At the beginning of the research process, I had to choose a question that would become the foundation of a full school year’s worth of decisions, actions, and reflections. At the time, I felt an immense pressure to come up with the one, “right” question, a question that would sustain my interest and motivation over the long-term. I felt like picking the right question was a test I had to pass in order to move on to the next phase of the research. I was determined not to be one of the people that had to change my focus later on; those people, I believed, had failed the test, had not thought things through, did not plan ahead and as a result had to pay the price for their mistake with frustration and more work. I would not be that person.
When designing my question, I thought about what I wanted to get out of the research experience. More than anything, I wanted this experience to help me become a better teacher, and since I spent most of my time teaching math, it felt appropriate to center my question upon math as well. Next I thought about the different strategies I’d used as a teacher, the goals I had for my students, and the challenges I’d experienced with teaching math. Reflecting on these three factors helped me focus my question on math stations, a strategy I believed in yet had struggled with implementing the year before. After identifying the strategy on which to focus my research, I also wanted to name the desired end goal. What did I want my students to get from participating in stations? For me, the answer was clear: I wanted them to become effective problem-solvers. That was it, two decisions made, and a question was born: “How can I use elementary math learning stations to differentiate instruction and increase student math proficiency?” At that point, I felt good about where I was heading in my research.
Fast forward to the beginning of the new school year. I had my question, I had some background knowledge, and I had a plan. However, something was missing, and addressing that “something” would ultimately mark a huge turning point in my research. It had to do with my goal of helping students become better problem-solvers. I didn’t know how to reliably measure a student’s problem-solving ability, and if I couldn’t take a baseline measurement, how could I determine whether learning stations increased this ability? I kept reading, reflecting, and searching, and just couldn’t come up with a solution for this problem. I desperately needed to start collecting data, so I implemented my learning stations without the baseline measurement. With each day that went by, it felt like the potential validity of my findings was slipping away, along with the confidence I had in my question. My frustration led to a significant decrease in my motivation to engage in the research process, and that’s when I realized I had a decision to make. I could either stubbornly cling to my beliefs about the one “right” question, or I could change my question to better reflect what I was excited to write about, which was my students’ actual experiences with the stations.
I decided to seek feedback from graduate school colleagues on my dilemma. I described the situation to them, discussed what I was finding in the classroom, and presented some options for new research questions. With their support and guidance, I changed my question that night from, “How can I use elementary math learning stations to differentiate instruction and increase student math proficiency?” to “What happens when I use student choice to differentiate instruction in elementary math learning stations?” That same night, I also learned a pretty important lesson: change can be necessary and good, and the fear of making a mistake should not take precedence over listening to your intuition. From that point on, I stopped trying to do everything the “right” way, and started embracing research as a dynamic process instead of a lockstep sequence of events. My renewed sense of enthusiasm for moving forward told me I had made the right decision.
My research question is not the only thing that changed over the course of the year. I also ended up scaling back my list of data collection methods, and perhaps most notably, I also changed my plan for what stations would look like in my classroom. As described earlier in my Findings section, my approach to stations this year was about letting go of the tight control I had exhibited during the previous year. In hindsight, though, I think that in my quest to let go I ended up being letting go a little bit too much.
On one hand, delegating much of the decision-making responsibility to the students taught me a lot about the power of student choice. On the other hand, because the stations were so well-received and seemed to practically run themselves, I felt less compelled to keep them fresh and new, which I think probably diminished their educational value and the students’ overall enjoyment of them. Ultimately, because the stations no longer required an enormous amount of maintenance, I ended up getting a bit lazy when it came to their upkeep. Next time I implement stations, I am committed to really maximizing their potential as an instructional strategy by updating the station offerings more frequently. I would also use the stations more purposefully to reinforce ideas on a particular topic. The stations I used in my research were only loosely connected to what the students were learning on the other days of the week, which made them feel more like a stand-alone activity. Furthermore, while I believe that stations time could have been a worthwhile opportunity to pull kids together for targeted small group instruction, I highly valued the instances of “teachable moments” I experienced by not locking myself into a station or a small group and being able to freely move about the room. Therefore, in the future I will try to maintain the ability to “float” and check in with all students, while occasionally using that time to pull small groups as the need presents itself.
The action research process resulted in several positive outcomes for me as an educator, but stepping into the teacher-researcher role was not without its challenges. Personally, just getting started was difficult. I so badly wanted for everything to be “perfect” from the beginning, but the pressure of perfection actually ended up rendering me motionless for a long time. My advice to other researchers in this position is to just jump in and trust that you will learn everything you need to know along the way (like I had to do the first time I implemented stations!). Once I gave up the notion that “perfect” research conditions were attainable in my classroom and just went for it, everything fell right into place.
Another major challenge I faced this year was opening up my narrow definition of research to encompass the power of action research. Instead of spending hours reading piles of books and reporting on what other people have found, action research puts you right in the middle of the action, and that took some getting used to. My original research question reflected my limited view of research in that it tried to force a link between an instructional practice and a student outcome. If I had stuck with that original question, I would have missed out on telling the story I really wanted to tell, and the work would not have been nearly as meaningful to me or as transformative of my practice. Luckily, action research allows for flexibility and puts the researcher in control. All I had to do was listen to my intuition and give myself permission to make changes along the way to end up with a story I’m excited to share with others, and I couldn’t be happier that I ended up making those changes.
In the area of data collection, I ultimately decided to not use interviews very often during my research, and looking back, I believe that I may have missed out on a rich source of information. My hesitance to use interviews stemmed primarily from uncertainly about whom to interview, what to ask, when to conduct the interview, and how to manage the data. I was fortunate enough to get some insight on these issues from a fellow graduate school colleague who came in to conduct an observation, but unfortunately this experience happened near the end of the research cycle when it was just too late to implement a new method of data collection.
Although I missed out on using interviews as a data source, I found great success with two other methods of data collection and will continue to use them in the future. The first tool I will continue to use is surveys. I have used beginning-of-the-year and end-of-project surveys in previous years with success, and as a result of my research, I plan to expand their usage to gather information about anything from how students are experiencing a particular activity their thoughts about homework. The other data collection method I plan to keep using is exit cards. Not only did the exit cards provide quantitative and qualitative data for my research, but they also functioned as a terrific method of student accountability. Both of these methods will be helpful for determining how to better differentiate instruction, much as they did during the research process.
Engaging in action research also really opened my eyes to the benefits of using both qualitative and quantitative data to analyze student outcomes and behaviors. Before this year, I had often relied just on quantitative data (e.g. test scores, number of particular answers to a survey question) to interpret how my students were doing, but in doing so I was missing out on the richness of their own carefully selected words, thoughtful explanations, and creative ideas and wonderings. Looking forward, I plan to bring these two kinds of data together whenever possible to build a better understanding of my students.
Organization is key when collecting data in the classroom setting, whether those data represent one student or 100 students. Initially, I did not do a very good job of organizing my surveys and exit cards, which led to some unnecessary stress when I began to write-up my findings. Having at least a preliminary plan for where to house the information, how to analyze it, and how to report it goes along way in helping to maximize the value of the data and make all the time spent collecting the data worthwhile.
Completing this study has made a deep impact on my thoughts and actions as a teacher, and integrating student choice into my math learning stations led to outcomes I never could have imagined at the outset of the research process. One big lesson I learned was to trust the decision-making ability of my students. They demonstrated every week that when given the opportunity to choose their own working conditions, they became happier, more productive individuals, which was a wonderful thing to observe as their teacher. When I implement stations again, I will never go back to making all of the decisions for my students. I will also continue to promote a student-centered learning environment by embracing the creative ideas that will inevitably spring from their minds like they did this year.
Finally, one more major take-away I had as a result of the research process was learning to not give up on an instructional strategy if it flops the first time around. In the past when a lesson didn’t work or a method I was using in the classroom was hitting a roadblock, I abandoned it completely. Learning stations came dangerously close to meeting that same fate, and might not have been implemented in my class this year had I not already committed to making them the focus of my action research. Despite some initial hiccups with getting the stations up and running and modifying them to avoid the challenges I’d faced with them last year, I am so glad I stuck to it and was able to turn them in something meaningful and enjoyable for the students, and into something manageable for me. I am proud that I persevered through this challenge, and I have the research process to thank for giving me the confidence to go back and re-work something that just wasn’t quite right yet.I know that this confidence will transfer over to other areas of my practice and help me continue to grow as a teacher and as a person as well.
Ideas about letting go of control and being flexible have been some of my most significant lessons learned this year. Letting go of my original question rekindled my passion for the research process. Letting go of my previous approach to stations opened the door to a strategy that worked much better for both the students and for me. Letting go of my need for perfection allowed me to learn and grow more that I ever thought possible. These lessons are sure to leave an everlasting impact on me both personally and professionally. Ironically, I set out to make my research benefit the students, but I had no idea how much I would end up getting out of it as well. I am excited to continue reaping the benefits of letting go and learning to trust in other areas throughout the rest of my life.