As the end of OMET approaches and I begin thinking about writing my final Action Research report I have started to reflect on what I have learned about action research, learning, my practice and myself. The last few months have been both frustrating and enlightening, yet I keep thinking I am missing some major piece to pull my experience together.
Since the end of my first cycle, I have often been in agony as I struggled with understanding and planning my action research. The conclusion of my first cycle, exploring blogging as a way to create a community of practice and foster reflection and innovation, showed that, though teachers saw blogging as helpful in learning, they did not have enough time to engage in it. At that time I felt this left me with few options for a next cycle. If teachers didn’t have time to blog once a week, how would they react to any other sort of activity? Reflection and community take time. I sat on this question for several weeks. Finally, I decided that I simply needed to go talk to the teachers on my staff. To find out what they were thinking. In reality I was simply doing something to do something. The data from my first cycle really didn’t point me in this direction. I just felt that I had to have something to call a cycle two and to be able to write about.
So I went door to door asking teachers to participate in a small group discussion of the book Understanding By Design by Grant Wiggins (UbD). This activity gave me some insight into the personalities of my staff, but this is purely empirical data. The end of this activity left me with no direction. I again struggled with how to proceed. A few weeks passed and the small groups started, we have had one meeting and the conversation went well. The staff members are excited about UbD, however I wasn’t sure whether to call this a third cycle, a continuation of my second cycle, or just a group I am in unrelated to my action research.
As I struggled, I began to reread All you Need to Know about Action Research by Jean McNiff and Jack Whitehead. Perhaps I had missed something about Action Research, hoping for a spark I skipped around in the book. It was a different experience rereading the book after some experience with AR. I quickly became more confused and frustrated. I didn’t understand AR being about the researcher. I had underlined all these passages that still seemed relevant, but I wasn’t sure what they meant. I spent a Saturday reading thinking and struggling with these issues and what Action Research meant and how I was going to finish my final report. You see, I didn’t feel like I had learned anything, especially about my own practice or myself. I really began to wonder if my Action Research question simply was a poor choice, if I had simply wasted my time. I wondered how I was going to stand up at exhibitions and say anything meaningful.
At the same time several other ideas were swimming in my poor confused head. I recently had a weekend were I was able to attend two virtual conferences and a real one.
The first was FETC Virtual Conference. Chris Dede was speaking and I wanted to hear him speak since I missed his presentation at FETC Orlando. I ended up missing most of his presentation again, but in the section I was able to hear he talked about his students at Harvard seeing themselves as ‘world changers’. As a graduate student myself, It made me reflect on my own identity. I asked myself, “Do I see myself as a world changer?” I had to answer that no, I didn’t. Was action research really about being a world changer? I thought so, but I wasn’t sure.
The next day I attended Technology and Learning Magazine’s conference, Tech Forum Midwest, in Schaumburg, IL. This conference is small in size and consists mostly of local technology administrators and leaders. It’s a great opportunity to network and share with colleagues. At the conference I met several people working in technology coordinator positions, a job that I have very much desired for two years now. These people are younger than I and with less experience in education. In short, I was jealous, and I knew it. Listening to them and learning about their work forced me to think hard about what I really wanted to do. It forced me to think about what I want to do for a living. Do I want to continue as a tech teacher, as a content area teacher, move into administration, higher ed, leave education all together, or even write a fiction book.
The next day I listened to Discovery Educator’s Network Virtual Conference and heard Chris Lehmann, principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. I took two ideas away from his presentation. First, if you want to innovate, you have to play. Second, “If you want creative workers, give them time to play,” a quote of John Cleese. These two similar ideas resonated with me because my action research is about creativity and innovation. I began to question my action research. Did I really know what I was trying to accomplish with it? How does one measure innovation and creativity? How would I ever know that I had made an impact in my school if I couldn’t define what I it was they would be doing, what it looked like? Had I chosen a poor Action Research? I again came back to the question, “Do I understand Action Research?”
All this lead me to think I needed to rephrase my action research question. I wanted to include the phrase “using technology.” So that it read “How can I create a more reflective and innovative school culture using technology.” I wasn’t sure that I could change my over-arching question. Nothing in the literature discussed this and no one I was able to talk with felt they knew either.
All of these thoughts continued to cloud my thinking as I went back to reading from All You Need to Know about Action Research. I began to think about the idea of play and learning and what I was learning from exploring, or playing with Action Research this year. Was my OMET experience simply about learning how to become an action researcher? Was I putting to much pressure on myself to complete some action that would have great meaning and significance? My answer is yes to both questions. The frank answer to my struggles with my own action research is that my first two cycles were not as much about “…explaining what inspires you to do things as you do, and what you want to achieve.” (McNiff & Whitehead, 2006, p 26) but were also about doing something cool that I could show off and gain attention for myself. Yes, I did want to see my staff increase their innovation and creativity. However, I was more concerned about creating something to prove myself than what McNiff and Whitehead mean when they say, “If you are aiming to improve some aspect of your practice, you are doing it for a reason, consistent with what you believe to be better practice, which involves explaining what you understand as ‘good’ and ‘better’, to avoid being seen as imposing your values on others.” (p. 24) Yes, I had good reasons for wanting to increase innovation and creativity in my school, and I felt that communities of practice were a necessary part of this. I’m not sure that I explained or understand what these reasons were, to others or myself. Again, being frank, I was more concerned with the implications of my actions and research, not the actions and understanding that would come from them.
Coming to grips with my own meta-cognition helped me to feel that I was getting somewhere. I was still confused however.
In a conversation with Colby I found some answers. Colby helped me to see that an Action Research cycle does not need to be a huge deal. In fact, smaller cycles might make better cycles. It could be as simple as a conversation, a small survey, or a one-day activity. He also helped me to see that I could focus my cycle on technology if I felt that would help me to understand the over-arching question I was asking. He asked me “What are the reasons my data isn’t helping me?” My answer is that I wasn’t asking the right questions. Questions to create data, and questions of the data. The conversation with Colby helped me to see that my understanding of Action Research was incomplete and flawed. That I was too focused on the end result, and not open to change and learning. One suggestion Colby made to me was to go back and survey the staff about the Understanding by Design groups. Why did they decide to join, or why not? What are they hoping to learn, what are they hoping to do. Colby helped me to realize that I was not asking the right questions and that there are more things to learn from my cycles.
Two weeks ago, a good friend of mine told me that I am the most opinionated person she knows. It wasn’t meant derogatorily, but it isn’t a flattering statement. It made me reflect at how I interact with those around me. Am I open to learning from others, or am I closed minded to new ideas? Do I look at those around me as people whom I might learn from, or do I see people as competition? Worse yet, do I see people as tools? Answering these questions forced some honest and unpleasant realizations.
What does this all mean for my Action Research, my learning and understanding, and my practice?
In my action research I need to step back focus and apply what I know about learning and understanding. I have jumped head first into a complicated and large idea without really understanding how to implement it. I have asked my teachers to blog, without realizing that they didn’t understand blogs, the technology, or online communities. I should have started smaller, with a survey to assess the staff’s skills and understandings, then perhaps work in small groups. I needed to build the knowledge and understanding of the participants before asking them to jump into blogging as full experts. Thinking about Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Lave and Wenger, 1991) suggests I should be thinking about how to foster the transfer of knowledge. To create a context for the learning before taking it to a virtual space, especially since the staff I worked with were new to blogs. To create groups of people interested in learning and sharing, and that this happens slowly, not just by flipping a switch.
To sum up, I have finally come to better understanding of action research and how it can help my learning and my practice. I have learned more about how I learn and how I approach my own practice. I have learned that I sometimes lose sight of what is important and focus on the outcome instead of the process. I’ve finally seen how action research isn’t necessarily about change, but about creating new knowledge, which can affect change. I’ve learned that the creation of new knowledge involves working with others. I’ve learned that I don’t have a clear idea of what my purpose or practice is, or what I want it to be, but I am working on it. I’ve come to realize that if I am going to have any impact education or the social world around me I need to be clear about my own understandings and beliefs before I can expect to share them with others, and therefore make an impact.