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Kurt Lewin, then a professor at MIT, first coined the term “action research” in 1944. In his 1946 paper “Action Research and Minority Problems” he described action research as “a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action and research leading to social action” that uses “a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action and fact-finding about the result of the action”.
The excerpt from the Wikipedia article on Action Research seems straightforward enough in describing the Action Research Cycle (ARC). Of the 1000s of articles and book chapters displayed on the ASCD website, Richard Sagor’s Guiding School Improvement with Action Research (2000), defines the process as
a disciplined process of inquiry conducted by and for those taking the action. The primary reason for engaging in action research is to assist the “actor” in improving and/or refining his or her actions.
Sagor goes onto explain that “even more important is the fact that action research helps educators be more effective at what they care most about—their teaching and the development of their students. Seeing students grow is probably the greatest joy educators can experience. When teachers have convincing evidence that their work has made a real difference in their students’ lives, the countless hours and endless efforts of teaching seem worthwhile.”
The Action Research Process
Educational action research can be engaged in by a single teacher, by a group of colleagues who share an interest in a common problem, or by the entire faculty of a school.
According to Sagar, whatever the scenario, action research always involves the same seven-step process. These seven steps, which become an endless cycle, are the following:
- Selecting a focus
- Clarifying theories
- Identifying research questions
- Collecting data
- Analyzing data
- Reporting results
- Taking informed action
This is sometimes simplied down to four steps, as shown in the following diagram
There must not be any false assumption, when conducting an action research project, that the ‘action’ part of the methodology alone can achieve results. Dealing with the tension between doing ‘the action ‘ and making the time and space to reflect and ‘research’ is the ONLY key to succeeding with the methodology.
Example of an action research project conducted by the Education Endowment Foundation (UK)
The vital importance of the ‘real’ focus in action research
The power of doing an action research classroom project is the on-going reflection which is possible long after the project has finished. This is why the documentation and reflective processes built into a project are so vital. The stakeholders (teachers, students, school leaders, community etc) not only get a chance to understand the focus of the research, their research questions, but their own capacity to interrogate and enquire as ‘teacher researchers’. For this reason, even if a project ‘fails’ to meet its original goal, the opportunity to review how any or all aspects of their participation in the project in relation to its effectiveness as a method of professional learning can be analysed.
For instance, the Education Endowment Foundation’s 2013/14 project on Effective Feedback conducted with the Anglican Schools Partnership and Durham University noted that the action research model for the project “was not ideal in terms of identifying” the causal influences on why teachers were not prepared to use the model of classroom feedback which they study hoped to analyse in the study.
The impact design was a before and after study with a convenience sample of nine schools (only the primary schools were involved in the evaluation) and a partly matched comparator group of five local primary schools. The longitudinal approach followed entire cohorts through one year of schooling, intervening, monitoring and adjusting the intervention as the programme progressed. The action research approach, however, is not ideal in terms of identifying causal influences as there is no true counterfactual, so outcomes (pupils’ performance at end of year teacher assessment or at KS1 and Education Endowment Foundation 15 KS2 assessments) were compared to the progress of cohorts in comparison schools in the Bexley area but not in the intervention partnership. There was also a comparison between the results and progress of disadvantaged pupils (FSM or eligible for pupil premium) and the rest. However, none of these approaches sought to provide a scientifically defensible comparison group to calculate (rather than estimate order of magnitude of) the ‘effect size’ of the intervention. This was acceptable for the pilot, but any follow up must involve randomisation to treatment or a control.
To our mind, this still shows the strength of conducting action research in the classroom because its explicit process gives participants ways of analysing how to ‘go forward’. We would go further, the teacher’s attitude towards implementing classroom feedback opens up as a study in its own right.
- Why were the teachers so confident that they ‘already did feedback’?
- What would have happened if the study had begun by documenting the instances of feedback which teachers already believed they did in their classrooms, and then introduced other types of classroom feedback specifically proposed, for instance, by Hattie and Timperley (2007)?
In the same way, any completed action research project opens up an interrogation of practice long after its conclusion. We recommend, for instance, teachers and school leaders using the bank of projects listed on the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development website and the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership
Anglican Schools Partnership Effective Feedback