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Action Research for Educational, Professional, and Personal Change

(CCT685, Sp 99, CCT693, Sp 00, 01, 02, 03, 07, 08, 09, 10, 12, 13, Fall 13, Sp 16)
(previously Seminar on Educational Evaluation, then Seminar on Evaluation of Educational Change)

(9/99 -- see appended 9/01 update and 9/05, 5/06, 7/10, 8/13, 12/13 updates)
Initial Goals
Although I had experience in social research and statistics, evaluation of educational change was a new area for me as a teacher. I designed the course so that I learn as much as possible by leading students to digest the texts for themselves and for each other, coaching the students in mini-projects, and facilitating participatory planning and other group processes. This last aspect would serve two functions: the syllabus could be adjusted according to students' background and interests, and students would be introduced to the larger endeavor of working with other people in implementing and improving educational changes. In this spirit, I chose texts that emphasized the relationship between evaluator and sponsor from the formulation of questions onwards needed if outcomes are to be taken up in changes in practice and policy.
The mini-projects were based on clippings and short articles I had collected concerning evaluations undertaken or needed.
I decided not to schedule a sequence of classes on quantitative methods but to encourage students to formulate questions based on the articles they were reading and to coach them in securing statistical advice from skilled practitioners.

Challenges and Responses

Future Plans
I have mentioned some of my future plans in the preceding section. I have a larger "to do" list stimulated by the formative and summative evaluations of students in the course, and their participation in revising the course as we went. My other major goals for the future are to:
--expand some of the clippings into well developed cases, especially in the areas of science education;
--consult with other GCOE faculty with a view to differentiating the evaluation and research courses we offer; and
--build on the mini-project of one student last spring to push for more productive forms of course evaluation in GCOE.


I have continued to experiment and develop this course in the direction of evaluation being not an end in itself, but as a tool of educational change-or, for the non-educators in CCT, of organizational change. The students learn and practice tools for facilitating groups and building constituencies for the educational changes the students want to evaluate or propose. This development is evident in the changing syllabus-especially the extended course overview-and in the course evaluations I used to focus student input on those changes.

In spring 2000, I inserted a participatory planning process before the middle of the semester, with the goal of students "support[ing] each other to get competent and comfortable in evaluating and facilitating educational change." It challenging for me to cede control to the students, and it proved difficult for the students to take responsibility for the tasks planned by the task forces. From an email exchange at the start of the process:
Date: Tue, 7 Mar 2000
From: (peter j. taylor)
Subject: for CCT693: ex-captain's log, stardate 7 Mar. 5.45am EST

Journal entry:
Woke early with lots of suggestions for the feedback, clarity & coordination task force, especially re: getting other task forces to be clear about who is responsible for making their proposed actions happen and providing the clear rationale for them.
Impressed by the seriousness and energy of the taskforces last night.
Excited by this, but also noticed myself (as teacher) wondering if you'll cover what "needs" to be covered in a credible course and whether it'll fit together in a way that satisfies everyone. In short: Yikes -- I'm not in control!

From: "joelle barton"
To: "peter j. taylor"
Subject: Re: for CCT693: ex-captain's log, stardate 7 Mar. 5.45am EST
Date: Wed, 8 Mar 2000

Hello Captain: I think it would be okay to pull back some on the control, after all you do outrank us. Seriously, CCT supports works in progress for the students, why not for the teacher, too? Joelle

Students' responses to the experiment were vocal and varied (see written comments on course evaluation). Interestingly, the Leadership in Urban Schools doctoral students were most in favor of an explicit and settled syllabus. What I experienced most strongly was the difficulty of alternating between teaching and facilitating. Even when I literally changed hats, students saw my facilitation through the lens of knowing that I was also their teacher and leader (see "Alternating...," conference paper, 2000). The ideal would be to bring in an outside facilitator, so I could become another participant.

At the International Association of Facilitators meeting in April 2000 I learned about an approach to collaborative problem-solving called Action Learning. At the end of the semester, I floated a proposal to begin the course with anAction Learning project on a case of interest to all the students, and then, against the background of that shared and messy experience, introduce texts and explicit frameworks. This proposal was seen positively by the students (see written comments), but one student was perceptive in asking what I would do if I "see a dysfunctional team or individuals being left behind?"

The topic I chose was "Extending the impact of CCT beyond its formal program of study. as begun by an outreach organization, "Thinking for Change." I had arranged some alums to help facilitate the initial Action Learning sessions, but unfortunately was not able to make time to train them beforehand. The group process could certainly have been smoother, yet the students in retrospect were impressed by the creativity and productivity of their groups' reports (see new exhibits). There was also some grumbling about my setting the problem, even though the groups took it in directions I didn't anticipate (they focused on the CCT program of study and suggested more internships and practical experience be built into it). In the future I plan to: a) precirculate the topic, framed in the spirit of Problem-Based Learning as an ill-defined problem that is open to their own definition of the problems to pursue; b) train the facilitators and provide guidelines to smoothe the process within groups.

During the spring 2001 course two other issues became clear that I hope will provide a clear and stable scaffolding for students in future offerings of the course:
i) I referred more explicitly to the Action Research cycle or spiral than before and elaborated on this as experiences emerged (see new exhibits). After recognizing that the Action Learning teams had focused on proposals, not on connecting with a constituency to implement them, we incorporated that into the framework. We also noted the importance of reflection and dialogue for defining the educational change desired or the relevant criteria for evaluating it.
ii) This led to my contrasting the exploratory, opening up character of the spiral with the focus provided by the Evaluation Clock (as rewritten by me to reduce the misreadings of the steps) in disciplining evaluation into measurable criteria.

Of the three plans from 9/99 listed above, I have continued to collect clippings, but the Participatory planning and Action Learning projects have taken the place of discussion of well developed cases and I have had almost no students in the area of science education. I have consulted with other GCOE faculty about the evaluation and research courses we offer, but the different programmatic needs means that, at least for now, the courses will follow their own separate paths. I still seek a suitable text for the course. Finally, my goal of more productive forms of course evaluation in GCOE was eclipsed by the work of the Evaluation task force in Fall 2000. To gain the feedback I need on my teaching and curricular innovations, I plan to continue to have students complete a second evaluation of my own design. This course, I expect, will continue to be a work in progress.

After two years not teaching this course (given my grant-funded course release) I am planning to structure the whole course in spring '06 around the framework I had evolved by the end of the 2003 offering, namely "cycles and epicycles of action research." This provides a coherent and inclusive framework for evaluation and action research as approaches to addressing the question, "How do we get others to adopt/adapt our ideas?"
The syllabus for spring 2006 focused more on the cycles and epicycles framework, but the revised syllabus for next spring is completely structured around that framework (which has been further refined).
The name of the course was changed a few years ago to convey the emphasis on Action Research. The 2009 end-of-the-semester evaluation asked students to make queries and suggest improvements re: the text and diagram for the cycles and epicycles of action research framework; see revised text and diagram that resulted. In fall '10 the course will be observed for a Harvard GSE research project on action research, which should stimulate further improvement and clardification of distinctive features of the framework.
In preparing an online version of the course, the syllabus and linked items have been polished up. The required technological comptencies have been spelled out, streamlined, and supplemented (e.g., using diigo for sharing and annotating webpages.)
Since the last update an online version of the course has been developed, matching very closely the face2face version. In Spring 2013, I taught this to a small group (4 students), but did not get enough responses on the CCT-style evaluation to draw any lessons. In Fall 2013, I will teach a hybrid version, using google hangout to bring a few students from a distance into regular class meetings. The HGSE research project has led to a draft chapter, not yet publicly available. When the chapters on other approaches become available, this will provide an opportunity to compare and contrast my pedagogical approach with others.
Various modifications of the course are indicated in blue text in a revised syllabus and notes on assignments, prepared in light of student comments and reflection along the way. (Note: Evaluations refer to the Fall 13 course being online, but it was hybrid, combining online and face2face participants.
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