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ARTS EDUCATION POLICY REVIEW, 112: 89–94, 2011 Copyright C Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 1063-2913

DOI: 10.1080/10632913.2011.546697

Action Research as a Professional Development Activity
Chad West
Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York, USA

Reflective teachers are always searching for ways to improve their teaching. When this reflection becomes intentional and systematic, they are engaging in teacher research. This type of research, sometimes called action research, can help bridge the gap between theory and practice by addressing topics that are relevant to practicing teachers. This article synthesizes literature within music education and general education to address (a) the conceptual underpinnings of action research, (b) characteristics of action research and teacher research, (c) action research critiques, and (d) implications for teacher research as a form of professional development. Keywords: action research, professional development, teacher research

Most research done in music education fails to have any impact simply because the problems selected are not seen as problems by those who presumably would benefit from their solution. (Regelski 1994, 79)

CONCEPTUAL UNDERPINNINGS OF ACTION RESEARCH In the 1960s and 1970s, scholars began conducting research with a more humanistic approach as a counter to what they viewed as a positivistic worldview that ignored human subjectivity. Elliott explains that “as part of this emphasis on the ‘whole person,’ educational research broadened to include Action Research, Ethnography, Narrative Inquiry, Critical Theory, Feminist Inquiry, and Postmodernism” (2002, 87). During this time, a movement emerged advocating the recognition of schoolteachers as authorities in their own right, rather than as mere recipients of university-generated knowledge (Doyle 1990; Shulman 1987), compelling many to advocate the use of action research. To help explain the conceptual underpinnings of contemporary action research, one can look to the conclusions drawn by Levin and Merritt’s (2006) special focus edition of Teacher Education Quarterly, which centered on the topic of action research for empowerment and transformation. In this issue, the editors identified common characteristics of action research, including (a) practical inquiry, (b) transformation, and (c) method. Practical Inquiry Action research can be seen as a way for teachers to answer questions that puzzle them (Conway and Jeffers 2004; Robbins 2007). Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1999) describe this process as practical inquiry, emphasizing its utility as a way to generate or enhance practical knowledge. A growing

I once had a colleague who kept a pen and pad by his bed for times when he awakened at night with a good idea to try in class the next day. Although not all of us wake up in the middle of the night with new teaching ideas, most of us do continually generate thoughts about how to help our students learn. Which pedagogical techniques work best? Which sequence makes more sense? How can I create a more inviting learning environment? What motivates my students? The list goes on. Many teachers find that they can begin to answer these questions through conducting research within their own classrooms. This type of research is broadly referred to as teacher research and, within certain parameters, action research. This article synthesizes literature within the fields of music education and general education to address (a) the conceptual underpinnings of action research, (b) characteristics of action research and teacher research, (c) action research critiques, and (d) implications for teacher research as a form of professional development.

Correspondence should be sent to Chad West, 182 Ludlowville Road, Lansing, NY 14882, USA. E-mail:

only research containing a spiraling component would be considered action research. However. implementing. The American Educational Research Association. neither Sagor (1992) nor Glanz (1998) includes literature review as a step of the action research process. drawing on Glanz’s (1998) model and Lewin’s (1946) . Greenwood and Levin point out that action research is not a “method” of conducting research. (d) take action. the questions teachers ask. and hermeneutic dialogues. 75). CHARACTERISTICS OF ACTION RESEARCH AND TEACHER RESEARCH Action Research Several competing definitions of the term action research have been proposed since Lewin’s (1946) original description of the approach as a three-step spiraling process of planning. Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1999) describe how the transformative element of action research. Because teacher research is seen as a tool for effecting classroom and school change. which is grounded in critical social theory and oriented toward the goal of social change. The authors note that action research can adopt “almost any research technique found in the sciences. Missing from the knowledge base of teaching were the voices of teachers themselves. a trip to the library is a turn-off. they are primarily interested in matters of practice. Such a statement not only underscores the pragmatic reasons that compel teacher research. To help illustrate the spiraling nature of action research. and evaluate their decisions and actions. A day off from the classroom to peruse journals doesn’t. Consequently. literature from books and journals. mixedmethod research. Calhoun’s definition is even more relaxed: “Let’s study what’s happening at our school and decide how to make it a better place” (1994. any type of teacher research could be considered action research. 53). 856) In the same vein. but “a way of collaboratively orchestrating social research processes to enhance liberating social change processes” (2007. social sciences. After all. At first glance. 23). This definition bears similarities to Cochran-Smith and Lytle’s teacher research. Method While Sagor (1992) and Glanz (1998) suggest ways of conducting action research. However. the ways teachers use writing and intentional talk in their work lives. and the interpretive frames teachers use to understand and improve their own classroom practices. Although action research is not rooted in any particular research method. administrators. correct. (2002. This avoidance of the literature review may also stem from the fact that one of the aims of action research is to weaken power structures defined by traditional gatekeepers of knowledge. students. Leglar and Collay point out: The triumph of the objectivist. The disregard for nonquantifiable practitioner knowledge not only constrained knowledge about teacher knowing. 101). but also quietly suggests that what is valuable about teacher research is one’s personal experience with the topic. as full-time teachers. . and self-study research. of critical communication that generates new. intentional inquiry by teachers” (1993. If one accepts Calhoun’s definition. on the surface. The collaborative construction of knowledge by teachers. . if one accepts Lewin’s definition. qualitative research. it also severely limited the potential of teachers to legitimize their profession. parents. scientific paradigm during the first part of the 20th century had far-reaching implications for almost every aspect of research on teaching. the object of this approach is to transform rather than simply describe school or classroom settings. and academics is understood as a platform for developing more equitable social relations. and humanities when such a technique is contextually appropriate to a collaboratively orchestrated research process. (e) reflect.90 WEST number of national conferences include a significant number of teacher researchers as presenters. one can look at Glanz’s (1998) model: (a) select a focus. Corey (1953) made no mention of a “spiraling” process when he described action research as a process by which practitioners scientifically study their problems in order to guide. 11). it seems that Cochran-Smith and Lytle’s (1993) teacher research would likely involve the same components of action research that Glanz illustrates. (b) collect data. supports active special interest groups focusing on teacher research. Sagor observes that “for many first-time action researchers. action research. not research. Significantly. knowledge” (75).” including quantitative research. which they describe as any “systematic. a notion supported by constructivist learning theories. it is no surprise that action researchers would avoid the linchpins that hold those structures in place—in this case. emphasizes the role of teacher research in the construction of a more just and democratic society. Seven years later. and (f ) continue or modify actions—which leads to the identification of a new focus and begins the process anew. Transformation The concept of “transformation” in teacher research underscores how such research can alter traditional power structures pertaining to knowledge. seem like a worthwhile investment of time” (1992. it is situated epistemologically on the continuum that Greenwood and Levin describe as rejecting “both unquestioned authority and realism-positivism as reasonable approaches to social learning and social change” (2007. These scholars point out that this approach also “rejects pure relativism and an uncritical commitment to the group it serves” and acts as “a form of discussion. (c) analyze and interpret the data. and assessing one’s research. for example.

However. 3). The teams met twice a month to receive mentoring in qualitative research skills and strategies and gather data. These teachers developed teams. and Sutton. Both researchers listened to the student interview tapes and examined the student and parent questionnaire data. Conway and Jeffers (2004) describe a collaborative action research process used in a beginning instrumental music class’s examination of assessment procedures. and Dunkle (2007) study does not refer to this research as action research. which Conway reviewed before their distribution. all teams completed a written summary of their research and presented their research in a public forum. a veteran elementary instrumental music teacher. As the university researcher. She wondered what compelled her to select some songs over others and how she might help her students relate to musical traditions other than their own. Sagor 1992). Jordan. and Parker (2002) conducted a study in which a university faculty member. Burbank. in that each involved systematic and intentional inquiry and the projects were relevant to each teacher’s particular classroom setting and borne from each teacher’s personal curiosities. and Sutton 2000. teacher research becomes action research at the point at which the teacher’s findings compel a new direction in his or her practices or a new study in his or her classroom. These teachers’ studies thus fit the model of teacher research. Jeffers made a video recording of his teaching and sent it to Conway to provide her with the opportunity to view Jeffers and his students in context. The degree to which the researcher and practitioner worked together at each phase of the project and to which the individual strengths of each was used provides . Henry.TEACHER RESEARCH 91 definition. on which Jeffers commented before using. which collectively determined the focus of research. Conway gathered existing literature on the topic of assessment in beginning instrumental music. Robbins. although they do mention that the teachers were undertaking these projects over the course of their master’s programs. and modify instruction. but rather uses the term “teacher research. By the end of the school year. Teacher Research Robbins. a university researcher.g. making lists of popular books with children). Collaborative Action Research Some scholars use the term collaborative action research to describe teachers working together to conduct research (Jordan. Britt. They focused on the challenge of enticing children to visit the reading center more frequently when also faced with the choice of visiting writing. university student. and what creative aspects of music stood out to them. which allowed the researchers to continue the spiraling process. question. makes equal-partner action research a possibility” (2001. Henry. 3). change practice is representative of the spiraling nature of the action research process” (2000. Thus. collaborative action research can also refer to practitioners collaborating with university researchers (Feldman 1993). Such collaboration between an experienced researcher and an experienced practitioner resulted in the completion of a methodologically sound study of a topic relevant to the practitioner. Conway and Borst suggest that although “it may be difficult for K–12 music teachers to find time to design and implement research .. she wondered if she could find similarities among her three diverse schools. collaboration with the university professor. since the authors made no mention of whether the teachers’ findings led to new directions for further investigation. changing books in baskets. by the need to fulfill degree requirements. Conway conducted phone interviews with parents and developed an interview protocol. implementation. Burbank. According to Jordan. Robbins. and Sutton (2000) facilitated a collaborative action research project involving thirteen teachers within a Nebraska school district. reflection. The second teacher was interested in world music and her choice of repertoire. Henry. Jeffers. art. the researchers found that more students visited the reading center when the teacher first read them a story. at least in part. implementation. One teacher wanted to find out what her students were learning in music class. Additionally. The process of data collection and analysis compelled the researchers to reflect on what was happening in the classroom and modify their actions accordingly.” This terminology seems accurate.. . wanted to develop and examine various assessment procedures that would support the teaching techniques he had learned in a summer workshop. helped two music teachers enrolled in a music education master’s program conduct teacher research projects based on teachers’ interests. reflect on the data. hand-picking books of interest. if they had any questions. The Robbins. the spiraling aspect of action research occurs when knowledge is derived from practice and practice is informed by knowledge in an ongoing (spiraling) process. and Dunkle do not mention what motivated these two teachers to conduct research in their classrooms. reflection. This example illustrates the potential of collaborative work among teachers in conducting research. The two researchers discussed issues of data collection and design and developed research questions together. Green. and public school teacher collaborated to find ways to better promote literacy in their kindergarten class. and computer centers. for whom research is part of the job expectation. After collecting and analyzing the data. Speaking with the students who never visited the reading center suggested new directions (e. change practice. and Dunkle (2007) offer a model of teacher research specifically oriented to music education. . “this give and take of question. what interested them. Jeffers collected student data and developed student and parent questionnaires. Burbank. Such a statement indicates that the research was compelled. To illustrate Glanz’s (1998) model of action research.

some groups will share a single mind and purpose while others will be more diverse in their interests. In the instance in which a team works on separate studies of varying topics while sharing a general focus. critics such as Huberman (1996) point out that it is difficult. Such a critique has been leveled not only at action researchers. ACTION RESEARCH CRITIQUES Several critiques of the teacher research movement have emerged from scholars both within and outside of education urging practitioners to critically assess the practice of teacher research. At the middle point of the continuum. (b) a team works on separate studies but shares a single or similar topic. However. one might imagine a scenario in which a team of music education action researchers are all interested in student motivation. Ends Critique The “ends critique. where a team works on separate studies but shares a single or similar topic. and a third is studying motivation in relation to self-esteem. argues that although teacher research has the potential to fundamentally alter the nature of practice and the role of teachers. one might imagine a scenario among a group of music educators in which one team member is studying students’ musical cognitive processes. if any.92 WEST an excellent model of collaboration that benefits both the practitioner and the research community. such a model could be challenging to implement in situations in which either the researcher or the practitioner is reluctant to redefine traditional roles and power structures. 71). but one team member is studying motivation in relation to achievement. The knowledge critique suggests that teacherconducted research cannot generate knowledge about teaching. or ethnographic research. The general focus of such a team is teaching and learning within the music education classroom.” which is rooted in critical theory. Such a team would share a similar topic. Levels of Collaboration Sagor (1992) has written about his experiences conducting collaborative action research with hundreds of teachers through a consortium called Project LEARN (denoting the League of Educational Action Researchers in the Northwest). Action researchers often assume that a formal knowledge about teaching exists that is distinguishable from informal practical knowledge. Although each team member has chosen a different topic within the general focus and each team member will conduct a separate study. Such isolation is seldom found among other professionals such as engineers. and (c) the ends critique. to understand events when one is a participant in them. and schooling unless it is governed by the same epistemological traditions as research intended to generate formal knowledge. Richardson 1994). In Project LEARN. This team could still benefit from meeting regularly to share knowledge on the common interest area—that is. its power is severely diminished if it is used to perpetuate the status quo (Noffke 1997. At the most collaborative end of the continuum would be a team that shares a common focus. but also at many postmodern researchers who conduct phenomenological. Such a team would be interested in the same issue and would collaborate to pursue a common interest by engaging in a single action research project. These critics argue that teacher research should be rooted in an understanding of social structures and should possess the objective of changing them. if not impossible. who work collaboratively to . IMPLICATIONS FOR PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT Sagor (1992) points out that teachers are more isolated and enjoy less collaborative interaction with one another throughout the day than many professionals in fields outside of education. and (c) a team works together on a single study. although each individual would be conducting a separate research study to examine the topic through a different lens. (b) the methods critique. Knowledge Critique The “knowledge critique” focuses on the epistemological issue of what kind of knowledge. Methods Critique In the “methods critique” of the teacher research movement. leading to an inadvertent solidification of former practices and traditional power structures. such a team could still benefit from the collaboration and consultation made available through the research process. learning. another is studying gender issues in the classroom. narrative. Sagor suggests that when teams work collaboratively to conduct research. and a third is studying children’s music composition processes. another is studying motivation in relation to retention. teams of teachers worked collaboratively to conduct research in their classrooms with the intent of informing and improving their practice. is generated when teachers conduct research about their own schools and classrooms (Fenstermacher 1994. motivation. They point out that this motivating factor is often “ignored in the traditional teacher research classes” (Kincheloe 1991. Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1999) describe three main critiques of the process: (a) the knowledge critique. The author situates various levels of collaboration in collaborative action research groups along a three-point continuum: (a) a team works on separate studies of varying topics while sharing a general focus. Zeichner 1994).

Sagor (1992) contends that this practice situates teaching as more of a blue-collar job than a profession. Conway and Jeffers 2004. Regelski 1994. These experienced teachers’ questions about teaching and learning might not be able to be answered through traditional professional development routes but could be addressed through the conduct of their own research. doctors. on the other hand. That is. since “teacher research may be the most obvious way to meet many of the [current] professional development challenges” (60). who discuss various treatments with their colleagues. legislators. in which engineers learn continually from their colleagues and use their work to inform the next generation of professionals. in which district-sponsored professional development activities are often determined by supervisors. to collaborations between university faculty and school arts teachers in conducting research. doctors determine the particular professional development areas they will pursue. and engineering. Sagor (1992) points out that most other professionals contribute to their professional knowledge base in a variety of ways. Hookey called for such an approach several years prior: “Research carried out by teachers or other practitioners represents a significant opportunity for professional development” (2002. law. and it may be that engagement in teacher research could benefit veteran music teachers who are tired of traditional forms of professional development. without regard to the needs that the teachers themselves perceive. and law. In addition to contributing relevant information to the research community. 59). the collaborative teacher researcher model can be jarring for teachers who expect the university to play a more distributive role in the delivery of professional development. and Dunkle 2007). in most professional fields outside of teaching. This process differs greatly in the field of education. Professional development activities for teachers have long been dissimilar to their counterparts in other professions such as medicine. Robbins. Previous literature within the field of music education encourages the use of teacher research in addressing contemporary and relevant issues within the profession (Conway and Borst 2001. 890). doctors often study their patients and then disseminate their findings in medical research journals. rarely collaborate or even consult one another.TEACHER RESEARCH 93 develop new prototypes and designs. 8). principals. There are roadblocks. Conway and Jeffers (2004) describe how collaborative teacher research can help experienced music teachers develop professionally in ways that other more traditional professional development activities cannot. teacher research can become a meaningful form of professional development. This practice further solidified the boundaries between research and practice. except in predetermined. While teacher research could become a meaningful learning opportunity for music teachers at any stage of their careers. Engineers and lawyers decide which educational opportunities to explore based on their immediate self-perceived needs. and other professional development strategies” (2007. While social critical theorists may applaud teacher research and its ability to empower teachers by altering the traditional role the university has played as the custodian of knowledge. Teachers. . and lawyers. This divide between research and practice has posed a problem for education since the 1930s. based on the needs of their patients. architecture. however. most professionals outside of the field of education serve as both practitioners in their field and internal quality control agents. Music teachers’ professional development needs change throughout their careers (Conway 2008). . Furthermore. for which research is conducted by university-based researchers who are often far removed from the classroom. Conway suggests that researchers “continue to explore. the people doing the job are also the people responsible for assessing the quality of work. who work on teams and consult with colleagues on trial strategies. teacher research. it could be most beneficial to teachers late in their careers. Stanley points out that this approach is common within music education and urges administrators to avoid “one-shot inservice workshops that feature knowledgeable experts telling teachers how to do something” (2008. such models do not exist in education. district-level administrators. This close relationship between research and practice can also be seen in the fields of engineering. these teachers would become more critical practitioners and more vested consumers of research in their field. However. in which lawyers construct briefs and legal arguments based on the experience of other lawyers. . Such a model blurs the lines between practitioner and researcher and underscores the significance and relevance of research to practice. systematic and intentional inquiry carried out by teachers could offer rich information about real-life issues facing today’s arts programs and deserves the attention of stakeholders in higher education. highly structured staff meetings and “professional development” in-service activities. when university professors began distinguishing themselves as either researchers or teacher educators (Leglar and Collay 2002). and other powerful stakeholders decide which educational and developmental topics teachers will pursue. in which architects draw plans based on the work of other architects. University faculty could offer these teachers their research expertise to help produce studies that are both relevant and methodologically sound. CONCLUSION While the differences between action research and teacher research may seem to be a question of semantics. Burbank. For example. In addition to helping address issues that are important to practicing music teachers. Leglar and Collay 2002. For instance. Often. Collaborative action research as a model of professional development requires both groups to navigate unfamiliar territory and redefine traditionally assumed roles.

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