The history of teaching is littered with ideas that have come and gone. In their day each was the new bright hope, set to transform what we do as teachers and how our students learn. Each new idea had its supporters and detractors and each in turn was replaced by an alternative or simply disappeared from view. Those who have experienced this ebb and flow of ideas have learned to approach the shiny and the new with caution and yet we have all encountered ideas that are so compelling it is difficult to ignore. How might we approach new ideas and innovative practices in ways that ensure our students benefit?
Effective schools and teachers engage in a process of action research even if it is not thusly named. It is a process that can be as simple as identifying a need, imagining or identifying a solution, putting it into action and observing the results. Applied as a methodology for improving practice through cycles of research, implementation, evaluation and reflection it can provide valid research data. A key benefit of action research is that it is closely linked to practice and involves practitioners as researchers ensuring a close connection between the research and its implementation. In action research it is very likely that those implementing the new strategy will have a solid understanding of its research basis, the problem it aims to address and the result it should achieve.
Action research fits nicely into a design thinking approach. There is much in common between the two methods and one could see design thinking as a structure for action research. At the core of both approaches is the identification of a problem the development of a planned response, the implementation of the plan and deliberate reflection. Both should include opportunities to adjust the plan at various points and when looked at as a cycle it should be clear that the process need not be linear or have a set end point. Fluid movement between action, evaluation, planning and questioning phases allows both action research and design thinking to respond to discoveries mid cycle and for adjustments to be made.
For the evaluation of new ideas both models hold real advantages. Thinking outside the box is all very well but thinking is best when it has a degree of structure and some level of organisation and it is this that action research and design thinking provide. For collaborative efforts the structure provided and the labels attached to various phases of the process can help team members identify where they are in their endeavour and where they are headed next. A key ingredient is that in these models the process is highly iterative in nature and the ideal solution or even the clear articulation of the problem is not likely to occur with the first cycle. Understanding the iterative nature of action research or design thinking is critical for success and a contributing factor for long term group cohesion.
The sharing of ideas with colleagues is for many a process not undertaken lightly. The more of our individuality, passion and effort that is invested in the idea the harder this process of sharing can be. We want our ideas to be understood, appreciated and accepted. When we contribute ideas to an action research process it is natural to hope that they will be included in the groups planning. Feelings of disappointment when they are not are natural but this is not a productive response within an iterative process. We need to hold our ideas lightly.
Those of us empowered by a growth mindset are perhaps more open to sharing our ideas. If our idea is not what the group is looking for we are able to move quickly on to the next idea without a negative reaction. Our ability to let go of our ideas decreases as our commitment to them increases and this commitment is directly related to the time, effort and emotion we have invested. To this end Ewan Macintosh urges us to share our ideas early, before we are too committed to them to listen to constructive feedback. If we share early, at a point where the idea is developed sufficiently to be understood by others who can provide us with feedback we may be more open to incorporating these new perspectives into our thinking.
Sharing early requires more than individuals who are open to the idea, it must be backed by a culture that accepts ideas should be shared before they are fully baked. Such a culture accepts that ideas might have rough edges, missing details, errors and imperfections. Such a culture is a natural fit with action research as it is one that encourages ideas to be tested and worked on without fear of failure. If the culture of a place is not accepting of failure in its action research efforts, it is not possible to try truly innovative ideas and efforts at safe innovation are unlikely to produce significant changes worthy of the effort. Fear of failure amongst individuals on action research will produce other negative consequences such as group think where divergent ideas are kept private and staff fall into patterns of trying to guess what their supervisor wants them to contribute.
One effective strategy for action research within larger organisations can be to trial multiple competing solutions at once with teams testing different approaches to a common problem. This connects nicely to an iterative process and can accelerate the research process as multiple options are tested and understood in parallel. It can also unlock our competitive natures when the ideas are compared and evaluated. A clear understanding, that it is the idea being assessed and not the individuals who researched its application, is essential. In cases such as this teams must hold their ideas lightly and accept that ultimately not all ideas will transfer into policy or future practice.
A willingness to hold our ideas lightly may also help avoid the scenario where the ultimate solution is a hybrid of multiple ideas formed not for its best fit to the problem but as a compromise between divergent groups. A willingness to let go of parts or all of our idea and accept that it may not offer the best solution is not easy but a necessary step towards maximising the benefits of action research. Perhaps hardest of all is letting go of our ideas when we are the ones who must make the decision. For leaders this is part of the job; a willingness to accept ideas from all channels will allow us to respond in the best possible way and to select the right path even when it is not the path we had envisioned. The capacity of an organisation’s leadership to share ideas early, listen to feedback and respond accordingly will have a powerful effect on the organisation’s culture and ability to innovate.
In the spirit of holding my ideas lightly I invite comments or feedback on how this article may be improved or why it should be deleted. I look forward to the discussion.
By Nigel Coutts