Satisfying the Itch: Addressing Problems in Adult Literacy Programs with Action Research
Weirauch, Drucie, Kuhne, Gary, Adult Learning
Most would agree that for change to be successful and positive, those carrying out the change must be involved and engaged in the process itself. By engaging practitioners in the change process, action research provides ownership and often results in a sense of efficacy In recent years, researchers exploring K-12 issues have identified several outcomes of participation in action research. For instance, they have found that educators grow professionally, intellectually and establish more meaningful relationships with their learners using action research (Shalaway, 1990). They feel a sense of empowerment and increased self-esteem. They also are more open to change, more reflective about practice and decision-making and are better problem-solvers. Overall, they have greater expertise in the field and a fresher attitude toward the educational process (Bennett, 1994).
In adult literacy, Quigley (1995) discusses how practitioners can use action research to "satisfy the itch" about problems in their own practice. This work has led to a practitioner-based movement in professional development and program improvement in Pennsylvania.
Literacy Action Research in Pennsylvania
In 1995, Pennsylvania created a statewide effort to bring action research to adult literacy practitioners as a professional development tool. Supported by the Bureau of Adult Basic and Literacy Education (ABLE) of the Department of Education, one project in this "Learning from Practice" initiative was the Pennsylvania Action Research Network (PAARN). We trained practitioners (administrators, teachers, trainers and volunteers) to develop better problem-posing and problem-solving skills to improve their practice using this systematic approach of action research. The Pennsylvania Action Research Handbook and Project Planner (Quigley, 1995) and Creating Practical Knowledge through Action Research: Posing Problems and Improving Daily Practice (Quigley & Kuhne, 1997) have been used to facilitate the training. PAARN was committed to sharing the results with others; therefore, each participant wrote a monograph about the action research project. These were published and made available through a literature network, and are posted on the Web site (www.learningfrompractice.org.)
PAARN was evaluated annually in two ways. First, practitioners were interviewed to determine their perception of success, the usefulness of the model and their professional growth. Second, one year after the project was completed, the participants' supervisor was interviewed to evaluate the lasting impact that the action research project may have had on the agency itself.
This article shares the synthesized results of the supervisor evaluations to show how the process is transferable, and we offer snapshots of four projects highlighting outcomes that have been made part of the literacy institutions for long-term change.
Four Snapshots of Success
For four consecutive years, an annual impact survey was conducted with supervisors of action research participants. A total of 33 supervisors were interviewed about their 61 participants. One question asked them to contrast the benefits of action research to those of traditional workshops for professional development. Forty five percent of the supervisors felt action research provided greater benefits, 37 percent said it was hard to tell and only 18 percent felt that workshops were more valuable. As one supervisor commented in 1998, "Those who have taken action research are much less hesitant to share information, are comfortable making suggestions and are able to receive constructive criticism. They are able to work on a project, follow through and implement, have a more questioning attitude and are more willing to examine their practice." In 2000, another observed, "Those in action research see their everyday attempts at program improvement as meaningful, not futile, attempts."
Each year, we asked if the participating staff had experienced an attitude change. …