Revitalizing the Teacher and the Student by Action Research
By Denise Babcock
SSTA Research Centre Report #01-07: 34 pages, $11
Table of Contents

I. Introduction

  1. Research Purpose and Rationale
  2. Research Design
II. Findings
  1. Teacher Revitalization: Professional and Personal
  2. Transformation of Students
    1. Relevance, Empowerment and Interaction
    2. Developmental Stages of Engaging Students
    3. Principles of Engaging Students in their Learning
  3. Summary of Findings
III. Validation By Students and By the Literature
  1. Principles of Student Engagement
    1. Forming Relationships
    2. Making Choices for Experiences
    3. Developing Self-Direction
    4. Engaging in Insightful Reflection
IV. Recommendations for Boards of Education
  1. Expanding Limited Resources
  2. Quality Education
  3. Student-Centered Instruction
  4. Computers in Education
  5. Leadership and Professional Development
V. Considerations for Boards of Education

VI. Conclusion

References

Appendix A: Student Voice

Appendix B: Five Year Leadership Initiative

Overview

Research is not often part of a teacher’s workday.  What is unusual about this action research endeavor was that it took place during the busiest year of my career, and rather than being a burden, it helped me focus on creating valuable learning opportunities for my students. 

The question to which we sought an answer was, “Would engaging students in their learning, in a collaborative-interactive effort with their teacher, transform an unsatisfying educational circumstance into a positive one?”  In simpler terms, “What will happen if the teacher shares the direction of the learning process with the students, and becomes the guide rather than the sage?”  That question and many secondary questions were answered in this semester-long collaborative-interactive adventure.  There are two themes which came from the answers, and which have implications for teachers and for students.  Transformation of teacher practice is one theme.  The other theme is transformation of students by engaging them in their learning. 

The purpose of this monograph is to provide the reader with my major findings, their validation by outside research and their implications for boards of education.  The thesis itself takes the reader through the process from startup to conclusion of the research in the classroom and computer lab.
 

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Introduction

I used action research as a tool to change my life:  professionally and personally.  My self and my career are closely tied, and what affects one affects the other.  Having reached a point in my career where workaholism could no longer be sustained as my mode of operation, I was forced to seek another approach.  Graduate level work led me through the process of reassessing what I was doing in my classroom and my motivation for it.  Being an independent person I was satisfied only by my own analysis of my career and my life.  Action research gave me the freedom to research what was important to me; the topic, the means of documentation, and the conclusions were all within my control. Fortunately, my partners in this learning process were part of an environment which encouraged my progress, and thus the progress of the people I affected.  Students, parents, teachers, administrators, a research expert, and the governing educational body made up the supportive team crucial to the creation of my comfort level, which in turn fueled the process of my professional and personal development.


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1. Research Purpose and Rationale

The ultimate purpose of my action research was to discover what it was like for students and teachers to collaboratively create a learning environment based on mutual needs and experience.  There were many dimensions to my original query.  What will happen if the teacher shares the direction of the learning process, and becomes the guide rather than the sage?  What will the role change mean, and what impact will it have on teachers and students?  Will they learn, and what will they learn?  Given the circumstance where student expertise can be greater than teacher expertise in the latest computer technology, what will the outcomes be for students and teachers who work together to create a learning experience based on shared expertise and views of needs satisfaction?

The motivation for this research was my desire to improve my satisfaction with teaching by bridging the gap between my belief about instruction and my practice of it.  My personal view was that student choice allowed for relevance and meaning in learning, thus enhancing motivation.  The opportunity, to choose what one learns and who one works with fostered empowerment and responsibility, as well as buy-in.  Student retention and enjoyment of learning are issues faced in all schools, and this project contributed a positive solution to that problem.

I chose action research for its suitability to the exploration of the unknown.  This was an adventure requiring the teacher to maintain vision while providing guidance for student action on a daily basis as conditions changed.  Through decision-making, students gained a critical mass of understanding which fostered independence and the ability to analyse progress.  Action research was our vehicle for the transformation of the teacher from the traditional role to one which caused the direct student involvement necessary for becoming lifelong learners.  Teacher education, level of satisfaction, and ultimately retention are issues on which this activity impacts positively.

Changing curriculum and diverse student ability were factors addressed by this research.  Some students in my two Grade 10 Information Processing classes considered themselves "computer gurus", while others saw themselves as "computer victims"; in our classroom we had to find a meeting ground which would accommodate the diversity of student expectation and skills in the  sometimes volatile setting of equipment and software.  The thesis became the travelogue and instruction kit produced by the explorers of a wilderness survival trek; the view and experience of both student and teacher are included for the reference of anyone wanting to follow in our footsteps.


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2. Research Design

Democracy, as participation by choice within the overall structure provided, was the basis of the project.  Topics for research, timelines for preparation of presentations, and finally the presentations themselves were the means of delivery of the curriculum.  Within that framework, students participated in setting goals, and the criteria for evaluation.  They were given choices of topic and group makeup, as well as daily tasks.  Documentation was based on my journaling the whole process from my personal and professional perspectives.  Data collection from students was based on focus groups, which the students called "chat sessions", and on reflective writing.  These were spaced throughout the semester to address their experiences of the research and to provide feedback for me to guide the process effectively.

Student participation in the formal research was voluntary and required written parental and student consent.  The only overt difference in treatment of students who participated in the formal research, and those who did not, was the scheduling of chat sessions for those who chose to participate.  Toward the end of the semester, students who had not opted into the research were disappointed that they did not get to participate in the chat sessions because they had come to see them as an exciting opportunity to have their voice as a student heard.  I saw this as further evidence that students were truly excited about the opportunity to participate.


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II.  Findings

1. Teacher Revitalization: Professional and Personal

Excitement, Challenge, Meaning:  Not only do these three words describe the purpose of my research, they also describe my current feelings about teaching, in contrast to my feelings in June six years prior to the completion of my thesis.  I had decided then that I would not end another year with the same prospect; I needed something different in my working life.  My satisfaction had come from putting my entire life and energy into my work by being busy all the time.  I realized at that point that there had to be more to teaching and more to life.  I was in search of meaning. The choice I made within the next year was to change my career by doing my Master’s Degree; it is ironic to me that graduate work actually resolved the original issue of loss of satisfaction in teaching while it gave me deeper meaning, not only in teaching, but also in my life by integrating my work and my self.

The original purpose of my research was to create meaningful learning opportunities for my students.  I did not realize at the time that the means of creating those opportunities for my students was also the means of creating meaning for myself.  I was convinced that my practice needed change because of the mirror held in front of me -- a classroom full of dissatisfied learners -- told me something was wrong.  I measured dissatisfaction by their passive role in soaking up whatever I presented to them, with no active involvement in their learning, and no excitement in their demeanor.  I could have just quit teaching, but I chose instead to explore teaching from a different vantage point.  In one of my graduate level classes, that new angle arose when I read Peter Reason’s article, Inquiry and Alienation (1994).  “Complete personal engagement, passion and profound risk-taking”.  That sounded like the kind of teaching I wanted to do.

 What changed for me in this process, was my whole foundation of teaching.  It was not an easy transition -- in fact, there were days in the early stages when it closely resembled torture.  “It was like I was parachuted into the wilderness with a deadline of five months to find my way out and to know the territory well enough, at the end, to lead others through it.”

 Fritz (1989) talks about structural tension being necessary for the creative process -- to create the vision of what you want your life to be by comparing reality to the vision and then making the choice for the vision.  There were many tensions for me in this transformation from being in control of  student learning, to being a guide and creator of opportunities for students.
 
 

Tensions of Transistion
 Before: 
After:
Time as a means of efficiency Time as a means of learning from experience
Teacher preset goals Student set and measured goals
Judging Empathy
Pushing Leading
Control  Living in the moment
Product Process
Measurement of spectators Analysis by participants
Intellectual understanding Experiential knowing

Though I was unaware of it at the time, these traits happened to coincide with the changes sought in curriculum delivery by Saskatchewan Education in 1991.

Curriculum: [will need to move] from static, hierarchical, and segregated, to dynamic, egalitarian, and integrated...Instruction:  from teacher-directed and transmissional, to student-centred and transactional...[and] Teacher-learner interactions: from controlled, competitive, and conforming, to empowering, cooperative, and divergent. (1991, p. iv.)
I learned what teacher traits are important in creating a learning environment which satisfied my need for meaning.  Prior to this process I had not considered the importance of these characteristics in any setting, let alone as integral to achieving the satisfaction I desired in my professional practice.  Key to my success in being a collaborative-interactive teacher described by the tensions above, was a focus on three characteristics.
 
Teacher Traits
EMPATHETIC: establish a relationship
VISIONARY: maintain direction and trust in the process and in self
DEMOCRATIC: open and honest communication
part of the process, not in control
share decision making
allow mistakes

What started out as an intent to create an exciting, challenging and meaningful learning environment for students became a reality -- but not only for the students.  As they became engaged learners, I became an active teacher.  A teacher active in the process of learning.

Through action research I became strong in my own understanding of how I needed to teach in order to be true to myself and to my beliefs about education.  Near the end of the journey I realized that the passive voice, which I had frequently used to avoid criticism, had come out of the closet.  I developed an active voice.  My confidence, my understanding, my sense of self had grown to meet the challenge.  By working together in this collaborative-interactive project, students and teacher constructed an amazing vision of exciting and effective education.


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2. Transformation of Students

The means of accomplishing that was Action Research.  I saw it as a way to create the vision of a classroom filled with excitement, challenge and meaning.  I was faced with a computer lab overflowing with students, during the first year of the new school.  I predicted that they would benefit from involvement in their learning, so I offered them an opportunity to launch a research project in which we, teacher and students, would work as partners in learning.  My hope was that it would transform students who “talked when they were to be quiet, walked when they were to be sitting, and did something other than the assignment when it was time to do that.”  (p. 14, Thesis).  I felt that the key to student learning was relevance to them, empowerment of them, and interaction with them, just as it had been the year before with a group of passive students.

 So, in order to implement these elements of excitement, challenge and meaning in my research, I wanted to work with the students, rather than in the traditional hierarchy which for me had meant that I took all of the responsibility for their learning.  Together, the students and I would create a learning experience by developing expertise and sharing it.  From the start, they made choices.  “Do you want to do the regular classroom stuff, or do you want to do something new, an adventure, the likes of which none of us have seen?  Do you want to take part in the formal research, as well as the project itself?  With whom do you want to work?  What topics do you want to research?”  The transformation happened.    One person played a double role in our school as interning computer technician and experienced teacher substitute.  As computer technician, she observed my students doing research and was impressed with their initiative and persistence.  When she supervised a class presentation by one group in my absence, she reported that they (p. 75, Thesis) greeted her with, “You don’t have to worry.  We’re taking over the class.” She commented, “I was pretty impressed with their mature approach, especially for grade 10s!  The quality of presentation was high...they had the respect of the students who were their audience...[and]...they had impressive buy-in and commitment.”  These were the same students who had ended the previous semester as described on the previous page.


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A. Relevance, Empowerment and Interaction

Action research, for the students, provided an opportunity for relevance, empowerment, and interaction because of the role they played in data collection and management of the process.  Their daily involvement gave them ownership through choices, initially of research topic and group membership, and later in organizing and implementing the outcome of their research as presentations to their classmates.  They told me in written and verbal form what their experience was and offered opinions on many aspects of the project; I used their feedback to determine and make adjustments to the learning process.

For me, relevance, empowerment, and interaction were reflected literally and figuratively in my journal -- the means of documentation of the journey from beginning to end.  Journaling provided me with a readily available support and processing device which was crucial to my survival and growth in the intense work environment of the opening of a new school.  In that environment, there were no colleagues with free time for conferencing or advising.  The journal directly provided the structure for the analysis of our adventure and became the foundation for the thesis.


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B. Developemental Stages of Engaging Students

I developed an understanding of  the dynamics of engaging my students and created my own learning theory in a sense.  This is the opposite way that teachers typically undertake to improve their practice:  a theory is normally presented to them, which they then apply in their work.  What I discovered was based on my analysis of the students’ and teacher’s collective story.  Each leg of the journey had its own character.

The Startup Phase was exciting due to the novelty of the partnership with the teacher.  It was frustrating and fearful because of the unknown nature of this proposed adventure, and the resulting unpredictability of their normal level of success.  During the Research and Planning Phase prior to their presentations, they developed sufficient understanding to be able to set their own goals and initiate their own actions.  As this happened, I reduced my structure and guidance for them.  The Presentation Phase, in which they engaged their classmates in order to share their own learning, caused them to be motivated to complete their work by a given date.  It was their ownership of the project and sense of responsibility to their group members and classmates which motivated them to do well.  The Evaluation Phase was integrated throughout the semester.  Students assessed their progress and the experiences they had, as well as evaluating themselves, their group members, the presenters, and the materials they produced.  In the end, they reflected on the process as a whole, taking a look back at what they had intended to do, and what actually happened.  They showed empathy for teachers, an understanding for what comprised an effective process, and an appreciation for the role of cooperation in achieving goals.
 

Phases and Their Character
STARTUP: Excitement, Frustration and Fear
PLANNING:  Critical Mass of Understanding
PRESENTING:  Follow-Through and Completion
EVALUATION: Rethinking Intent and Reality


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C. Principles of Engaging Students in Their Learning

What was happening to the students, what circumstances were created for them by me, at each phase was based on my initial premise of relevance, empowerment, and interaction.  I made my decisions and led the process daily with those guiding principles. My focus originally was on the students, so I was not conscious, at the time, of what was happening to me.  It was only after the formal semester ended that I began to see the separate building blocks in the tower of learning we created.  The students and I each had our own views based on our roles.  My role was to create the opportunities that the students experienced.
 

Students
Teacher
Forming Relationships Creating Nurturing Relationships
Making Choices for Experiences Encouraging Choices
Developing Self-Direction  Fostering Self-Direction
Engaging in Insightful Reflection Stimulating Insightful Reflection

Safety in relationship was provided by their gaining trust in me, and subsequently in their partners.  I felt it had to be an environment in which they were not afraid to make mistakes, and could thus venture into uncharted territory knowing that we were all on the same path, and we would solve problems together. Students credited the opportunity to make choices, on a daily basis about what they learned and what action they took, for their taking personal ownership of this project.  Self-direction came from their own growing confidence as they were able to envision the larger picture of the project and their group’s role.  As they gained in initiative, I reduced the structure I provided as a safety net for their success.  Through discussion and written reflections, as well as by doing, they, by the end of the semester, thought they had discovered all of it:  the process I led them through they recommended we use next time because they felt by their experience that it would work better than what we did (they did not know that we actually did what they were recommending; they felt they discovered those conclusions on their own:  Constructed Experiential Knowing).


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3.  Summary of Findings

In summary then, our adventure created meaning for me as a teacher as well as for my students.  I named this process collaborative-interactive learning.  The reason for the research was that direct instruction was no longer satisfying either to me or to my students.  They were unfocused and I had lost interest in teaching as I had for nine years.  The manner I chose to make this change in my practice was by implementing action research because I was exploring the unknown.  To me, it held the key to meaningful processes.  In fact, the means and topic were my choice, and therefore I, just as with the students, owned the process and the project we researched.  My discoveries were many, but the major ones were the power of action research to transform professional practice, the stages of development of engaged learners, and lastly, the activating processes for those phases.  What changed as a result of my research was my entire teaching practice, and philosophy of life.  Action Research gave me an active voice by researching my practice and understanding it more fully as a manifestation of who I am.


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III.  Validation By Students and By the Literature

Four sequential principles crucial to the process we undertook and the success we experienced were:  Forming Relationships, Making Choices, Self-Direction, and finally, Insightful Reflection.  Unlike the usual professional development system of having the teacher apply a known research theory to instructional practice, I developed my own theory as a result of undertaking my own research.  To validate it, I will use relevant literature and the student perspective to corroborate the direct experience of the teacher.

  1. Safety in Relationship
  2. Choice for Ownership
  3. Critical Mass of Understanding for Initiative
  4. Thoughtful Reflection for Constructed Experiential Knowing

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1. Principles of Student Engagement

The foundation of engaging students was developing a trusting Relationship between teacher and student, and subsequently between student and student.  In this safe environment, students were then willing and able to participate in the second stage, which was Choice.  Choices were made within the structure I provided, and this structure was gradually reduced as student skill and comfort increased.  As their confidence with choice improved, Self-Direction developed, based first on the ownership created by their choices, and then within the context of freedom created by the reduction of structure.  They were pulled into the vacuum thus created and took action because it was their project and no one else was going to do it if they did not.  The final stage of engagement was Insightful Reflection spawned by student analysis and evaluation of their personal experience.  In summary then, these four elements were crucial to the experience I created with my students, in which students and teacher were engaged in collaborative-interactive learning.   These principles were deeply meaningful to me as well as to the students because they were the flesh and bones of the entity we created.  Another dimension was added to this entity, that being my understanding, and my validation as a result of discovering related theories, views and conclusions in published works.


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A. Forming Relationships

In the literature, Max van Manen’s (1991) encouragement of pedagogical tact is one that fits well with the manner in which I attempted to develop relationships with my students and among my students. Part of this pedagogical tact, which is relevant to the perspective a teacher must have to replicate this study, van Manen described as working only when “...the pedagogue’s eyes and ears search in a caring and receptive manner for the potential of a child, what this child can become” (p. 172).  The ability to be involved in the process rather than to be in control of the process is remarkably close to pedagogical tact, as van Manen describes it, because the focus of all action was based on, and measured by, my perception of student response to circumstances.

For the students, relationships with people were key not only for trust in order to risk, but also as a major motivator.  The reason students gave for wanting to complete their project and to do a good job was because their partners were counting on them, as was the rest of the class.  If they did not do their work, it was not just themselves who would suffer, but all the other people who were counting on them.


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B. Making Choices for Experiences

John Dewey promoted democracy in education and derided outside control.  “Plato defined a slave as one who accepts from another the purposes which control his conduct” (Dewey, 1966, p. 85).  Dewey  referred to the contrast in attitude between a spectator and a participant.  “The former is indifferent to what is going on; one result is just as good as another, since each is just something to look at.  The latter is bound up with what is going on; its outcome makes a difference to him [her]” (p. 124).  My observation was that choice changed my students from spectators into participants.

Students reflected that, “We got to choose it, so it was ours.”  Angela described it in terms of, “ I was allowed to choose what I wanted to learn, and how it was to be taught which made me feel more involved in what I was learning.”  Choice was critical in developing this perspective.  Choice made each of us a participant, and not just a spectator.


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C. Developing Self-Direction

Dewey (1966) adds to the support of variation in learning experience, with, “Lack of free and equitable intercourse which springs from a variety of shared interests makes intellectual stimulation unbalanced.  Diversity of stimulation means novelty, and novelty means challenge to thought” (p. 84-85).   My sense of the collaborative-interactive project was that it indeed revealed one method of creating ‘mindful learning’, both for teacher and student and thus students could envision a goal and take action to achieve it.

Given trust and freedom to take ownership, the students sought outside expertise and assistance, building their own learning network. George characterized this situation by saying, “It felt good to be able to make my own decisions.  I think that is because teens are power hungry and want to be let loose and to do things alone.”  They had set their own vision, goals, and task distribution in order to accomplish their ultimate ideal, and generated their own power and incentive to do so.  Dewey  (1966) supported “conjoint activities in which those instructed take part, so that they may acquire a social sense of their own powers of the materials and appliances used” (p. 39).


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D. Engaging in Insightful Reflection

Brooks and Brooks (1993), describe challenges faced by schools of traditional structure if they are to teach by,

 ...constructing new understandings of relationships and phenomena in our world...Educators must invite students to experience the world’s richness, empower them to ask their own questions and seek their own answers, and challenge them to understand the world’s complexities.  (p. 5)
Duckworth (as cited in Brooks & Brooks, 1993)
...describes her version of teaching thusly: ‘I propose situations for people to think about and I watch what they do.  They tell me what they make of it, rather than my telling them what to make of it.’ This approach values the students’ points of view and attempts to encourage students in the directions they have charted for themselves.  (p. 5)
Brooks and Brooks (1993) describe this as, “A constructivist framework [which] challenges teachers to create environments in which they and their students are encouraged to think and explore” (p. 30).

Students were encouraged to think and explore throughout the process, and one of their most common new perspectives was empathy for teachers.   Marie, in showing she understood teachers from a new perspective, reflected that something does not have to be fun to be meaningful.  “Teaching is ten times harder than it ever looked.  I found it to be stressful and lots of extra work.  I think it was a good experience and allowed me to realize that maybe some day I would like to become a teacher.”  Students created their own learning as a result of the shared experience with their teacher.

This transformative experience had implications not only for those of us who participated in it, but for people who are interested in such an adventure in learning and teaching.  Learning became much more than transmission of information.  It became a way of life -- a way to be.  Students were fully engaged in their learning, with connections beyond their own individual interaction with the learning.  They assessed themselves personally, and academically.  They philosophised about education and learning (p. 112, Thesis).  Additional student comments are found in Appendix A.


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IV.  Recommendations for Boards of Education

I feel that my research offers an opportunity to school boards, teachers, and students for the rethinking and revitalizing of the education with which they are involved.  Two main themes resulted from my five month student-centred project.  One is that action research transformed my teaching and my life by shifting it from its early focus on long hours and product to effective hours and process.  The other is that students are empowered and excited by playing an active role in their education, making choices within a framework provided by a teacher.  The ability to keep up with new curriculum and with fast-paced change is needed today; this action research project gave those of us involved in it the opportunity to develop that ability.  My thesis describes our perspective on how to accomplish that, in terms of teacher and student experience, the meaning it gave us and the implications of it.

The implications of the findings include opportunities to address five issues facing school boards in Saskatchewan and, no doubt, in other jurisdictions.  Limited financial and human resources is the first issue which action research projects such as this one can mediate.  Maintaining our province’s reputation for high quality education is the second issue.  Thirdly, implementation of Saskatchewan Education’s call for teachers to change from teacher-directed to student-directed instruction could be facilitated by action research.  The technological challenge of preparing our students for the new millennium after the “wiring” of our schools to go on-line, is the fourth issue.  Lastly, the impact of the impending leadership shortage as our most experienced teachers retire and are replaced by our least experienced teachers can be reduced by the professional development potential of action research.


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1.  Expanding Limited Resources

Saskatchewan has an admirable tradition of collaborative effort to address significant challenges with limited financial and human resources.  The method of teaching and learning illustrated in my thesis, is one which recognizes and utilizes the expertise of the teacher and the student, as well as people outside of the classroom:  other teachers, parents, business operators, in addition to hardcopy and on-line documents.  These readily available and low cost sources of knowledge provide valuable opportunities for students and teachers.


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2.  Quality Education

Saskatchewan Education (SaskEd) initiatives are intended to maintain the reputation our province has for quality education.  The review of education during the 1980s was reported in Directions, the Final Report; it promoted the preparation of students with the skills and knowledge to enable them to function capably as adults.  Students in my research practiced and developed lifelong learning skills by choosing, within the teacher-provided structure, what to learn based on their interests, how to learn and with what resources inside and outside of the classroom, how to take responsibility for their own learning and that of their peers, as well as to do the analysis and evaluation of that learning.  Outsiders commented on the maturity and dedication of these students in their learning efforts -- grade 10 students well on their way to functioning capably as adults in the development of their learning.


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3.  Student-Centered Instruction

The third issue is the implementation of Directions through CELs, a six-element set of skills called Common Essential Learnings; all CELs are inherent in my research, but the focus is on Critical and Creative Thinking.  The process described and analyzed in my thesis is laid out as a way to aid other teachers in replication of the project.  SaskEd has called for teaching to change from teacher-directed to student-centered in order to match the curriculum change from static, hierarchical, and segregated to dynamic, egalitarian and integrated.  Changing one’s method of instruction to meet the expectation of matching new curriculum is not an easy task, but my thesis documents success in doing just that.


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4.  Computers in Education

The fourth issue is preparation of our students for the new millennium by the recent wiring of the province’s schools for going on-line.  Once again my thesis has a perspective to share on how the adjustments to new technology and software can be made at the learning level.  These are lofty goals which could be achieved by costly retraining of teachers, or by the means used in my research; action research for teacher education is a tool within the physical and financial reach of all schools.


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5.  Leadership and Professional Development

The retirement of the baby boomers in the next few years will leave a gap in leadership.  The development of a comprehensive leadership program, based on action research by teachers who select their own focus for problem-solving, is one which will alleviate the shortfall.  Empowerment of teachers to seek innovative solutions to the problems they perceive is possible by means such as fostering action research projects within school districts.  Using my own development as an example, since I completed my research I have been promoted to department head and most recently to vice principal.  The experience I gained by my research is largely responsible for the confidence and sense of vision which I feel caused me to seek those positions.  Creating cooperative and interactive connections with students as well as with teaching colleagues was necessary to carry out my research.  Those same skills are applicable to leadership roles, and I have already developed a five-year leadership initiative based on a new application of my work in the classroom  (See Appendix B).  In the parallel situation of teachers rather than students being led by an experienced teacher-researcher they would develop leadership skills as a by-product of solving problems they designate worthy of focus.


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V. Considerations for Boards of Education

My recommendations can be summed up in two points.  Encourage action research to foster teacher innovation, empowerment, and motivation.  Secondly, implement an action research initiative.  Such an initiative has the potential to develop a comprehensive leadership program, to build stronger relationships amongst and between teachers and students, to increase motivation of teachers and students by creating for them a deeper connection with their work, and finally to create effective and low cost professional development.

In order to replicate the success of my research, several considerations must be addressed.  The elements of engaging students in their learning -- creating nurturing relationships for a sense of safety, encouraging choice for buy-in, fostering self-direction through a critical mass of understanding of the process, and stimulating insightful reflection for constructed experiential knowing – are equally applicable to teachers.  A supportive collegial and administrative environment which creates a safe environment is the first step.  Demonstrated trust in teachers’ professional judgment encourages innovation by allowing them to address their needs in a manner they judge to be valuable.  This encourages teachers to take action to resolve their own issues.  Support in the form of expertise, time, and recognition fosters self-direction, and an action research pilot project would be one way to implement that support.  Sharing the process and outcome of such a pilot project would stimulate insightful reflection and provide the opportunity to rethink the experience and to validate it.  Inservice days, or team meetings of teachers on site are two such possibilities.

In my case, I was encouraged in the fertile setting of a new school which had a mandate  for community involvement and instructional innovation.  I had the opportunity to set up a research project to resolve a problem which I found in my practice.  Financial support was provided for my graduate course work which gave me the expertise to become self-directed; an organized team of teachers, with an experienced teacher-researcher could provide an alternate, but similar form of support.  I worked with my advisor in writing my thesis, reflected with other teachers and with my students, as well as seeking out related published works to add to my reflective pool.

The experience moved the students and me beyond our previous positions.  I learned that I can trust my perceptions of the world around me, as long as I take the time to reflect on what I am doing, and to share that with skilled and supportive people as an outside reality check. When I discussed my conclusions with my expert resource, I discovered that I was reiterating what had been already established in published literature.  Students accomplished what they initially found incomprehensible.  They analyzed and came to new understandings of their personal experience as a result of opportunities to reflect individually and in groups.  Students’ final conclusion was that we should have followed a certain step by step procedure and that would have been superior to what we had done.  Surprisingly, what they were recommending was what I had, indeed, led them through.  It seemed to them that they had created these ideas themselves.  They owned this knowledge because they lived it.  This mirrored my own experience as a teacher.  In a safe and encouraging environment, with freedom for innovation, and an opportunity for reflection, we drew our own conclusions, or ‘constructed our own learning’ about the adventure we had shared.

Active involvement in one’s learning, a nurturing relationship between teacher and student, an opportunity to share reflections, an invitation to value one’s own learning:  all of these are elements of meaningful learning.  For the students and for me, the significance of the conclusions was that we had discovered the learning by living it.  The validation of our learning by an outside source was of secondary importance.  It was interesting that someone else had concluded the same thing, but it was meaningful that we had drawn those conclusions on our own as a result of valuing and listening to our reflections of experience.

Leadership development appears to be a long-term by-product of the research.  Since completing my research I took on the role of department head, and subsequently have been granted a position as vice principal.  Prior to my action research experience, I had dismissed all recommendations by colleagues that I seek an administrative post.  Only with the valuing of my own learning, in an encouraging environment, was I able to revisit my self concept and see that I do, indeed, have the ability to aid not only students but also colleagues in achieving their potential.  Professional and leadership development for teachers, in my experience, will restore and rejuvenate teachers.  Creating connections and maintaining contact with academic and community resources in the larger educational community will make the school an integrated and meaningful contributor to our society as it evolves.  Involving students in their own learning will create life long learners who know the process of seeking, organizing and implementing experiences which are based in their own interests.  All of this came from an opportunity for choice in an environment of support.


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VI. Conclusion

The outcome of my research was the creation of meaning for me as a teacher, as well as for my students, by what I named collaborative-interactive learning.  The major discoveries were the stages of engaging students in their learning, the activating processes for those phases, and lastly the power of action research to transform professional practice.  These findings are significant to educational improvement and Boards of Education in Saskatchewan because they provide evidence of the effectiveness of a change agent which costs little in terms of cash and personnel.  The impact of enthusiastic, flexible, self-motivated, and problem-solving students and teachers in our education system is one which will be the driving force of Saskatchewan’s future.

 The final word is given to Paul, a representative of the group for whom schools exist.  He responded with words that made me realize the extent of the impact of this experience on my students, when the premise of our adventure was challenged with the question, “Do you really think that students will learn if they are given choice in what to learn?”

You can’t escape the learning part of this project.  It all just comes.  The only thing is, it won’t come unless you put forth enough effort to learn.  It’s not like anybody can just creep by like in other classes.  In this one you either do it, or you don’t and you fail.  It’s also really fun and easy, so why just fake it...I learned more in this project than in any other class this year.

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References

Brooks, J., & Brooks, M. G. (1993).  In search of understanding:  The case for constructivist classrooms.  Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.  ASCD).

Dewey, J. (1966).  Democracy and education.  New York:  The Free Press.  (original work  published in 1916)

Fritz, R.  (1989).  The path of least resistance:  Learning to become the creative force in your own life.  New York:  Fawcett Columbine.

Reason, P.  (1994).  Participation in human inquiry.  London:  SAGE Publications.

Saskatchewan Education.  (1991).  Instructional approaches:  A framework for professional practice.  Regina, SK:  author.

van Manen, M.  (1991).  The tact of teaching:  The meaning of pedagogical thoughtfulness.  London, ON:  The Althouse Press.


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Appendix A: Student Voice

It is good for teachers to see students teach each other.  Teachers who think that they should direct the learning are wrong.  We learn a lot more in a situation like this.  We learn from a different angle as well, from someone else, like other students.  We also learn a wide variety of things...we learn from our partners, because each of us has different strengths.  For example, I knew about Web Pages, but didn’t think I would ever be able to make one.  Cindi and I made one on the Spice Girls, and I will never forget it.

We learned better because we wanted to learn it.  If someone presents it to you then there is no curiosity, no desire to learn it.  We became expert in the area we studied.

I can tell you that if in a year or so, someone asks a student in a regular Information Processing class what they learned in the course, they won’t know.  If anyone asks me, I will know and can tell them exactly what I learned.  Others won’t be able to do that.  I will be able too not only recall it, but will be able to show them how to do it.  After you teach something, you know all about it.  You do all the work and you really understand.


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Appendix B: Five Year Leadership Initiative

There are three issues which this project has potential to address.  First is the development of a comprehensive leadership program for our system.  The second issue is improved motivation of teachers and students through instilling a deeper connection to their work, and a stronger relationship of collegiality amongst and between teachers and students.  The third issue is the provision of effective professional development by a low cost method.

The means of accomplishing these ends is the creation of an action research pilot project in each collegiate.  The model for implementation is based on the SaskEd curriculum implementation process, whereby the initiative and support for this effort would come from the division office in place of  SaskEd.  Volunteers from the teaching staff would be sought, prepared and supported throughout the process, and finally be charged with furthering this process of professional development by sharing their expertise with others in their own school.

Phase One:  Establishing Teacher-Researchers in each Collegiate

Incentive to take part must be based on choice of reward from a set of valued opportunities compiled by a survey of teachers.  This survey might include such options as attendance at national or international conferences, bonus wage increments, bonus time toward the fifth year leave after four years at 80% income, and / or graduate level course credit or admin training credit.  Other options suggested by teachers would indicate what value they would place on the additional effort required, and thus insight would be provided by which encouragement for participation could be accomplished.

Volunteers from each school should be sought for support group membership, as well as for the teacher-researcher role.  In-school support groups would serve as mentors, as  general professional support, or for troubleshooting, whether it be at the planning, data collection or analysis stage.  Regular meetings with frequency to be determined and adjusted by need would provide an in-school foundation for the intense nature of the work.  This group effort is intended to reduce the isolation of the teacher-researcher and the potential of perceived elitism that could develop if one person on a staff were to be in partnership with the division office to the exclusion of their colleagues.  It could instead create a school-wide effort to seek solutions to problems of general concern in that school.

Phase Two:  Preparation for Action Research

Novice teacher-researchers, once engaged, would take part in an initial overview seminar facilitated by an experienced teacher-researcher and held on a system in service day in the spring of the school year preceding the research projects.  The purpose of this event would be to lead the participants through the process of topic choice and research methodology from the starting point of the vicarious experience of the facilitator.

Teachers would then be taken through the process of brainstorming the problems, the challenges, the opportunities they face in their own situation.  By the end of the day, participants would have narrowed their choices and selected their topic of research based on their own professional determination of relevance and need.

Phase Three:  Research with Support

As with SaskEd and curriculum implementation, meetings or seminars would be called to discuss issues and challenges faced by teacher-researchers in planning, implementation, data collection and analysis.  The first of these, based on my research, would be most strategically placed toward the end of the startup phase, at the one-third point in the project.  The inherent frustrations of early stage change can be alleviated by an experienced teacher-researcher who is an empathetic listener.  This is early enough in the research that adjustments deemed necessary for success could easily be made.    Two-thirds of the way through the research period, and prior to the completion of data collection, a second session would be valuable.  This would provide an opportunity to discuss data collection issues, and the interim or ongoing analysis as preparation for the final stages of the research.  Throughout this time, the lead teacher-researcher from the division office would monitor the process and be available to the in-school team for consultation.  This would allow appropriate timing for the seminars, based on the needs of the participants.

Participants could use in service days as meeting time in the morning with their in-school support team, and afternoons on their own for documenting reflections.  A second option exists in system-wide meetings as large group to start the day, followed by small group sharing with other teacher-researchers, and then by individual time.  These decisions about group structure would be made to suit the needs of the participants as assessed by and in consultation with the lead teacher-researcher.  Drawing again on the curriculum pilot model, pilot teachers have sub time provided for meetings, and this would be needed for the seminars though not for the in service days, thus keeping costs to a minimum. One final seminar after completion of the research process for sharing outcomes would bring closure and emphasize the accomplishments made.

Phase Four:  Expanding the Network

Pilot teachers hold seminars to orient their subject-based colleagues to the new curriculum, and once more, the model applies to this plan.  In each collegiate, the teacher-researcher and in-school support team would, by holding a reporting session in the following semester, share the action research experience with their staff .  This would be of particular interest to all their colleagues when the purpose of research was one of common concern, but is also of interest on individual issues because of the transferability of the process.  Waiting until the next semester would give the participants time to reflect on the process and thus to be able to share those valuable insights which take time to develop.

This becomes the initial leadership stage by which the teacher-researcher communicates an experience for the benefit of all.  The expertise developed in-house is now available to the rest of the staff for an expanding network of action research projects by which individual teachers can resolve their own issues each year, with the professional assistance of colleagues close at hand.  Such individual and support team efforts can be a medium for staff cohesion, joint problem-solving endeavors, in-depth professional development and the evolution of leadership.  This process also facilitates strong connections with the division office, and thus strengthens our whole educational community.

Leadership skills, thus encouraged and developed, will provide our school district with a strong base for future leaders at all levels of our structure.  Teacher-researchers become leaders within their own school and are thus empowered to seek and take on other leadership roles perhaps beginning with committees, and moving to department headships.  The enthusiasm, depth of meaning of the action research experience, and collegial support will spread and raise the standard of professional expertise and performance.  It empowers teachers to solve their own problems creatively, and to support each other in those efforts.  I credit my graduate research with empowering me to first go beyond my classroom norms in teaching, then beyond teaching to becoming a department head, and at this point being willing to seek a vice principalship.  Prior to that experience, I did not envision myself in such a role, though others encouraged me to apply.  I offer this research outcome as evidence of the power of action research.

Ultimately, a comprehensive ongoing educational leadership system could be established and maintained by this initiative.  Strong relationships would be developed amongst staff, between the division office and teaching staff, and between students and teachers, due to shared involvement in a process made relevant to all, by choice.  All of these elements of a continually improving system would be accomplished with minimal cash outlay.  Over the next five years, this initiative would serve to aid the transition to new leadership as the expected retirements occur.


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