Today I am joined by Dr. Etta Kralovec, a professor of education at The University of Arizona, who focuses on context, research gathering, and teacher preparation, specifically with a focus on US/Mexico border communities. Dr. Kralovec is a widely accomplished author and researcher, with works such as The End of Homework and Schools That Do Too Much, a Fulbright Scholar, school leader and founder, and international expert.
In this podcast, we talk about the practice of teacher action research, where educators perform qualitative studies of what they're doing - essentially to figure out if it works. As you'll soon hear, the power of teacher action research lies in the process of reflecting and analyzing the information. Further, teacher action research is the cornerstone of Human Restoration Project's upcoming microcredentialing program.
Dr. Etta Kralovec, professor of education at The University of Arizona, author, researcher, Fulbright Scholar, and expert on teacher action research with a specific focus on US/Mexico border communities.
*Dr. Kralovec has graciously provided her author email, email@example.com - to answer any questions about teacher action research and how it can work for you!
Chris McNutt: Hello, before we get started, I wanted to let you know that this podcast is brought to you by Human Restoration Project's patrons. All of our work, which includes free resources, materials, and this podcast are available for free due to our Patreon supporters, three of whom are Bradley Hinson, Tracy Nicole Smith, and Emma. Thank you for your ongoing support, and you can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Hello, and welcome to Season 3, Episode 28 of Things Fall Apart, our podcast of the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt, and I'm a high school digital media instructor from Ohio. Today, I am joined by Dr. Etta Kralovec, professor of education at the University of Arizona, who focuses on context, research gathering, and teacher preparation, specifically with a focus on the US-Mexico border communities. Dr. Kralovec is a widely accomplished author and researcher with work such as The End of Homework and Schools That Do Too Much. She's a Fulbright scholar, a school leader and founder, as well as an international expert. In this podcast, we will talk about the practice of teacher action research, where educators perform qualitative studies of what they're doing, essentially to figure out if it works or not. And as you'll soon hear, the power of teacher action research lies in the process of reflecting and analyzing that information. Further, teacher action research is the cornerstone of Human Restoration Project's upcoming microcredentialing program.
Etta Kralovec: I'm Etta Kralovec, and I started my career as a teacher in Laguna Beach, California, where I started an alternative high school for at-risk students. And it was a progressive high school. The students were involved in every decision that was made and hired the teachers. And so from there, I went on to graduate school at Teachers College Columbia to get my doctorate in philosophy because I had so many questions after teaching for 12 years. I went on to College of the Atlantic, where I was the head of the secondary education program, also a progressive college. Also students, all the committee's decisions were made by consensus. And I developed the teacher education program there. During that time, I went to Zimbabwe as a Fulbright scholar to develop a teacher preparation program at a new university. And then I've now come to the University of Arizona, where I am a teacher educator and run a program for STEM teachers in the border region.
CM: It's a really impressive CV. And I came across your work when I read The End of Homework, and then I picked up schools that do too much. I love reading works by progressive educators that are really into the research because I think that what's missing from progressive education a lot of the time is that focus on the fact that it is backed by research. It's not just, I think that some people might paint it as this hippie, we're all connected. There's not a basis of science.
EK: Oh, who would think that?
CM: There's a little bit of that in there, but that's what people need in order to learn. They need that human connection and they need that intrinsic motivation.
EK: I think one of the things that we've lost is education and the foundations of education for teachers. When I was training to be a teacher, I had to take a philosophy education class, sociology, history. We don't do that anymore in teacher preparation. It's kind of down and dirty. It's more focused on technical things. So we've lost the foundations of education and people aren't able, I don't think to really understand the philosophical and theoretical frameworks that progressive ed grows out of. So it's too bad because it's a very rich theoretical literature about progressive ed and I'd like us all to return to it.
CM: In this change towards like teacher as technician, as opposed to like teacher as artist or teacher as professional, there's like this really tight rope that we have to walk across where teachers feel like they're disrespected from all angles by practically everyone. But the same as at time, if teachers want to be treated as professionals, they have to have a certain level of professionalism, which means that they have to have that basis and that framework. So even before we jump into teacher action research, how do you communicate growth for teachers without it coming across as you're just not a good teacher or you suck or something like that?
EK: Well, we just got a new NSF grant to bring in a cadre of STEM teachers into a leadership program. And we framed the leadership program in a way that I think is really powerful. And that is that we said that we're going to prepare these teachers to be teacher leaders and lead professional development programming in our professional learning community. And there's just so few opportunities for teachers to be leaders in any way other than the traditional, OK, now you're going to be a vice principal, now you're going to be principal. So we're trying to open up avenues. And I think that's what your work does to places where teachers can become professionals, which means they can read together, study together, lead each other, act as colleagues. So we need to create those spaces, I think, because right now it's just if you have a good principal, they come in once a year, they do whatever they do. There's people that think we ought to use student test scores to rate teachers. So it's all very punitive right now. And the whole system doesn't define teachers as professionals, really. So teachers are deep professionalized all the way through from the testing to the standards, to the textbooks. It's like they've lost their freedom in many ways. And I think I think that's what leads to this really what can be a toxic environment for teachers.
CM: Sure. And the thing that's really I'm noticing that worries me a lot is that freedom is starting to be kind of masqueraded through professional learning. I guess what I mean by that is like this like neoliberal corporate, like selling package PD, bring someone in for seven thousand dollars to do like a one day workshop.
EK: Well, you know, we're trying to turn that on its head with the with this teacher run professional learning community. And we were really interested in it when I was really interested in when I was meeting with a local principal maybe three years ago. And he started telling me about all this great PD they're going to do. They're going to fly all the teachers to Texas. They're going to do. I think it was what's that whatever the Cornell note Abbot, the Abbot training. And he said, and I'm going to have the teachers do teacher research. And I said, oh, that's great to be so interesting to hear what questions they have and what data they want to collect to answer those questions. And he said, oh, no, no, no, no, no. I don't know what you're talking about. We're just going to look at student data and figure out how to get it up. And, you know, when he said that to me, I thought this is what we're doing to teachers now. We're we're we're sending them to AVID. We're making them learn how to do some system that may or may not fit their school. And we're calling it, you know, teacher research.
CM: Right. Well, let's let's dive into it then. Let's talk about your program. Let's talk about what teacher action research is, because honestly, up until about probably two years ago, I had no idea what that term meant. I don't feel like it's as publicized as it probably should be. So what is it?
EK: Well, I think teacher action research is really a response to the work that came out, you know, I don't know, maybe 15 years ago about the inquiry stance in teaching and how that the argument really was teachers need to be inquirers in their classrooms. And it's so clear to me in working with my students, I mean, I've been a teacher educator for 20 years. So when I work with my students, one of the first things that happens for a teacher, a new teacher, is they start they get into a school, you know, the teach, sometimes teachers complain, you know, what a school environment is like, you know, and they just get sort of demoralized by the negativity of the other teachers, and kind of of the system, you know, so I really try to help my students and I do this whenever they go on some negative rant, you know, they say, and I say, Can you turn that into a question? Can you turn the what you're feeling about what's happening in your classroom? What questions come to you from this experience that you're describing? And I think it is a tremendous, really powerful framework adjustment. When teachers start thinking about their classrooms and the problems they're having, not as problems, but as questions. And so for me, I think that's where teacher action research really starts, is with the questions that teachers have, that frankly, only teachers can answer about their classrooms, you know, I mean, the model that we have where the research is done at the university, and then it kind of dribbles down maybe to the superintendents, and then the superintendents maybe fan it out to the principal, you know, I mean, that whole system of research delivery is what teacher action research tries to flip on its head.
CM: And I would assume, too, that a lot of that research is also kind of caked into progressive ed as well, which is that's really what we're expecting from students, which is students are the inquirers, and then teachers are the inquirers watching their students inquire, which is kind of this whole flip narrative. Could you speak a little about how teacher action research then advances progressive ed in that pedagogy and mindset?
EK: Well, I think that, and I'll talk a little about the transition of my students as they're developing action research proposals, because I think that they start out, you know, it takes them a long time to shape questions, they start out by thinking they're going to do a survey or they're going to look at student grades or whatever, you know, typical kind of statistical stuff, and we spend a lot of time talking about student voice. And so they move along in their journey from thinking about, all right, I need to collect their grades and then see if the attendance affects the grades or whatever, you know, and they come to a point where they're really interested in hearing what the students have to say, about whatever the questions are. You know, so the shift into the focus on student voice and trying to understand students' lived experiences in their classrooms is, I mean, there is probably no more foundational principle in progressive education than student voice, than the students are part of this mix and this community. And, you know, I've even started, you know, so as my students get their research data collection stuff together, I always encourage them to do a community engagement board where I say to them, you know, if you have these questions, why don't you write this on a poster board and have the students answer this in public on a paper so everybody in the community can see how everybody feels, you know, so that notion of the classroom or the school as a community is really fostered when teachers engage in action research, where they're speaking to students and having students involved in shaping that research.
CM: It seems like such a powerful tool to not only obviously learn a lot about your students and improve on your own craft, but once you start looking at student voice, you're also going to start looking at all of the other fundamentals of progressive ed that go hand in hand, like critical pedagogy, for example, which would just be a natural offshoot of once you dive into this. How do you see your students then start interacting with each other as a result of each person doing their own separate research?
EK: Well, you know, they have to share their research findings with each other. And I think probably, unfortunately, we couldn't do that face to face this year for the first time ever. But what they learn from each other, oftentimes they'll say it's like I just did 12 research projects because I've seen the results of all of my fellow students and they learn phenomenal things because there's so much diversity in those research projects. But the research projects are all conducted in southeastern Arizona. So there's some characteristics of the schools that they're all in that shape those action research projects. So they're really relevant to all the students.
CM: And for someone who's listening in that maybe isn't involved in like a graduate program or a special professional development program, where would they get started to start doing this process on their own? Or would that be possible without someone to advise them?
EK: Well, no, you can go to YouTube and figure out how to do teacher action research. I mean, there's you know, there's organizations, there's websites where teachers post their action research projects, there's a lot of stuff out there on the Internet. You know, we always encourage our students to have critical friends and in our classes, they work as critical friends. And that has been really important to some students. So I would say for some people, they might need critical friends, which you would always want that would be the ideal. You know, we don't live in an ideal world. So if that's not possible, and you're the kind of person that's self motivated and can do this kind of work on your own, you could do it on your own with your students. And instead of having your colleagues be your critical friends, your students are your critical friends.
CM: I'm imagining I'm walking through this process, I do some research, I pick a question, I talk to students about it, I probably change my question slightly after I talk to students, and I probably change my research halfway through. Because I've done a little bit of those myself and what it looks like at the end is entirely different than what I figured it would be when I walked into it. Yeah, right. And is there a point where, because I've done this by myself, and I feel like I've messed it up. There are many points where I'm going through it and I'm like, the result that I get is not like, it could be analyzed, but it feels very tailored to what I was trying to figure out what was going on, if that makes sense. Like it's very contextual, and very, it's hard to read, it's very complex. Is there a way to mess this up? Like, are there things that you shouldn't do?
EK: Well, I would say, I don't think there's anything you shouldn't do. But I mean, we use these action research projects in lieu of master's thesis in our program. So there are very strict university standards for qualitative research in terms of data collection and data analysis. So the actual final project that is produced by the students in addition to a poster are these rather formal qualitative studies, basically. And I mean, there are systematic ways to analyze data, there's systematic ways to display your findings. I mean, so that kind of systematic stuff in graduate school is one thing. But I think in terms of teachers in their classrooms, I mean, you don't have to do a formal data analysis on, you know, an informal survey you give your kids. And when you ask them, you know, did this movie help you and you know, 92% of them raise their hand and say no, I mean, you don't need to really analyze that data formally. So no, I don't think there's any bad way to do it. I took a year's leave from the university and was that principal of LA Leadership Academy, which was a charter school in East LA. And the reason that the CEO wanted me to come there was he wanted me to do action research with his teachers, because he just thought it would be a really powerful way to do PD. So I went and we spent most of the year with the teachers got in groups, they selected the topic. Anyway, they did great projects, lots of interviews, lots of stuff. And then they went on strike in the spring. So the whole thing fell apart. So I guess sometimes when you do things right, and you kind of formalize it, the shit happens in schools.
CM: It makes sense. I highly doubt it. But I wonder if any of that work lends itself to teachers feeling like, oh, now I start having a voice. And now I can actually like, take charge for a little bit and try to make a difference. Because I think about like, like Linda Darling Hammond stuff, which is how I eventually like how I got to the point of teacher action research and understanding what's going on. I see a lot of what she talks about in terms of empowering teachers to speak out for themselves and becoming more into that admin position, as you were talking about before, not as formal admin, but as teachers as leaders, and how that would change the culture of a school, both in terms of teacher voice, but also like in terms of the relationship between administration maybe between teacher. Do you want to talk a little about how teacher action research changes just the whole structure of what's going on?
EK: Well, I think that I think in order for teacher action research to have that impact, you have to have a culture in the school of inquiry. So if you want to do an action research project on your own, but your principal, you know, gets his information from someplace else and doesn't really support it and doesn't let you have a professional learning community or critical friends, doesn't help you fix your schedule so you can meet together, all that stuff is really important for this work. So in some ways the culture almost has to be there, and then the action research is something that turns that culture into a culture of inquiry. But there's got to be in that school, I think, some kind of culture where the teachers and especially the administration is open to that kind of inquiry and willing actually to do it because the stuff that comes out of some of this research is really damning about school culture.
CM: I'm sure it is, especially if you're tackling things like packets that you send home during COVID-19. Do you see a way for this to then be utilized virtually? Because a lot of us are walking into these virtual classrooms that will likely continue at least somewhat in fall without really any idea of what we're doing. Like, I'm taking some pretty good guesses, but I don't even have, like, I'm used to being able to teach my class and I can kind of figure out what's going on, I can figure out the mood of the class, I can figure out why students either like or don't like what we're doing. Now it's kind of hit or miss. Kids could be really not saying much, but really enjoying what they're doing when I collect feedback. Do you have any suggestions or do you see any way of how this could be integrated specifically for COVID-19?
EK: Well, you know, one of the really big kind of movements that's in the action research world is this youth participatory action research and Angela Valenzuela's book on creating critical teachers. I'm not sure that's the right title, but anyway, this idea that the students are doing the action are doing action research projects. That was one of the foundation pieces of the ethnic studies program in Tucson. So there's a way in which you can take the action research model and have students do it. And I think that would be a really interesting thing to try to do if we're online in the fall and to have the students research, how could this environment be better? What do I need in this environment? And so that YPAR piece, I think, could be really interesting right now because I think the kids would be motivated to do work where they're asking their own questions and trying to find the answers rather than doing packets that arrive in the mail.
CM: Yeah, that's interesting because I think it leads to the type of transformation that I think many of us are hoping for as a result of the pandemic. There's this one side that's very scared of transformation because it could lead to like MOOCs and very gross individualized replacing teachers with computer programs. Then there's the complete other side, which is having students become more self-directed and seeing teachers as guides and getting more focused on purpose finding and all these really cool things. And I just see teacher action research and what you're talking about, that youth participatory action research or something like that. That's a pretty cool endeavor to get that started.
EK: I think that the possibilities for a reimagined education growing out of COVID are enormous. And so on the one hand, you've got Cuomo asking Bill Gates to figure out how to reimagine New York City. But I think we all hope that it's teachers who lead this phoenix out of this. Because oddly, and I think about this myself, I sit in my office and I think every single book in my office about teaching methods and classroom management is out of date now. So it's like the teachers who lived through this are the ones who are going to have to redesign the system. And people like me and people like state boards of education are going to have to get out of the way because if the teachers don't lead it, then you're going to get MOOCs and you're going to get Bill Gates and you're going to get. So I mean, I'm hopeful because at least in Arizona, there was a Red for Ed. And I mean, the teachers got pretty activated here, an activist around the salary issue. And we'll see if they carry that on. But the teachers haven't been in a position to redesign education ever before in the history of education. I mean, this is just like, wow. And you got to get rid of a lot of these older teachers, because when I talk to my students and we talk about how the transition is going to online, they always say that the teachers who are the angriest and the most we can't do that online and blah, blah, blah are the older teachers. So it may be that there's going to be a lot of older teachers are going to leave because they're going to go, I don't want to do this. I didn't sign up to teach online. I don't like computers. I just shop on my computer. I don't do anything. You know what I mean? So there may be this real change in who's teaching after this happens. And I think who's teaching are going to be those teachers probably like you who are experimental and innovative and think about the world in very different ways than the people who set up the schools that exist think about the world. So I think it's a beautiful moment for teachers and let's hope that they take control of it.
CM: Thank you again for listening to Things Fall Apart from the Human Restoration Project. I hope this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. If you have time, I'd love for you to leave us a review on iTunes, Spotify, social media, or anywhere you see fit. Do us a favor and tweet this out, post it on Facebook, spread our reach as much as possible, and let's push forward and restore humanity together.