Action Research: Building a Pathway Between Large Research and Local Anecdotes
Over the past year, I have given a lot of serious thought to school library advocacy. I admit my original catalyst was a AASL 2017 National Conference session and continued reading of Causality: School Libraries and Student Success II (CLASS II) (Mardis, Kimmel & Pasquini, 2018). During the session at AASL National, I remember being jazzed, raising my hand, and asking what I can do to make a difference within the profession. In school, I began discussing the concept of causality research with my peer educators. Since the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) calls for evidence as a basis for interventions, it seemed only natural to apply “causal inferences” (Dept. of Ed.) when collaborating with educators on library services. Yet, working collaboratively with educators seemed to be the limit of my advocacy efforts. As a result, the only changes I made toward others understanding the value of a school library was limited to my own district. It was not until a second more targeted and formal research study was conducted in Massachusetts that I felt the urge to truly take up the charge for larger advocacy actions. Through the advocacy efforts of a few Massachusetts school librarians, who promoted the value of school libraries with their Massachusetts legislators, the Special Commission on School Library Services in Massachusetts was formed. The commission’s research produced The Massachusetts School Library Study: Equity and Access for Students in the Commonwealth. The research offered clear connections to my practice and a comparative lens by which to view school librarianship.
While both the CLASS II and Massachusetts research studies provide insight into practice and potential change, the data from these research studies can easily be categorized as “the big story” for school administrators. The big story is when the data is broad in scope. The broad nature of the data does not contain the individual data necessary for school administrators to support their specific school library’s efforts when budgets and resources are divided up within a school district. Yet, when a school librarian requires data to support staffing, justify budgets, or transform programs, equally arguable are local anecdotes. Within schools anecdotes are often used to support an effort. Anecdotes tell a story and often contain emotion intended to show inclination. Between the larger studies and the local stories, I am left asking, where is the middle ground? How can the legitimate data found in formal research be generated with actual school-based narratives? My answer: action research. Action research can provide a research method with a targeted purpose focusing on a specific problem already existing in a school librarian’s local practice (Creswell, 2012). Action research can also provide a school librarian with both the data and stories necessary to justify a change within his or her district. With data created more formally, I wondered how I could take this information to a state and national level.
Since data and information is essential in supporting any argument, I determined that generating solutions through action research may be my best course of action for developing reliable data. However, even after deciding on action research, I hesitated. Understanding that the variables, phenomenon, and results would not be generalizable to any other location, I felt unsure that my one school or district phenomenon could make a difference in the greater scheme of state or nation-wide support. I also hesitated due to the added time I would need to organize an action research effort. School librarians need enough time to complete expected school responsibilities and professional commitments, in addition to conducting action research within a school library. Furthermore, I also wondered if action research would greatly differ from my current mode of evaluating aspects of my school library’s programming. To answer this, I returned to what librarians do best: research.
Researching “action research” together with “school libraries” generated a sprinkling of articles and books, which supported the notion that action research can generate the necessary data within an evidence-based practice educational environment (Harper and Deskin, 2015; Howard, 2005; Keller, 2017; Loertscher, 2008). The articles focused on simply advocating action research to offering organizational methods and considerations for conducting and writing action research. Yet, what was most valuable to me was the realization that collectively the articles extend a pathway for school librarians to develop the necessary middle ground between large research studies and local anecdotal evidence. Now I just needed to develop my understandings of action research.
School librarians are well versed in locating resources to develop solutions, examine practices, and implement change, in order to support student engagement and learning. These practices become our strength when opposing voices state action research is not a legitimate method for developing data. Jody Howard and Su A. Eckhardt (2005) reasoned that testing for trustworthiness, ensuring reflective planning time, and the lack of university backing, normally part of traditional research, are possible deterrents of action research (p.5). To overcome these obstacles, school librarians should determine which of their current processes can be augmented for formalized action research to generate a solution to a specific problem or reflect upon a current practice (Creswell, 2012, p. 577). Generally, action research processes consist of:
- Developing a problem statement to focus the research
- Formulating a literature review with a theoretical approach
- Identifying guiding research questions
- Determining participant safeguards
- Conducting a trustworthiness test to legitimize the data
- Selecting a data collection method
- Analyzing and interpreting the data
- Reporting outcomes and implications (Howard and Eckhardt, 2005; Keller, 2017; Harper and Deskin, 2015).
Within each of these processes are elements of current school librarian practices. Admittedly, extra time is necessary for formal writing and the development of necessary human subject safeguards. School librarians will have to make the decision to conduct action research within their school libraries. The individual choice indicates an understanding for the value of action research and a commitment to the time and process necessary to legitimize the data.
Although the findings of action research are not generalizable to multiple locations, we are left with the question, how can action research support advocacy? The answer is in our collective voices.
If many school librarians are conducting action research on similar phenomenon, then what does the collective data reveal? Can the collective data serve as the pathway for generating themes of evidence leading to possible change? School librarians will undoubtedly find a value in action research, if they give it a shot. Will you commit to conducting action research in your school library?
Crewswell, J.W. 2012. Educational Research: Planning, Conducting and Evaluating Quantitative and Qualitative Research. New York: Pearson
Department of Education. 2016. Non-Regulatory Guidance: Using Evidence to Strengthen Education Investments. Retreived from https://ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/essa/guidanceuseseinvestment.pdf
Harper & Deskin. 2015. “Using Action Research to Assess and Advocate for Informative School Library Design.” Knowledge Quest, v44(2). 24-33.
Howard, J.K., Eckhardt, S.A. 2005. Action Research: A Guide for the Library Media Specialist. Columbus, OH: Linworth Publishing
Keller, C. 2017. “Action Research: Your School Library, Your Timetable, Your Local Challenge.” Teacher Librarian, v44(5), 8-11.
Loertscher, D. 2008. “Flip this Library: School Libraries Need a Revolution.” School Library Journal, v54(11), 46-48.
Mardis, M.S., Kimmel, S.C., and Pasquini, L.A. 2018. “Building of Causality: A Future for School Librarian Research and Practice.” Knowledge Quest, v46(4), 20-27.
Special Commission on School Libraries. 2018. The Massachusetts School Library Study: Equity and access for students in the commonwealth. Retrieved from https://libguides.salemstate.edu/c.php?g=827823&p=5910595
Author: Georgina Trebbe
Georgina Trebbe, Ed.D. is the school librarian at Minnechaug Regional High School in Massachusetts. She is also an adjunct instructor for Simmons University’s SLT program. Georgina’s interests include information literacy, collaboration, and school librarians as researchers.