We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring shall be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time --T. S. Eliot
A group of graduates from the School for International Training has created a forum for individual action research. This group was formed among a small group of ten (later, fifteen) teachers with the goal of fostering professional development via structured email dialogues. Over the past two years, members have benefited greatly from the experiences and resources of colleagues who work in a great variety of teaching contexts world-wide. This is a description of the creation and original structure of the group, the group's current structure, and feedback from the members.
Following the end of their studies together, a group of classmates suggested that they create an email group as an extension of their graduate work together. Email was chosen as the means of communication as it is quick and accessible and would allow the members to hold ongoing discussions.
The following structure for a given month was agreed upon for the first year:
Week 1: Two designated "Stars" posed an issue or question to the group, referred to as a "Star Question." These issues ranged from those directly related to teaching, such as ideas for a project-based curriculum, to those dealing with professional responsibilities such as supervision, teacher training, and portfolio creation. One Star Question was, "How can I encourage whole class discussions when a few vocal students dominate, and the rest remain silent?" Some teachers chose to focus on more personal issues, for example, "What are some specific ways you have found to nurture yourself as a teacher, to renew yourself, to energize yourself, and to prevent burnout?"
Weeks 2-3: Pulling from personal experience and knowledge, each member responded to the two Stars. They sent their message to all participants so that everyone could read and benefit from the responses. This sharing of messages also helped to alleviate repetition and allowed teachers to add to other responses.
Week 4: With the wealth of information sent during the two weeks, the Stars were now ready to synthesize and reflect upon the information and ideas, share what was important to them, and create an action plan. This stage of the monthly cycle was called the "Wrap-Up."
In order to facilitate the continuity and strength of the group, certain rules were established over the first year:
- Titles of messages should be clear and concise.
- Before joining the group, classmates should be informed of the structure and proceedings and should be scheduled to "star" in the next year.
- Personal messages should not be mixed with mentor group exchanges.
- If a member is not able to respond on time, a quick message should be sent.
All members played an active role in the creation and revision of the group structure. In the beginning, members took it upon themselves to do certain tasks such as gathering and reporting on the feedback, keeping records of the messages, and scheduling. As time went on, members took on other responsibilities such as explaining the process and background to classmates who gained access to email, and looking into other means of communication such as news groups, web pages, or bulletin boards. We currently have a web page that can be accessed at members.xoom.com/_XOOM/peerm/.
Some of the members met after a year and discussed the previous year and possible changes for the next. The primary change was directly related to the process of action research. It was decided that at the time of the Wrap-Up, individuals would set an approximate date for reflecting upon the results of the implementation of their action plans. This structured reflection phase was called "Post-Reflection." This change thus helped teachers complete the action research cycle.
Another major change concerned level of involvement in the group. Given changes in our private and professional lives, there was a need for a venue for teachers to request more or less involvement. We decided to break down participant titles into three categories:
- Star and Responder: Full participant.
- Responder: Sends responses to others' issues, but not responsible for posing issues.
- Reader: Receives all messages but neither stars or responds.
This new system respected each teacher's schedule and gave room for teachers to participate without quitting or feeling guilty for not responding on time when personal circumstances did not allow.
In members' feedback, reccurring themes include benefits of exploring current issues, clarifying ideas, and reflection. They have found the main strengths of the group to be the large amount of respect, trust, and non-judgemental communication.
Lampert and Clark (1996) state that "teacher education would be improved if it were informed by research on practicing teachers' expertise" (p. 21). By drawing from one another's knowledge and strengths, we are able to conduct mini-action research projects.
In discussing the "reflective teacher," Wallace (1991) writes, "development implies change, and fruitful change is extremely difficult without reflection" (p. 54). One member admitted that although she knew the importance of reflective work for professional development, without the solid structure of our support group, she would probably not have spent nearly as much time doing it.
Imagine yourself able to share an issue about your teaching or professional situation with a group of colleagues twice a year. It is not an overwhelming amount of work, maybe an hour or two a week. Yet, it is time and energy well invested. You feel more energized and capable to face your work with confidence. You know you are not alone in your thinking. Others support your ideas and even care enough to share what they can to help you deepen your thinking and understanding. Even when the issue is not one that you raised, you are gaining valuable insights from the questions and responses of your colleagues.
It is my hope that by having read this article, you will have gained an understanding of a form of action research you may not have considered before. Although this is a specific case where classmates came together to collaborate, there are many resources for forming such a group, SIG's, JALT chapters, or local teachers. Be creative and enjoy learning in a community.
Lampert, M. & Clark, C.( 1990). Expert knowledge and expert thinking in teaching: A response to Floden and Klinzing. Educational Researcher, 19 (5), 21-23,42.
Wallace, M. J. (1991). Training foreign language teachers: A reflective approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.