Action Research: Telling Stories Through Teacher-led Classroom Inquiry

I first discovered the idea of action research while perusing the website of High Tech High’s Graduate School of Education (HGH GSE). In short, action research is a data-based, action-focused, teacher-led, and often collaborative investigation into one’s own teaching practice. At HTH GSE, all students, with the help of faculty, design and implement their own inquiry into some element of teaching or school leadership. I came across e-portfolios and papers dedicated to questions like “How can I support more consistent, constructive and explicit discourse about issues of equity and diversity amongst staff and students?”. Although many of the terrific questions I came across, like this one, were not necessarily specific to the classroom, many were. It got me thinking: Why can’t GOA teachers do some version of action research as professional development, while they are actively teaching? Rather than using faculty meetings to force teachers’ hands to adopt a particular assessment strategy, or use social media, or incorporate some newfangled technology, why not create the space and provide the structure for teachers to guide their own professional growth?

Since then, I’ve researched quite a bit about action research, and have tried to envision how it might ultimately serve students within Global Online Academy courses. The way I see it, the practice of action research invites teachers to think about their course like an unwritten story. Their job is not to write the story, but to guide, through experimental and reflective inquiry, the unfolding of a story. The intention that the teacher brings to their inquiry directly impacts how meaningful and valuable the story is at imparting its message. The images below show how the cycle of a story (1) are similar to the cycle of inquiry that defines action research.

Story Cycle

“The Story Cycle” adapted from John Brown: Author’s Official Site

Action Research Cycle

The Action Research Cycle

This semester GOA teachers are wading into the waters of action research over the course of three monthly faculty meetings. In the first meeting teachers brainstormed, based on their observations from the first three weeks of the term, questions that they would like to research. Between now and early March, they will each be engaging in what I have been referring to as ‘small acts of inquiry’. Each will design a simple experiment that will provide insight into his or her research question (what is the ideal group discussion size for my class?, what parameters should I design to elicit the best peer-to-peer feedback?), choosing a metric that will then allow the teacher to compare the two variations (total number of replies to original posts, student satisfaction as gleaned from a series of polls). Teachers will then look closely at their data, make some inferences, and come to the next faculty meeting ready to share their stories.

Below are some of our teachers’ action research questions, followed by a few words of guidance I wrote in response to each. If you’d like to know more about Action Research, some recommended resources can be found at the end of this post.

“How [do I] initiate and perpetuate student feedback that is kind, useful, and specific?”

Feedback is at the heart of how students learn online. Trial and error becomes trial and feedback. Whether this question refers to feedback delivered by the teacher or by fellow students, I think there is so much to be learned about the process of feedback in online courses, more specifically in your online course. As I will likely reiterate throughout this document, the key to teacher-led inquiry is that it recognizes every class as a unique learning environment where broad generalizations serve little value. My advice would be to parse out ‘kind’, ‘useful’, and ‘specific’ and collect data related to each of these three attributes of feedback separately. Perhaps there are techniques whereby we can coach students to deliver to one another useful feedback that is both specific and kind. I imagine that doing so will require identifying the kinds of parameters and rubrics we give them and help them create.

“How do I move conversations from one-on-one to more community/classroom dialogue?”

The question of how to inspire meaningful classroom dialogue with students geographically removed from one another is a perpetually challenging one to answer. I love it. It’s important, and ripe for some teacher inquiry. You might consider experimenting with discussion parameters — how can you tighten them to break students out of their comfort zones, and yet keep them open enough to elicit new ideas. I’m not sure what this balance will be, but I do imagine that it is different for each course, and I do imagine that when the balance (between stringent and wide-open parameters) is struck it will open the door for amazing community dialogue.

“How [do we] blend individual and group learning so that we meet the challenges of online learning while still benefitting from having students geographically far apart (yet intellectually on the same page)?”

To explore the question of balance within your course, in terms of individual and group learning, you will need to play around with how, why, and when you group students. Guided by the question: ‘How does group learning serve my students?’ probe the notion of group learning deeper to identify and more clearly articulate its values. You can do this by varying, from lesson to lesson, what kinds of activities (content consumption, creative thinking, synthesizing discussions, reflection, etc..) are done in groups or as individuals, and – as always – paying attention to the outcomes. Any experimentation you do, as long as its done with intention and an open-mind, is likely to teach you a lot about group learning in the online environment.

“I both marvel at and worry about how global peer-to-peer communication can enhance a student’s learning opportunities and can possibly overshadow or interfere with content knowledge acquisition.  I’m hoping to be able to help my students get the best of both, and am experimenting with different communication techniques (large group threaded discussions, small assigned groups with video reflection on the collaboration, crowd-sourced resource lists, shared assignments) throughout my course.”

This well-articulated question is grounded in the astute observation that a good online course, one that has lots of opportunities for social connections, must still foster the acquisition of new content-specific knowledge. Otherwise it would just be really good social media. My advice here is to experiment with how much you overlap social elements and content-specific elements of your course. One one extreme, you can separate them entirely, creating a space for students to gather and share ideas entirely unrelated to your discipline while simultaneously running a parallel space where students are learning new content, however independently. On the other extreme are fully overlapped experiences, where students might be teaching each other new content, or curating resources for one another, or playing content-specific games with or against one another. As you experiment, keep track of the outcomes in terms of both social value and instructional value.   -Jake Clapp


(1) Brown, John, “The Key Conditions for Reader Suspense Part 3: Plot”. John Brown: Author’s Official Site. Date posted:10/29/10. Date accessed: 2/12/14. (

Action Research Resources:

Classroom Based Action Research: Revisiting the Process as Customizable and Meaningful Professional Development for Educators, by Craig Mertler

Guiding School Improvement with Action Research, by Richard Sagor

“The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research”, by Nancy Fichtman Dana and Diane Yendol-Hoppey © Corwin Press, 2009, ISBN: 978-1-4129-6657-3