Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Teachers look for professional development opportunities that can make a difference in their practice, connect to their lives as teachers, and ultimately improve learning and instruction in their own classroom. But how can they do this, particularly given the time pressures and other demands of teaching?

One answer is to conduct action research. The goal of action research is to investigate a self-selected issue in your own classroom to effect positive changes in your teaching and in your students' learning. In this way, you have the opportunity to extend existing professional development experiences to meet your individual needs and the needs of your students.

During the course of this workshop, you will have the opportunity to design one action research project of your choosing across any of the workshop session topics. If you are taking this workshop for credit, you may be required to complete an action research project. Check with your facilitator or credit-granting institution for more information.

The Benefits of Action Research

Although conducting research is not something that most teachers feel prepared to do, teaching is, in actuality, a research activity. This is because research is already a part of what teachers do on a daily basis as they plan, deliver, and monitor instruction and learning. Teachers are well positioned to conduct research in their own classrooms because they continually ask questions about their teaching and seek answers to instructional issues through various forms of evidence (for example, student work samples, formative assessments, observations, etc.). The benefit of action research is that it provides a framework for systematic inquiry into your own practice.

Action research is local and focuses directly on issues surrounding a teacher's school, classroom, and students. In this way, the questions posed by an action research project and the findings it reveals are anchored in the specific circumstances of one teacher's class or one school's foreign language program. The personalized nature of action research means that it is not appropriate to generalize research findings to larger populations of students, as would be the case with formal experimental studies in laboratory settings.

The Process of Action Research

So what does an action research project look like? It begins with you selecting any issue that you would like to investigate in your classroom. You might begin by observing an existing aspect of your teaching or of your students' learning. For example, you could look at the kinds of strategies that your students use to interpret authentic texts. Action research can also be used to investigate how a change in your practice might affect students' learning, participation, and motivation. For example, you could look at how a change in your feedback techniques affects student performance and which feedback techniques work best for particular communication goals.

Once you have selected what you would like to investigate, you will pose a research question. In action research, the goal is to describe a situation so as to improve upon it. Therefore, research questions should be framed using question words like "How," "What," and "What if." Once the research question has been established, you will design a plan for carrying out your investigation, determine how you will organize the data that you gather, and then use the information you gathered to reflect on and improve your teaching practice.

An Example of Action Research

The following is a sample action research project conducted by Sherri Blose, who prepared it while earning her Master of Arts degree in teaching from the University of Pittsburgh:

This action research project investigated the issue of language creativity. Language creativity, or the ability to combine and recombine learned material in novel ways, is an important goal of foreign language education because it is the hallmark of an intermediate-level speaker as specified by the ACTFL proficiency guidelines. In this study, the teacher wanted to discover whether her French II students attempted to use language creatively or merely parroted memorized utterances she had taught them.

To answer her question, the teacher tape-recorded a conversation between each of her nine students and a native French speaker, then transcribed the conversations for analysis. Her analysis revealed that the conversations consisted of 74 student utterances made up of either memorized utterances that the students routinely used in class or creative utterances that they had never heard before. These creative utterances consisted of language already learned but applied in new ways. To insure the reliability of her own ratings, she also allowed the class to judge whether the utterances she had analyzed were creative or memorized chunks of language. She found that she and her class agreed 60 out of 74 times, or 80 percent of the time, on whether an utterance was previously memorized or creatively constructed.

She then tried to identify which students used creative utterances during their conversations with the native speaker and was pleased to learn that all nine students used creative utterances, with the high-achieving students using the greatest number of creative utterances and the low-achieving students using the fewest. Although the quantity of the utterances varied across nine students, the interesting finding was that all students used some creative utterances during the conversations.

Finally, she compared the number of creative utterances that students used to the number of memorized chunks of language and found that 60 percent of the time, students were relying on what they had previously learned in class for conversing with the native speaker. The other 40 percent of the time, their utterances were novel combinations of learned material. Another important finding was that when students attempted to be creative with the language, they often made errors. The teacher thus appropriately entitled her project, "To Err Is To Be Creative."

In rethinking her practice, the teacher stated that the project made her more aware of when her students were being creative with the language and the importance of documenting and pointing out these creative productions to the class. Additionally, she informed her students that error in language learning is not necessarily bad, but a necessary part of the language learning process. Finally, she decided that her classroom assessments needed to give credit to students who went beyond the comfort of memorized language and made efforts to use the language in new and creative ways to express their personal ideas.

Applying Action Research

Although the principles of action research are applicable to many academic subjects, the Teaching Foreign Languages K-12 Workshop uses a four-step approach specifically designed for foreign language instruction. The four steps are as follows:

  1. Thinking: What issue do you want to describe, document, and investigate? Why is this issue important to you? What research question will help you investigate this issue to understand it better?

  2. Acting: What is your plan for carrying out your project? What information will you need to collect to answer your research question and assess your project? How much time will you allot for your action plan?

  3. Reflecting: After you've collected your data, how will you organize and review it to help you answer your research question? How will you display the data so as to clearly reveal your results, both for your reference and so that you can share it with others?

  4. Rethinking: How will you rethink your teaching practice based on your research data?

Each workshop session includes an Action Research Project section that provides questions and examples to help you frame your thinking and shape your project. Please remember to focus clearly on the issue or problem you are trying to address and to explain how your research project will provide new data regarding this issue. If you are taking this workshop for credit, see Course Credit for information on assignment requirements for the action research project.

Note: The four-step action research project model was developed by Professor Richard Donato of the University of Pittsburgh.


For more information on action research, check out these additional Web and print resources:

Web Resources:
Action Research: Reseeing Learning and Rethinking Practice in the LOTE Classroom
This paper by Richard Donato reports on a professional development project for Texas teachers that was initiated by the Languages Other Than English Center for Educator Development (LOTE CED) at the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in Austin, Texas, and includes summaries of several of the teachers' action research projects.

Networks: An On-line Journal for Teacher Research
This site provides a forum for teachers from preschool to the university level to share their classroom research with one another.

Research: Holding Up a Mirror (PDF)
This article from Education Week describes one teacher's introduction to educational research, and how she eventually changed professional development at her school with the concept of teacher research.

Teacher Research: Action Research
This site from the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University features a wealth of resources about the action research process, including links to relevant articles and other action research Web sites.

Print Resources:
Burnaford, G., J. Fischer, and D. Hobson, eds. Teachers Doing Research: The Power of Action Through Inquiry. 2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001.

Burns, A. Collaborative Action Research for English Language Teachers. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Cochran-Smith, M., and S. L. Lytle. Inside/Outside: Teacher Research and Knowledge. New York: Teachers College Press, 1993.

Freeman, D. Doing Teacher Research: From Inquiry to Understanding. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1998.

Hopkins, D. A Teacher's Guide to Classroom Research. 2nd ed. Buckingham, England: Open University Press, 1993.

Kemmis, S., and R. McTaggart. The Action Research Planner. Geelong, Victoria, Australia: Deakin University Press, 1988.

Mills, G. E. Action Research: A Guide for the Teacher Researcher. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall, 2003.

Stringer, E. Action Research: A Handbook for Practitioners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1996.

Wallace, M. J. Action Research for Language Teachers. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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