Real! Relevant! Effective! Teacher-driven professional inquiry at Sunnydene

Issue: Volume 94, Number 17

Posted: 21 September 2015
Reference #: 1H9cui

Belinda Rowe, deputy principal at Sunnydene School, takes Education Gazette through an overview of Action Research as a tool for professional learning.

Diverse learning needs

Sunnydene is a school for students with high learning needs, and our staff are responsible for ensuring that learning happens. Our students are learners like any others. They may need to learn things using different approaches, or at a different pace; each of our students is an individual, and what works for one student, may not work for the next.

Inspiring teachers

We are constantly seeking ways to inspire our teachers. We seek to find professional learning that guides their pedagogy toward growth and change, so that they can achieve successful outcomes for their students. We want to ensure that they invest their energy into pedagogy that ‘packs a punch’ and is a good return on their time investment. Ultimately what we want to see is better outcomes for our students with diverse needs.

Collaboration

We cannot undertake this journey alone. We need to establish partnerships, firstly with parents, who are the real experts when it comes to their children. We also need to form partnerships with specialist providers who support learning in our school. We need to find ways to share knowledge and expertise across these teams. Collaboration, with the student at the centre, is the key to plotting the way forward.

Action research

A process which we have found does work for us is Action Research. It gives teachers the time and opportunity to explore enablers – and barriers – to learning, as well as areas of expertise they would like to enhance. Action Research utilises an inquiry approach which enables teachers to research, plan and develop evidence-based strategies, and to evaluate the impact of their teaching on their students. One feature of Action Research that we also really like is that it allows staff to investigate what interests them.

“Action Research is a systematic form of inquiry that is collective, collaborative, self-reflective, critical, and undertaken by the participants of the inquiry.” McCutcheon & Jung (1990).

The spiral model of Action Research proposed by Kemmis and McTaggart suggests that Action Research involves a spiral of self-reflective cycles: planning change; acting and observing consequences of change; reflecting on the process; re-planning; reflecting, and so on.

In practical terms, the process is fluid, open and responsive, rather than a rigid structure to be followed.
“Action Research is not merely research which it is hoped will be followed by action! It is action which is intentionally researched and modified, leading to the next stage of action which is then again intentionally examined for further change and so on as part of the research itself.” Wadsworth (1997).

Not only does this method result in rich learning for the teacher and better outcomes for students, it also enables the teacher to gather evidence in support of the Registered Teacher Criteria.

Detectives

Often the information we require is not readily available, or needs significant adjustment to work in our setting. Our teachers need to become detectives; to find their way through the barriers to learning for their students, to focus on and build on the strengths of their students. Action Research equips teachers with a process to use for any future investigations. Action Research enables teachers to embark on a journey of discovery, which could lead to direct changes in their pedagogy.

What to investigate?

The broad questions we ask ourselves are:

  • What do we want to improve?
  • What are we doing now? “The starting point does not have to be to work on a problem. It can be just an interest in improving practice.” Kemmis & McTaggart (1981).
  • How will we do this? Where will we find clues?
  • What data will we collect?
  • How will we know we have succeeded?

We use student strengths and interests to support them to acquire new skills. Some aspects that we have considered recently are: communication development using technology; ways to maximise inclusion opportunities (peer mediated intervention and instruction); social competency training, and literacy development. Often an area for improvement identified by one teacher is also an area for improvement identified by other teachers.

Fitting it in

The management team supports teachers to undertake this work by providing time each week. One afternoon every week after school we work within groups sharing a common interest. Teachers select the group they wish to join. Each week during the course, which lasts two terms, the groups work together on their Action Research project. At the end, they share their findings in a feedback session. This empowers the whole teaching staff – knowledge and expertise gained becomes available to all.

The process

The process we use is as follows:

  • We identify an area of need related to evidence-based practice.
  • We undertake a literature search to establish what the literature says.
  • We develop an inquiry question to investigate.
  • The group develops a plan for the proposed intervention. Teaching resources and materials are developed. Data gathering processes are developed to measure the change(s) we plan to implement.
  • The plan is put into action for an agreed period of time.
  • We observe the impact of our intervention on the student(s).
  • We reflect on what we are able to observe. We consider what the data that we have gathered is showing us.
  • We refine, review and adjust our plan as required.

Then what?

  • If the outcome of our Action Research is successful – we continue to apply the intervention.
  • If it wasn’t successful, we consider what we need to adjust and apply the process again – reviewing to ensure success.
  • We reflect on how the approach we have implemented can be generalised to the rest of the student’s life. Parents are involved and information is shared.
  • The body of research then becomes part of the school’s cache of information which can be used again, or which can be shared wider afield.

Impact on teachers

Teachers enjoy doing this at the end of a day of teaching because it’s an opportunity to extend themselves in an area of particular interest. The Action Research model involves action – reading and discussion, planning, developing resources, implementation and evaluation. It is a dynamic process and each staff member has a role to play. Teachers utilise their particular strengths within the group and everyone contributes.

Win-win

There are practical benefits to the school in using an Action Research approach:

  • Teachers broaden their field of expertise.
  • Teachers collaborate and learn from one another, and ultimately, everyone is empowered and our students reap the significant benefits.
  • The bulk of the professional learning occurs after school hours, with minimal disruption to students.
  • The cost is not prohibitive, as teachers are undertaking research themselves.
  • Teachers have the opportunity to implement, trial and evaluate the impact of their teaching and extend their skill set.

In the field of special education, as with the wider education field, teachers need to be lifelong learners themselves, to keep abreast of the most effective ways to impact on learning and student outcomes. Action Research is our chosen vehicle for this purpose.

BY Belinda Rowe
Sunnydene School,

Posted: 6:03 PM, 21 September 2015

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