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Action Research and Communities of Practice

Bruce, B. C. & Easley, J. A. (2000). Emerging communities of practice: Collaboration and communication in action research. Educational Action Research 8(2), 243-259. Available at

The discussions in the research area and the roundtable of Math Tools have sparked my interest in conducting some kind of online action research. As preparation for this, I am hoping to foster some dialogue about what action research is, and how a community of users of Math Tools might collaborate on an action research project.

A definition of action research is available at:

Essential aspects are that it is problem focused, context-specific, and involves a change or improvement. It is part of a cyclic process and the evaluation is interlinked. Finally, the researcher herself is also involved in the process of change.

Action research "is group or personally owned and conducted," (Johnson, 1993) and it encourages reflection and questioning of existing theories. Ferraro (2000) refers to the work of Donald Schön, who coined the term "reflective practitioner." Reflective practice involves thoughtfully considering one's own experiences and applying knowledge to practice while being coached by professionals in the discipline.

An article on action research that I highly recommend is "Emerging communities of practice: Collaboration and communication in action research." In it, Bruce and Easley (2000) documented the community of action researchers who participated in the Dialogues In Methods of Education (DIME) group. Over a period of 22 years, this group shared its insights and experiences. The guiding principle for the group was learning through listening to children, and the research they did was "collaborative and action-oriented, [and] deeply grounded in real classroom practices and the understanding of children."

Of special interest is the section on the "emergence of a collaborative community for mathematics and science." In it, they describe some of the successes and shared learning that occurred, and also some of the obstacles for communities of practice around action research.

"Early in this research they learned that when experts demonstrated their best methods in the teachers' own classes, they relied on backgrounds of mathematical ideas and a confidence with mathematical dialogue that the teachers did not share. Thus, teachers were often unable to emulate these innovative teaching methods. Moreover, the teachers were not learning how to learn as teachers. Demonstration and imitation was not an effective way to foster learning to teach."

The DIME group formed out of an effort to break down those communications barriers. Through the years different sub-groups formed to study particular topics, and groups of teachers collaborated on different research projects. This led to such products papers, presentations, conferences, and a newsletter, and a continuing collaboration.

Perhaps the most important element of this article, and what I hope will be useful to the Math Tools research network is the model the DIME group evolved for teacher change. They began with a model that involved listening, developing innovative ideas, then, through a process of imitation, taking those ideas back to the students. Over the course of the collaboration they moved away from imitation and developed a new model involving an on-going process of collaboration and change.

This type of model is what I hope the Math Tools network can become through an online community exploring the uses of different tools in different environments. That is, an environment in which novice and experienced teachers, researchers and educators collaborate without privileged points of view.

As the Math Tools site moves forward, I would like to explore ways in which an online community, large or small, can investigate and document their experiences using some of the math tools. This could, for example, be a set of lesson plans, or reviews of tools, or a collection of stories (see the template that Suzanne has created at The purpose is to share experiences around a set of resources, Math Tools, and see if common insights and shared beliefs emerge.


Suppose we pick a tool to investigate, and share experiences using that tool. How can an online community conduct action research? Surveys? Stories? Reviews? Tests? Outside observers? Videotapes? What are your ideas?


Bruce, B. C., & Easley, J. A. (2000). Emerging communities of practice: Collaboration and communication in action research. Educational Action Research, 8(2), 243-259. Available at

Ferraro, J. M. (2000). Reflective practice and professional development (ERIC Digest ED449120). Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Teaching and Teacher Education. Available at

Johnson, B. (1993). Teacher-as-researcher (ERIC Digest ED355205). Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Teacher Education. Available at

The Inquiry Page at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is available at

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