by Kathryn MacCuish
One fine Friday in late March 2006, three women embarked on a journey.
Dianne, Jacqueline and Kathy were on their way to an event focused
on action research, Posing Problems/Solving Problems, sponsored by
Literacy Nova Scotia. The three were colleagues who worked for the
Adult Learning Association of Cape Breton County (ALACBC) and were
always eager to learn more about anything that might help them in
their work with adult literacy learners. On their way from Sydney
to Debert, a small community outside Truro, NS, where the action-research
event was to be held, they talked about what they might learn. Little
did they realize what they were getting into.
I was one of the women. Being asked to write about our experiences
with action research gave my friend and colleague, Dianne Gray, and
me the opportunity to step back and think about what has happened
in the intervening two years.
On our way to Debert, we prepared for the event by reading an adaptation
of a chapter of B. Allan Quigley’s book, Building Professional
Pride in Literacy.
Still, we didn’t realize that attending the event meant that
we would be committing ourselves to actually doing an action research
project. We assumed that the event would be like many other learning
opportunities we had taken advantage of: we would listen, discuss,
reflect and perhaps use some small part in our daily work. How wrong
Learning about action research
The presenter at Posing Problems/Solving Problems was Dr. Quigley
himself, a professor of adult education at St. Francis Xavier University
in nearby Antigonish. He is a dynamic and engaging speaker and we
were soon deeply involved in learning about action research. He pointed
out that, as literacy practitioners, we stress self-reliance and
critical thinking with our students. Part of this self-reliance and
critical thinking is the ability to identify and address our own
problems. For years, one of the main axioms of good adult literacy
practice has been to “model the behaviour you want to see.” Well,
we learned that in an action-research project, we systematically
analyze a problem, gather evidence on observed changes and then reflect
on the outcomes. In other words, we problem-pose, plan, observe and
reflect. So, for literacy practitioners, the action-research model
should be a natural fit. So far, so good, we thought.
Then it happened. The large and diverse group was asked to separate
itself geographically. My colleagues and I found ourselves together
in a group with several other folks from Cape Breton. We were challenged
to pose a problem—to identify an “itch.” An “itch” is
an everyday issue that keeps coming up and that seems to defy everyday
attempts to do something about it. We were asked to think about why
the problem existed, identify one aspect of the problem that we wanted
to address and state it in one sentence beginning with “how” or “why” or “what
if.” We also had to talk about any initial ideas we had about
interventions that might address the problem. We decided that we
wanted to see if paying more attention to attendance issues when
students begin a program would improve their attendance. The next
step was to settle into the planning phase of our project.
We were asked to think about and answer a long list of questions,
and to describe our proposed intervention in general terms. We decided
when we would begin our intervention and when we would stop; we drew
a flow chart illustrating the sequence of steps we would follow.
We figured out the materials and equipment we would need and the
approvals we would need to obtain. We talked about how to inform
the students about what we were doing and get their consent to participate.
We decided how to get a baseline for comparison, what our criteria
for success would be and the data collection techniques we would
use. Finally, we identified barriers we thought might keep us from
finishing the project and plotted ways around them before we began.
Putting our plan into action
Then we went back to Cape Breton and back to work. For the rest
of the semester and during the summer, Dianne, Jacqueline and I let
our plans simmer on a back burner. But when we returned to work in
September, it was time to put our plan into action and to begin the
observation phase. We had learned that it was important to collect
data in several ways, including keeping a research journal, so that
was what we did over the next three months. We talked often
about what we were doing and we compared our attendance figures to
the baseline data we had collected. Much to our great pleasure, our
intervention seemed to pay off in improved attendance rates. At the
end of the year, we wrote a report about our project and sent it
off to Literacy Nova Scotia. Details of our project can be seen on
the Literacy Nova Scotia website—just follow the links to Action
Research Group. Excerpts of that report are included in the sidebar
on this page.
As we look back at our adventures, Dianne and Jacqueline, who were
much more involved in the day-to-day aspects of the project than
I was, remember feeling more than a little overwhelmed at the amount
of work that had to be done before the research part of the project
actually began. But, as time passed, we realized that we had unknowingly
been using the action-research process all along in an informal way.
We found that our learners were very willing to participate in the
process and took great pleasure in the necessary discussions.
What we learned
The project led to some surprising revelations. Dianne says:
We recognize that all adult learners have many barriers that keep
them from attending classes. Over the years, I had heard many excuses
and some of them I never truly understood. The project made it very
clear that sometimes the trivial excuses that we hear are not so
slight to the learner and can be crippling. The transition from home
back to the classroom is an overwhelming one for many. It is essential
that we make that process as gentle as possible.
Our action-research project has changed my thinking and teaching
processes in many ways. Now, when a problem presents itself, the
whole class tries to come up with ways to support and help each other.
They come up with strategies to help overcome some of the issues
and suggest places that may offer courses to deal with some of it.
We spend more time on building confidence, self-esteem and their
individual strengths as well as those of the group as a whole. We
are more involved with the community and the resources it offers.
Our project thus had some unexpected outcomes. We not only scratched
our “itch” and found some strategies to improve attendance,
but now all our ALACBC colleagues have a new and much-improved intake
assessment procedure to use. As individuals we have grown in our
practice, much to the benefit of the learners we work with. Most
importantly, though, we have learned that we do not always need to
look to “experts” for solutions to our problems. Sometimes
we can take action ourselves and end up with a solution tailor-made
to our needs.
Thank you, Allan Quigley!
KATHRYN MacCUISH became a teacher following graduation
from university, teaching science and math in high schools in Ontario
and Nova Scotia and working as a university lab instructor. After
many years as a stay-at-home mother, Kathy returned to work at a
local community organization, where she became involved with adult
literacy and ALACBC—then the Cape Breton Literacy Network.
Kathy volunteered with Laubach Literacy—locally, provincially
and nationally—for more than ten years. She has been employed
as an administrator with ALACBC since 1998, currently working one
day a week, combining facilitation of a Seniors’ Writing Circle
with her administrative duties.
SIDEBAR: Action on Attendance
by Cape Breton Group, Nova Scotia Action Research Movement
Action research means trying out new ideas as a way to improve practice
and to increase what we know about the curriculum, teaching and learning.
It is research that practitioners carry out to improve our professional
practice and understand it better—action research links theory
The “Itch”: Poor Attendance Leading to Drop-out
We felt the following factors contribute to poor attendance: students
forced to attend, fear of success or independence, no coping skills,
mental health issues, addictions or substance abuse, financial problems,
unrealistic goals or timelines.
We chose to address the factors that were manageable and realistic
for us to deal with: fear of success or independence, no coping skills,
unrealistic goals and timelines.
We discussed how students need a system of rewards such as regular
recognition from peers and instructors.
Our Formal Research Question
Will student attendance and retention improve if students set goals
about attendance at intake and if we recognize when students achieve
Actual intervention (September-December 2006)
• Use a closed questionnaire for intake assessment
• Set attendance goals
• Use activities (list excuses, talk about the connection between
excuses and success, post an attendance record on wall)
• Measure attendance and calculate rates
• Hold focus groups at mid-term and end of term
Brian McNeil–Glace Bay Adult Ed. Centre
Jamie MacDougall–Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board
Derek Bailey–Northside Adult High School
Adapted from: Cape Breton Group report, Nova Scotia Action Research
Movement page, Literacy Nova Scotia website www.ns.literacy.ca/nsarmove/capebgrp.htm.