Let’s fix it even if it isn’t broken: The power of action research

I grew up hearing the phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. There are certain situations where this approach is likely to be helpful, and we certainly want to avoid making changes where there is no positive impact or even a worsening of the problem. In German, there’s even a specific word to describe such a dilemma: Verschlimmbesserung or ‘worsening-improvement’.

A phenomenon that I’ve observed in some international schools, which may also exist in other organizations, is a lack of systematic approaches to implementing needed improvements. This is not a result of complacency, in my experience, but rather a general sense of overwhelm. Often, stakeholders, including parents and even senior leaders, are unaware of or too busy to delve into areas that would require improvement in learning. On one hand, it’s great for schools to be trusted to carry on as they are. On the other hand, it can be frustrating to be aware of areas that need attention but not know how to address these in a systematic way, which can often be the case for middle leaders.

Only through questioning our own processes can we position ourselves to make improvements, and this is something that is absolutely possible for teachers and middle leaders to do. There is likely more than one point of concern that warrants a second look where perhaps only a considered small change can bring an impactful result.

Through this approach, schools can create a working environment that facilitates innovation and creativity by offering the freedom to explore and experiment. In place of or in addition to traditional goal setting, teachers and teams can be encouraged to identify areas of concern based on quantitive or qualitative data results and/or to identify relevant areas of interest where it is felt a positive impact could result.

Such action research undertaken by middle leaders and teachers can improve learning and, at the same time, create an improved school culture. Steps include gathering information about current educational programs and learning outcomes, developing a plan to make improvements where needed, making observations after a new plan is implemented, and reflecting on the impact.

These stages of Action Research can be formalized or not, but bear in mind that structures to support here may be helpful if only to confirm that experimentation is encouraged and that a lack of positive results will only be seen as a reason to continue to explore.

Suggestions for Goal Setting:

  • Define the type of goal.
    • Example: Will it be an improvement in content learning or in a pastoral or skill area?
  • Define the elements of a goal in your context.
    • Example: A goal:
      • Identifies gains in learning for individual students/cohorts;
      • Clearly identifies a focus;
      • Makes the outcomes explicit and measurable through clear links to evidence;
      • Outlines Action Steps, timings, responsibilities and resources, which may include peer observation, peer coaching, books, professional development, online resources and courses, visits to other schools, workshops, and more.
  • Provide a structure or template to record goal-related information:
    • Example:
      • What Issue has been identified?
      • For which students/cohorts is a need for learning gains identified?
      • What gains in students learning will result?
      • What action steps need to be taken?
      • What resources are needed?
      • In what time frame will the goal be achieved?
      • Which team members will contribute to the achievement of this goal?
      • What are the individual responsibilities within the team for the achievement of the goal, if any?
      • What is the evidence that informs this understanding?
      • What is the focus of the goal?
  • Provide sample goals that include all elements (color-coding can help here)

Examples of improvement in content learning

Examples of improvement in pastoral and skills areas

Even at a grass-roots level, this approach has the potential for catalyzing change in any setting. Not only will it improve learning, but your school culture will be characterized as creative, motivating, innovative, and up-to-date with the latest best practices.

This article can also be found on MiniPD, a Professional Learning Hub where coaching and courses are available from a variety of inquiry-based educators. (Note: a free learner account is required to access.)

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