In our Powerful Learning Practice (PLP) communities, school-based teams of teachers engage in collaborative professional development over the course of a year along with teams from other schools and districts using the research-based connected learning communities model, which combines face-to-face professional learning communities, online communities of practice, and personal learning networks. These communities always have a component of “co-created content.” For new participants, it’s an action research project. (The results of a range of these projects can be seen on the PLP Action Research Projects page.) Wikipedia defines action research as “a reflective process of progressive problem solving led by individuals working with others in teams or as part of a ‘community of practice’ to improve the way they address issues and solve problems. Action research involves the process of actively participating in an organization change situation whilst conducting research.” It is such inquiry-driven change that PLP seeks to support.
We want a team to think about action research as a collaborative endeavor, where principals and teachers work together to improve something over time. It’s not just about gathering data, it’s about working hard to improve something. Maybe you see a need to improve writing in the building, and you’re going to figure out whether there’s a way to take a techno-constructivist approach to strengthening students’ writing skills. Maybe you feel the culture of your school is very mired in antiquated approaches to teaching and learning, and you want to build a new culture of innovation and collaboration, so you’re going to develop your project around that goal.
Our experience over the last five years demonstrates that action research supported by and shared through an online community of practice is a good strategy to help participants focus on 21st century collaboration and teaching ideas, so long as the project is their own conception: They choose the topic and goal. Using collaborative action research projects to support learning and engagement is an idea that could be adapted by other professional development-oriented communities, but expect some resistance if you choose this strategy.
In PLP, we don’t want our online communities of practice to function as a one-size-fits-all model. We don’t say, “This is your template, this is what we want you to do.” Instead, we want to help team members begin to think like researchers. Many of the teams get really frustrated when we reveal that we’re not going to tell them what to do. They don’t like deciding what it’s supposed to be about. Deep collegial work—the kind that asks teachers to be researchers, to be curriculum designers, to empower themselves as a group—that’s not something that naturally aligns with the traditional school culture that’s still alive in many schools.
That’s why ongoing engagement with PLP staff and with other teams through our online communities is essential. In dialogue in the communities, we do help individual teams try to “find” their projects. We do push back when we think the project isn’t ambitious enough or doesn’t drill deep enough. But we don’t hold any hands. On our Voices blog one of our team leaders shared this story:
“Our first idea was entirely too broad. When we presented it during an Elluminate session with our cohort, we got shot down – hard. We were angry, frustrated, and went back to our corner sulking and fuming… for a day. Then we took a deep breath, pulled together, and got down to business. What emerged from that point was an incredibly successful effort.”
Another team wanted to improve student engagement. They first had to identify what engagement is. It turned out that they all had different ideas about what the term meant. In order to forge a common understanding grounded in evidence, they chose to identify the key factors associated with whether or not students become engaged. There were five members of the team, all teachers, and they isolated some key factors and went into their own classrooms to find out how important each factor was to engagement. They came out with some pretty powerful findings. They found that student engagement increases when we give kids authentic tasks to accomplish. Passion or interest was another key factor: When the students had the opportunity to approach new content or new skills through a strong personal interest or passion, engagement deepened. As we interacted with them in our online community spaces over the course of the project, we found it rewarding to listen to this team talk and share what they discovered with other people, to hear them thinking through some ideas about building engagement across their school.
Those of us who have spent years examining pedagogical research might not be surprised by their findings, but to be able to confirm research through classroom practice is huge for teachers, who are constantly hearing one side say something is effective and the other side say it’s not. Generalized pedagogical principles need to be checked against and integrated into the “local knowledge” of teaching and learning that is part of the school culture. The proof is in the classroom—that’s what action research is all about. And thanks to their PLP work together, these teachers went on to create a legacy for their school.
In most cases, to yield results like these, teams of teachers (with or without a principal involved) have to go through some re-acculturation. They have to push themselves way past their comfort level to collaborate deeply on an important topic. But, as we know, whenever you DO dig deeper—whenever you make the journey and expend the energy it takes to reach the destination—you come to a place of great satisfaction and new insight.
These projects start out because we push teams to do them. We announce that there will be a culminating event where they’ll showcase their project in a virtual gathering of their peers. So there’s an accountability factor: They don’t want to show up empty-handed. But that’s most often just the catalyst that gets them started. The best projects pull in people at the school who are not even on the team. They just want to get involved because they find the collaboration—the action research piece—intriguing and potentially useful. Quite often, if you visit a school a year or two later, someone can show you evidence of the long-term impact.
For example, Hampton Roads Academy offered no professional development for teachers related to 21st century learning prior to a team of six teachers from the school conducting a year-long action research project through a PLP-connected learning community. The research revealed the need for better faculty collaboration across divisions, which they were able to achieve through using such tools as Ning for social networking and Diigo for social bookmarking. Teachers are now not just actively using these tools to learn together but also with their students, and the school has instituted a range of ongoing, formal opportunities for professional development related to using emerging technologies in the classroom. Patti Grayson, a third grade teacher and one of the original team members, is now a popular blogger and is heading a team of division and department heads to help them become connected educators.
One thing that designers of communities of practice can do—and we need to build this into our PLP design in more overt ways—is help teachers discover the potential they have to empower themselves. Once this realization becomes widespread, teaching will become a real profession. This transformation is happening already in some settings and communities. As teachers gain collective efficacy, they begin to police themselves, and they start to draw on the well of wisdom that their collective experiences represent.
We need many more teachers doing this, because nobody who drops by to watch them teach and determine “what works” is ever going to have the depth of understanding that comes from years of reflective classroom practice. Nobody else will need to tell them “what works.”
But the challenge standing in the way of that empowerment is building in reflection as a routine part of practice. Teacher reflection is so important and still so scarce in so many schools, that it ought to be a priority for any community of practice aimed at improving pedagogy. Action research in connected learning communities is a key means for enabling a deepened reflective teaching practice that empowers educators.
Sheryl Nussbaum Beach is co-founder of Powerful Learning Practice and a 20-year educator with experiences as a classroom teacher, technology coach, charter school principal, district administrator, and digital learning consultant.