Using Action Research to Drive Classroom Decision Making

This fall at COCA, we are taking on year-long coaching work with a small group of educators, the COCAedu Cohort. Our 10 teachers work all over the St. Louis Metro area and even in Kansas City and Columbia.

What are they doing with us? Figuring out how to solve problems in their classrooms and improve outcomes for students through action research.

It sounds really fancy and quite difficult, but it’s actually broken down for the educators into bit-sized steps.

In the cohort, we are using Richard Sagor’s The Action Research Guidebook: A Four-Stage Process for Educators and School Teams to frame our project and support our work.

The text outlines the Action Research Process as:

  1. Clarifying vision and targets
  2. Articulating theory
  3. Implementing action and collecting data
  4. Reflecting on data and planning informed action

The greatest thing about this approach? It’s applicable to everything! What I’m loving about leading this cohort is the way that this type of thinking is also informing my work with my team, with our partner schools, and with our planning for future programming.

Said another way, the Action Research Process could be articulate as:

  1. Figure out how you want something to look/feel/be, and how you’ll know you’ve met your goal
  2. Make an educated guess of what it’s going to take to get there
  3. Take the action and collect information about how it’s going
  4. Step back and ask: Did it work? Why or why not?

It’s really just that simple. I’m so excited to see how this approach is already influencing our classroom educators. They’re emailing me constantly, sharing updates on things they’re trying and what they’re thinking about the impact of their actions. The benefit of this approach is that there’s a constant cycle of vision setting, action, and reflection.

When you’re in a classroom, so much can feel overwhelming, isolating and difficult to manage. It’s easy to become bogged down in the minutiae or let little things distract you from your ultimate goal.

With the action research framework, everything becomes an exercise in problem-solving and creative solutions. There’s joy and novelty in trying things you think might work, figuring out if they did work, and then being totally okay if they were a flop! That’s the beauty of this orientation: hypothesis and testing is critical. As a result, some pressure is relieved because you don’t have to know for sure if something will work. The experimentation you need to do is encouraged.

Once our cohort members have identified their vision and targets (step 1), they’ll work to develop a theory of action. Here’s where the fun starts! Their plan involves arts integration as the bulk of or a part of their theory of action.

Why arts integration? Because at COCA we believe that arts integration is a critical part of a child’s learning. As a strong partner with the Kennedy Center, we use their definition of arts integration in all of our work:

Arts integration is an approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form. Students engage in a creative process which connects an art form and another subject area and meets evolving objectives in both.

Said another way:

Arts integration is a process of planning and facilitating learning where kids learn and express their understanding of non-art subject matter via an art form (music, drama, dance). The art lesson objectives and the non-art lesson objectives have equal importance and are both assessed.

Arts integration is not when kids write a song using their spelling words.

Personally, I am growing tired of hearing that classrooms or schools “aren’t ready” for arts integration. Frequently, I hear that there are “too many problems” in a given context to make room for arts integration.

I fundamentally disagree with that thinking.

What if, instead, arts integration is the answer to the problems that you see?

That’s what we are working to uncover with the COCAedu Cohort!

Right now, the cohort members are articulating their vision and targets for their action research. So far, there are some pretty cool things in the works! I’m excited to see how quickly our teachers identified core issues in their teaching and have then worked to align arts integration strategies and approaches to support the learning they want to facilitate.

As cohort members, each teacher meets with me individually each quarter. And, throughout the year, we meet as a cohort to share ideas and best practices. Coming out of our first round of individual coaching, teachers have drafted some of the following issues and action ideas:

Grade Level and Content Area

Identified Issue in the Classroom

Possible Action Research Focus / Arts Integration Solution

Pre-Kindergarten (3 and 4 year olds)

Building their expressive language skills is an ongoing and important objective for the pre-kindergarten classroom. This is a large class that needs concrete systems and structures in place to prioritize expressive language development.

Redesign the morning meeting structure to include:

  • Literacy component
  • Communication structure that combines voice and body
  • Dissection of the literacy component (breakdown of the story, characters, setting, etc)
  • Synthesis and connections via a communication structure

1st grade music class

Classroom culture is a challenge and students are currently struggling to build relationships with each other

Integrate relationship-building and social-emotional development into music curriculum, so that both objectives are simultaneously taught and assessed

1st grade reading class

Student investment in independent reading and building reading stamina is inconsistent. Students are very engaged when reading in a small group with the teacher and are rarely engaged when reading with a buddy or by themselves.

Design physical movements that support student comprehension and enjoyment of a text. For example, a hand signal to use when a character is solving a problem or an action to take when a primary idea or theme is identified. This movement will be assessed as an aspect of dramatic play and reading comprehension will also be assessed.

2nd grade dance and general educator co-teaching

Two teachers are acting as pioneers, working to plan one arts integrated 30 minute lesson each week to co-teach. They work within an arts magnet school.

When the relationship and structure for arts integration co-teaching is already in place, how do you make it as effective and impactful as possible?

2nd grade general education

Classroom is a pilot design in an arts integrated school with 50 students, two teachers and many technology pieces that support learning. The technology tools are working, but need to be maximized.

How do you utilize technology to support and accelerate arts integrated learning?

3rd grade reading

Students are not embracing a “problem-solving mindset” and are instead relying on the teacher to guide every action they take and each decision they make in a given lesson.

The teacher will create experiential learning opportunities for students to first construct their own knowledge of a new topic. She will use interaction and multidisciplinary methods to set students up to drive their own learning and to make it safe and expected to make mistakes.

Teaching Fellows Mentor to Kindergarten and 3rd grade beginning teachers

Teaching fellows are working in an arts integrated elementary school. The fellows mentor supports their lesson planning and lesson execution. The fellows mentor wants to continue to build their independence when planning lessons, so that their skill is building throughout the year and so that arts integration is a natural part of most of their lessons.

What approaches make the most sense for improving and strengthening arts integration lesson planning?

As you can see, we have our work cut out for us this year! The work of the cohort will begin to change the narrative that arts integration is something you “aspire” to, versus a tool or approach you can employ to solve real-classroom-level issues.

And, because the framework is so clear and straight forward, action research is really something that can be utilized in any context, profession or sector.

I’m humbled by the cohort’s dedication to this work thus far, and I’m excited to see where the year leads.

Crawford, Abby_web

Abby Crawford

COCAedu Director of Education and School Partnerships


Leave A Comment