Leading Action Research in an Elementary School Setting
One of the risks that is routinely encountered classroom teachers is the potential to become mired in a set of educational practices that may or may not be suitable for their students at any given point in time. Rather than remaining in a teaching rut, though, a growing number of reading teachers have recognized the value of action research to inform and improve their classroom practices. In order for this method of inquiry to be effective, though, all stakeholders must be educated concerning the tenets of action research, what areas of interest are most appropriate for study and their respective roles in the process. To determine the facts about these issues, this paper reviews the relevant literature concerning leading action research in an elementary school setting, including an assessment of the current degree of comfort that exists at the author’s school and the readiness of the school’s culture to implement action research. In addition, a description concerning how time can be carved out of the busy school day for these types of initiatives is followed by an analysis concerning what types of resources would be needed for this purpose. Finally, a description of the types of data that should be collected as part of an action research project is followed by a summary of the research and important findings concerning reading teachers leading action research projects in elementary school settings in the conclusion.
What is the degree of comfort that exists with leading action research at your school?
According to Yendol-Hoppey and Dana (2010), the extent to which the comfort level with an initiative such as leading an action research study in educational settings increases will be the extent to which they understand the process, develop skills with the tools that are involved, and gain experience in the process. In this regard, Yendol-Hoppey and Dana (2010) advise that, “Comfort with teacher inquiry will occur as educators are provided the necessary knowledge or skills to systematically plan or carry out a study independently or within a PLC” (p. 100).
In sum, action research represents a viable approach for reading teachers to conduct classroom research in order to improve their practices (Milton-Brkich & Shumbera, 2010). While a number of different action research models are available, the model presented by Yendol-Hoppey and Dana (2010) provides a useful framework in which to plan and lead an action research project in an elementary school setting, but it is vitally important to ensure that buy-in is obtain from all stakeholders in order to optimize the value of the findings that emerge from this type of research (Milton-Brkich & Shumbera, 2010). A strong point of action research is the fact that it provides teacher-generated research which can facilitate the buy-in process. In this regard, Cooper and White (2012) emphasize that, “Research indicates that teacher-generated research offers teachers a strong feeling of ownership of both the process and results, thus increasing their own professional development” (p. 42).
Fortunately, many (but not all) classroom teachers at the author’s elementary school have previous experience with the action research methodology. In this context, Mertler (2009) reports that action research consists of “any systematic inquiry conducted by teachers … for the purpose of gathering information about how their particular schools operate, how they teach, and how their students learn” (p. 4). Moreover, because there are a number of different action research models available, it will be important to ensure that all participants and stakeholders fully understand the specific methods that will be applied and the rationale for their use. In this regard, Dana and Yendol-Hoppey (2010) note that the first step of action research is to identify a wondering, followed by appropriate research steps thereafter. The straightforward action research process that will be used for this purpose is set forth below:
1. Articulate a wondering;
2. Collect data to gain insights into the wondering;
3. Analyze data;
4. Make improvements in practice based on findings; and,
5. Share learning with others (Milton-Brkich & Shumbera, 2010).
In addition, all of the teachers in the elementary school of interest are currently participating or have participated in professional learning communities of some type, and these experiences will further heighten the level of comfort for action research projects. There may be a lesser level of comfort with the action research approach available from school administration, though, a constraint that must be overcome by ensuring that school administrators recognize the purpose and value of action research to improve classroom practices (Yendol-Hoppey & Dana, 2010).
Although the action research process is fairly straightforward as outlined above, one major challenge that exists when leading teachers of reading in action research to inquire into digital literacies for reading and literacy achievement is the potential for the focus of the study to wander unless steps are taken to ensure that all participants retain the same vision for the outcome. This does not mean that the data collected during the action research process should not be taken into account and changes made accordingly, but it does mean that any such changes must be a collaborative effort rather than a unilateral decision by an individual educator. In addition, the potential for disruption of the action research project exists unless and until school administration is fully committed to the effort and sustained support is assured.
How ready is your school’s culture to implement action research?
According to Yendol-Hoppey and Dana (2010), “The success of integrating teacher inquiry into the fabric of your school will rest on the nature of your school as an organization” (p. 100). Based on the author’s experiences to date, the culture at the elementary school of interest can be characterized as collaborative. In this regard, Gruenert and Whitaker (2015) report that, “A collaborative school culture provides the ideal setting for student learning. It’s also a setting in which teachers learn from each other as much as they do from other sources” (p. 80). Therefore, based on empirical observations alone, the school’s culture can be informally regarded as being primed and ready to implement an action research project to improve literacy levels.
A superior approach to formally evaluating the readiness of school culture to implement action research is to administer the School Culture Survey shown in Table 1 below.
The School Culture Survey
Note: 1=Strongly disagree; 2=Disagree; 3=Undecided; 4=Agree; 5=Strongly agree
Teachers utilize professional networks to obtain information and resources for classroom instruction.
Leaders value teachers’ ideas.
Teachers have opportunities for dialogue and planning across grades and subjects.
Teachers trust each other.
Teachers support the mission of the school.
Teachers and parents have common expectations for student performance.
Leaders in the school trust the professional judgment of teachers.
Teachers spend considerable time planning together.
Teachers regularly seek ideas from colleagues and conferences.
Teachers are willing to help out whenever there is a problem.
Leaders take time to praise teachers who perform well.
Source: Gruenert & Whitaker, 2015, p. 81
According to Gruenert and Whitaker, “The School Culture Survey is an instrument designed to be administered to teachers in a school building to get a sense of how much their school culture is collaborative” (p. 80). In addition, the School Culture Survey depicted in Table 1 above can also be readministered during the conduct of an action research project and following its completion to reevaluate the readiness of a school’s culture for future action research or professional development initiatives (Gruenert & Whitaker, 2015).
How would you carve out time to use action research in your school building?
Besides ensuring that sustained and unwavering support is obtained from school administration, carving out sufficient time to conduct an action research project represents a particular challenge for classroom teachers who are already overburdened by day-to-day requirements. Although scheduled planning time can be used for these purposes, many teachers will be reluctant to forego this scarce time to pursue outside activities such as an action research project. According to Yendol-Hoppey and Dana (2010), there are a number of different ways that educational leaders can carve time out of a busy school day to use action research, including obtaining release time and employing substitute teachers to allow participating teachers to collaborate.
In many cases, an action research project to improve literacy levels requires an entire school year, so there will be an ongoing requirement for a commitment from school administration to support the initiative for lengthy periods of time (Milton-Brkich & Shumbera, 2010). Likewise, Yendel-Hoppey and Dana (2010) also cite the significant amount of time involved in professional development initiatives, and point out that, “These learning-rich strategies require more time and effort to implement” (p. 33). Therefore, it will be essential to ensure that sufficient time is made available to project participants in order to ensure that they had the opportunities to adequately plan the project, implement it appropriately and conduct it in a collaborative fashion during its pendency (Yendel-Hoppey and Dana, 2010).
What resources would you need to successfully…