Ben Franklin: Action Researcher!

posted May 4, 2015, 8:37 AM by peter richmond   [ updated May 17, 2015, 11:55 PM by Margaret Riel ]

I recently ran into a former colleague from a traditional private school where I'd taught a few years back, a voice/piano teacher who'd been quite set in her "I sing, you parrot," pedagogy, which always led to a few frosty moments when I was directing the musical and she was the musical director. I'd been less than pleased at her stern style with my cast of fifth-to-ninth graders. Similarly, she wasn't too approving of the way I directed. In the end, we always put on a good show, though.

            Now, in the aisle of the supermarket, we caught up. When I told her that after publishing a couple of books I was now back in academia, as a candidate for an MA in Teaching and an adjunct professor, she failed to hide her surprise.

            "Never thought you'd go back to teaching," she said, with an expression that didn't convey a whole of congratulations.

            I tried to explain that my field wasn't actually "teaching," that I was learning in a program whose curriculum had taught me over the last couple of years that the word "teaching" didn't really apply to our craft.  It was more like research, I said: "..Action-research."

            She was entirely confused: "Meaning...?"

            Very good question. How to explain action research in a supermarket aisle? If I'd said, "I examine my practice every day," it might imply that she didn't (although she doesn't). If I'd said, "I observe, reflect and take action to try and redefine the classroom dynamics and make it easier for them to learn," it'd sound as if I were reciting some rote formula.

            What I came up with didn't make much more sense: "It's kind of a way to let the students help me learn how to help them learn.."                      

            "Interesting," she said. Then, after a hurried goodbye, she skittered on to the produce section.

            It was a good "teaching" moment: as an action-researcher, I have not yet found a way to effectively summarize, for friends and colleagues, the philosophy that guides my work. And considering that my peers are of a generation that, from Woodstock on, has always prided itself on questioning the status quo and finding new ways to effect meaningful change in the world, I walked away from the grocery store questioning myself: How to explain to others what happens in a teacher action-research classroom?


            And then, a few days later, skimming Ben Franklin's autobiography, I came across a paragraph describing a regular gathering of colleagues that Franklin organized in 1726, at the age of twenty, to exchange ideas, debate the day's issues and generally give their brains a happy workout.

            The members, other than our favorite kite-flyer? A copier of deeds; a self-taught mathematician; a surveyor; a joiner; a shoemaker; a merchant's clerk and a wealthy young man of no particular talent other than his charm and love of puns.

            Franklin summed up the rules of protocol for the salon -- or, as I began to see it, "classroom" -- in a single paragraph:


            "Every member in his turn should produce one or more queries on any point of morals, politics or natural philosophy, to be discussed by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory."


            It was pretty hard not to immediately see the parallels between the dynamics of Franklin's group and those of the action-research classroom.

            "Queries on any point of morals, politics and natural philosophy."

            Isn't examining "morals" a given for any instructor engaged in action research? Taking stock of the ethical compass of a classroom cohort is a good way for laying the groundwork for meaningful discourse. Nor is an instructor who imposes his or her own moral framework in a classroom likely to find a receptive group of students.

            Politics? Perhaps a little out of a student's realm (unless the discussion dovetails with current events) but what discussion, no matter what the topic, doesn't benefit from exploration of each of our places in "nature"? Isn't it paramount that an action-researcher try and learn each student's "nature?

            In a more literal sense, Franklin's sense of "philosophic nature" would eventually find expression a century and a half later in the writings of Emerson, Muir and Thoreau, which are as relevant and necessary as they've ever been in a world that seems to have lost or ignored our relationship to our natural world.

            But if the relationship among members of a classroom feels "natural," isn't that an excellent foundation for learning? 

            "Produce and read an essay of his own writing on any subject he pleased."

            In an action-research language-arts classroom, "writing" is as much a means of writing-to-learn as it is of expressing oneself in a specific stylistic fashion about a specific subject. When we assign topics for "writing," wouldn't it be more instructive -- if the writing is a tool with a larger purpose -- to let the writer use the tool in whatever manner s/he gets the most satisfaction from?  

            Our debates were to be under the direction of a president...

            Well, someone has to be the traffic might as well be the facilitator/scaffolder!

            ...and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth,

             Doesn't this sentence describe action research to a tee?

            Without fondness for dispute or desire of victory.

            Finally, isn't a teacher who feels the need to "win" -- to drill his own message into a student's mind -- falling into the trap of ego-gratification that Franklin saw as counterproductive to true learning? Doesn't real learning happen in a setting where the stakes are not "winning or losing," but learning freed of agenda?

            Perhaps Franklin has started me on my way to an answer to the question, What's action-research?

            How about: "It's conversation among people who have come together in the hopes of learning. It's an exchange of ideas that are continually being questioned by everyone involved in the process. It's a regular gathering modeled on the natural discourse, exchange and curiosity that mark our everyday inquiry outside of the classroom."

            Or maybe just this: "Action-research? Talking, listening and learning with some colleagues."

            Better yet: In the spirit of action research, maybe I'll ask my colleagues what their answer to the question is this weekend in Toronto! It's been a year since my home school hosted our last gathering at Moravian, and I look forward to exchanging thoughts and ideas in person in Toronto! Too bad Ben Franklin can't join us, but I think he'll be there in spirit...