The Power of Action Research: Naming, Noticing, and Navigating for Change
By Mindy Gold
What was the last thing you noticed in your classroom or school that made you go, “Hmmm. I wonder…”? We regularly capitalize on these moments for our students, fanning the sparks of their curiosity into full flame, but it’s just as crucial for ourselves as professional Jewish educators.
Action research is the process of being curious, of asking questions about teaching and learning as they are happening and responding in deliberate ways. After being introduced to action research by my mentor Dr. Miriam Raider-Roth, Director of the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute, I have immersed myself in this process. I’m happy to report that we, as teachers and teacher-leaders, already do action research in multiple ways, though perhaps without realizing it. Every time we tweak a lesson based on how it went or adjust professional development based on participant reflection, we are doing a form of action research. In my own work, I break the process into three steps: naming a question, noticing and collecting data, and using this knowledge to navigate change. Below is a recent example about leveraging relationships fostered through havruta (partner) text study to improve peer coaching around technology integration.
Naming a Question
Initially, we might have multiple questions. Why is this happening? Why did a learner react this way? Why did this learning experience go so well? Why did this other one not? Naming means narrowing the many sparks of curiosity to the one burning brightest for you at this moment. Are you seeking to understand a problem in order to identify viable solutions? Or, perhaps, are you trying to understand a success in order to share or replicate it?
Anna Besser, Education Director at Congregation Beth Judea in Long Grove, Illinois, and I were curious about a few things. Supported by an Action Research Initiative Grant from the Jewish Educators Assembly, we wanted to examine how an explicit focus on relationship-building might impact teachers’ use of technology integration frameworks when planning learning experiences for their students. Working with teachers of grades K-7 and a wide range of technology comfort levels, Anna and I created a bespoke version of the Jewish Educator Technology Initiative (JETI)©. Basing our initial steps off my prior research into technology integration for Jewish educators, we named our question as:
How does a relationship-centered approach to Jewish professional learning, specifically one rooted in havruta (partner-based) text study and peer coaching, contribute to congregational educators’ professional learning regarding technology integration pedagogy?
Noticing the Data
Then, we began noticing. To collect data, we set up a series of learning experiences and regular opportunities for reflection. As teachers participated in text study with their havruta partners, we observed their interactions. We then asked teachers to work with the same partners in a new context, exploring and experimenting with digital technologies to support learning. We collected written reflections after whole-group sessions and when partners met between sessions. We asked partners to share what they had tried in their classrooms. We continued to observe. We took notes. We met frequently with each other to ask clarifying questions and to continually adjust our instructional practice to meet teachers’ ongoing learning needs as well as maintain the focus on relationship-building.
We noticed that teachers were regularly talking about their instructional practice with their partners and were excited about having dedicated time to “bounce ideas” off of one another. One result was increased cross-grade collaboration in which teachers paired older students as leaders with younger students as learners. After one teacher partnership shared their success with this, others followed, expanding the use of collaborative digital tools across the school.
We also noticed that teachers wanted more time. We slowed down the introduction of new digital tools to allow for more in-depth experimentation with just one tool. We offered 1:1 or 1:2 coaching sessions to support teachers outside large-group settings. While we observed anxiety about the technology failing in the classroom and the perception that students would see that as a failure of the teacher, we also read many reflections that noted partner support as a key confidence builder in approaching technology in new ways.
Navigating Change by Taking Action
Finally, we reflected and took action. This is an essential step – do something about what you notice. In particular, do something that moves you, your practice, your teachers, and your students’ learning forward.
Based on what we noticed, Anna is restructuring professional learning at Beth Judea. First, she is lengthening the time for teachers to work with their partners. For the 2017-2018 year, the majority of professional learning sessions occurred during 45-minute faculty meetings throughout the year. For the 2018-2019 year, the structure will be four dedicated two-hour sessions with more opportunities for individual or partnership coaching in between. Thanks to the generosity of a grant from the Community Foundation for Jewish Education, teachers will receive increased compensation for their participation in this professional learning and for meeting regularly with their partner.
Our data has also informed Year 2 of the JETI© series. Keeping the same teacher partnerships, I will focus on introducing digital tools primed for cross-grade collaboration. Havruta text studies and protocols that focus on idea sharing and supportive relationships will remain at the core of our work. And then… we will repeat the action research inquiry cycle! We will ask a new question, again look closely, and use what we notice to take action that impacts teacher growth and student learning.
Mindy Gold (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Founder and Lead Consultant at EdtechMMG, an educational technology consulting firm focused on relationship-based professional learning, the creation of communities of learners around reflective practice, and the design and implementation of innovative models for congregational school learning.