Guide to Transforming Teaching through Self-Inquiry
reviewed by Howard Tinberg - June 06, 2014
At a time of state-mandated assessment and the outsourcing of testing measures, this book comes as a fresh reminder that classroom practitioners are well positioned to assess the learning that goes on in their classroom. Through systematic, action research, teachers have the means to describe accurately what has transpired in their classes (the writer dubs this step Captain of Your Own Ship), to account for the context against which classroom activities have occurred (referred to metaphorically as TV Reality Show) to reflect on the meaning of those activities (Turn the Kaleidoscope) and to produce needed transformation based on the data collected (Rattling Your Cage) (pp. 2325). Conventional research in education, the author reminds us, involves an external expert coming into a classroom, testing various theories, and reporting the outcomes to various professionals in the experts field. Such research may or may not speak to the problems that classroom teachers experience. By contrast, action research, generated by instructors themselves, seeks to provide homegrown but nonetheless valid research that meets the needs of those instructors. These researchers build theory from everyday classroom practice.
The author, an Associate Professor of Education who brings thirty years of teaching high school math to this project, begins by posing the essential question, What do teachers do? (p. 7). He asks it not to conjure up the old canard, Those who can, do; those who cant, teach, nor to focus exclusively on teacherly work for its own sake, but rather to frame teaching as key to student learning. How refreshing it is to read of study after study offering evidence of teachers significant impact on student achievement. But that impact does not come merely from experience, the author rightly notes. To be successful in the classroom requires more than longevity. It requires resilience, surely, but also the capability of critical reflection and the willingness to chart a different course when the status quo simply doesnt work.
Underpinning the whole guide is a set of twelve learning principles, rooted in constructivism, and all focused on student learning. Students learn, for example, by participating in activities that enable them to create their own version of knowledge, or Students learn when they are continuously presented with problems, questions, or situations that force them to think differently (pp. 2223). In a constructivist classroom, students play an active role in their own learning. Knowledge need not and should not come from the instructor alone. But the instructors role is crucial in creating the conditions for learning. For their own part, teachers become effective, the author implies, when they enact continuous learning themselves. Action research enables them to do so.
The author proceeds, quite systematically, to lay out the steps needed for effective classroom research. He begins by addressing the nature of critical reflection, not for its own sake, but in such a way that leads to inquiry. The journal becomes a key instrument for such reflectionwhether it is written by the teacher alone or in collaboration with colleagues and/or students, or whether it is print-based or employs visual or audio elements. All such reflection is done in the service of engaging in action, of rattling the cage.
One of the strengths of this book is the set of prompts that teachers can use to initiate action research. Each of the four stages of action research, named by the metaphors given earlier, has its own set of heuristics or guiding questions. From the stage of Rattling your cage, consider this sampling:
What surprised me?
What did I not anticipate?
What if I looked at things from a different perspective? (p. 31)
As a proponent of Problem-Based Learning (PBL), the author knows the power of a good question and a good problem. PBL brings with it disruption but disruption that can force a shift in perspective, and ultimately transformation, of an assignment or a course.
Most helpfully, the author provides models of journals and of full-blown action studies. The studies, done collaboratively with a classroom teacher and a range of stakeholders, begin by inquiring as to the effectiveness of collaborative activity in a middle-school math classroom. Interestingly, during the process of collecting data on student engagement and performance, the investigators begin to discern that their study needs to examine the role of metacognition as well: to what extent can these middle school students find the terms to describe the benefits of working collaboratively? And how might a classroom instructor teach metacognition? Like all good researchers, these followed the data trail: leading to the conclusion that metacognition is essential to student learning but needs to consider the age and development of the learner; and that explicit instruction can and should occur if students are to acquire metacognitive awareness.
All research, whether conventional or classroom-based, should be shared in a constructive dialogue with colleagues. I admit that as I read this book I began to question whether the author was committed to such a scholarly exchange. After all, what is gleaned from action research if such research stays with the individual classroom instructor? What good is gained beyond those immediately affected? Might the colleague in the next room benefit as well? Moreover, might the researchers data and conclusion benefit from peer review? In other words, although different from conventional scholarly research, shouldnt action research share at least this quality with the conventional form: the need to be put in a scholarly context and in conversation with experts? I was pleased, therefore, when the author notes that a full-fledged action research project should contain a literature review of some sort and that all stakeholders in a project should be consulted. Moreover, I observed that a chapter is devoted to preparing a professional portfolio as well as preparing an effective and collaborative presentation of findings at conferences. While self-inquiry necessarily propels action research, the advancement of knowledge is a human activity, to be shared and enjoyed by others.