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What happens when you give students exemplars? Do they simply copy the pre-existing examples? Do they fail to take creative risks? Do they internalize the idea that their work must fit a previous model? Does it implicitly tell students “this is what it should look like?”

These were the questions swirling around my head a few years ago before doing a student-centered blogging project. I decided to check out the research on risk-aversion, creativity, and self-efficacy before planning out a simple experiment.  With the first two classes, I had students look at exemplars from previous years and analyze what made the work outstanding and what areas might need improvement.

With the next two classes, we used blog examples from “the real world” (food blogs, sports blogs, fashion blogs) and created lists of things we liked and didn’t like. Then, with the last two classes, students simply began blogging without looking at examples.

The results were counterintuitive. I expected the students who had looked at exemplars to be more risk-averse. I assumed they would copy the color, style, topic, and tone of the previous year’s students. But that’s not what happened. Students reported the highest blogging self-efficacy and the lowest risk-aversion when they saw both the “real world” and previous student examples, but they had the highest results with student samples.

When I interviewed students, I found that seeing a diverse set of examples freed them up to take things in their own direction. They needed to see proof that student choice really meant student choice. But it also gave them something concrete to look at — a starting point that they would deviate from and it was a reminder that we often move from consuming to creating in our creative work.

It left me with tons of questions. Did the types of exemplars make a difference? Would they have done better if they simply left comments on student work rather than analyzing the strengths and weaknesses? Why were the results better when they looked at student work rather than the “real world blogs?” And what did that mean in terms of the implied messages of mentor texts?

Years later, I’m still asking those questions and every time I get closer to an answer, more questions arise and more monkey wrenches are thrown into my previous theories and observations. But that’s the beauty of discovery. It is inherently messy and human and nuanced.

Teaching doesn’t come with an instruction manual. It’s something you learn through tons of tiny experiments.

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When my ELL students struggled with word problems in math, I started with front-loading vocabulary and teaching academic language. When the results were disappointing, I began teaching verb tenses and realized that students struggled with passive voice and the past perfect progressive (something I had never heard of before).

Teachers are natural researchers. We are always asking questions, trying out new strategies, and then seeing what works. It isn’t formal research. We aren’t sitting back with a clipboard observing subjects, worrying about control groups, or questioning the p-score. We are participating in the process. That’s why I love action research.



What is Action Research?

Teaching is a craft. It’s both an art and a science, which is why great teachers always experiment and make tons of mistakes. But how do you know what’s actually working?

One option is action research.

Here you can identify a question or problem, test out a strategy, gather data, and determine if it works. The end result is something dynamic, innovative, and tied directly to your classroom. Action research dissolves the barrier between participants and researchers. In other words, the teacher actively participates in the situation while conducting the research.  There are many action research frameworks, but they generally follow a similar process:

Phase One: Planning for Research

It starts with an inquiry process, where you define a specific research question. It needs to be something you can actually test. Next, you conduct a literature review to gain a deeper understanding of the related research. Finally, you move into the design process, where you determine your data methods, consider ethical issues, get required permissions, create deadlines and set up systems.

Phase Two: Action

This is where you engage in multiple cycles of experimentation and data collection. Your data collection might include qualitative data, like observations, artifacts, and interviews or quantitative data like rubric scores, surveys, or achievement data.

Phase Three: Analysis

You will often start by organizing data with charts or graphs and looking for trends. You might also discuss it with peers, free write in a journal, or create a cluster map before eventually writing out your results.

Phase Four: Conclusion

This is often where you share your research with the world and reflect on your own practice. This will ultimately lead to new questions . . . and the cycle will continue again as you refine your craft as a better, more creative teacher.

How Action Research Sparks Innovation

It’s easy to think of innovation as the result of bold visionaries who are doing drastically different work, but often there is another type of innovation that happens in the classroom. It’s humble. It’s messy. But it’s what happens when you start with a question and then begin experimenting. It’s what happens when you are open to new information and willing to take a creative risk.

Action research sparks this type of innovation in the following ways:

  • Action research starts with your own observations, experiences, and inquiry and continues through a process of discovery. The process encourages you to challenge the status quo.
  • Action research respects the agency of the teacher by treating him or her like an expert who can figure out what works. This is a contrast to compliance-based systems where you wait to be told what to do. The result is an empowered teacher who is ready to do something innovative and creative.
  • Action research encourages you to investigate other research (a literature review) in a way that is rooted in your context. But as you move along, you share your results with trusted colleagues and share your work with the world. This leads to creative breakthroughs that you can share with the larger teacher community. When it works best, you see the transformation occurring at both the local level and at a global level.
  • Action research helps develop iterative thinking as you continue through the cycle. Ultimately, these small iterations lead to innovation.
  • In my experience, fear is one of the greatest barriers to creativity. However, the action research process allows for mistakes, which means teachers grow less averse to creative risk-taking.

Ultimately, action research has the potential to spark innovation, boost creativity, and empower teachers to transform their classrooms.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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