry based on ongoing reflection” (p. 2), that is heavily influenced by the
work of Lawrence Stenhouse (1981)
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EFA) from the
Center for Applied Research in Education at the University of East Anglia in England.
Research in Action Checklist 1–1
Making Action Research a Part of Your Daily Teaching Practice
_________Actually try the process to convince yourself that the investments of time and energy are worth the outcomes.
_________Recognize that action research is a process that can be undertaken without negatively affecting your personal and professional life.
_________Seek support from your professional colleagues.
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Voices from the Field
Making Action Research a Part of Daily Teaching Practices
This teacher researcher states a strong case for embedding action research as a natural part of the teaching and learning process. In particular, she links
action research (and teaching) to a clear focus (parallel to a learning objective) and the ongoing data collection that occurs as part of teaching: keeping
records, daily charts, student observations, teacher-made checklists, and so on. And in the same way that teachers “monitor and adjust” their teaching,
action researchers sometimes experience the need for a new area of focus based on their data collection, analysis, and interpretation. This vignette
makes it clear that action research can be embedded in daily teaching practices, especially given a clear focus and with the support of like-minded
colleagues.
All these models have enjoyed varying degrees of popularity, depending on the context in which they have been applied. For example, these action
research models have been applied to agriculture, health care, social work, factory work, and community development in isolated areas.
Clearly, these action research models share some common elements: a sense of purpose based on a “problem” or “area of focus” (identification of an area
of focus), observation or monitoring of practice (collection of data), synthesis of information gathered (analysis and interpretation of data), and some form
of “action” that invariably “spirals” the researcher back into the process repeatedly (development of an action plan).
These shared elements are what we will focus on in this text. The following chapters will address in detail how to proceed with an action research process
that includes the four elements just mentioned: identifying an area of focus, collecting data, analyzing and interpreting data, and developing an
action plan.
Key Concepts Box 1–4
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p70010133930000000000000000004be#P7001013393000000000000000000500) illustrates the action
research process used by Deborah South, described at the beginning of this chapter.
This four-step process, which I have termed the Dialectic Action Research Spiral, is illustrated in Figure 1–1
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p70010133930000000000000000004be#P70010133930000000000000000004EF) . It provides teacher
researchers with a practical guide and illustrates how to proceed with inquiries. It is a model for research done by teachers and for teachers and students,
not research done on them, and as such is a dynamic and responsive model that can be adapted to different contexts and purposes. It was designed to
provide teacher researchers with “provocative and constructive ways” of thinking about their work (Wolcott, 1989
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001F10) , p. 137).
figure 1–1 The Dialectic Action Research Spiral
Voices from the Field
The Process of Action Research
This teacher researcher provides a clear illustration of the action research process: developing an area of focus, collecting data, analyzing and
interpreting data, and action planning through his discussion of studying student interests and engagement. The teacher researcher asserts that most
teachers are already doing action research as a part of their normal teaching practice given their commitment to implementing and monitoring best
practices. “Meticulous data collection” speaks to the teacher’s need to understand what works and what doesn’t work with different groups of students
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and, based on implementing the cyclical action research process, to better understand the best practices for his own classroom setting.
KEY CONCEPTS BOX 1–4: Steps in the Action Research Process Based on Deborah South’s Example
of “Unmotivated” Students
Key Concept
Example
Identifying an area of focus
The purpose of this study was to describe the effects of a “study
skills” curriculum on student outcomes. In particular, the study
focused on the variables of student attendance, peer influence, adult
influence, and students’ self-esteem.
Collecting data
Data were collected through surveys, interviews, and report
card/attendance records.
Analyzing and interpreting the data
Attendance did not appear to be an issue—children attended school
regularly. Peer groups did affect performance. Students encouraged
each other not to complete homework assignments. Teacher
approval of student work appeared to have little effect on students’
work habits, whereas about half the children indicated that they
were motivated to complete their homework to receive parental
approval. On average, student grades had dropped dramatically
during the term in which they were enrolled in the study skills class.
Interpretation: The study skills class was having a negative impact
on student outcomes, behavior, and attitudes.
Developing an action plan
It was determined that students would not be homogeneously
grouped for a study skills class the following year because of a
“critical mass of negativity” that appeared to emerge from the
students as they fed off each other’s lack of motivation. The study
skills curriculum would continue to be used and monitored with a
heterogeneous grouping of students.
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SUMMARY
A Brief Overview of Educational Research
1. The goal of traditional educational research is “to explain, predict, and/or control educational phenomena” (Mills & Gay, 2016
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001ED7) , p. 5). To
do this, researchers try to manipulate and control certain variables (the factors that might affect the outcomes of a particular study) to test a
hypothesis (a statement the researcher makes that predicts what will happen or explains what the outcome of the study will be).
2. Positivism is the belief that natural phenomena can be explained in an orderly way using empirical sciences.
3. At the end of an experiment, researchers would compare the progress of each group in the study and decide whether the hypothesis could be
accepted or rejected with a predetermined level of statistical significance (e.g., that the difference between the mean for the control group and the
mean for the experimental group is large, compared with the standard error).
4. Collaborative action research utilizes the expertise of the collaborators and fosters sustained dialogue among educational stakeholders in different
settings (Hendricks, 2017
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EA1) , p. 7).
5. Quantitative research focuses on controlling a small number of variables to determine cause-effect relationships and/or the strength of those
relationships. This type of research uses numbers to quantify the cause-effect relationship.
6. Qualitative research uses narrative, descriptive approaches to data collection to understand the way things are and what the research means from
the perspectives of the participants in the study. Qualitative approaches might include, for example, conducting face-to-face interviews, making
observations, and video recording interactions.
7. Studies that combine the collection of quantitative and qualitative data in a single study are called mixed-methods research designs. The purpose
of mixed-methods research is to build on the synergy and strength that exists between quantitative and qualitative research methods to understand
a phenomenon more fully than is possible using either method alone.
8. Single-subject experimental research designs (also referred to as single-case experimental designs) are designs that can be applied when the
sample size is one or when a number of individuals are considered as one group. These designs are typically used to study the behavior change an
individual exhibits as a result of some treatment. In single-subject designs, each participant serves as his or her own control. In general, the
participant is exposed to a nontreatment and a treatment phase, and performance is measured during each phase.
9. The area of focus or research question identified by the action researcher will determine the most appropriate approach (quantitative and/or
qualitative) to use.
Defining Action Research
10. Action research is any systematic inquiry conducted by teacher researchers, principals, school counselors, or other stakeholders in the
teaching/learning environment to gather information about how their particular schools operate, how they teach, and how well their students
learn.
11. Action research engages teacher researchers in a four-step process (referred to in this text as the Dialectic Action Research Spiral):
a. Identify an area of focus.
b. Collect data.
c. Analyze and interpret data.
d. Develop an action plan.
Origins of Action Research
12. Kurt Lewin (1890–1947) is often credited with coining the term action research around 1934.
13. The many “descendants” of early action researchers follow different schools of action research thought, including the American action research
group with its roots in the progressive education movement, particularly the work of John Dewey (Noffke, 1994
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EDD) ); the
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efforts in the United Kingdom toward curriculum reform and greater professionalism in teaching (Elliott, 1991
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001E88) ); and
Australian efforts located within a broad-ranging movement toward collaborative curriculum planning (Kemmis, 1988
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EB1) ).
Theoretical Foundations of Action Research
14. Critical action research is also known as emancipatory action research because of its goal of liberation through knowledge gathering. Critical
action research derives its name from the body of critical theory on which it is based, not because this type of action research is critical, as in
“faultfinding” or “important,” although it may certainly be both!
15. Postmodernism challenges the notions of truth and objectivity on which the traditional scientific method relies. Instead of claiming the
incontrovertibility of fact, postmodernists argue that truth is relative, conditional, and situational and that knowledge is always an outgrowth of
previous experience.
16. The values of critical action research dictate that all educational research should be socially responsive and have the following characteristics:
a. Democratic
b. Participatory
c. Empowering
d. Life enhancing
17. Practical action research places more emphasis on the “how-to” approach to the processes of action research and has a less “philosophical” bent.
18. It assumes, to some degree, that individual teachers or teams of teachers are autonomous and can determine the nature of the investigation to be
undertaken.
Goals and Rationale for Action Research
19. Action research carried out according to both philosophies creates opportunities for all involved to improve the lives of children and to learn
about the craft of teaching. All action researchers, regardless of their particular school of thought or theoretical position, are committed to a
critical examination of classroom teaching principles and the effects teachers’ actions have on the children in their care.
20. The goal of teachers to be professional problem solvers committed to improving both their own practice and student outcomes provides a
powerful reason to practice action research.
Justifying Action Research: The Impact of Action Research on Practice
21. Action research is persuasive and authoritative.
22. Action research is relevant.
23. Action research allows teachers access to research findings.
24. Action research challenges the intractability of reform of the educational system.
25. Action research is not a fad.
Making Action Research a Part of Daily Teaching Practices
26. The first step in making action research a part of daily teaching practices is to become familiar with the process and recognize how much action
research is already a part of your daily life as a classroom teacher.
27. Try the process and be convinced that the investment of time and energy is worth the outcomes.
28. Know that action research is a process that can be undertaken without having a negative impact on your personal and professional life.
29. Ask your professional colleagues for support with implementation.
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The Process of Action Research
30. The Dialectic Action Research Spiral includes the following four elements:
a. Identifying an area of focus
b. Collecting data
c. Analyzing and interpreting data
d. Developing an action plan
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TASKS
1. How would you describe the purpose(s) of action research?
2. How do the tenets of the critical perspective support the need for action research?
3. Suppose that the students in your class are not progressing in essay writing as you had hoped. Using the four steps in the action research process
described in this chapter, sketch out briefly what you might do to systematically examine this issue.
4. Your school has received a large professional development grant focused on improving children’s scores on a national reading test. You believe
that your existing reading program is strong. What kind of action research study might you conduct to address the differences between your
current reading program’s outcomes and the concepts tested on the national test?
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3 Deciding on an Area of Focus
After reading this chapter you should be able to:
3.1 Select an appropriate area of focus.
3.2 Do reconnaissance.
3.3 Write an action plan to guide your work.
This chapter provides guidelines for clarifying a general idea and an area of focus for action research efforts. This chapter also describes
how to create an action research plan.
Interactive Teen Theater
Cathy Mitchell
Cathy Mitchell is a substitute teacher who also works with teen theater companies. Her story helps us to see how
serendipity can play a role in developing an area of focus. At the beginning of the action research process, Cathy was
unsure of her area of focus. As the result of an unexpected “intervention” to her teen theater production, however, when
an actor did not turn up for a performance, Cathy decided to systematically investigate the effects of improvisation on
audience participation.
the past 10 years, I have directed peer education teen theaters. These companies create and perform original plays based on company
Formembers’
experiences and ideas. The plays are collections of dramatic scenes, comic sketches, and songs; the topics are current issues
of concern to young people, including self-esteem, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, love versus lust, violence, family relationships, and
sexually transmitted diseases. We tour extensively, performing for high schools and middle schools as well as at juvenile detention facilities.
Although the company is generally very well received, I have felt that there is something stale in the actor/audience relationship. The
audience sits attentively, laughs in recognition, and enjoys the variety in their class day but remains essentially passive. Question sessions
after the show, initially planned to generate discussion about important topics, frequently degenerated into boring adulation questions, such
as “How long have you been rehearsing this?” or “Do you want to be an actor when you grow up?”
Two years ago, a few actors had to miss a performance. When we arrived at the high school at which we were scheduled to perform, we
realized the opening scene had two small roles that we could not eliminate but didn’t have enough actors to fill. I asked two children from
the audience to volunteer and taught them their lines backstage while the rest of the scene was going on, and they walked on stage and
finished the scene. The audience was instantly galvanized. Even with this very small change, we had broken the division between actor and
audience.
Thus began my experience with interactive theater. For me, this has meant bringing some of the improvisation techniques that we use to
develop material during rehearsals onto the stage and inviting the audience to participate in limited ways. I found that involving the
audience changed the dynamics from those of a passive spectator sport to those of a more participatory dialogue.
Through my research, I have arrived at a working description for interactive theater: A short scene is played by workshop actors. The
audience is asked to look for opportunities to improve the resolution. The scene is played again, and any time anyone wants to intervene and
take any character’s place to show a better way of handling the situation, they just shout “Stop!” and take over the role. One scene may be
played many times. Often no closure is evident, and the scene ends in unresolved issues and heightened emotions. The actors and audience
then discuss the issues generated by the scene.
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The purpose of my study was to determine how audience interaction with the actors in teen theater productions affected their ability to
identify issues and transfer learnings into similar problems in their lives. For example, in the current production of Duct Tape Theater, a
company I direct, there is a well-written scene called “Sticks and Stones,” which is a collage containing poetry, a song, short monologues,
and scenes. It lasts about 20 minutes and confronts issues of prejudice, discrimination, and violence. I decided, as my intervention, to
replace this scene with an interactive theater piece developed with the audience. For three performances, we included “Sticks and Stones”
(my control groups), and for three other performances, we included what became known as the “Violence Improv” audience interaction
scene. This gave us six audiences: three control groups and three interactive groups.
Some of my methods of data collection for this project—my personal journal and the actors’ journals, which are required for actors
receiving credit for the class—were already in place. I also asked each teacher to write me a letter commenting on what they observed
during the performance. None of these gave me the data I really wanted but which was most difficult to collect—data from the audience. I
decided to have my acting company develop this data collection source with me. The actors and I developed a questionnaire to be filled out
directly after the performance and a group interview technique that involved three company members meeting with a small group of
audience members for about 15 minutes. The goal was to generate as many responses as possible to the scenes about teen violence and
harassment. One actor served as the interviewer, one served as the scribe, and one kept a running tally of comments and responses.
The data showed four clear themes:
1. The audience clearly judged the performance containing the “Violence Improv” as more relevant to their lives than the control
performance of “Sticks and Stones.”
2. More individuals participated in discussing the issues of violence and harassment, with more overall comments and more comments
that were considered “right on.” This data showed that more audience members were able to both identify issues in the
performance and relate these issues to their own lives.
3. The clearest negative response was that the interactive piece made the performance feel “rushed.” These data told me that the
interactive material threw off the timing of the show. I often wrote in my own journal that I felt exhausted at the end of
performances, and teachers wrote to me that we were running into break time and past the end of the period “trying to squeeze
everything in.”
4. The biggest letdown to me was that there wasn’t any significant increase in the number of different issues identified or solutions
suggested between the two audiences. Even though the interactive improvisation generated more answers and much more
participation, the issues and solutions were pretty much the same.
My action research project confirmed to me that my methods for making teen theater work more meaningful are on the right track. It also
became clear, however, that the format I am using is not the best one. I plan to continue working with the teen theater groups, to modify the
format I have used in the past, and to monitor the effects of the changes on participants’ transfer of learning to their real lives. For me, this
is critical work, and the most important result of this project is that I feel renewed energy for my work. Last year at this time, I was busily
seeking a replacement for myself and announcing to everyone that I wasn’t going to direct teens anymore. I didn’t even consider that I could
examine the problem, address it, and remedy it. It feels really good to expect something to happen in my working life as a result of my own
research and reflection.
everyone comes to an action research setting with an area of focus in mind. In fact, many teachers initially resist participating in the
Notprocess.
It is not uncommon for teachers and administrators to skeptically claim, “I’m only here because I have to be: No action research
—no teaching/administrator license!” In this teen theater example, the “intervention” and “area of focus” emerged quite unexpectedly and
led to some important understandings about how to increase audience understanding and participation.
We’ll assume, then, that you haven’t identified an area of focus. However, you probably do have several interests and concerns: perhaps
your content area, a self-contained special education classroom, an at-risk program, an alternative education program, a multigrade
classroom, a single fourth-grade classroom, a reading specialist program, a block-scheduled team teaching program, or even a one-room
schoolhouse, to name a few!
Every teacher and administrator who undertakes an action research project starts at the same place: making explicit a question or problem to
investigate or defining an area of focus. Finding an area of focus can be hard work if your action research inquiry is going to be engaging
and meaningful for you. Taking time in the beginning to ensure that your topic is important—for you—is a critical step in the action
research process. No one should tell you what your area of focus is or ought to be. The following guidelines can help you focus your
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research question.
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3.1 Clarifying a General Idea and an Area of Focus
In the beginning of the action research process, you need to clarify the general idea that will be the area of focus. The general idea is a
statement that links an idea to an action and refers to a situation one wishes to change or improve on (Elliott, 1991
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001E88) ). Here
are some examples, phrased in the form of a statement based on an observation and followed by a question about how the situation could be
improved:
Statement/Observation: Students do not seem to be engaged during teen theater productions.
Question: How can I improve their engagement?
Statement/Observation: Students take a lot of time to learn problem solving in mathematics, but this process doesn’t appear to
transfer to their acquisition of other mathematics skills and knowledge.
Question: How can I improve the integration and transfer of problem-solving skills in mathematics?
Statement/Observation: Parents are unhappy with regular parent-teacher conferences.
Question: How can I improve the conferencing process using student-led conferences?
Taking time in the beginning of the action research process to identify what you feel passionate about is critical. For some, this will be a
relatively short activity—you may have come to an action research setting with a clear sense of a student-centered, teacher-centered, or
parent-driven area of focus. For others, gaining a sense of the general idea will be more problematic. Don’t rush it. Take time to talk to
colleagues, reflect on your daily classroom life, and carefully consider what nags at you when you prepare for work every day.
Voices from the Field
Clarifying a General Idea and an Area of Focus: Video 1
This teacher researcher based his area of focus on observations of his classroom. Specifically, the teacher noticed a general lack of
student engagement and motivation. These observations led the teacher researcher to a working hypothesis about the relationship
between students’ perceived lack of control over their education and corresponding levels of engagement and motivation. The next step
for the teacher researcher would be to develop a research question related to this general idea about student engagement and motivation.
For example, how can I improve student engagement and motivation? This area of focus in clearly within the teacher’s locus of control
and is something he is passionate about.
Voices from the Field
Clarifying a General Idea and an Area of Focus: Video 2
Based on this teacher researcher’s observations of her classroom, a general idea for an area of focus emerged related to the general
classroom “atmosphere.” Further, this teacher researcher focused on the role of formative assessments in classroom morale, summative
assessment scores, and the general classroom climate. A next step for this teacher researcher would be to develop research questions,
such as “How do formative assessments affect classroom climate?” This area of focus is in the teacher’s locus of control and is
something she is willing to improve on.
Criteria for Selecting a General Idea/Area of Focus
There are some important criteria you should keep in mind while identifying your general idea and subsequent area of focus (Creswell,
2014 (http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001E7E) ;
Elliott, 1991
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(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001E88) ;
Sagor, 2000
(http://content.thuzelearning.com/books/Mills.3071.18.1/sections/p7001013393000000000000000001e60#P7001013393000000000000000001EEC) ):
The area of focus should involve teaching and learning and should focus on your own practice.
The area of focus is something within your locus of control.
The area of focus is something you feel passionate about.
The area of focus is something you would like to change or improve.
Applying these criteria early in the process will keep you on track during the early stages of the action research process. They will also
remind you of the vital and dynamic dimensions of action research—that it is important wo…
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