From research in action to action research

Devika Nadig and Vijay Gupta

It all started with a phone call, one morning, from DPSG Society, Delhi, asking us if we could train their trainee-teachers on conducting action research. We were taken aback for a moment – no one had made this request in our almost 10-year journey in professional development of teachers and leaders. We thought action research began and ended in the B.Ed. classroom as one more paper to be gone through. No one seriously thinks that a “regular teacher” can also be a researcher.

But before we move our story forward, some definitions would be in order. Action research refers to the idea that the practitioner (in our context, the teacher) takes on the role of researcher, from time to time, to find solutions to the problem she might be facing. Usually, our idea of research is that someone does the research, in a controlled environment, and hopes that her findings will find their way to the practitioners. For example, Ms. Neeraja Raghavan, through her column in Teacher Plus, “Research in Action”, is helping the process of transmitting research findings to the teachers. Action research proposes to take the idea one step further, where teachers themselves become researchers in the classroom. I can see a few hearts skipping a beat – where is the time in the busy schedule of a typical teacher to even think of action research? We request you to suspend this disbelief for now as you run through this article, and the following three related pieces.

There are at least three good reasons why teachers should be doing action research. The foremost among them is that it moves a teacher toward becoming a reflective practitioner, that is, one who is continually reflecting on her practice and learning from it to enhance her effectiveness. Second, action research can help the school work toward its priorities. For example, a school might have set itself the goal of ensuring good English communication skills among the students. Action research would help in picking up the most effective strategy to achieve this goal. Lastly, teachers doing action research transform the school into a learning organization, where everyone – young and not so young – is continuously building his/her knowledge and skills. Imagine the kind of professional environment that would create!

We are now ready to engage with the broad process of carrying out action research. Most of the researches start with a research question, and therefore, the first step is to identify a research question. To get to a research question, we need to first identify a problem that is bothering us. For example, the three teachers who have shared their research in the following pages identified the following problems:
• Many students failing to solve word problems in math
• English writing skills are weak
• Class participation is low

Once we have identified a problem, we need to read up and talk to others to identify the possible causes that are creating this problem.

To illustrate, let us take the problem that “many students find history boring”. The reasons why many students find history boring could be:
• They are not able to make sense of events over time
• They are not able to connect the past with the present
• They do not understand why they should be learning history

As we list the causes, we also start thinking of possible solutions, especially solutions that have not been explored, or less explored. For example, for the above problem, the teacher can think of a teaching strategy which takes care of all the reasons. At Shikshangan, we have developed a teaching strategy which combines – when did it happen (timeline), where did it happen (maps), how do we know (sources) and what do we know of that time (along various strands of human development, such as, political governance, social and cultural life, economic life, technological development, religion, administration, etc.) and comparing it with the present situation.

Assuming that we have decided to try out such a teaching strategy, we are now ready to craft the research question. In this case, it could be: “To what extent would students’ interest in learning history go up if the teacher were to use a teaching strategy which connects past with present, and uses timelines and maps?” You will see more examples as you read the following articles.

Getting to a crisp research question, we believe, is more than half the battle won. As you can see, a well-crafted research question has a desired outcome (enhancement of interest in history) and one intervention (a specific teaching strategy). If we include more than one intervention, we would not know which one worked and which did not.

The next step is to plan the data collection. Data collection is done twice – once before starting the intervention and then after carrying out the intervention over a sufficient period of time. Data is always collected to measure the desired outcome before and after the intervention. We then compare the two sets of data to conclude if the intervention made a significant difference or not, assuming that everything else remained the same.

It is recommended that data is collected using three different sources, or methods, (also called triangulation) to minimize any bias and enhance confidence in the conclusion. For example, to measure student interest in learning history, we can use the following three methods:

  • Administer a questionnaire to students to self-assess their interest
  • Teacher video records the entire period and completes a check-list, which measures student interest, after re-playing the video
  • Teacher administers a short test on the content to see how much of it got absorbed (degree of absorption giving an indirect measure of interest)

Putting together such checklists, questionnaires, tests etc., does take some knowledge and effort, and it is a good idea to run it past a knowledgeable colleague.

Once we are ready with the data collection plan, we collect data before starting the intervention and then repeat the data collection exercise, using the same tools, after carrying out the intervention for a reasonable time. For any intervention to have an effect, it is necessary that it be carried out for a length of time. We believe that a time period of 2-3 months should be reasonable for the kind of action researches teachers would carry out.

It is important that we convert data into numbers so that we can carry out the test for establishing if the intervention has made a significant difference or not. For example, it is a good idea to create checklists, or questionnaires, where the response is on a scale of 1 to 4 (say). We can aggregate the data to calculate mean and standard deviation (SD). It is possible that some of us switch off as soon as we hear words like mean and standard deviation! However, all this can be left to Microsoft Excel, or any other spreadsheet program, and we can focus on collecting unbiased data.

Once we have the mean and standard deviation for both pre-intervention and post-intervention data, we calculate the effect size (that is, size of the difference, or effect that the intervention has made) as follows:
Effect size = (Mean Post – Mean Pre) / {(SD Post+ SD Pre)/2}

For educational research, it is generally agreed that effect size of 0.30 or more can be taken as significant. This effect size needs to be calculated for each source/method. If all of them are pointing in the same direction, our conclusion would be that much more confident and strong.

With this background, you are now ready to engage with the next three articles that capture a range of research projects that teachers have done. You will find that these teachers have generated their own answers to the problems they were facing. Imagine how empowering it must have been for them!

If you are a school head, and are convinced that teachers doing action research would create a powerful environment of professionalism across the school, you might like to get your teachers trained in action research.

If you are a teacher, and have a research question in your head, we will be happy to help you carry out action research.

Devika and Vijay are co-founders of Shikshangan Education Initiatives. Devika has done her Masters in English and B.Ed, and has been a school head for more than 12 years; Vijay is a B.Tech and MBA, and has worked with Wipro and Azim Premji Foundation for more than 15 years. They can be reached at devika@shikshangan.org and vijay@shikshangan.org respectively.

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