Why Action Research Might Be the Best Professional Development for You

Teachers are the ultimate life-long learners , not only because they love education but because their certification usually requires hundreds of hours of continued development. Like all other professionals, including doctors, lawyers, and engineers, teachers, too, have to stay on top of the latest research and best practices in order to renew their licenses and credentials. For teachers, this new learning can lead to major change in the classroom-- new techniques to implement with students, new ways to think about instruction, and new ways to create a vibrant school community focused on learning and success.

Conferences and classes have their place in the professional develop spectrum, but one type of learning might be the most impactful way for you to both improve your own teaching and to help your students at the same time. Action research ecompasses a broad range of approaches that be summed up as “deep inquiry into one’s professional practice.” Let’s look at how action research works and what the benefits are for teachers like you!

Action Research Explained

In action research, the teacher is both the researcher and the subject. This process allows you to refine your skills as you’re researching because you set the focus of the study, conduct it, and use the results to make changes. Action research can be applied to any area of the classroom from instructional methods to behavioral challenges. The ultimate goal of action research is to use reflection to improve processes. What’s more,action research assumes you have the ability to meet and overcome any challenges you have in your teaching practice.

The basic structure of action research is the same as any other inquiry process: ask a question, make a plan, implement the plan, collect data, and reflect on findings. You can tailor it completely to your classroom needs. The first action research projects that teachers try out are usually very simple. When I was in the classroom, my first action research project was based on my students’ spelling needs. I didn’t know the best way to teach spelling, so I researched programs, implemented a new spelling process for three months, and looked at student data at the end of each month to check progress--both theirs and mine. It turned out that the spelling process I used from Words Their Way was really helpful, so I continued to use it.

What’s also great about action research is that it doesn’t have to be done solo. Collaborative action research gets teachers across a whole grade level working on a challenge they’re all facing. And school-wide action research can be done to address a campus-wide issue.

The Benefits of Action Research

The benefits of action research are clear. Unlike the learning you do at a conference or a class, the learning you do during action research is in direct response to trying something new with your students. How many times have you heard a great idea during a conference only to not implement it once you get to the classroom? The thing that sets action research apart from other forms of professional development is that it’s a deliberate change in behavior based on an inquiry project. So, you have to change your practice to see different results. Besides being implemented immediately, action research brings some big benefits to your classroom, your school, and your profession. Let’s look at those benefits:

Builds Reflective Educators

When a teacher commits to an inquiry project on their own practice, they are committing to continuous and growth and development. The more they look at data and see how their changing practice impacts students, the more they want to continue to develop. Action research encourages educators to reflect on their practices in order to strive for improvement and efficacy.

Encourages Focus on Schoolwide Initiatives

When colleagues work together to address a campus priority, they build camaraderie and add to the can-do spirit that gets work done. Action research encourages teachers to work with others to learn new techniques and skills. The research they do together strengthens the staff’s collective understanding of up-to-date data and techniques.

Helps Make Teaching More “Professional”

In the US, teachers are rarely treated as professionals by the world outside of education. Professions are seen as careers that require rigorous, complex, and nonroutine skills. Professionals work with colleagues to research and determine satisfactory results and baselines. When teachers implement action research, they are bringing this type of culture into the classroom.

Engages Teachers

Teacher burnout plagues a high percent of excellent educators. They ask themselves, “Am I doing enough?” Action research allows them to answer their own questions. They can see the progress students are making with frequent data collection. In turn, they can see their own practice growing and impacting students.

How to Get Started with Action Research

Are you convinced that action research might be a good way to take your teaching practice to the next level? Here’s what to do:

1. Ask a question.

Decide what parts of your teaching practice, student learning, or classroom routines need help. In my example above, I asked myself, How can I teach spelling in a way that is more authentic than lists of words and Friday spelling tests? This question was grounded in what I saw in my students’ writing samples-- they were ace-ing spelling tests and, yet, not spelling those same words correctly in their writing. For you it might be a question about a very specific skill or it might be a question about something broader, like How do I help students build grit?

2. Learn about the topic.

Once you’ve narrowed down the topic, you can start the research. Read everything you can about the topic and ask other teachers what they recommend. To do this, I read articles about spelling instruction and I asked to my co-workers how they taught spelling. Don’t forget to ask your librarian help you access recent educational journals and scientific studies that may help you. Keep track of what you learn in order to make a plan.

3. Plan out the action.

Once you’re armed with a good amount background information, you can formulate a plan to implement new strategies with your students. Make sure the plan clearly outlines the steps that you'll take but also allows for some flexibility since you may end up seeing results you didn't expect along the way. After checking out a bunch of different spelling programs, I chose Words Their Way because it focused on each student’s individual developmental level of spelling rather than giving every student the same list.

4. Put the plan into action.

Once your plan is in place, you should follow through with the actions that you researched. As best as you can, stick to your plan for a little while even if you're not seeing results. It may be that students need a little longer to adjust to a new process. Also, give yourself time to reflect while the plan is in action. Consider what you're seeing and make changes when you really feel they are needed. For example, I ended up relying on the support of the special education teacher to implement the spelling program in my classroom with me because of the large gap in spelling levels. I moved my schedule around so that we could study spelling while she was pushing into the classroom.

5. Interpret the results.

The results from action research are rarely conclusive or prescriptive. You will need to understand the kind of data that you can collect from the type of research that you do. For example, I started looking at my students’ writing to be sure that the word families that they'd been studying were correctly spelled. Ask yourself what the data tells you about the process. Also ask yourself what somebody who didn't conduct the research would say if they saw the data and the results.

6. Decide on next steps.

Action research can be cyclical. If you do a research project for 3 months and don't end up with the results that you were hoping for, you can begin again with a different method. Or, if your results were exactly what you thought they would be, you can take that as a sign to keep that routine in place and move on to a new action research focus.

Action research is a personalized way to conduct professional development. If you work on your own, you can address your own pedagogical strengths and weaknesses. Working with a team helps you focus on student achievement across the grade level. And working with all of the colleagues at your school means that the professional process of research iNovs helping everybody focused on the same big goals. So maybe, rather than relying only on classes and conferences, you’re ready to take professional development into your own hands.

Amanda Ronan is an Austin-based writer. After many years as a teacher, Amanda transitioned out of the classroom and into educational publishing. She wrote and edited English, language arts, reading, and social studies content for grades K-12. Since becoming a full-time writer, Amanda has worked with a diverse set of clients, ranging from functional medicine doctors to design schools to moving companies. She blogs, writes long-form articles, and pens YA and children's fiction. Her first YA series, My Brother is a Robot, is slated for release by Scobre Educational Press in September 2015.