Action Research In Special Education

In this webcast Dr. Susan Bruce talks about inquiry as the basis of action research and the types of action research that can be conducted.

In this webcast Dr. Susan Bruce talks about inquiry as the basis of action research and the types of action research that can be conducted. In addition, she shares examples of action research studies that were conducted at Perkins School for the Blind during the past two school years.

Read full transcript »

Presented by Dr. Susan Bruce

Length of time to complete: approximately 30 minutes


  1. Introduction
  2. Inquiry as the Basis of Action Research
  3. Types of Action Research
  4. Examples of Action Research Studies
  5. Understanding and Applying Insights Gained from Action Research

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

Action Research webcast with Dr. Susan Bruce.BRUCE: Action Research is usually conceived of as being a form of qualitative research, but actually, Action Research does not dictate the research design one must use, so while it’s usually considered part of the qualitative tradition, it may also have quantitative elements.

So the big thing about Action Research is that it’s a problem-solving form of research, and when it’s depicted in textbooks, often you’ll see a spiral to depict its recursive nature, and the idea is that you have a problem that you’ve defined and you develop a hypothesis about the problem, why you think this problem is occurring, and then you come up with actions that you think might be helpful to solving the problem, and then you enact those actions, you keep data on the effect of those actions, and then you reflect on it.

So it’s this recursive nature of actions that you take, reflections on the actions, and then you enter subsequent action cycles. So if something doesn’t work, the study isn’t over; you get to try again.

NARRATOR: An animated graphic illustrates the recursive nature of Action Research cycles, starting with the initial inquiry, moving to the planning stage, progressing to acting on that plan, and then observing or reflecting on the results.

The recursive nature of action research cycles.Those reflections then lead to a new plan and a new cycle of action, observation and reflection.

BRUCE: Sometimes people think of Action Research as being less formal, but Action Research is actually quite structured.

It’s just more responsive to things that occur in complex environments, like surprises, and it’s more open to failure in the sense that you try something and if it doesn’t work, then you move into the next action cycle after reflection and you try something new, but it is still what Shulman called disciplined inquiry.

It is still structured; you still maintain data, and your decisions are driven by the data. So it’s not loose. It might sound loose because it’s open to new possibilities and to reshaping as you discover new things from the data, but it is definitely disciplined inquiry.

It’s systematic, it’s structured. Action research is very authentic. It is respectful of complex issues that we face in classrooms that also occur in what we call nested and complex contexts, so it’s important to special ed.

Well, for example, if we think about children and perhaps a particular child’s struggle with learning some aspect of the curriculum.

A student with CHARGE is signs a task he wants to do in preparing a meal.NARRATOR: In the upcoming video clip, a student with CHARGE is helping to prepare a meal of pasta, salad and bread under the supervision of his teacher.

Previous attempts to assign tasks to the students were often met with resistance. After reflection, the teacher now asks the students to choose the tasks they would prefer.

The boy and the teacher sign to one another as he considers pictures posted on the refrigerator that represent his choice of tasks. He chooses to cut the bread.

BRUCE: The child brings his or her personal history and the family history and the teacher brings her frame of reference and all of her background and experiences, and then there’s the classroom and then there’s the nest of the school and the community.

So Action Research, the first word that comes to mind is “authentic” or “authenticity,” that it respects complexity instead of trying to set up an experimental design that removes all the complexity, and then even though we say that type of work is generalizable, is it really generalizable to a setting that’s very different and uncontrolled, like classrooms?

A lot of surprises happen in classrooms, right? So Action Research is authentic, and it’s respectful of the complexity of teaching and learning in schools.

CHAPTER 2: Inquiry as the Basis of Action Research

BRUCE: Marilyn Cochran-Smith, who happens to be one of my colleagues at Boston College… And so one of her contributions with her colleagues would be in the area of thinking of Action Research more broadly and thinking about inquiry as what we call “stance,” so the phrase would be “inquiry as stance,” and the idea is that inquiry is more than a single study; inquiry as stance is a way for teachers to be in the classroom as constructors of knowledge.

So when you adopt an inquiry as stance, you are really adopting an attitude toward your own learning and the children’s learning that requires you to constantly engage in inquiry. Depending on the type of Action Research that we’re talking about, the teacher has played a strong role in defining what the topic of the study is going to be.

So let’s say the problem is a child’s difficulty in mathematics or learning functional academics in the area of mathematics. Then the teacher might decide that she’s going to study this all alone.

Maybe she’s a first-year teacher and she doesn’t want everybody observing her; she wants to get comfortable for a while with the issues in her classroom, or maybe if she were a third-year teacher, she would feel like, “Oh, I know Ms. Johnson down the hall “and I can really trust her to give me feedback without making me feel inept,” so maybe she’s going to be more collaborative in nature and she’s going to pull in Ms. Johnson.

And then maybe she knows Mr. Lytle, who happens to be the… sort of like the teacher liaison, sort of a quasi-administrative kind of person, and she now has the confidence as an experienced teacher to bring him in. And so it can be more or less collaborative in nature, but it’s about solving a problem, and almost always, the problems are focused on children.

To improve learning for children is a common focus. But sometimes, inquiry can be about the teacher’s own development as well. Inquiry is asking questions, always being aware of what’s going on, what’s contributing to issues that you’re experiencing, so inquiry means that you keep a questioning frame of mind when you’re doing your work in terms of relating it to teaching, then.

CHAPTER 3: Types of Action Research

BRUCE: So the first one would be called Classroom Action Research, and sometimes that type is also named Teacher Research. So the defining feature would be that it’s really happening in one classroom, and it might be about teacher learning, it might be about student learning, it could be either, and it may involve some collaboration, but it’s more confined than the second type, which would be Collaborative Action Research, where, as I said in the earlier example, the teacher might invite the teacher down the hall.

An example of Collaborative Action Research could be a group of teachers concerned with the science curriculum, so they decide to look at it across grades or maybe across schools within a district. So that would be an example of a Collaborative Research study.

Also, oftentimes, Collaborative Action Research involves bringing in a university person or someone else with expertise, so they might bring in a curriculum developer, a textbook developer in the area of science in terms of that example.

Experts providing feedback via video conferencing to a classroom teacher.NARRATOR: In a video clip, we see an interesting example of Collaborative Action Research. Three experts sit at a table in front of an open laptop. They are providing feedback via video conferencing to a classroom teacher and a teacher for the visually impaired, whose images we see on the screen.

BRUCE: And then the third type would be called Critical Action Research, and Critical Action Research always looks at an issue of disparity or inequity, so it’s really important to the field of special ed and also important to what we call the field of disability studies, which would include studying adults with disabilities, so it moves us out of the child realm.

And so the point with Critical Action Research is that you must bring in the voices of people who experience that disparity in order to authentically address the problem. So you want their voices to be part of the solution, okay?

And then the fourth type would be Participatory Action Research, and that’s when the problem really emanates and is totally defined by the people experiencing it. So it’s not a type of research we generally do with children because frankly, it involves a great deal of empowerment. So with Participatory Action Research, you really move into the realm where the participants become co-researchers.

So central tenets, then, would involve self-determination, which is defined differently for adults and children, of course, and also advocacy, self-advocacy, and it can even include political advocacy, political self-advocacy in terms of a group that you’re advocating for for which you are a member.

So in PAR, the researcher relinquishes a great deal of power in terms of the researcher perhaps being someone from a corporation or someone from a university, as in a professor, and the power is held by the participants. They make the decisions. And you are there as a researcher as more of a facilitator or a helper, a supporter, than someone who comes in and imposes your ideas.

And in fact, in more recent years, some participants with disabilities have also been saying, “We want control of the funds for research as well.” So you’re not making subjects or participants out of people. They are co-researchers with you, and they will then self-define how much they want to do writing with you, how much they want to do webcasts with you or any other kind of dissemination effort that you would carry out with them.

CHAPTER 4: Examples oF Action Research Studies

BRUCE: Well, we might do this when we talk about the studies that are happening here at Perkins. So the first one is called Perkins Pals: A Social Endeavor. Teachers named it last year. They were already experimenting with the idea.

So we have six students involved in this, and three are older students, 18 years or older, and then we have three younger students, I think like seven to ten years old, elementary-aged students. So they come together, and the little kids come in with their carts, with their special toys, which creates a little bit of excitement in the older students who might still have an interest in some of those objects, and they come in and there are four interaction spaces created, and the older students are to be facilitating the interactions.

A sef-evaluation form that was used with the secondary students in the Perkins Pals study.So then those interactions are filmed, okay? So then within a week later, within a week, the older students get together with both teachers, teacher of the younger and the older students, and they view themselves on videotape, and they then self-evaluate.

NARRATOR: We now see an image of a student self-evaluation form that was used with the secondary students in the Perkins Pals study.

We see that the student recorded his goal, which was to have his pal write a word, and later, he self-evaluated by marking the box “I did it myself.”

Opportunities to practice self-evaluation are important to the development of self-determination.

Next, we see an image displaying the reverse side of the evaluation form.

Here, we see the goal this student developed for his next interaction session with his younger pal.

A student's goal of interaction with his pal.Since his previous goal of modeling how to write a word was not completely successful, he determined that he should instead write “dot to dot letters” so that the younger student could trace them.

Also, in viewing the videotapes, it was determined that this older student and his younger pal were having difficulties with visual joint attention.

The older student often offered invitations to interact to the younger student but did not wait quite long enough for his pal to look at him.

When he was shown that the younger pal often turned to look just after he’d given up, he generated the strategy that he could count to ten in his head while waiting for the younger pal to look at him.

BRUCE: They engage in reflection while they view themselves performing with the younger kids, and then they create new objectives for socialization for the next round.

So the second Action Research study is about the communication initiations of a young boy with CHARGE syndrome, and I might mention that out of the 26 kids, actually more than half the kids in this project of five studies actually have CHARGE syndrome.

So this little boy is a puzzle because he uses multiple forms of expressive communication, but he doesn’t initiate as often as the school team and probably his family would like him to, so what we’re looking at then is what we can do to support him to initiate, meaning no prompts, he just communicates something.

And so we’re looking at that across the use of pictures individually, pictures in an array without technology, and pictures within the use of the iPad to see under which of those three conditions or four conditions does he actually initiate more often.

Oh, and the fourth one is sign, individual signs, not sign language. So which of those four conditions does he most often initiate? Then the third one is a study on the Learning Media Assessment, known commonly in our field as the LMA.

So this is an assessment we do to learn more about which modalities are relatively strongest for a child, and you’d think we’d kind of figure that out by just sort of looking, but having a systematic way to really test for it is actually really, really helpful.

So when there are different stimuli in a room, what is the child first attending to, and is it grounded in vision, is it grounded in auditory input?Is the child leaning more toward tactile modalities?

And for children who are deafblind, it’s often very complex to figure this out, and you have to go beyond thinking, “Oh, the vision is more involved than the hearing.” It doesn’t work like that because our senses are all integrated.

A teacher and a young boy who is visually impaired are reading a book together.NARRATOR: In a video clip, a teacher and a young boy who is visually impaired are on the floor reading a book together.

The book is a colorfully illustrated storybook that also has clear Braille overlay pages. In the course of their interaction, the teacher and boy speak, sign, look at the pictures and touch the Braille overlay.

BRUCE:So what happens is sometimes kids with relatively low vision might be actually quite strong visual learners. Their bent is toward using that little bit of vision really, really well. And what we want to learn about is the relative effects of these two different training models in Learning Media Assessment, because it is used all over the country and beyond.

And then the fourth study is really a load of fun. This one, I’ll tell you, they’ve run off on their own — I’ve had to do very little with them — it’s a physical therapy study on balance in children with CHARGE.

So it’s nine children with CHARGE syndrome, and one of the characteristics of kids with CHARGE syndrome would be balance issues. So they’re walking around, they’re using all sorts of different equipment, and they did a pre-test, they’re going to do a post-test, and they’re going to do a family survey to see if the families in a practical sense noticed any change in the balance as a result of this, and then we’re going to study the effects of these different interventions for each child as an individual.

So oftentimes, when you have a group involved, it also becomes like a case study kind of approach, which is the case with the Action Research study on balance.

Several boys with CHARGE walking in different pieces of equipment that challenge their balance skills.NARRATOR: In a video clip, we see examples of several boys with CHARGE using different pieces of equipment that challenge their balance skills.

A boy with CHARGE walks in shoes that have a half-sphere attached under the ball of the foot.

We see another walking in silly shoes, which are small trampoline-like devices that are strapped to the boy’s shoes.

BRUCE: And then the fifth one has been also very fascinating — I actually feel a lot of energy about all of them — but it’s really… we’ve known it by different names. I’m probably calling it the Positive Behavior Support Study more recently.

It started out as an interest the teachers had in learning more about adult use of language and its effect on behavior. That was where it grew from. So they noticed that, like, sometimes, it wasn’t even how you said something. Sometimes a relatively benign presentation of just a very specific word would cause anxiety in some of the kids.

Anxiety, by the way, is also another characteristic that many children with CHARGE exhibit, and there are children with CHARGE in this Positive Behavior Support Study. So then the study morphed from that because then someone else said… started mentioning things like brushing programs, which are part of sensory approaches we do to reduce anxiety and to help the kids be more organized in their approach to learning and just to feel calm.

So then we added in that piece, and then I noticed they were doing some things — just from their descriptions, because I hadn’t been in the classroom — I noticed from their verbal descriptions that they were doing a lot of things in the environment to kind of keep… to be preventative of behaviors, because that’s what we want to do.

That’s the kind thing to do: to keep people from situations that are likely to cause them anxiety and to upset them and then perhaps result in behaviors that others don’t appreciate.

An adolescent girl with CHARGE is having a conversation with a teacher.NARRATOR: In the upcoming interaction, an adolescent girl with CHARGE syndrome sits at a desk across from a teacher. The girl wears glasses and we can see a hearing aid in her left ear.

The girl is about to go to a class that she sometimes finds a bit challenging because of the noise and other distractions. The teachers have introduced this pre-class conversation as a way to reinforce some coping strategies that the girl has been taught to use in the class.

TEACHER: What different strategies have you learned if you’re feeling maybe a little anxious or stressed or upset?

TEACHER: Yep, what else?

GIRL: Think different.

TEACHER: Mm-hmm. What else can you do?

GIRL: Both hands together.

TEACHER: Yeah, sometimes that helps, right?

BRUCE: So in these potentially problematic situations, we’re catching positive strategies that are proactive, and then if the child has an explosive episode of some type or just a nervous episode, then we’re watching also what’s done in reaction, so it’s proactive and reactive.

Whereas most of what we do with behavior is often reactive— it’s after the fact— positive behavior support is about building supports around someone to prevent behavior and to look at other elements like communication.

So we’re filming, they’re taking journals, we’re identifying strategies for these kids, and then we have meetings. All of the studies, by the way, include meetings, which is where some of that reflection is going on in a group context.

CHAPTER 5: Understanding and Applying Insights Gained from Action Research

BRUCE: Well, the goal of Action Research is not really for a generalizable knowledge to a larger population, and I would suggest that many times in quantitative research, we’re fooling ourselves to think that’s going to be achieved, because context varies so much and people are individuals.

However, I do think there will be some knowledge that will be generated by the studies that will be very valuable to other teachers and perhaps to family members, and especially, I think there’s going to be some interesting results coming from the sub-group of kids with CHARGE syndrome because we have almost… very, very little research on that group of kids.

So I’m hoping that across the studies, there will be some things we can say relevant to the kids with CHARGE or to support the work that other people have done.

So I definitely believe that the studies will generate knowledge that will help others, but we’re not trying to extrapolate it, say it applies to all children who are deafblind or congenitally deafblind or anything like that.

Graphic: "Explaining accommodations to substitute teachers"

Explaining accommodations to substitute teachers

PIAF machine: A "P" alphabet braille page (pig with braille and print letter P) being entered into a PIAF machine.

Creating Tactile Graphic Images Part 3: Tips for Embossing

Josely plays with a child using hoola hoops.

How the Perkins Educational Leadership Program changes children’s lives