01 SES 01 B, Professional Learning Through Action Research
Researchers are often asked about the difference between action research and research conducted with the frame of cultural historical activity theory (CHAT); this research is called development work research (DWR), a formative intervention methodology (Engeström 2007). The answer is that research within CHAT takes culture and historicity into consideration, and the aim is concept-formation (Engeström and Sannino 2010). Concept-formation means that researchers and practitioners form collective concepts, becoming a collective object functioning as a driving force for development. Whereas action research can include just one or a few practitioners within, for instance, a school, research within CHAT treats people as systems within a system of social relations. According to Virkkunen and Newnham (2013), action research contributes to the gradual development of a practice connected to a visible problem or seeks to realise a predefined objective, while CHAT forms the basis for development towards a future collective object that is constructed according to historical and contemporary analyses of a practice. A collective object for a whole school gives direction for the actions conducted by individual people or groups of people as a teacher team. This means that focused sub-questions, derived from an overall development question for the whole school, frame the activity in classrooms. The developments in classrooms are thus aligned with the school’s development goals or objectives.
In formative interventions, a researcher gathers mirror data (Cole and Engeström 2007) to help practitioners develop an understanding of their own practices. Teachers can be bound to their ‘horizons of observation’ (Hutchins, 1996) and may need outside resources to expand their perspectives. As the anthropologist Kluckhohn (1949) puts it, the fish is the last one to detect the water. This aphorism can also shed light on the situations of teachers in schools, as they may not recognise the limits of their horizons. The researcher can also interview experienced teachers to conduct historical analyses of the practices (Engeström 2000). Empirical analyses and historical analyses conducted in collaborations between researchers and teachers will help them to develop a joint understanding of the situation and how it can be developed. These analyses thus constitute the foundation for further development presented in an activity system. This system is representing new content for one or several factors, thus forming a new model.
In action research, a researcher can help a teacher or a group of teachers to develop their practices (Cochran-Smith and Lytle 2009; Kemmis and Mctaggart 2005; McNiff 2013; Zeichner 2001). Engeström (1987, 174) has adapted Vygotsky’s individual-oriented concept, the zone of proximal development, to collective activities, writing, ‘It is the distance between the present everyday actions of the individuals and the historically new form of the societal activity that can be collectively generated’. This means that both the activity and the culture in the society in question are developed and changed. In schools, the intention is then that all teachers and leaders collectively develop a shared objective and act on it. It is not one or a few teachers that aim to develop their practices, as can be the aim for action research.
In this article, I describe how I, the researcher, worked when teachers in a lower secondary school wanted to develop their own practices. I expanded the researcher’s role that in formative interventions is to provoking and sustaining an expansive transformation process led and owned by the practitioners and combined the researcher’s role both in action research and formative interventions (Engeström & Sannino, 2010). The problem formulation I aim to pursue in this article is the following: How can action research and action learning be part of a formative intervention study?
A previous Study as an Example Project This project was conducted in a lower secondary school in which twelve teachers worked. My role as researcher was to support development and to study the developmental processes. The project could therefore be considered developmental work research (Toikka, Engeström and Norros 1985) in the framework of formative intervention study, as my role was to provoke and sustain an expansive transformation process led and owned by the practitioners (Engeström and Sannino 2010). I refer to it as a formative intervention study. The teachers developed the following developmental question for their work: How can various work methods with the focus on learning strategies contribute to each pupil’s subject and social development? I was present at the school every fourteen days over a period of two years. During these visits, I had meetings with the teachers and researched the developmental work. The data was collected through observations; interviews with leaders, teachers and pupils; questionnaires given to pupils; and reflection conversations with teachers based on observations of concrete teaching situations. The data was transcribed on an on-going basis and analysed using the constant comparative analysis method developed by Strauss and Corbin (1998). According to this method, the researcher continuously asks questions directed at the material and compares the material collected to develop an understanding of the processes in practice. The transcriptions and the preliminary analyses of these data were also applied to aid the development processes by being presented to the teachers.
The example project shows that it can take a long time before teachers identify with a developmental work process. According to Timperley et al. (2007), it is essential that everybody involved understand the purpose of the work. This means that enough time has to be allotted to the starting phase of the work to create a common understanding as a foundation for development. Research also shows that schools and teachers need external support when developing their own practices (Postholm 2018; Timperley et al. 2007). Researchers can thus help schools and teachers to create actionable objectives and can support teachers during the testing periods. Such support is, according to the example project, necessary in educational development. The project shows that it is not sufficient for practitioners to move across the Change Laboratory and the concrete practices. It is also necessary that the researcher ‘break the wall’ between these two settings to support developments in teaching. When action learning and action research are part of formative interventions, reflections on and in practice can also break the wall between theory and practice and lead to educational change. Research shows that reflections based on observations with a clear focus lead to learning and changes in teaching practices (Camburn 2010; Cheng and Wu 2016; Given et al. 2010; Mohan et al. 2017; Parise and Spillane 2010; Soini et al. 2016; Zwart et al. 2009), and that a researcher’s presence both in observation and reflection processes influences teachers’ learning and the development of practice (Postholm 2018; Timperley et al. 2007). This study also shows that collaboration processes consisting of observations and reflections strengthen the teachers’ group processes and promote cultural change in the teachers’ professional learning communities. The researcher conducting action research within the framework of formative interventions can thus contribute to an activity-producing process.
Camburn, E. M. (2010). Embedded Teacher Learning Opportunities as a Site for Reflective Practice: An Exploratory Study. American Journal of Education, 16(4), 463-489. Cole, M., & Engeström, Y. (2007). Cultural-Historical Approaches to Designing for Development. In J. Valsiner & A. Rosa (eds.) The Cambridge Handbook of Sociocultural Psychology (p. 484-507). New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Engeström, Y. (1987). Learning by Expanding. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit Oy. Engeström, Y. (2007). Putting Vygotsky to Work. The Change Laboratory as an Application of Double Stimulation. In H. Daniels, M. Cole, & J. Wertsch (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Vygotsky, (p. 363-382). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Engeström, Y., & Sannino, A. (2010). Studies of Expansive Learning: Foundations, Findings and Future Challenges. Educational Research Review, 5(1), 1-24. Hutchins, E. (1996). Learning to Navigate’. In S. Chaiklin & J. Lave (eds.) Understanding Practice: Perspectives on Activity and Context edited (p. 35-63). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Kluckhohn, C. (1949). Mirror for Man. The Relation of Anthropology to Modern Life. New York: Whittlesey House. McNiff, J. (2013). Action Research: Principles and Practice, London: Routledge. Parise, L.M., & Spillane, J. P. (2010). Teacher Learning and Instructional Change: How Formal and On-The-Job Learning Opportunities Predict Change in Elementary School Teachers’ Practice. The Elementary School Journal, 110(3), 323-346. Postholm, M. B. (2018). ‘Case A [Case A]’. In M. B. Postholm, A. Normann, T. Dahl, E. Dehlin, G. Engvik, & E. J. Irgens (eds.) Skole-og utdanningssektoren i utvikling [Developing School and the Educational sector] (p. 99-162). Bergen: Fagbokforlaget. Soini, T., J. Pietarinen, & Pyhältö, K. (2016). What If Teachers Learn in the Classroom?’ Teacher Development. An International Journal of Teachers’ Professional Development, 20(3), 380-397. Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1998). Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., & Fung, I. (2007). Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education. Virkkunen, J., & Newnham, D. S. (2001) The Change Laboratory. A Tool for Collaborative Development of Work and Education. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers. Zeichner, K. (2001). Educational Action Research’. In P. Pearson & H. Bradbury (eds.) Handbook of Action Research (p. 273-284). London: Sage.
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