Classroom action research (CAR) represents a midpoint between teacher reflection at one end and traditional educational research at the other. CAR is a process in which a teacher identifies problems in the context of his or her own classroom and then engages in investigative methods to address the problems. Teachers sometimes shy away from CAR, due to their lack of training in research methodology, time constraints, and the fact that not all schools value or support such a scholarship of teaching and learning. I show how cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) could be used as a practical lens when engaging in CAR, and how this could help biology teachers become more reflective practitioners by using a rigorous tool to analyze data. Third-generation CHAT is explained and the reader is shown, through a practical example, how research findings could be analyzed and interpreted through a CHAT lens.

Introduction

As teachers we wear many hats, such as being a facilitator of learning, an assessor, a curriculum specialist who needs to ensure that students appreciate the role of science in our everyday lives, and an inclusive practitioner who creates learning opportunities for diverse student populations. A role that is often marginalized is the teacher as a researcher. Researching one's own practice and reflecting on it holds opportunities for professional development.

John Slaughter, as quoted by Chmielewski and Stapleton (2009, p. 53), stated that “research is to teaching what sin is to confession; if you don't participate in the former, you have little to say in the latter.” Researching one's own teaching holds potential for improved practice. Since the late 1990s, there has been a growing volume of research literature on the role of the teacher as a reflective practitioner and a collaborative researcher in an educational community of inquiry (Darling-Hammond & Snyder, 2000; Gray & Campbell-Evans, 2002; Figure 1). Yet the literature also shows that many teachers do not engage in critical reflective practice or educational research. Reasons for this marginalization of such action research (also called “practitioner research,” “critical inquiry,” or “teacher research”; Chow et al., 2015) are, among others, that teachers sometimes lack training in research methodology and skills, time does not allow for such classroom research, and schools do not always value the role of the teacher as a researcher (Chow et al., 2015).

Figure 1.

Classroom action research (CAR) represents a midpoint between teacher reflection at one end and traditional educational research at the other (based on Gravett & De Beer, 2015, p. 344).

Figure 1.

Classroom action research (CAR) represents a midpoint between teacher reflection at one end and traditional educational research at the other (based on Gravett & De Beer, 2015, p. 344).

The biology teacher needs to make daily decisions related to teaching and learning. The teacher needs to meander through complex learning environments, considering diverse students, making the biology curriculum relevant (science-technology-society perspectives), portraying the nature of science, and promoting 21st-century skills, to name but a few. It is therefore essential for a teacher to value reflection. However, teachers should take this further by engaging in classroom action research (CAR), which can be seen as representing a midpoint between teacher reflection at one end and traditional educational research at the other (Mettetal, 2002; Gravett & De Beer, 2015). CAR is more data-based and systematic than reflection, but less formal and controlled than traditional educational research (Gravett & De Beer, 2015). Here, I highlight how teachers can engage in CAR and how cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) can be a useful lens for analyzing the data collected during CAR. CHAT is a useful tool for focusing on classroom dynamics and possible “tensions” that could inhibit the achievement of learning outcomes.

Classroom Action Research

Parsons and Brown (2002) describe CAR as a process whereby teachers use structured approaches (systematic observations and data collection procedures) as a method of investigating problematic situations in their teaching practice. Kemmis and McTaggart (1988, p. 5) define CAR as “a form of self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own practices, their understanding of these practices, and the situations in which the practices are carried out.” Gravett and De Beer (2015) identify five steps of CAR (Figure 2).

Figure 2.

The steps in CAR (based on Gravett & De Beer, 2015, p. 347).

Figure 2.

The steps in CAR (based on Gravett & De Beer, 2015, p. 347).

How You Could Engage in CAR

Whether you want to experiment with and evaluate a new teaching method or determine if your classroom is an inviting learning space, CAR holds potential for improved teaching and learning in the classroom. Start by identifying a problem (Figure 2) and formulate a research question that will guide your research. For example, if you would like to research the value of cooperative learning in your classroom and you plan an intervention using the jigsaw method, your research question might be “What are students' experiences of engaging in the jigsaw method in the classroom?” You then engage in the intervention (the jigsaw method) and collect data. You can arrange focus group interviews with your learners or ask them to complete questionnaires. CHAT is a useful lens to utilize in analyzing your data. Lastly, you need to interpret your findings (and determine whether you have answered the research question).

When a teacher during the CAR cycle interprets the findings, he or she goes into reflective mode. Reflection is central to CAR, and therefore CAR provides a vehicle for the teacher to systematically inquire into his or her own classroom practice. I will now illustrate this with a practical example: a Johannesburg teacher, AJ, and her classroom action research.

An Exemplar: AJ's Teaching of DNA & Classroom Action Research

AJ is a seasoned biology teacher who participated in a professional development program that I facilitated. In the program, I expected teachers to engage in CAR. In order to illustrate the potential of CHAT as a research lens, I will use AJ's CAR project as an example. The data that I refer to were taken from AJ's written reflections and lesson plans, the students' posters that they compiled after the intervention, and a focus group interview with students.

Step 1 in CAR: Identify a Problem

AJ has always found the teaching of DNA problematic. She teaches in an under-resourced school in South Africa and has predominantly used “chalk-and-talk” approaches in the past, explaining the structure of DNA to the students and concluding with the role of DNA technology in modern society. However, students mostly, in their feedback to her, indicated that they found the work “boring” and did not see its relevance to their daily lives. AJ therefore formulated the following research question: “What is the value of a short DNA barcoding intervention on student learning and motivation, and on their views on the role of science in society?”

Step 2 in CAR: Plan an Intervention

AJ, as part of the professional development intervention, did a week-long course at the African Centre for DNA Barcoding (hereafter “barcoding center”), a research unit at the University of Johannesburg. She then planned to also engage her students in a shortened two-day experience at the barcoding center. Here students were introduced to DNA barcoding, and they engaged in DNA extraction from plant specimens, amplification of DNA barcodes by polymerase chain reaction, and sequencing of the DNA barcode. They were further introduced to DNA barcoding's application in everyday life. This center specifically focuses on the authentication of medicinal and herbal products, invasive and alien species, and wildlife crime. AJ planned a learning task for the students in which they had to develop a poster on DNA barcoding after the two-day exposure to DNA barcoding. She also conducted a focus group interview with the learners.

Step 3: Act and Collect Data

In her own reflection, AJ highlighted how rewarding it was to witness the students' engagement and enthusiasm while working at the barcoding center. Her fieldnotes indicated how students developed laboratory skills (e.g., effectively using pipettes, which they could not do upon arrival, and developing more nuanced understandings of concentrations of chemicals). After the intervention she analyzed the artifacts (posters), in which students highlighted how DNA barcoding is used in, among other applications, plant and animal molecular systematics, studies of invasive and alien species, and combating wildlife crime. She also conducted two focus group interviews with the learners about their experiences, focusing on (1) their acquisition of knowledge, (2) their development of laboratory skills, and (3) their affective development (e.g., their enjoyment of the experience and whether they valued the role of DNA barcoding in today's complex society).

Step 4: Analyze the Data

AJ transcribed the focus group interview and coded the data. She then distilled a number of emerging themes from the data. The themes that emerged are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1.
Emerging themes from AJ's action research.a
Emerging ThemeData That Support the Theme
Student Data (Focus Group Interviews & Posters)Teacher Reflection Data
Students developed a more nuanced understanding of the role of DNA technology in our daily lives. The posters portrayed the applications of DNA barcoding in everyday life, for example its use in determining what species (both plant and animal species) are used in so-called muthi medicines (traditional medicines) in South Africa, as well as its application in the study of invasive species and wildlife crime. (PO)
“Sometimes we learn content, without really understanding how it is useful in everyday life. After this course I now know how DNA barcoding is used to address illegal trade of plants and animals.” (FGI) 
“The librarian told me that several students visited the library afterwards to learn more about DNA barcoding, and especially to find information on careers in this field. This showed me that the intervention had an impact on the students.” (TR) 
Students developed laboratory skills. “It was so nice to engage in such complicated lab work, in a real laboratory. We were given lab coats, and I felt like a real scientist. It was a bit difficult at first, but we quickly aced the techniques!” (FGI) “I was a bit ashamed that my students, when we arrived at the [barcoding center], could not even use a pipette properly. However, I was excited to see how quickly they acquired new skills in the lab.” (TR) 
Students' affective development was advanced through the intervention. “Wow … I really would like to pursue a career in DNA barcoding. It was so interesting to see how this technology is used to combat crime such as the illegal trade of plant and animal species.” (FGI)
“If we could have more experiences like this, I will enjoy Life Sciences much more. At first it was difficult to understand DNA barcoding, but on day 2 it became much more clear, and it was so satisfying for me to realize that I can master such complex biology.” (FGI) 
“I could not believe the excitement of the learners as we drove back to the school at the end of day 2. Even the more difficult students seemed to be motivated by the experience.” (TR) 
The teacher developed an appreciation for the role of CAR in professional development.  “I am a good teacher. However, this CAR made me realize that I tend to teach in a way that does not always emphasize the tenets of science. … The enthusiasm that I saw in the learners at the barcoding center made me realize that I should provide learning opportunities that will allow my learners to engage in authentic science. … Even learners who normally are disinterested in class were very eager to participate in the procedures at the barcoding center. … I realized that I should also put on a hat as researcher, in order to improve my teaching. … I should be mindful of not following ‘chalk-and-talk’ approaches, and should make use of opportunities such as that provided by the barcoding center.” (excerpts from TR) 
Emerging ThemeData That Support the Theme
Student Data (Focus Group Interviews & Posters)Teacher Reflection Data
Students developed a more nuanced understanding of the role of DNA technology in our daily lives. The posters portrayed the applications of DNA barcoding in everyday life, for example its use in determining what species (both plant and animal species) are used in so-called muthi medicines (traditional medicines) in South Africa, as well as its application in the study of invasive species and wildlife crime. (PO)
“Sometimes we learn content, without really understanding how it is useful in everyday life. After this course I now know how DNA barcoding is used to address illegal trade of plants and animals.” (FGI) 
“The librarian told me that several students visited the library afterwards to learn more about DNA barcoding, and especially to find information on careers in this field. This showed me that the intervention had an impact on the students.” (TR) 
Students developed laboratory skills. “It was so nice to engage in such complicated lab work, in a real laboratory. We were given lab coats, and I felt like a real scientist. It was a bit difficult at first, but we quickly aced the techniques!” (FGI) “I was a bit ashamed that my students, when we arrived at the [barcoding center], could not even use a pipette properly. However, I was excited to see how quickly they acquired new skills in the lab.” (TR) 
Students' affective development was advanced through the intervention. “Wow … I really would like to pursue a career in DNA barcoding. It was so interesting to see how this technology is used to combat crime such as the illegal trade of plant and animal species.” (FGI)
“If we could have more experiences like this, I will enjoy Life Sciences much more. At first it was difficult to understand DNA barcoding, but on day 2 it became much more clear, and it was so satisfying for me to realize that I can master such complex biology.” (FGI) 
“I could not believe the excitement of the learners as we drove back to the school at the end of day 2. Even the more difficult students seemed to be motivated by the experience.” (TR) 
The teacher developed an appreciation for the role of CAR in professional development.  “I am a good teacher. However, this CAR made me realize that I tend to teach in a way that does not always emphasize the tenets of science. … The enthusiasm that I saw in the learners at the barcoding center made me realize that I should provide learning opportunities that will allow my learners to engage in authentic science. … Even learners who normally are disinterested in class were very eager to participate in the procedures at the barcoding center. … I realized that I should also put on a hat as researcher, in order to improve my teaching. … I should be mindful of not following ‘chalk-and-talk’ approaches, and should make use of opportunities such as that provided by the barcoding center.” (excerpts from TR) 
a

Key: FGI = focus group interview; PO = poster; TR = teacher reflection. Note: These are themes that emerged from AJ's classroom action research. They are provided here as an example of how you could do your own data analysis. Later on, these themes will be fed into the CHAT analysis (e.g., the appreciation for DNA technology as a realized outcome; refer to Figure 4).

Step 5: Evaluate the Intervention

I introduced CHAT as a research lens to the teachers, and AJ therefore analyzed her data by using CHAT as a research lens. Before highlighting the major findings that emerged from using CHAT as a research lens, it is first necessary to look at how CHAT can be used for CAR. Then I will show how AJ reflected on her intervention using CHAT as a lens.

CHAT as a Useful Lens for CAR

CHAT has its origin in the work of Vygotsky (1978). CHAT looks at teaching and learning within the classroom from a more holistic perspective by focusing on, among other things, how students construct knowledge in a social setting (from a social-constructivist perspective) and the role of “tools” in scaffolding learning. Engeström (1987), a prominent CHAT scholar, coined the term activity system, which comprises an acting subject (S); an object (O); tools (T) used to mediate learning (to achieve the object); rules (R) that play out in the activity system; the stakeholders that form part of the community (C); and the different roles of the subject, or the division of labor (D). This is illustrated in Figure 3 (which is merely an example, using as the subject a biology teacher who wants to research her own pedagogy for fostering inquiry learning).

Figure 3.

Cultural-historical activity theory as a research lens.

Figure 3.

Cultural-historical activity theory as a research lens.

Your classroom can be viewed as an activity system. When engaging in CAR, you can identify as a subject (S) either yourself (as the teacher) or your students. (This would depend on whether the focus is on your own professional development as a teacher or on student learning.) The object (O) is the activity that is the focus of the activity system. For instance, it could be promoting inquiry learning, as shown in Figure 3. If your CAR focuses on engaging your learners in meaningful cooperative learning, the object will be fostering cooperative learning. Another object could be to better contextualize biology, so that students value the role of science in society. (In AJ's case above, the object was to provide students the opportunity to engage in authentic science, in a contextualized way, at the barcoding center.) Tools (T) are the pedagogies or teaching/learning resources that are used to achieve the object. Under “Tools” the teacher would list the teaching methods employed (e.g., “chalk-and-talk” lecture-style teaching, problem-based learning in the lab). The assessment practices of the teacher will also provide insight into whether inquiry learning is encouraged. In Figure 3, problem- and project-based approaches would probably promote inquiry learning, whereas tools such as transmission-mode “chalk-and-talk” approaches would discourage inquiry learning. Tools could also include the use of information and communities technology or engaging the students in authentic laboratory experiences.

“Rules” (R) refer to the explicit or implicit rules and guidelines that govern teaching and learning. This would include curriculum guidelines (state standards), the tenets of science (e.g., is science portrayed to students as being empirical, tentative, and inferential? [Abd-El-Khalick & Lederman, 2000]), guidelines that govern problem-based learning, classroom rules and class atmosphere, and so on. The community (C) includes all stakeholders involved (e.g., the teacher, learners, school management, and parents). Lastly, the division of labor (D) encompasses the different roles performed by the subject. In the case of this activity system, it refers to the different “hats” of the teacher as the subject – for example, the teacher as a facilitator of learning, the teacher as a reflective practitioner, the teacher as an agent of change (who could improvise), and the teacher as a researcher (engaging in CAR).

When you use CHAT as a research lens, you will identify the tools (T), rules (R), community (C), and division of labor (D) depending on the specific object (O) in the activity system. In order to prevent self-confirmation of your own biases (which we all have), it is always wise to engage in CAR with a (critical but trusted) colleague who can challenge any biases. Furthermore, it is useful to be guided by several approaches that Sandman (2016, pp. 20–21) identified for overcoming your own biases:

  • Consciously seek out opposing views.

  • Stay permanently tentative, open to new evidence.

  • Think of your own opinions not as undeniable truths but as hypotheses that should be tested.

  • Mistrust anecdotal evidence.

CHAT is primarily a barometer for tensions that arise within the different nodes of the activity system. For instance, “chalk-and-talk” approaches (see T, tools) would not support the promotion of inquiry learning as object (O). Also, where a teacher does not actively promote an understanding of the tenets of science (e.g., its empirical and inferential nature – R, or rules), true inquiry learning (O, the object) may not be achieved. The teacher (as subject) may not always enjoy sufficient support from colleagues or school management (C, the community), and this may also negatively impact the achievement of the object of the activity system.

Revisiting AJ's Classroom Action Research, Using CHAT as Research Lens

Figure 4 shows how AJ used CHAT to reflect on her CAR data. It is often useful to compare two interdependent activity systems with each other (Mentz & De Beer, 2017). In this case, we look at AJ's class prior to the DNA barcoding intervention (on the left), then during and after the DNA barcoding intervention (on the right). In this case the subject (S) in the activity system is the biology student (not AJ as a teacher, since her research question in this CAR focused on the value of the DNA barcoding lab experience for student learning). AJ in the past often used “chalk-and-talk” approaches. Although AJ wanted her students to appreciate the role of science in society (the intended object in the activity system on the left), the unfortunate tools chosen resulted in students' perception that “science is boring” (the realized object). McNeil (1999) refers to this conflict between the intended object and the realized object of the activity system as the “contradiction of control.”

Figure 4.

Looking at AJ's CAR data through a CHAT lens.

Figure 4.

Looking at AJ's CAR data through a CHAT lens.

The activity system on the right represents the DNA barcoding activity (tool), and such an approach facilitated a realization among students that DNA technology plays an important role in modern society (the realized object). Here, there is harmony between the intended and realized objects of the activity system, and not the “contradiction of control” that characterized many of AJ's previous lessons. The DNA barcoding intervention was characterized by a different set of rules, namely engagement with the tenets of science (students engaged as novice researchers in a real lab with authentic science). This is in contrast to AJ's “chalk-and-talk” lessons, in which the curriculum pacesetters were the “rules” guiding AJ's pedagogy, and not the consideration of the true nature of science.

To summarize, CHAT is a simple heuristic or lens that can tell the teacher much about his or her teaching and how it facilitates student learning. In AJ's own words: “My CHAT diagram was a rude awakening. I always believed that students who experienced biology as ‘boring’ simply had negative attitudes. CHAT has shown me a different picture, namely that the tools (pedagogies) that I use often determine how students experience the subject. I have realized how important it is to ensure that I provide learning opportunities to the students that portray the real nature of science.”

Using CHAT as a Research Lens to Study My Own Reformed Teaching Practice

Figure 5 provides a useful framework for planning your own classroom action research. The triangle on the left serves as a representation of your typical (traditional) classroom practice. The triangle on the right represents your new intervention (as part of CAR), or your reformed teaching practice. Once you have identified the “object” in the activity system, you can reflect on the most appropriate “tools” that could facilitate the achievement of such an object/outcome. For example, if your object is to showcase a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) approach in your lesson, puppetry might be a good tool to use (De Beer et al., 2018). This will then dictate a different set of “rules” (e.g., focusing on processes that characterize both science and art, such as that both require discovery, observation, experimentation, description, interpretation, analysis, and evaluation; Fulton & Simpson-Steele, 2016). The “division of labor” node in the CHAT diagram prompts you to consider your own role as teacher and your students' role in the learning task. In the puppetry example, students will be engaged in writing puppet scripts, but this might mean that you will have to invite an experienced puppeteer (a modified “community”) to the classroom to provide the students with the necessary training.

Figure 5.

How CHAT can be a lens to examine my reformed teaching practice.

Figure 5.

How CHAT can be a lens to examine my reformed teaching practice.

After the CAR, you can then reflect (through the CHAT lens) on the intended and realized objects, and on how students might have experienced the reformed teaching practice in a different light.

Conclusion

We are all confronted daily with what Loughran (2006, p. 31) refers to as the “messiness of teaching.” This asks of the teacher a commitment to being a reflective practitioner and a researcher. CHAT is a useful lens that a teacher can use to study his or her own teaching practice. CHAT reflects the complexity that is teaching and learning. Shulman (2004, p. 504) described this complexity well when he stated that teaching is “perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding and frightening activity our species has ever invented.”

Rogoff (1995) and Mentz and De Beer (2017) show that CHAT can be used in three different ways, namely on a personal plane (e.g., where the focus is on an individual subject, such as the student or the teacher), on an interpersonal plane (where one would juxtapose two interdependent activity systems – the subject in one activity system is the teacher, and the subject in the other activity system is the learner), and lastly on an institutional plane (where the “subject” is a phenomenon; e.g., problem-based learning).

CHAT is a robust meta-theoretical framework that can assist teachers in transforming their teaching practices. In this conceptual paper, I have shown how a teacher (AJ) has used CHAT as a lens to analyze data that emerged from her classroom action research on DNA barcoding. However, CHAT is not restricted to analyzing interventions. It is also a gauge of the classroom as a learning space. The classroom rules and tools used will influence the object in the activity system. For example, if “chalk-and-talk” is the predominant teaching method, and the “rules” do not include a focus on the tenets of the scientific process, it will not be possible to really achieve inquiry learning in the classroom.

It is my hope that teachers will use CHAT as a lens when embarking on CAR. Due to time constraints, I have only focused on the use of CHAT on a personal plane. Additional useful references on CHAT, some of which refer to the use of CHAT on the interpersonal and institutional planes, include Gedera and Williams (2016), Mentz and De Beer (2017), Van Oers et al. (2008), and Yamagata-Lynch (2010).

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