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Action Research in Ferguson-Florissant School District

Susie Morice, Santa Fe Center for Transformational School Leadership

In the Ferguson-Florissant School District in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, more than a dozen schools are engaging in the processes of action research. The Santa Fe Center for TransformationalSchool Leadership is partnering with Washington
University to support the district as they tackle challenges in the aftermath of the tragic death ofMichael Brown that shook this community’s culture to its bones. This is a strong and geographically large district with 23 schools working for 11,000 children. Much is at stake, and multiple goals are at play. Action research teams, supported by coaches from the district’s new Transformation Project, are learning to use Systems Thinking and Design Thinking tools to examine ways of effecting positive change. Not only do these educators hope to see school cultures shift, they are also embracing a new way of examining problems with an action researcher’s eye.

Typically, a problem bubbles up, and we hustle to put a cap on the symptoms. Picture a bottle of Pepsi. If we drop the bottle, let roll across the garage floor, and immediately try to open it, we get a face full of carbonated spray. Even when we successfully recap or try bottle-tapping tricks, the soda goes flat, and it doesn’t really satisfy the thirsty drinker. So goes the problem that too quickly falls prey to the fast fix. With action research, we alter that pattern.

Using a Plan/Act/Reflect cycle, educators can figure out ways to re-see and rethink trouble spots. With the shaken Pepsi, if you wait two minutes, the soda won’t be flat. The pressure difference between the headspace and soda will over time cause the CO2 to re-dissolve until the pressure is equalized. Warmer soda means less CO2 can be dissolved. Educators, too, may get more lasting, positive results when part of the solving process is stepping back a bit.

With action research, dedicated administrators and teachers in the district are joining hands and minds to approach problems with a mindful researcher’s toolbox. Instead of attaching ourselves immediately to a possible outcome, we open ourselves to other solutions, ones we often cannot see when we work in isolation or in a state of impatience.

The action researchers at Commons Lane Elementary School, a dedicated group of a dozen educators, are digging into the ways they might generate positive behavioral changes among their students. Noticing that there is an up-tick of students demonstrating hands-on negative actions such a pushing, shoving, fighting, these action researchers are looking for answers. An important part of their current energy is looking to what other professionals have to say. Action research avoids jumping to solutions without mining the field for two things nested throughout the culture in the school:

  •   underlying issues that exist and
  •   patterns and connections that are emerging.

For example, if a student is acting up in one spot, why is it that the same student does not act up in another? What are the adults in the building doing that show connections to various behaviors? Are those things affecting students and how? The team begins to pose many questions related to the problem, recognizing that underlying issues almost always affect what is visible on the surface.

Action research is a powerful way to acknowledge the current realities in the building. When we peer beneath the surface to examine peripheral factors, we see a more complex picture of how connected all our actions are. The Commons Lane goal is an inspiration to bring students to a place of peaceful interactions among all people in the school. Action research is helping these educators find avenues

to making a sustainable, positive change in the behaviors of students and adults alike.

At McCluer North High School, an action research team comes together to examine the culture and the potential ways that the existing culture might become more resilient, compassionate, and empathetic. Through this year-long endeavor the team is using Systems Thinking and Design Thinking to enrich their own toolboxes for making a difference. Basically, Systems Thinking pushes the team to recognize the connections within the school. When any decision is made, it has an effect on not only the target issue, but also on issues around the corner that might otherwise be unrecognized. Designing ways to solve problems means the team is building skills in acknowledging the patterns and connections within multiple layers of the school culture.

A grade level principal at McCluer North, David Arledge, for example, points out the need to continually examine data and make adjustments as more information is brought to the table. A student might have an attendance problem, and the more data that is examined, the closer he can get to building effective solutions with that student. “We examine the data, go back and make adjustments, and try to figure out what is working and what isn’t,” Arledge notes. Collecting data, whether it be interviews with students or photos taken in class or the halls, helps inform the plan. Acting before we have data information of various sorts, almost guarantees that our solutions will fall flat.

Digesting professional literature on important issues affecting students and teachers is a key piece of action research. While it might be easy to preach, “Be nice!”, building a safe culture that supports resilience, compassion, and empathy requires teasing out a lot of underlying issues. Joe Harter, social studies teacher at McCluer North, after some professional reading points out that “toxic stress leads to physiological and neurological problems, affecting working memory, attentional control, and cognitive flexibility.” Erin King, math teacher in the school, adds, “Stress is the major contributor to students being able to regulate their own emotions. When considering intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards, ONLY intrinsic really works in changing behaviors over the long haul. While I was reading this, I felt like the writer was in McCluer North… this so reflected what I’m seeing…stressed kids are a very real issue here.”

At Commons Lane, the action researchers, with the guidance of their coach Lee Ann Lyons, take time to read and deconstruct professional readings on empathy, a powerful pathway to positive culturebuilding. Third grade teacher, Tanya Parson notes, “’Two types of empathy, cognitive and affective, develop at different times for boys and girls, boys being a couple years behind girls.’ What is troubling is that we, as a society, have a tendency to tell boys to be tough and not show their emotions,” thus we shut down these boys’ need to practice and develop empathy in a world that needs just that.

As action researchers expand their own learning and share that experience with their team, new understandings, possibilities, and varied solutions can emerge. The capacity to build a stronger school — a transformed school — becomes more than an aspiration; it can become a reality.