Interconnectedness and difference between action research and a lesson design study in Shanghai, China


Source: Educational Action Research, 27:4, 595-612

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this article the authors outline their approach to their Lesson Design Study (LDS) with a Teaching Research Group (TRG) in Shanghai and then summarise what Rowell et al. (2015) depict as the distinguishing characteristics of AR in their study of the views of the members of the Action Research Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association.
They use this depiction of the distinguishing characteristics of AR as an analytical framework to identify the interconnectedness and difference between AR and their LDS.
In the authors’ LDS there are three main phases of a teacher’s action followed by two key reflections (briefly called ‘three actions and two reflections’).
During the initial phase, the teacher designs and implements tasks within a lesson according to the teacher’s usual teaching practice.
For the second phase, the teacher receives guidance and support from the TRG.
During this phase, the TRG discussions (addressing both the ‘horizontal’ and the ‘vertical’ learning of teachers) are focused on developing new ideas in order to re-design and re-implement the tasks and the lesson.
During the third phase, the teacher is expected to adjust the teaching, and the re-redesigned tasks and lesson, according to feedback received on student learning during the earlier phases.
Accordingly, the first reflection taking place between the first two phases aims at updating ideas; namely, teachers identify the differences between their existing practice and the innovative ideas from the TRG discussions.
The second reflection follows and is aimed at improving action; namely, teachers identify the gap between the implementation of the innovative design, including its effects on pupil learning outcomes, between the last two phases.

Analytical framework: the distinguishing characteristics of action research
In their analysis the authors made use of a study of the views of members of the American Educational Research Association’s Action Research Special Interest Group (AERA AR SIG) by which Rowell et al. (2015) constructed a depiction of the distinguishing characteristics of AR.
They use this depiction of the characteristics of AR as their analytical framework for analysing the interconnectedness and important differences of AR and their LDS approach.

The LDS in Shanghai
The LDS was conducted in an international school (Grades 1–9) in the west suburb of Shanghai from 2013 to 2015.
The data sources from the LDS include: the case teachers’ initial lesson plans; the transcripts of the video-recorded lessons; the transcripts of the video-recorded TRG meetings; and the transcripts of the video-recorded re-taught lessons; the teachers’ teaching diary, and teachers’ interviews after their lessons.
To address their research question, the authors used the three key elements of the distinguishing characteristics of AR proposed by Rowell et al. (2015) as their analytical framework: (1) the nature, (2) the key processes, and (3) the practices.

The authors pay particular attention to the key categories identified in each of the elements of the LDS: the nature, the key processes, and the practices of the LDS.

The nature of the LDS
Based on their analysis, the nature of their LDS embraces the following three features (1) multiple dimensions of professional learning through the LDS model, (2) the mentoring role played by the researcher and the expert teachers in the LDS, and (3) knowledge cogenerated by the LDS aims to tackle bigger questions across the social contexts of the research field.

The multiple dimensions of professional learning through the LDS model
The teachers in the LDS were not solely engaged in self-oriented teaching practice and research as a form of self-led reflection.
The LDS teachers conducted the LDS teaching experiments in their own classes, or their colleagues’ class of the same grade.
Nevertheless, the whole research process of the LDS was guided by the researcher, particularly in terms of the research design method, data collection and analysis through the LDS model.
The researcher’s role in the dual function of the LDS is further explained in what follows.

The mentoring role played by researcher and expert teachers in the LDS
The researcher and the expert teachers played an important mentoring role in the teachers’ professional learning in the LDS.
The guided learning was necessary partly due to the mentoring feature of the LDS and partly due to the challenge and need of the school.
After the third cycle of the LDS, the researchers developed a set of questions to support the teachers to reflect on their learning of the targeted lesson design in their teaching diary, such as ‘what was the main gap of your initial lesson design and the ideas from the expert teacher’s comments in the TRG meeting?’, ‘What did you consider taking from the comments of the TRG into the re-designed lesson?’, etc.
Data from the teachers’ teaching diary proved valuable in enabling the researchers to capture the nature of the teachers’ professional learning and the factors that helped or hindered their learning.

Knowledge co-generated in the LDS aimed at bigger questions across social contexts
Generally speaking, the research team in the LDS was not only concerned with the teachers’ practical questions in one local social context, but also aimed to narrow the gap between research and practice and to tackle bigger questions across the social contexts in the education research field.

The key processes of the LDS
In the LDS, the ‘three-actions-two-reflections’ concurrently address both action and knowledge in the teachers’ professional learning process, which includes their simultaneous learning of lesson design according to the targeted theory and their learning of the act of lesson implementation.
The simultaneous emphasis on action and reflection in a teacher’s teaching in fact shows the authors’ effort to tackle a widely shared, but oversimplified, view of the relationship between knowledge and practical skills in teacher professional development (TPD) (e.g. how well teachers know their subjects affects how well they can teach).

The practices of the LDS
The design of the LDS cycles chiefly refers to the specific methodology of ‘design research’ (Gravemeijer 2004).
That is, the designed lesson in each of the cycles represents the pedagogical thinking experiment of a targeted theory.
The lesson implementation in each of the cycles is thus a teaching experiment to see how the targeted theory works.
The authors’ LDS takes van den Akker’s (1999) view of the design approach that researchers should not only concentrate on the question of whether a theory yields coherent and accurate predictions, but also ask whether it works – especially whether the theoretical concepts and principles inform practices in productive ways.

The interconnectedness and difference between a LDS and AR
The authors’ analysis found that the methodological approach, the knowledge developed, and the role of the participants were features that distinguished their LDS from AR (as characterised by Rowell et al. 2015).
The blend of action and reflection, and the collaborative effort to develop a form of communicative space (Kemmis 2001) with the aim to support reflection and improve practice, is something that interconnects AR and LDS.

One of the contributions of the LDS is its focus on the teachers’ implementation of the reformed textbooks and theoretical ideas through designing and acting on the targeted theory-based teaching.
At the research level, the authors consider that it is necessary for researchers to commit to narrowing the gap between research and practice and to work side-by-side with practitioners in the real school world to develop innovations in research design, so as to uncover the dynamic action process of teachers both in depth and in width and eventually help to solve teachers’ problems and develop their fundamental understanding and commitment in their profession.

Gravemeijer, K. 2004. “Local Instruction Theories as Means of Support for Teachers in Reform Mathematics Education.” Mathematical Thinking and Learning 6 (2): 105–128. doi:10.1207/ s15327833mtl0602_3.
Kemmis, S. 2001. “Exploring the Relevance of Critical Theory for Action Research: Emancipatory Action Research in the Footsteps of Jurgen Habermas.” In Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice, edited by P. Reason and H. Bradbury, 91–102. London: SAGE.
Rowell, L.L., E.Y. Polush, M. Riel, and A. Bruewer. 2015. “Action Researchers’ Perspectives about the Distinguishing Characteristics of Action Research: A Delphi and Learning Circles Mixed-Methods Study.” Educational Action Research 23 (2): 243–270. doi:10.1080/09650792.2014.990987
van den Akker J. 1999. "Principles and Methods of Development Research". In Design Approaches and Tools in Education and Training, edited by J. van den Akker, R. M. Branch, K.t Gustafson, N. Nieveen, and T. Plomp, 1–14. Dordrecht: Springer 

Updated: Apr. 20, 2020


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