Action Research: From knowledge keeper to knowledge seeker

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You only need to walk through the hallway or enter the staffroom of any school today to hear talk of 21st century skills and the need for students to become tech literate.

As literature and professional development workshops emphasize the new literacies—essential skills that our students simply must possess if they are to succeed in the global workplace—many teachers find themselves assaulted by a barrage of tech tools to incorporate into the classroom. For some teachers, this opens up a world of exciting new opportunities with endless possibilities for personal and professional growth. For others, it provokes anxiety and uncertainty—the sinking feeling that tried and true methods may no longer be enough. Either way, the challenge of 21st-century teaching and learning acts as a game changer, a monumental paradigm shift for teachers that moves them from the traditional role of knowledge keeper to knowledge seeker.

In this new reality of teaching and learning, teachers must maintain (and in some cases regain) their own love of learning. Management guru Peter Drucker notes, "We now accept the fact that learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn." Interestingly, the required learning for teachers is not always around technology. In fact, many young teachers are themselves digital natives with an innate comfort with technology and its tools, yet they still struggle to incorporate technology into their own practice. As the old adage goes, we teach as we were taught, and even the most tech-literate teacher can still feel challenged by the need to rethink traditional approaches to literacy, classroom teaching and assessment.

So what does this mean for teacher learning? How can students be guided through rapid change when many teachers are struggling to keep pace themselves? Ongoing professional development is most certainly a key part of the solution, but the challenge remains in finding approaches that are authentic and target the mindset of teachers rather than just the tools they will need.

A New Approach to Teacher Learning

Of all the types of professional learning commonly available to teachers, Action Research is one of the most powerful. Action Research is a process of reflective inquiry intended to enhance teacher practice and thereby improve student learning. Although the term itself was coined by American psychologist, Kurt Lewin in the mid 1940s, Action Research is a method of inquiry that emerged out of the scientific education movement of the late 19th century. It differentiates itself from traditional experimental research by involving the researcher as a participant, and empowering them to conduct research into their own actions.

In education, Action Research allows teachers to examine teaching and learning in the contexts most important to themtheir own classroomand thus gives teachers a high degree of control over their own professional learning. Rather than using research findings from others, teachers involved in Action Research examine, learn from, and aim to improve their own schools, their own classrooms, and their own teaching practice, thereby making the process relevant, meaningful, and authentic. Most important within our 21st-century educational context, Action Research allows teachers to pose powerful questions centred on changeeverything from changes in practice to changes in tools. Posing meaningful research questions, gathering data, reflecting on outcomes, and adjusting practice help develop improved teacher practice over time. More importantly, however, Action Research facilitates the type of open mindset teachers need in order to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing context.

Action Research, while a powerful tool to facilitate change, is never easy to undertake alone. Teachers who are new to this type of research and those with years of experience benefit from guidance and advice. In fact, the most powerful outcomes from Action Research often emerge out of teacher collaboration and network support. It is, therefore, no surprise that groups of like-minded and interested teachers often come together to form Action Research communities.

Teachers Helping Teachers Through TARGET

The Toronto Action Research Group for Excellence in Teaching (TARGET) is one example of teachers helping teachers undertake Action Research initiatives. Founded in 2003 by a number of  boys' schools in Toronto, TARGET expanded in 2009 to include co-educational and girls' schools from across the Greater Toronto Area. While not limited to the challenges of 21st-century learning, many of the areas of research undertaken by TARGET members have naturally focused on new literacies, technology, critical-thinking skills, and change.

TARGET meets five times per year and welcomes new members at any time. Members from beginner to expert are supported through the Action Research process with information, expert advice, and ongoing consultation.

One of TARGET's early members and a teacher at Crescent School, Kathy Porteous, used Action Research to examine the benefits of online discussion boards for senior school boys. Her work showed that the use of discussion boards provided students with opportunities to explore their ideas with greater confidence. The sense of ownership the boys felt and the benefit of more immediate online feedback from peers and the teacher helped to strengthen their writing skills and increased their willingness to expand and deepen their thinking. Through her work, Erica Sprules, a teacher at The Sterling Hall School, and coordinator of The Sterling Institute is undertaking a study on strengthening students' hands-on problem-solving skills through the use of integrative thinking in a Grade 2 science class. Mark Bunten, one of the newest members of the group and a teacher at St. Clement's School, a Christian school, in Toronto, Ontario, is focusing his Action Research on how girls' self-reports on test preparedness and confidence levels relate to learning outcomes in Grade 8 geography. In every example, teachers are using Action Research as a way of strengthening their own teaching practice in order to reinforce essential skills in their students.

In the book Future Shock, Alvin Toffler writes of a conversation he had with American psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy, quoting him as saying: "Tomorrow's illiterate will not be the man who can't read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn." More than 40 years later, this simple message is equally if not more relevant to teachers in today's classrooms. Commitment to ongoing learning, remaining open to the challenge of learning alongside (and often from) our students, and embracing change as an opportunity for growth are attributes essential for teaching in the 21st-century. Action Research remains one of the strongest ways for teachers to develop and deepen these important skills.  

TARGET meets five times per year and welcomes new members at any time. Members are supported through the Action Research process with information, expert advice, and ongoing consultation. No experience is necessary. TARGET is able to support all levels of Action Research from beginner to expert. For more information on TARGET contact Erica Sprules at [email protected].

—Leanne Foster
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