Changing the Gaze

Sharon[1]explained to me that she was doing her initial teacher education research project based on a comment from a colleague teacher whilst observing students at play, the teacher said: “I just can’t gel with that kid”, pointing to a particular child. The concern for Sharon about this particular comment was immediate, and instantly started the questioning process, “What would make a professional educator say such a thing about a student in their care, and what could be done to eradicate such sentiments?” And so began for Sharon her action research journey

Sharon was one of 20 preservice teachers undertaking their initial teacher education as part of a new initiative, the Partnership for Teaching Excellence between the Tasmanian Department of Education and the University of Tasmania, Australia. The partnership, piloted in 2009 and continuing through to 2012, is a school district-based teacher residency program. The aims of the partnership are to increase the retention of teachers in high needs schools, to grant extended practice opportunities for pre-service teachers and to assist them in becoming effective and reflective practitioners. The program draws on new trends of combining a school district-based residency, which places teaching practice at the center of teacher preparation, and the development of the preservice teacher as researcher through an action research project (Cochran-Smith & Power, 2010).

The preservice teachers in the program are placed in high needs and difficult to staff schools from the beginning of the school year, whilst continuing with their university studies to give them sound theoretical and curriculum understandings. An emphasis has been to build connectedness between the preservice teachers in the program to ensure that they are not isolated but share strong relationships with each other (Darling-Hammond, 2000); so they are placed in their schools in small groups, under the care of a mentor, though each preservice teacher works with an individual colleague teacher. During the year they are introduced to action research, focused on inclusion and diversity. It is this action research that forms one of the many strengths of the project. This article unpacks their responses to the process, demands and outcomes of doing action research as part of their teacher preparation course.

Action Research as part of Initial Teacher Education

In exploring students’ negative attitudes to primary mathematics, Susan invented some wonderful lessons using chocolates and asked her students the question, ‘if mathematics was a food, it would be?’ In reflecting on her research Susan said, “Working through the action research it encouraged me to think about other issues that could be explored in relation to classroom mathematics. For example, it would be interesting to inquire further into those previous learning experiences that cause students to develop negative misconceptions towards math.”

It is this ability to pose key questions, but further more, to “struggle with uncertainty, and build evidence for reasoning … [which] is an indispensable resource in the education of teachers” (Cochran-Smith, 1991, as cited in Darling-Hammond, 2006). And struggle my intrepid group of beginning researching teachers did, as they sought to understand the uncertain spaces that schools and classrooms so often are. The action research task asked them to identify, design and conduct an inquiry into concerns arising from their work in high needs schools. And so they explored issues related to general student engagement in the classroom, low student self efficacy, building classroom community, teaching conflict resolution skills, low self esteem, and students’ engagement with literacy, mathematics and science.

As with any issue that can be identified in the classroom, in order to understand it fully, the teacher must systematically collect data, analyze that data, draw from it conclusions, attempt changes, and then reflect on the effectiveness of these changes (Stringer, 2008). The effective teacher develops a critical and reflective gaze on their classroom, able to revise pedagogical approaches to suit the students’ needs. They develop a rich repertoire of skills, methods and approaches on which they can draw to provide for the needs of groups and individual students in their classroom. And they have a detailed knowledge and understanding of the contexts in which they carry out their work (Dinham, 2002). These are essential teaching skills, and the role of action research can be used to develop them. The “intentional, systematic and rigorous inquiry” that is action research helps to change the inquiry stance (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993).

Focusing the gaze
Investigating high school students’ poor attitudes to science helped Dan to focus on his practice and built his understanding that for science to be engaging for students he had to make it relevant. For his students to enjoy their science Dan found he had to explicitly make connections between school-based science and his students’ lives, their other subjects and the real world. On reflecting on his project Dan, previously a marine scientist, felt it had helped him to think about what could be done in his future practice to incorporate opportunities for partnerships and create authentic situations to provide students with an insight into the real world applications of science.

Preservice teachers often blame their students for their disengagement, poor behaviours or lack of learning. However, the action research requires them to focus on their own practice, changing the gaze from the students to themselves. To help them focus the gaze, it is important to concentrate their research on small, tangible, and achievable studies. Schools are complex places and many problems, such as student engagement, are multidimensional in scope. Small initial gains in understanding provide the preservice teachers with the “stimulus of success and inspire them to take further action” (Stringer, 2008). Having the project gave the preservice teachers the space to engage in a variety of actions, helping them to break away from the apprenticeship of observation. They were encouraged to be risk takers, to have conversations with their colleague teachers about the students, strategies and assessments. Action research provides them with the framework within which to ask questions, unpack the issues, address the context, and resolve the diverse situations that take place in schools and affect their practice. Continuing the process would provide them over time to build a body of knowledge about their practice and develop a more effective program for improved student outcomes.

But the process is not uncomplicated and the demands on the preservice teachers’ time are multiple. Not only must they cope with learning the role of becoming a teacher, they are also asked to become critically reflective of their practice, even before it is fully developed, and that of those around them. And for some this was hard to do. However, “action research requires that the researcher live with anxiety, transforming a need for closure to a need for journey” (Feldman, Rearick, & Weiss, 2001). The process for coping is through the developing relationships and action research encourages, demands collaborative practice (Stringer, 2008).

Building relationships
Confronted with a series of undesirable behaviors in her prep classroom, behaviors that Jennifer found negative and distracting for both her and the students, Jennifer chose to investigate how she might increase student ownership of behavior and so promote a more positive classroom community. What Jennifer found through her research, working collaboratively with her colleague teacher and with the students, was that as she took the time to establish relationships with each, learning to respect their thoughts and feelings, talking and listening to them, the negative behaviors diminished.

Developing relationships is a key principle for action research, enabling individuals and groups to trust each other, and provides a basis for ongoing communication and participation (Stringer, 2008). Developing collaborative relationships, through the action research process, helps preservice teachers to change from individual practice to that of team practice, engaging in cooperative and personal, rather than impersonal and competitive behaviors. Collaborative teaching skills are vitally important for preservice teachers to learn and developing the skills to work together played a critical role in the success of the action research projects (Van Laarhoven, Munk, Lynch, Bosma, & Rouse, 2007).

Making a difference
Ruth, who has since gained a position at the school where she undertook her school-based residency, explored the possibilities of using role plays to teach social skills in her grade one classroom.  In discussing her action research at the end of the year Ruth commented, “I’ve actually thought since then, that they don’t really have a social and emotional learning program, and I thought over the next couple of years I might incorporate one in my classroom. There are some really good programs available and I might put a bit of a plan together and maybe approach the principal about implementing something in the school.  I think it’s really important”.

Finally, for action research to be truly action research, there has to be action for emancipation (Kemmis, 2006). We know that schools must continue to change to provide a learning environment for all students, and as effective educators, and teacher educators, we must consider how we can remove the barriers to learner participation and improve student outcomes (Ainscow, 2001). There are many possibilities for teacher education to become the “agent of professional countersocialization” (Loewenberg Ball & Cohen, 1999).  When we engage our preservice teachers in action research, asking them to become deliberate change agents in their classroom and schools, working in collaboration with their colleague teachers, then we create some of the conditions that are necessary to enhance the effectiveness of teaching practice.

When action research doesn’t ‘work’
Paul came to me at the end of his project and observed that his action had not worked. Looking at using sentence stems to increase his grade 4 students’ self efficacy in social situations, Paul had found there had been no observable changes in behaviours in the classroom. We discussed his project in depth, looked at his results and observations and discussed the process of his inquiry. I then asked Paul what he had learned about himself as a teacher. Paul went away to think about this question.<e/m>

Later in his report Paul wrote, “The goal of action research is to uncover the truth and sometimes these truths can be unwelcome. I uncovered many misconceptions about my own teaching and about how I view students. But most importantly I learned about the role that I can see action research playing in my classroom. I experienced the empowering and liberating sense of control over my own work that action research provides. I learnt about the cyclical nature of action research, and how perceived failures can often be the source of the greatest learning out of this process I have created a positive action plan that I can put into place when my stress levels undoubtedly begin to rise during my first years of teaching. I now feel confident that when things seem to be getting out of control, I have the mechanism to regain power over my own thoughts, and work to fix the problem at hand”.

At the heart of action research is the will to change (Kemmis, 2006) and using this methodology in preservice teacher education provides them the opportunities to explore what it is they want to change about them selves, their teaching practice and the contexts in which they will work to becoming more effective teachers. By encouraging and demanding collaboration throughout the project it brings a change of practice and conversations of possibilities into the classroom practice of many practicing teachers.

References

Ainscow, M. (2001). Developing inclusive schools: Implications for leadership.   Retrieved September 10, 2009, from http://www.ncsl.org.uk/media-7a6-52-developing-inclusive-schools.pdf

Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (1993). Inside/outside: Teacher research and knowledge. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cochran-Smith, M., & Power, C. (2010). New directions for teacher education. Educational Leadership, 67(8), 6-13.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2000). Studies of excellence in teacher education. Washington, DC: American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2006). Powerful teacher education: Lessons from exemplary programs. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Dinham, S. (2002). NSW Quality teaching awards: research, rigour and transparency. Unicorn, 28(1), 5-9.

Feldman, A., Rearick, M., & Weiss, T. (2001). Teacher development and action research: Findings from six years of action research in schools. In J. Rainer & E. Guyton (Eds.), Research on the effects of teacher education on teacher performance: Teacher Education Yearbook IX. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

Kemmis, S. (2006). Participatory action research and the public sphere. Educational Action Research, 14(4), 459-476.

Loewenberg Ball, D., & Cohen, D. K. (1999). Developing practice, developing practitioners: Towards a practice-based theory of professional education. In L. Darling-Hammond & G. Sykes (Eds.), Teaching as the learning profession: Handbook of policy and practice (pp. 3-32). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Stringer, E. (2008). Action research in education (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education.

Van Laarhoven, T. R., Munk, D. D., Lynch, K., Bosma, J., & Rouse, J. (2007). A Model for preparing special and general education preservice teachers for inclusive education. Journal of Teacher Education, 58(5), 440-455.


[1] Not their real name

©Karin Oerlemans, 2010