Professional Development as Action-Based Research
As a practicing teacher, I never thought about conducting my own research. I never thought about collecting data in my classroom, and then coding it and examining it to glean insights and themes that would better my instruction. I always thought that the university setting was where research took place and that I, as the practitioner, then analyzed those findings and put them into practice. I was to be reflective — someone who took time at the end of the school day to think about what went well, what didn’t go well, and how I could improve for the next day. I did this at times, but as teachers know all too well, the numerous daily tasks of the job left little time to pause, reflect, and alter practice. Admittedly, my days were often focused on completing a never-ending checklist and not on honing my instruction.
Action-based research that occurs in individual classroom spaces can provide possibilities for improved instructional practices and better overall student outcomes. I contend that in-service professional development focused on action research would achieve superior results than the prepackaged informational sessions that currently take place in schools. Teachers leave those meetings frustrated because they have nothing tangible to bring back to their classroom spaces. The facilitator might have spent hours preparing a sophisticated slideshow with tips on how to be more equitable, how to reach all students, and how to be more culturally responsive, but I am afraid no real results will come from those training sessions unless teachers see an explicit connection to their own students and classrooms.
Research has shown time and time again that teachers teach in the ways in which they were taught. Despite university teacher preparation programs' best efforts, once preservice teachers enter the field, they mirror both the teaching practices they experienced as students and the teaching practices happening around them. This is problematic given that the teaching force remains white and middle class while student populations diversify and become less and less white. School districts throughout the country might promote equity initiatives, but when professional development opportunities do not provide teachers the tools needed to modify instruction and practices to best serve all students (the tools to be a culturally sustaining educator), then it is merely performative.
School leaders should consider using allotted professional development sessions as a space for teachers to discuss research conducted in their classrooms. At the beginning of the school year, during teacher workshop week, time could be spent detailing how to conduct action-based research, and subsequent sessions could focus on discussing findings from data collected in between every meeting. Each teacher would bring their knowledge and expertise (about a research topic of their choice) to the conversation and would talk about implications directly connected to the students they teach. The focus of the research would change depending upon the results, but each teacher would be given the freedom to drive the research topic. They would tinker, mend, and fine-tune throughout the year based on their specific context and interest.
This approach allows teachers to leave PD meetings having had both the opportunity to share with colleagues and the opportunity to learn valuable ideas happening in grade-alike classrooms. New strategies, attitudes, and mindsets could be implemented in real-time. A one-size-fits-all professional development should be replaced by one that is catered to each individual teacher.
I argue that school districts could best serve all students when teachers are given the time and space to reflect on their own practices and connect those insights to deepening and broadening their understanding of the social and political dimensions of their work. Without time for critically analyzing what is happening in individual classrooms, teachers will remain doing the same old, same old, and flashy, this-is-the-quick-fix-you-all-need professional development will continue to garner poor results.
Now, as an educational researcher, I think about how I could have been a stronger practitioner if I would have been given the space to participate in action-based research in my classroom. I certainly would have thought more about how my instructional practices were linked to student outcomes. Research should not be left just for those in the academy, but rather for everyone in the field. If school administrators invested in professional development that focused on action research, teachers would become more aware of linking theory and praxis and all students would benefit.