The power of action research

Arun Elassery

“I’m just trying to tell you the new way they’re teachin’ the first grade, stubborn. It’s the Dewey Decimal System.”

Having never questioned Jem’s pronouncements, I saw no reason to begin now. The Dewey Decimal System consisted, in part, of Miss Caroline waving cards at us on which were printed “the,” “cat,” “rat,” “man,” and “you.” No comment seemed to be expected of us, and the class received these impressionistic revelations in silence. I was bored, so I began a letter to Dill. Miss Caroline caught me writing and told me to tell my father to stop teaching me. “Besides,” she said. “We don’t write in the first grade, we print. You won’t learn to write until you’re in the third grade.” – From ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee

Having read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ some hundred times while growing up, I remembered Dewey. However, his was only one of the two names I did recognize from the 93 references given at the end of Dr Neeraja Raghavan’s ‘The Reflective Teacher – Case Studies of Action Research’.

Starting from –
Adkins-Coleman, T. A., and J. E. Lyons. 2010. ‘I am not afraid to come into your world’: Case studies of teachers facilitating engagement in urban High School English classrooms. Journal of Negro Education 79(1): 41-53.

…and 91 other similarly difficult sounding references later to –
Zhang, Meilan, Mary Lundeberg and Jan Eberhardt. 2011. Strategic facilitation of problem-based discussion for teacher professional development. Journal of the Learning Sciences 20(3): 342-94

…It was clear to me that Dr S Rajashree’s endorsement on the back cover – ‘This is a herculean task! I see this as unprecedented work in India’ – had to be indisputably right.

If you get past the herculean reference list, the idea behind the book is rather simple and is laid out in the first few pages. On the first page the author says:
“However, in the words of Donald Schon (1983) any professional frequently encounters situations that are characterized by ‘uncertainty, instability, uniqueness and value conflict’. A teacher can therefore hardly expect to resort to a formula or established method to tackle these daily dilemmas. Indeed, there are no readymade answers for questions that spring from uniqueness, uncertainty and conflict.

Such situations call for reflection.”

the-reflective-teacher Two pages later the author says that although there are many available ways to induce reflection, their study narrowed down on action research, a plan-act-observe-reflect learning cycle, as the best methodology, mainly because it could be done without disturbing the current routine of the teachers.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section deals with the theory behind action research and the third section is the analysis and conclusions. The second section, I felt, was the really interesting part of the book. This includes narratives of seven problems that teachers of Azim Premji School, Dineshpur took up and engaged with using the action research methodology. It is perhaps appropriate to mention here that this school doesn’t seem to be a normal business-as-usual school. The 39 year-old principal Deepak Dixit, who takes on the problem of clearing the misunderstanding children have about how we see things with our eyes, starts his class by saying ‘I am not going to teach you anything’. He then sets up an experiment and gets the children talking to each other and lets them come up with the answers. In the three days that it takes him to close the topic, he demonstrates tentativeness, wisdom and a deep understanding of how children learn. In the other case studies also, many teachers appear to have gone beyond the conventional in their journey towards wisdom.

Here is an example from the book on the impact of action research on teaching style.

“We can also see this in the case of Shipra, who shifted what she valued thus: ‘Before doing AR, my focus was more on covering a particular topic in a fixed time, and I would assume that the children would more or less ‘get it’ in that fixed time. But while doing AR, I perceived that it is not as important to cover a certain topic as it is to ensure that every child has learnt, and if so, how much?’ In Schon’s (1983) framework, this translates into a shift in the teacher’s appreciative system. What is especially noteworthy is that Shipra has been teaching for 17 years – and this realisation has come to her now, after completing just one cycle of action research. Surely, this reveals the power of action research in triggering a change in an experienced in-service teacher!”

The book includes the Action Research (AR) documents for the seven problems that the teachers worked on. In their own words they talk about the following:

  1. Identifying the problem (For example, to increase the English vocabulary of students of class 4)
    – Listing out problems faced
    – Identifying the most important problem
  2. Analyzing the problem
    – Detailing the problem
    – Possible reasons for the problem
    – Efforts made to tackle the challenge
    – Key observations
  3. Identifying alternate approaches
    – Listing possible approaches
    – Identifying best possible approach
  4. Developing a strategy to implement the identified approach
  5. Implementing the identified approach

I found ‘The Reflective Teacher’ a difficult read. But this is probably because I am not a teacher and am not faced with the urgent problems that teachers who are really interested in children’s education have to face in their classes every day. For such teachers, this book will offer many interesting insights into how children learn and it will point them towards strategies that can make their classes interesting and fun.

Book facts

Name: The Reflective Teacher – Case studies of action research
Author: Dr Neeraja Raghavan
Target Audience: Teachers, teacher educators, students of graduate and post-graduate programmes in education, NGO’s that work in the education sector, researchers and Heads of schools.
Basic Idea: To be effective, a teacher needs to be reflective in her practice. Action research, a Plan-> Act-> Observe-> Reflect cycle, is a strategy that can be used to enhance reflective thinking.

Contents
Section I – Background (75 pages of the theory behind action research and reflection)
Section II – Narratives (110 pages of action research case studies)
Section III – Analysis and conclusion (50 pages)

Participants: Nine teachers from the Azim Premji School, Dineshpur and six facilitators from Azim Premji Foundation

The reviewer got his degree from IIT Kharagpur in 1988 and is currently a Wipro Education Fellow. He can be reached at arunelassery@hotmail.com.