Using Action Research to Foster Positive Social Vaues
reviewed by Kirsten Olson - 2006
This slim but indigestible book on designing classroom-based research to address problems of intolerance and disruptive behavior in elementary school classrooms, begins with a familiar pedagogical sigh: Why arent classrooms peaceful and respectful, the way they used to be? Or as the author says, the book explores how the growth in nonmainstream cultures will continue to further influence cultural values and behaviors (p. vi) and create disruptive, disrespectful pupils. Benton hamhandedly reinforces the destructive notion that socioeconomic and cultural diversity in classrooms are the causes of pedagogical dysfunction, rather than an invitation to more sophisticated teaching practices and enriched classroom communities. The author uses three slender, poorly developed case studies to back her claim that action researchresearch in which a teacher notices a problem, observes it to benchmark it, designs an intervention and carries it out, and then documents the results of the interventioncan help teachers create peaceful classrooms and reinforce cooperative learning. Action research projects may or may not be able to achieve some of these aimsa rich literature on the complexity of building classroom communities, the interaction between teacher attributions of and expectations of student behaviors, and students willingness to share values, suggests how complex these questions are. However, Bentons volume isnt the book to tell an inquiring or thoughtful teacher how to design them or carry them out. Never exploring why students who are disrespectful and disruptive might have cause to question the paradigms of schooling (these students are simply operating on very low levels of moral reasoning [p. 11], the author asserts) or whether the concept of peace means the same thing to all people at all times, the author simply asserts that parents ability to control their children will continue to erode (p. 8) and that this generation of children are therefore imperiled.
Beginning with a summary of the authors view of the social forces that have altered Americathe breakdown of the tight moral reign of first-generation European immigrants, the upheaval of the extended family in mainstream America, the falling away of traditional patterns of life, the loss of integrative and regulative religious communitiesthe author presents disembodied and uncontextualized anthropological data on various patterns of parenting and kinship that she claims are characteristic of Hispanics, Native Americans, Japanese, and African American family groups. Making extremely broad and unsubtle, unspecific generalizations that Benton says are essential knowledge for teachers in discerning which parenting style is most appropriate for which child (p. 19), the author relies on disconnected cites often a decade or two old to recommend appropriate behavior management practices. As the author attempts a race through the literature on family socialization patterns, the influences of the three major religious traditions on childrens peacemaking abilities in the classroom, and a description of how to build coherent communities in schools to create social capital (not the usual use of this term in school improvement literature), the initial chapters seem to have been chunked onto the beginning of the book as a way of lending gravitas before presenting the case studies that follow.
In the second half of the book, three elementary school teachers (the classroom grade and composition of the classroom is often unclear until the case study is well underway) notice problems of children not getting along well in school: girls fight, students dont learn from each other, pupils are disrespectful to each other. The author outlines how to set up an action research project (more completely described in many other qualitative research volumes or specialized monographs on this type of research), presents findings of the three teachers projects (although sometimes without quantitative data or detailed descriptions of the findings), and suggests that action research undertaken by teachers will effectively manage problem behaviors in classrooms (p. 124).
This may well be so. Simply inviting teachers to engage in reflection on their teaching practices, to look at the assumptions that underlie them, and encouraging them to design studies to examine them, is valuable in creating more conscious practice. This volume, however, with its sketchily drawn descriptions of the research studies, its hastily documented methods, and their not terribly conclusive or groundbreaking conclusions, may not be the most helpful volume for practitioners trying to improve classroom management practices. Additionally, the authors amateurish survey of the sociological forces that shape the changing world of the classroom may work in the opposite direction than the author intended: Instead of raising complex concerns and issuing an invitation to consider the classroom world creatively, reflectively, and incisively, she reinforces many of the same tired pieces of thinking that lead teachers to blame their students for not behaving as they think they should. In light of the recent London suicide bombings, the author raises several important points: The world is increasingly complicated, and this complexity is a part of every teachers classroom. Knowing as much as possible about the cultural, religious, and community backgrounds of ones pupils is essential in creating classroom environments that captivate and challenge students. This premise is marred, however, by the presentation of superficial swaths of social and cultural information and outdated and unknit sociological and psychological research. The authors heart may be in the right place, but the material she presents is too old, superficial, and undifferentiated to shed much light on real problems of instruction. The book is an uneasy stew of old anthropological literature, undigested views on parenting and family authority literature, a pinch of community coherence research, all brought to bear on some slimly described case studies of how to bring peaceful practices to elementary school classrooms.
We all share the sense that the world is an ever more complex and interconnected place. We need more help in bringing this knowledge intelligently into classroom practice than this book provides.