Action Research in Teacher Education

Action Research: Educating for Diversity

Abstract
Increasing attention to inclusive education and the growing diversity of students in classrooms has intensified the pressure on initial teacher education courses to improve pre-service teacher preparedness to manage that same increasing diversity. This paper explains how at one university preservice teachers embarked on a single semester action research study assessment task in order to give them the tools to engage with inclusion and empower them to become change agents in their schools. The development of the assessment task over 5 years of my own practice as a teacher educator is explored, as part of my own action research journey, drawing on feedback sought from colleagues and the pre-service teachers. Pre-service teacher outcomes from the task demonstrates their learning, their growth as teachers, their understanding of the issues, and their willingness to consider engaging in action research as part of their ongoing practice as teachers.

Keywords: action research; initial teacher education; inclusion and diversity; curriculum development

Introduction

The ongoing focus on inclusive education has meant that there is a pressure on teachers to deal with a greater range of student diversity in their classrooms than ever before (Stephenson 2006) and on teacher education to prepare pre-service teachers to manage that same increasing diversity.  Teacher education standards in Australia require graduates to be able to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of specific strategies for teaching students from a range of backgrounds. These include students with special educational needs, those from non-English speaking backgrounds and students with challenging behaviours (New South Wales Institute of Teaching n. d.). Teacher graduates are also required to work towards a theoretical and practical understanding of what it means to build inclusive classroom environments (Teachers Registration Board Tasmania 2007).

The question for teacher educators is how to engage pre-service teachers with an understanding of inclusive practices, how to teach and provide appropriate resources and support for students from diverse backgrounds, and yet not overwhelm them with the enormity of such an undertaking. This paper explores how pre-service teachers at one Australian university engaged in an action research assessment task that gave them a ‘tool’ (Darling-Hammond 2005) and helped them to construct their own understandings of the needs of students from diverse backgrounds. I developed the action research assessment task over a number of years using my own deliberate reflection (Van Manen 1991) as part of the action research process (El-Dib 2007), in order to help pre-service teachers become those “who effectively teach all students” an “essential outcome of teacher preparation” (Cochran-Smith 2005, 11).

The development of the action research task

Pre-service teachers at the university were enrolled in a course focused on inclusion and diversity whose purpose is to introduce them to educational sociology theories and theorists, and to give them broad strategies and direct them to resources for developing inclusive classroom practices. It is hoped that by introducing pre-service teachers more overtly to the sociological perspective (Korgen and White 2009) a different discourse can be engaged with in exploring issues of diversity and inclusion. In the course of lectures and tutorials pre-service teachers work towards developing theoretical and practical understandings to engage more actively with the concept of being deliberate agents in building inclusive classroom environments (O’Hanlon 2003). It is the intent of the course to help the pre-service teacher look beyond the categorisation of their students, an inevitable consequence of focusing on individual needs, and replaces this instead with the construct of identifying and removing “barriers to learner participation” so that all students will learn (Ainscow 2002, 29; Booth, Nes, and Strømstad 2003). Of course, as Stephenson (2006) has stated “A single unit cannot give student teachers the skills acquired by a special educator with a year or more of specialized training” (p. 120). The aim for developing the course was to focus on improving pre-service teachers’ effective teaching practices and understanding through a combination of critical reflection (Brookfield 1995) and strategic innovation (Kemmis and McTaggart 1982, cited in Ainscow 2002) using action research grounded in the theory of educational sociology. This is to assist pre-service teachers to develop a sense of purpose “allied with a feeling for the larger human affairs of our time” (Hansen 2008, 12), and resist the temptation to be purely functionalist or to view themselves as technicians, there to serve the “interests of those with economic and political power” (Hansen 2008, 10).

The course was developed over a number of years at two different university sites, within initial teacher education programs. I began at the first site with the Groundwater-Smith, Ewing and Le Cornu (2001) model of deconstructing ‘schools as text’. Deconstruction forms a powerful learning tool, beginning with pre-service teachers own beliefs and assumptions before moving onto exploring the surface and deeper surfaces of education spaces. Deconstruction permits the learner and teacher (the lecturer and tutors in this instance) to work together to “identify hidden contradictions, the fissures and the silences; embedded vested interests are made explicit and problematic” (Groundwater-Smith, Ewing, and Le Cornu 2001, 8). I myself have come from a special education background working in a large senior secondary school, and so I was aware of the struggles teachers face each day understanding the complexities of dealing with students with diverse needs in their classrooms.

As a classroom teacher during the eighties and early nineties, experiencing first hand mainstreaming, integration, and then inclusion policies, I fully understand that inclusive education is not a ‘quick fix’, real changes take time and present many challenges for teachers and schools (Simpson 2004). Appropriately accommodating the increasing variety of student diversities “means fundamentally rethinking the very core of what we teach and how we teach it. For teachers everywhere it is a daunting and inescapable challenge” (Hargreaves and Fullan 1998, 8). The question is, how do schools create a “culture that encourages a preoccupation with the development of ways of working that attempt to reduce barriers to learner participation” for the inclusion of all students (Ainscow 2001)? Some of the strategies for moving forward, according to Ainscow (2001), include seeing differences as opportunities for learning in a supportive environment, developing a language for practice to share ideas and reflect on styles of teaching, and creating conditions that encourage risk taking through collaboration in the school community.

The initial course, at the first university, was structured around a case study approach, which required students to interrogate schools and school practices, through observation, data gathering and reflection. However, this approach did little to encourage pre-service teachers to engage with the issues for themselves, or to take risks in the supported surroundings of their pre-service practice environments. There was little evidence that the practice of the pre-service teacher was affected through this model, or that students made the “step from knowing to being able, or from knowing to doing” (Ax, Ponte, and Brouwer 2008). Encouraging and making explicit the learnings sought from the students over the three years the task was used, made some impact, but not for all the pre-service teachers. Using the feedback gained through the study of the completed pre-service teacher assessments, it became obvious that a different approach was needed, one that would encourage them to take risks and move beyond observation to collaborative participation.

Two years ago the opportunity arose for the me, when moving to a new workplace, to redevelop the course to include an action research task. The idea was for pre-service teachers to engage in an assessment that would be seen as authentic, empowering them to take control of their own teaching and learning (Stringer 2008). Yet also introduce them to a research methodology that does not have to be seen as ‘extra’ that they would somehow have to “cram into an already challenging work schedule” usually experienced during their pre-service classroom practice (Stringer 2008, 1). It would also give the pre-service teachers the ‘taste’ of doing research (Ax, Ponte, and Brouwer 2008) and encourage them to construct their own knowledge (Kemmis 2006) of inclusive practice. Challenging their existing ways of thinking about difference, pre-service teachers are encouraged to change current practices, which isolate students with special needs and difference, hiding them behind closed doors, isolating them, and aim for the education of all children in the least restrictive environment.

The remainder of the paper explains how the task was developed for the new site, within a course on inclusion and diversity that all pre-service teachers must complete, which is taught across two campuses, using the feedback sought from other lecturers and tutors in the course to help redevelop it for a second iteration, and what the outcomes were for the pre-service teachers.

The Action Research Task

The major assessment for the course is the Action Research Study. In keeping with the desire for building reflective and resilient teachers, who act as active agents in their classroom, it is important in developing in the pre-service teachers an understanding of themselves as researchers and lifelong learners. To move away from a reductionist and functionalist framework of teaching, the aim of the course is to ensure that students develop as empowered teachers able to live and work in a complex and diverse world. Our world has many complexities and our educational systems are intricately connected to the social, cultural, historical, political and economic dynamics, which refuse to stay outside of the classroom door (Kincheloe 2003). In this complex world it is important that teachers become the producers of knowledge, knowledge workers, constructed in their communities through systematic enquiry for the purpose of transforming the classroom and the school, who reflect on their professional needs and current understandings (Holly, Arhar, and Kasten 2005). Teachers must be encouraged to engage in research, to see themselves as researchers, if a new culture is to be established that improves academic rigour and quality learning for all students (Kincheloe 2003). This assessment brought together these two themes, the complexity of diversity through the study of educational sociology and the introduction of the pre-service teachers to action research.

The action research journey offers teachers many ways in which to make their daily practice more powerful and supports them in their professional growth and development as lifelong learners (Holly et al. 2005). The action research journey starts with “a feeling – a sense of frustration, or better yet, a sense of creative possibilities for action, and the pronounced commitment to ‘do it differently’” (Holly et al. 2005, 5). It is teacher centred, formative and involves self-evaluation and a means of developing professional self knowledge (O’Hanlon 2003). Most importantly it is a systematic routine process of enquiry that moves beyond simple problem solving and planning processes. Stringers’ (2008) book was used as the base for the assessment and pre-service teachers were introduced to the ‘Look, Think, Act’ research cycle that encapsulates the basic action research process (Stringer 2008, 4). Introducing pre-service teachers to action research it was hoped that they would see the task as authentic, both an integral component of the entire teaching and learning process (James, McInnis, and Devlin 2002) and a task that was as closely related as possible to the teaching profession (Stringer 2008; Australian Universities Teaching Committee n.d.).

The pre-service teachers in the course were asked to write an Action Research paper based on an issue of diversity or inclusion they encountered in their school experience classroom. The study would include an analysis of data to be collected about one of the following: cultural and linguistic background, ability and disability, gender, socio-economic disadvantage, and geographical isolation. Pre-service teachers had to either attempt an action, or indicate the action they would take based on further investigation of the relevant literature. The initial iteration of the action research included both formative and summative feedback. It sought to establish the assessment task as one that would form an integral part of the teaching and learning cycle of the course and to guide the pre-service teachers’ development of meaningful learning and engagement with their understanding of diversity and encourage deep learning approaches (Biggs 2003). The task was developed using Carless’ (2007) learning-oriented assessment concept, to strengthen the learning outcomes for the pre-service teachers, promoting their ability to analyse, synthesise and apply their knowledge to a particular situation (Australian Universities Teaching Committee n. d.), based on their school experience classroom. The assessment was scaffolded throughout the semester in the tutorials to ensure pre-service teachers had a good understanding of the requirements of the assessment and to encourage them to interact more positively with the task (Biggs 2003). Using the Stringer (2008) text, students spent time in each week’s tutorial in tutor directed and led discussion of the various sections of their study. Discussions were centred on a further explanation of action research and its purposes, how to write a literature review, participate in data gathering, data analysis, participate in action, and finally how to report the findings. Additional resources were also supplied to students to assist them with the writing process (James et al. 2002).

An understanding of their busy lives and the complexity within which they participate in higher education (James et al. 2002), it was decided to break up the research into three distinctive parts to encourage their ongoing involvement in the assessment process(Carless 2008). First, preservice teachers were required to complete a preliminary literature review, secondly, engage in data collection during their time on practice, writing up the context, methods and findings sections on return to the university and share this with peers (Brady and Kennedy 2009), and finally submit the full research study including a revised literature review and their conclusions and reflections for further action. A clear progression of the assessment requirements were evidenced within the course as pre-service teachers moved through the different sections of the assessment before submitting the final research report.

In the first year, the preliminary literature review was collected and reviewed by their tutors and formative feedback was given, using both a rubric that would be used for the final assessment and written comments, no summative grade was given for this part of the task. This was to give pre-service teachers a low-stakes assessment which would guide their development of the concept of diversity, yet also provide them with formative and forward feedback (Carless 2007; James et al. 2002). Forward-looking feedback is feedback that students are encouraged to act on or engage with and supports and promotes students’ learning (Carless 2007).

For the second section preservice teachers were to engage in data collection, but limited to that which would normally be available to a teacher in a classroom, including reading class and school documents relating to their chosen issue, classroom observations, and conducting what Stringer (2008, 55) calls ‘guided conversations’ with stakeholders. Pre-service teachers were expected to discuss their task with their colleague teacher, to seek their guidance and collaborate where possible on exploring further actions. On return to the university pre-service teachers shared their data with peers covering similar issues, before writing the methods and findings section. The second section was then peer reviewed, a formal process of sharing and collaboration of their work with another pre-service teachers over the period of a week, again using the rubric. Peer review is consistent with the action research model, in that it encourages further collaboration and the sharing of ideas to gain new insights (Stringer 2008), and with good assessment practice (Brady and Kennedy 2009; Carless 2008). The peer feedback also gave students an opportunity in “decoding assessment criteria and apply them to exemplars, their own work and that of their peers” (Carless 2008, 80).

The final report was submitted as a summative assessment after the end of the semester. Pre-service teachers’ feedback on the process was sought after the second stage, after the peer review had been completed, at the end of the semester, yet prior to the completion of the task. Their feedback and that of the tutors was used to revise the process for the following year. The next section explains the findings of the first year and how their comments were used to make changes to the assessment task and what the outcomes were for the pre-service teachers in the second iteration.

Findings and discussion

First iteration

There were 143 pre-service teachers in the first year and 7 teaching staff, which included the myself, working across two campuses. The journey through the course in the first year was at times bumpy, as the pre-service teachers struggled with the action research. Feedback in the first year was sought through an open and exploratory forum with a volunteer group of 23 pre-service teachers, and interviews with two of the tutors from both campuses. As reflected in pre-service teachers comments during the forum, the questions raised throughout the semester, and written feedback given, they went through periods of anxiety concerning the assessment as they sought in the first place to achieve a minimal pass and fought against the need to develop a reflective and professional attitude to teaching, seeking instead to be instructed in the technical aspects of “their trade” (pre-service teacher comment), an approach to learning to be a teacher, that can be seen as being consistent with Biggs’ (2003) concept of surface learning. Groundwater-Smith, Ewing and Le Cornu (2001) warn of this and encourage pre-service teachers to recognise the need for their professional learning as part of a continuum, from pre-service teacher and continuing throughout their career. Reflecting on this, I made the decision to make this feeling more explicit to the pre-service teachers in the second iteration, understanding that “action research requires that the researcher live with anxiety, transforming a need for closure to a need for journey” (Feldman 2001, 11).

A number of other issues were identified, including a lack of understanding of the multiple layers of the assessment task, they found the rubric developed difficult to interpret, the language inaccessible, and perceived the requirements as ambiguous. They were also uncomfortable with the use of peer feedback. Finally, in their feedback some of them asked for “an essay on diversity to replace the preliminary literature review” (pre-service teacher written comment) focussing on factual recall. Discussion that followed the request highlighted the different learning perspectives, a number of them disagreeing and stating that they had “benefited from the process and liked getting feedback rather than marks” (pre-service teacher written comment). Yet, it was obvious from both their feedback and the final assessments, that a number of them had engaged very deeply with the core course concepts and had constructed their own meanings of them (Krause, Bochner, and Duchesne 2003).

Second iteration

In the second year 105 students were enrolled in the course, with 4 teaching staff (again including the myself), working across two campuses. The commitment to observe, problematise, and learn from the experiences of the previous year (McTaggart 1994) led to changes for the second year, with greater attention given to refine the assessment so that it was both authentic and unambiguous.  Instructions concerning the assessment and its theoretical and practical foundation were made more explicit both to tutors and pre-service teachers. In the introduction to the course the purposes and functions of the assessment was foregrounded and its position within the literature and practice explained. Throughout the students were encouraged to remember that they themselves have the capacity to “change the world of education, by understanding it” (Stenhouse 1983, cited in O’Hanlon 2003, 31), they were not powerless bystanders, and discussions with the pre-service teachers encouraged them to think of themselves as change agents.

A stronger and more theoretical foregrounding of the reasons for using peer feedback were also made explicit, and its promotion as a learning experience enhanced for the pre-service teachers (Australian Universities Teaching Committee, n. d.). More emphasis was given on “decoding assessment criteria” (Carless 2008, 80). Finally, on response to the pre-service teachers’ feedback and in discussions with the other teaching staff a change was made to the first assessment, changing it to a smaller stand alone assessment, a critical review of the diversity literature.

Once again feedback was sought through open and explorative interviews with the teaching staff on the process and outcomes of the course, the functions of the action research assessment, the execution of the research, and questions and support sought during the semester by the pre-service teachers (Ax et al. 2008). Written feedback was sought from the pre-service teachers about their progress through the course, the role of peer feedback, and the function of the action research assessment task. As well, pre-service teachers participated in the University’s evaluation of teaching and learning for the course, an anonymous way for the pre-service teachers to give their honest feedback about any aspect of the course. Furthermore, a sample of twenty assessment tasks was collected, which had been assessed from pass to high distinction levels. These were then analysed for choice of topic, design and execution of the research, learning gains as identified by the pre-service teachers and the perceptions of and functions of the action research in general (Ax et al., 2008).

Lecturer and Tutors

The overall perception of the tutors and the other lecturer were that the pre-service teachers came to understand the function of the research, one tutor describing it, using the Darling-Hammond (2005) axiom, as a “tool, to interrogate content and classroom teaching for deeper understanding” and another that pre-service teachers “saw that this was part of what teachers do, they would transfer this to others – ask themselves how can I improve for all kids”. There was initial anxiety amongst the pre-service teachers, but the tutorials leading up to the execution were perceived by the tutors as preparing them well and giving them ample resources to enable them to complete the task. One tutor commented that “some didn’t understand at the beginning, they don’t always read it (course outlines), if I did it again I would spend more time explaining it in the first tute”.  Tutors commented that they gave extensive support, through phone calls, emails, and in face-to-face meetings with the pre-service teachers, to assist them in their choice of topics, and to help them cope with the amount of data they were gathering. The other lecturer observed that “the processes to support them (pre-service teachers) that were put in place were excellent; the guide (additional resource) worked well. I introduced it early on in the course and then revisited it again later. Pre-service teachers put more effort into this research paper than anything else they did”.

There were a number of difficulties perceived by the tutors; there was a particular frustration around ethics, as pre-service teachers were not asked to go through the lengthy process of seeking ethics clearance, and so this hampered their ability to collect some sources of data, in particular a prohibition was placed on the electronic recording of interviews and the collection of some photographic evidence. And there was a perception that some pre-service teachers found it difficult to manage the collection of data during their school experience. But as one tutor said, “there was nothing really negative”. In reflecting on the final projects another tutor was not convinced that some of the pre-service teachers could “see the sociology as being important, for students it’s about getting through the course, they want to be teachers and not intellectuals, although this isn’t true for all for them”.

Yet all tutors believed that the pre-service teachers made great gains from the experience. They observed that the pre-service teachers had expressed that they could see its usefulness in school, and that it would guide their future practice, gave them specialist knowledge, “made them feel empowered”. Pre-service teachers had been given opportunities to engage in professional learning with their colleague teachers, some had been able to liaise with the school psychologists, and others had participated in creating individual education plans with the teaching team.  Pre-service teachers also expressed a sense of frustration with resources in schools, and the limited aid time available to help students with special needs. Most of these tutor observations came through in the final projects, where the pre-service teachers commented, according to one tutor, that the “AR process helped them in their teaching to be critically reflective off their teaching” and another tutor “it gave them a deeper understanding of what it means to be critically reflective, a deeper understanding of diversity and inclusion in the classroom”. As the other lecturer observed as a final comment “the AR study is a sound instrument, well developed, lots of thought and well connected to what goes on in schools”.

The pre-service teachers

In their invited written responses, pre-service teachers commented most often on the feedback they had received from their peers. Of the 15 responses received the overwhelming indication was that they benefitted from the exchange of feedback and opportunity to share with their peers. Although not all the feedback was seen as useful, the exchange of information and sharing of drafts of their final projects “encouraged support amongst the group as a whole and is an exercise that should be engaged in more frequently” (pre-service teacher written comment). All of the respondents indicated they had made substantial changes as a result of the suggestions made to them by their peers. This confirms what Brady and Kennedy (2009) contend that “peer assessment is a process by which students develop insights into their own learning” (p. 78) fostering deeper rather than surface learning by the students.

As part of the University’s teaching and learning evaluation unit, pre-service teachers were invited to comment on any area that they believed most needed improvement. Of the 105 students enrolled, six students commented that they had difficulty completing the action research data collection during their school experience placements, with one pre-service teacher commenting that “there was too much focus on research, this is not what everyone wants to do”. However, one pre-service teacher observed that they “liked the new developments in educational research and practice – very interesting and relevant” and another pre-service teacher commented, in response to the best aspects of the course, that “the theories and ideas presented throughout were very stimulating. It’s a pity we don’t focus more on implementing and evaluating these with CTs in a prac context”. Other comments indicated that pre-service teachers found the work “interesting, relevant to teaching”, “the issues around inclusion are fascinating and well worthy of study” and that they were “gaining a deeper understanding of diversity and inclusion” as a result of the course.

This was also the overwhelming indication of the analysis of the 20 final projects selected for further evaluation. Of the 20 papers collected pre-service teachers covered every topic: 7 addressed issues to do with cultural and linguistic background, 7 researched issues related to ability and disability, 2 researched gender issues in specific subject classrooms, 2 looked at issues associated with teaching in low SES schools, and one addressed issues related to rural and remote education. Of the 20 pre-service teachers, 19 specifically made observations about their learning as a result of the action research study. Pre-service teachers were asked to specifically think about what they learned about the issue they researched, what they would do in future (thinking about future action), what they had learned about themselves as a teacher, and what the implications would be for their future practice as teacher.

It is difficult to not report the many observations made by the pre-service teachers and choose just one or two indicative quotes as examples of their journey as they:

  • Discussed their learning: “I have spent time researching the problem and feel that I better understand gifted students”;
  • Commented on their growth as teachers: “I have learnt that as a teacher it is essential that I am well informed about various disabilities that students may have in the classroom so that I can effectively plan for the learning of the student and ensure an inclusive classroom is maintained”;
  • Described the understandings they developed, their gaining and construction of knowledge in the areas explored: “I have discovered the benefits of teacher research in finding answers, and developing a deeper understanding of the issue”;
  • Evidenced the empowerment they felt as teachers: “Perhaps the greatest lesson I learnt whilst undertaking this research was the level of responsibility that falls upon the teacher and the power we have to change some of their [students’] circumstances”; and
  • Explained their understanding that action research was something they would use again: “Invariably, I will conduct ongoing action research as I teach” and another, “the Action Research methodology has been surprisingly insightful for me and I have learnt many things, not only about the issue, but also about research, and importantly, diversity and inclusion”.

Conclusion

The action research undertaken to develop the course was not “linear but, rather, dynamic and changing in response to the reflections of each phase” (Noffke 1997, 10) drawing on the feedback of a variety of stakeholders, the tutors, the other campus lecturer, but most importantly the pre-service teachers(Noffke 1997). The development of the action research assessment task (scaffolded through structured tutorials), in combination with a growing understanding of the sociology of education, was a way to provide them with theoretical resources that would guide their journey (Noffke 1997). It encouraged them to discover and construct knowledge for themselves through their own action research, to deconstruct issues of inequality and exclusion in the classrooms. As Noffke (1997) notes “theoretical resources provide ways for people to see outside their taken-for-granted frames” (28) and for these pre-service teachers, it was a way for them to see outside their taken for granted understanding of what it means to be a teacher: “Finally, for myself as a teacher, I realise that the education I received was not nearly adequate in regards to Aboriginal culture. I need to research for myself the truths and omissions of Australia’s history as it was taught to me as well as how to teach these to my students in a respectful manner” (pre-service teacher written comment).

It is unfortunate that the action research was limited to only the semester, the pre-service teachers were often not able to put further actions in place, its truncation meant many were not able to move through the cycle more than once. However, given that they had only a limited opportunity, most pre-service teachers were beginning to engage with Ainscow’s (2001) intentions, to develop a language for practice to share ideas and reflect on their teaching, and engage in risk taking through collaboration in the school community. It is the role of teacher educators to empower our future practitioners, “in order to identify and address barriers to participation and learning experienced by members of their communities” (Ainscow 2001).

But action research should also call into question the fundamental purpose of the institutions in which schooling takes place, “to make explicit and problematise the practices and the values they embody” (McTaggart 1994, 319). Carr and Kemmis (2005) warn against using action research as an institutionalised model of in-service teacher education, one that is “detached from emancipatory aspirations” (351). However, the pre-service teachers in this study were engaged in emancipatory actions, the constructs of inclusion and diversity giving a focus to their research, with many indicating they would continue this as a practicing teacher, giving them a successful template for their professional learning (Shaw et al. 2008). Continuation of their engagement in action research will help them to question the definitions of education and schooling and the contradictions these provoke (Kemmis 2006), as expressed by this pre-service teacher:  “I believe that the way schools operate need to be revisited so that they continue to be inclusive and accessible to every student”.

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©Karin Oerlemans 2010