The Role of Action Research in Transforming Teacher Identity: Modes of Belonging and Ecological Perspectives

Jun. 20, 2010

Source: Educational Action Research, Vol. 18, No. 2, (June 2010), p. 167–182.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

While teacher identity has been conceptualized in different ways, research in teacher education has shown that the development of self-understanding about being a teacher is critical to learning how to teach and can be shaped in multiple ways.

Etienne Wenger argues that the formation of communities of practice is influenced strongly by the negotiation of identity and thus, to understand learning in relation to identity formation and communities of practice, three modes of belonging should be considered.

Using data from a three-year action research project, the author examines how action research may be used to promote and support teacher identity construction and reconstruction.

Research Questions

More specifically, this paper addresses the following questions:
How are modes of belonging (engagement, alignment, and imagination) enacted in teacher-centred action research communities of practice?, and
How can an ecological perspective provide insight into how teachers’ identities are formed and reformed in the context of teacher-centred action research communities of practice?

Context of the study

This study occurred over a three-year period from 2004 to 2007 and involved 50 teachers from three different school districts.

Teachers became part of an ongoing action research community referred to as Science Across the Curriculum. K–12 teachers participated in the community for varying periods of time ranging from one to two consecutive years.
All teachers were part of the larger action research community, which met on a regular basis from September to June each year.

During these whole group meetings, teachers were focused on understanding the nature of action research, planning inquiry projects, sharing insights and developing understandings during planning and implementation of their action research projects, and engaging in individual and group reflection.

The researcher, two school district programme specialists, and graduate research assistants provided support and guidance as teachers conceptualized and implemented their action research plans.

Discussion and implications

In this project, teachers determined the focus of the research and most aspects of the research were conceptualized by the teachers within collaborative, supportive communities of practice. All participants were ‘new’ teacher researchers and, for the most part, their previous experiences with teacher development entailed the completion of university courses and workshops. Thus, teachers assumed a different role in this by having ownership and control of how they engaged in action research. They became learners who could build on their current knowledge and insights while interrogating the knowledge of others.

Moreover, teachers were supported and encouraged to share their new insights and understandings both locally and publicly, a new role for many of the teachers. While teachers improved their own practice and their understanding of that practice, they shared the outcomes of their action research projects with their staff, at local and national conferences.

Equally important in forging new identities was alignment – teachers recognizing how their inquiry could be enhanced or limited by a complex array of factors. Teachers aligned their practices with specified curriculum frameworks and examined how their work would fit with broader, school-based and district-wide initiatives.


The author would highly recommend that schools and school districts and those who support teacher development adopt policies and professional development practices that are inclusive of teacher-directed action research. Secondly, in cultivating action research communities of practice, careful attention should focus on ensuring modes of belonging are supported in a balanced manner. Thirdly, explicitly adopting an ecological perspective (researchers, teacher educators, and teachers) can be the impetus to developing greater insight into the nature of teacher identity.
Wenger, E. 1998. Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity.
New York: Cambridge University Press.

Updated: Jun. 29, 2010