Action Research: The Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI)
and its Implications for Teacher Education

Jim Parsons
Professor, Department of Secondary Education, Faculty of Education, University of Alberta,
Larry Beauchamp
Professor, Department of Secondary Education, Faculty of Education, University of Alberta,
This paper reviews data from four sets of final reports of action research projects under the aegis of the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI). AISI is an Alberta government program that provides funding to every school division to allow teachers to create site-based, action research projects they believe will engender school improvement where they work. Teachers create and direct the research, design the research methods, collect and analyze data, and report findings in their own words following completion of the project. This paper reviews more than 1800 of these site-based, action research projects to focus specifically upon the growth of teachers and what these findings suggest for teacher education during the 12 years of AISI site-based research projects. The conceptual framework the authors employ is applied. To understand the reports written by teachers, the authors asked and answered three questions: (1) What? {What did we find?}; (2) So What? {What do these findings mean?}; and, (3) Now What? {What should we do after we make sense of the findings?}. This paper focuses on analyzing and sharing findings about question no.3. Because this practical conceptual framework suggests best practices, the paper we offer here is not intended to report specific findings as much as to thoughtfully consider about what our research findings suggest for practical actions within teacher education programs.
Key Words: Alberta Initiative for School Improvement; implications for teacher education
programs; site-based, action research projects. Background
Alberta, a province in Western Canada, is unique among educational systems throughout the world. One reason for this claim is the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI). AISI, now beginning its fifth three-year cycle, is a twelve-year old formal initiative of government supported site-based, action research projects. AISI provides funding for K-12 Alberta school jurisdictions for projects that address local needs and circumstances to improve student learning. AISI stands as one of the best examples of a sustained, site-based school improvement initiative anywhere in the world (Hargreaves et al., 2009). Accordingly, it has been a factor in focusing the attention of educators and researchers from around the world on Alberta’s education system. Several characteristics make AISI unique in Canada and globally. First, AISI was designed by all Alberta’s major educational partners – including the Universities; Government of Alberta – Education Branch; the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA); College of Alberta School Superintendents (CASS); Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA); Association of School Business Officials of Alberta (ASBOA); and the Alberta School Councils Association (ASCA). Each action research project is longitudinal (three years in length) and created and managed on-site by local teachers at the district level. Each school district receives approximately $75 per student annually to create, run, and manage these action research projects. AISI projects receive ongoing support from Alberta’s educational partners – including university-based educators from Alberta’s three largest teacher educational institutions – the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, AISI planning began in 1999 and was implemented in all Alberta school districts in 2001/02 as an Alberta provincial government educational program to create action research projects based upon teachers’ best sense of their students’ learning needs. Implemented in all Alberta school districts, AISI has been in place for twelve years and has supported a variety of district and school-based projects directed by teachers. The commitment from educational stakeholders in the province, has placed Alberta as a world leader in education. AISI is currently planning for year one of Cycle 5. This province-wide organization of school site- based research projects has been borne at the grassroots by Alberta teachers and supported by Alberta’s educational partners. One significant result is that Alberta has been able to build strong collegial relationships among educational partners and within the educational community – including teacher education institutions. AISI has injected fluidness into decision-making in the entire educational system as educational partners have worked together closely. This is true both in areas of provincial governance and within schools. A second significant result is that AISI has fostered student learning throughout the province and has resulted in an overall growth in academic success and academic capacity of Alberta’s students. A third significant success is the depth and increased growth of teacher professional learning and efficacy – including leadership. AISI has improved both preservice and in-service teacher education. This paper will focus on the growth of teachers and its subsequent impact on teacher education during the 12 years of AISI site-based research projects. For example, AISI projects have promoted teacher efficaciousness as they create and directed their own professional learning, design research methods, collect and analyze data, and report findings. Typically, AISI final reports are written by AISI lead teachers. These final reports constitute a powerful data set, providing evidence of the extent to which myriad groups of teachers have been able to engage in communities of practice, reflect upon what they have learned, identify new practices, and share their school improvement research. The Research Base
This paper reviews data from four sets of final reports of action research projects from AISI. As previously noted, several characteristics make AISI unique. AISI is grassroots and based upon site- based action research. Teachers create and direct the research, design the research methods, collect and analyze data, and report findings in their own words following completion of the project. These AISI project final reports constitute a powerful data set for researchers where communities of teachers speculate about what they have learned as they have researched school improvement together. In longer reports, we have synthesized our research (Parsons, McRae, & Taylor, 2006; Harding & Parsons, 2011; Parsons & Beauchamp, 2011). However, here we share our key findings as they apply to teacher education. As authors, we hope these reflections help teachers become more efficacious in their work in schools. As applied researchers, our synthesis has focused on answering three questions: (1) What did we find? (2) What do these findings mean? and, (3) What should we do after we make sense of the findings? Findings
This paper summarizes insights and perceptions derived from our years of working with AISI and
our involvement with the teachers and students who have participated in so many successful projects. The synthesis of findings from the first six years of action research projects revealed six areas of growth (Parsons, McRae, & Taylor; 2006). (1) The Power of Collaborative Professional Development
AISI action research projects suggested that the best teacher professional development (we have grown to call this teacher professional learning) was based in on-site community building and grassroots leadership. These actions of teachers working together did a better job of developing professional learning than expert-driven professional development. These site-based professional learning experiences focused on effective pedagogy – that is, teachers working together on their curriculum and their teaching. We grew to believe that, when serious teachers work together to solve real problems – on site – professional learning is effective! (2) Project-Based or Problem-Based Learning
Findings from AISI action research projects suggested that project-based and problem-based pedagogies had the highest correlation with student learning. AISI projects have helped us understand the power of constructivist principles in teaching and learning. AISI action research projects based upon problem-based learning infused new motivation and learning, and improved time on task and student achievement. In general, this finding suggests that the active engagement of students and teachers based on differentiated instruction improves student learning and student (3) Parental and Community Involvement
AISI action research findings show that parental involvement is important to student engagement. AISI projects give us a picture of the school as a community that works best with caring involvement by everyone who should be involved. Even after twelve years of attention to parental and community involvement, we have not begun yet to involve parents as much as we could in that community. Welcoming parents and community members into Alberta classrooms as more than visitors is an ongoing challenge. Thus, community involvement has become a crucial goal of Cycle (4) Integrating Technology into Core Curriculum
Getting caught up in the bells and whistles of technology can be seductive; however, AISI action research projects suggest that technology works best when it supports and advances critical thinking, the curriculum, creativity, collaboration and problem solving. Technology is NOT the curriculum, but technology works best as a systemic/pedagogical support. Specifically, new technologies have been found to be powerful aids to problem-based learning and to support collaborative teacher professional learning and student technology learning. AISI action research projects remind us that the curriculum was not invented to advance technology but rather that technology is capable of supporting curriculum and pedagogy goals. (5) Growing Leadership in Alberta Schools
AISI action research projects have taught us much about leadership: specifically, we have learned that hierarchical leadership does not support student learning as well as collaborative leadership. We have also learned that all teachers and students can and should become leaders and that shared leadership motivates positive change through action research. Through AISI-supported teacher professional learning, teachers have begun to share expertise. AISI action research projects have taught us that, when teachers become school and curriculum leaders, student achievement increases. Perhaps our learning about using teachers in leadership positions is the single most important success story of AISI action research projects. We have learned that shared leadership is motivating
(6) Creating New Cultures

Finally, AISI action research projects have taught us the importance of change to school culture – the way things are done within a community of learners. The following cultural changes have been engendered by AISI action research projects – isolation to collaboration, hierarchy to shared leadership, and expert-based to inquiry-based decisions. Such shared learning activities have helped teachers develop “cultures of collaboration” that focus teams on co-creating goals for school improvement. Lasting school change revolves around cultural change. As we have synthesized our AISI action research project findings, we have centered upon three AISI pillars that we believe have motivated successful change. These are: (1) Community; (2) Agency, and (3) Service. That is, when teachers engaged in community, when they came to believe they possessed agency, and when they worked on pedagogical and curricular activities that engaged them in service for and with others, powerful and positive changes were caused to happen. Community included: (1) community relationships with other teachers; (2) community relationships with students; and (3) seeing the school as a community (made up of Parents, School staff, and other schools). Agency included seeing the AISI community as a research community where opportunities to engage and make fundamental site-based change – with an “I can make a difference” attitude – were possible. Teachers with agency saw knowledge as power and action as possible change, and AISI action research projects helped produce and grow teacher leaders who made a difference “on site.” Service included the belief that good work is highly motivating, builds positive relationships and shows teachers for what they are.
Bridging Research to Practice in Teacher Education
After twelve years of studying AISI findings from more than 1500 final reports, we have come to know (in teachers’ own words) what powerfully shapes their professional learning. This article is written from the following belief: If we can know what practicing teachers believe are their most crucial learning’s and if we can create opportunities earlier in their careers to engage teacher candidates in those powerful experiences, we can help teachers more powerfully improve the work of fostering student learning. The following is a review of what teachers have told us. 1) Teacher Engaged Learning
When teachers revealed what actions spurred their own engagement, they named being active in site-based, action research as a key. Specifically, they noted that action research and site-based research aided their growth because it allowed them to work with other teachers whose combined insights also encouraged their own professional learning. For many teachers, engaging in these communities of practice were new activities and they noted the powerful shaping that such engaged communities held in their own work. They also cited building teacher networks as a key area of growth. Teachers learned from professional conversations with other teachers. The wealth of these conversations were found in their critical and reflective natures as teachers completed research and used the data they had gathered to inform their work. To aid this engaged learning, teachers named the following resources as key: technologies that allowed sharing and working together, working together as instructional coaches, and the release time they needed from classroom work to make 2) Student Engaged Learning
When teachers revealed what activities spurred their students’ engagement, they focused upon pedagogy. They named pedagogical activities that included inquiry teaching, project-based learning, and assessment for learning. These pedagogies allowed teachers to practice their professionalism by having on-going conversations with students that were, in essence, formative evaluations. These conversations allowed teachers to provide different choices and directions to students as these students were working on projects during class time. At the core of these “conversational pedagogies” was the belief that students were different in skills and needs and teachers were professionally competent to address those needs as they engaged students in classroom activities. Teachers also noted that the combination of these ongoing classroom conversations and pedagogies that tied classroom work to real-life relevance helped motivate student learning to the point where the historical nemesis of teachers – behavior problems – were almost non-existent. Teachers noted that the conversations with students included on-going assessment (how well students were understanding of the work), meta-cognition (how students were better understanding their own abilities to grapple with the work), personal interests (how classroom work tied in with student interests), and community (how students were working together with others – including teachers). To aid their work with students, teachers named the following resources: technologies that helped them tie classroom learning with real-world learning; students engaging in peer coaching (which worked in much the same was as teachers who engaged in peer coaching), and relevant and 3) Products of Engaged Learning
Teachers named a number of benefits to increased engaged learning. These included:
I. Creative, responsive, and innovative cultures. Engaged learning worked to reshape
classroom culture. Classrooms became places where students became more creative; more responsive to directions, insights from others, and in working to shape their own interests; and more willing to innovate. Students were less concerned with grades or “what the teacher wanted” and were more concerned with their own learning and growth. II. Whole staff leadership capacities. As teachers became more engaged in their own
professional learning – which included working with other teachers in communities of practice – they naturally grew in their willingness to engage leadership activities and gained further leadership abilities. Not the least of these was the belief in their own empowered agency – in short, they came to believe they could “make a difference” in their own sites.

III. Sustainable, purposeful, and value-driven change. As teachers became more engaged,
they led and sponsored change. These changes came naturally and were based upon community-of- practice decisions that worked to sustain the agreed-upon values of the organization. Thus, change became sustainable because teachers came to believe it was in their own best interests (which included their first order of business, captured in the mantra “It’s all about the kids.”). IV. Student Achievement. During our research, we came to believe that the focus on student
achievement was wrong-minded. This is not to suggest that student achievement is not important, but to target achievement as a focus is to aim incorrectly. The bridge of confluence we saw redundantly began with the school principal, whose leadership set the tone and direction of the school, to teachers, then to students – then outward. Specifically, when a principal began to share school leadership with teachers, teachers became more engaged in their own professional learning and growth; then teachers’ engagement bridged to students who, in similar ways to teachers, became more engaged in their own learning and growth; this increased student engagement led to increased student learning, which led to increased student achievement. Although on its face it might seem illogical to encourage principals to share school leadership as a link to student achievement, this is the growth we saw redundantly in our research. V. Educator Career Longevity and Satisfaction. The final product of increased teacher
and student engagement was increased job satisfaction of teachers. Our interviews with teachers revealed experienced teachers who claimed transformations in their teaching, which resulted from pedagogical retooling towards increased use of formative assessments (“We assess everything.”) that occurred during classroom conversations with students. They claimed to have renewed their enthusiasm for teaching, to having decreased student time off topic, and to increased parental involvement as parents approached them to note that their children were now talking with excitement about what they had learned in school.
AISI Informed Goals for Teacher Education Programs
An obvious question, when reviewing the insights we have gained from our research, becomes: How might our research findings influence pre-service teacher education? Based upon our findings, and believing that practicing teachers’ experiences and insights can positively direct pre-service teacher education programs, we suggest the following seven program goals. 1) Instruct and engage students in action research processes, ethics, and methods.
We believe that engaging in action research can help pre-service teachers come to better understand the possibilities of their own empowerment and agency, the ethics of working with other humans, 2) Create and engage in ‘real-to-classroom’ research. Because action research focuses
upon relevant, real actions, we believe that pre-service teachers should work to solve real-life problems in their university classroom activities and come to see that their work might have a positive impact upon society. Constructing and using the bridge between the “real world” and their academic world seems both possible and positive. 3) Engage Students in Collaboration. During our research, we saw the power of
communities of practice and their positive influences on practicing teacher professional learning. We believe such positive growth can also impact pre-service teachers’ learning. We also believe that establishing communities of practice in teacher education courses can help remove some of the isolation that often accompanies teaching. 4) Focus on Community, Agency, and Service. Early in our research, we came to see
correlations between certain teacher activities and their increased professional learning. We summarized these correlations in the following themes: community, agency, and service. Specifically, we came to see the powerful learning motivations that occurred when teachers worked together. We also came to believe that a key attribute in motivating change was the belief that occurred when teachers came to believe “I can make a difference.” Finally, teachers were motivated by service – by working for the cause of others. We believe these three motivations can also be shared by pre- service teachers and could become integral parts of an undergraduate teacher education program. 5) Work Transparently. As part of practicing teachers spending more time working with
students in the conversational pedagogies we noted, a transparency between learning and learning goals became evident. In other words, teachers worked to share why and how classroom work contributed to student learning. We believe such transparency could and should be part of pre- service teacher education programs. Why is this a course objective? How does this lesson plan you are engaging shape the university’s understanding of how to encourage your own growth as a teacher? How do we believe the assignments you do in this university-based course contribute to your professional growth? It seems natural and helpful that, when working with those who will become teachers themselves, that we in universities share our goals with those we teach. 6) Celebrate Diversity. Implicit in those pedagogical activities that motivated student and
teacher engagement was the belief, acceptance, and celebration of individual differences. Teachers came to believe and act upon those differences – in themselves and in their students – and these actions further increased engagement, learning, and achievement. This finding suggests that university courses might also be wise to accept and act upon the differences in students who are studying to become teachers. As communities of practice are created within university-based classrooms, the diversity of pre-service teachers can emerge naturally. Course work might also reflect assignment options – equal but different assignments. In short, if we can actively and transparently allow and celebrate those differences our pre-service teachers bring to their teacher education programs, we might help them learn to better create curriculum and instruction that encourages engagement later within their own classrooms. 7) Explore Culture Creation. Our research findings suggest that the most crucial changes
that occur in schools are changes in culture. Yet, our experience suggests that university courses seldom discuss school cultures – either those that might exist or those we would hope to create. Increased attention to school culture seems to be an area of fruitful dialogue within university courses. Assignments that ask, “What kind of classroom culture might best encourage the goals we desire?” and “How might such a culture be achieved?” are potentially important conversations As we summarize this paper, it is important to comment on the growth of communities of practice in Alberta. Today, in Alberta schools, the work of teachers and support staff is often characterized by collaborative communities of practice that foster leadership on site. AISI team practices and models of distributed leadership with both teachers and school administration have grown to honor expanding leadership by encouraging teams of teachers to meet based on their own needs and decision-making requirements. Such organization gives teachers a clear message and an opportunity to demonstrate that they are competent professionals. This expanded sense of site-based leadership helps ensure that teaching becomes more than unthinking compliance. Finally, AISI has helped to build a provincial educational reality where job-embedded professional learning is becoming the AISI has left its mark on Alberta. As AISI gears up for Cycle 5, it is crucial to review AISI’s positive educational impacts. It has given Alberta teachers compelling reasons to change teaching practice through dedicated funding, broad sharing of effective practices, access to new ideas, and the constancy of a challenge that has spanned eleven years. AISI has empowered a generation of educators to examine what it really means to provide a high quality of educational service to every student, to be more sure of when they have been successful in their work and to try alternatives when their efforts have not produced the success they sought. AISI has introduced thousands of Alberta teachers to the risks and opportunities of school-based research. AISI work in schools has not always generated research results that are immediately generalizable, or scalable, but hundreds of school-based initiatives have produced gains in student learning and changes in teaching practice that have yet to be made fully explicit. The full impact of the initiative and its lasting legacy will be studied for years to come. University of Lethbridge’s David Townsend likens the AISI phenomenon to the discovery of penicillin. He notes, Every day I’m in schools I see additional examples of small changes in teaching and learning, any number of which just might have the power to effect change on a much broader scale. Just because we haven’t discovered them yet doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying, or that they are not out there to be discovered! Our research findings suggest that AISI has helped shaped teacher professional learning and teacher identity in Alberta. The research AISI has engendered in schools was site-based research directed by teachers within every district in Alberta. As noted, AISI is in its fifth three-year cycle. The findings generated by these projects, by their collective volume, represent a huge data set that help educational researchers better understand school improvement. These findings, written in the teachers’ own language and not in the language of distant research experts have been fundamental in changing the practice, culture, and understanding of teachers in Alberta. As researchers, we have been reviewing these findings for twelve years. In this article, we attempt to synthesize insights that have emerged from our engagement with the work of Alberta’s teachers. We offer these insights as part of an ongoing conversation about how teacher education programs might be best shaped to benefit both pre-service and practicing teachers. We trust these findings might resonate with the experience of other teacher educators and that our attempt to better make sense of this huge data set might help other teacher educators shape their own practices and the pedagogical spaces of their own university-based work. Finally, we believe these findings from the combined weight of teachers’ professional learning will help schools build positive, challenging, open, and transparent learning cultures for all students that encourage risk-taking and guide learners towards co-articulated high expectations. Our findings about the positive power of ccollaborations and relationships between students and students and students and teachers suggests that learning occurs when communities plan, research, develop, share, and implement new research, strategies, and materials. References
Harding, K. & Parsons, J. (2011). Improving teacher education programs, Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 36(11), 50-61. Hargreaves, A., Crocker, R., Davis, B., McEwan, L., Sahlberg, P., Shirley, D., & Sumara, D. (2009). The Learning Mosaic: A multiple perspectives review of the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI). Edmonton, AB: Alberta Education. Parsons, J, & Beauchamp, L (2011). Living leadership for learning: Case studies of five Alberta elementary school principals. Edmonton, AB: Alberta Teachers’ Association. Parsons, J. McRae, P. & Taylor, L. (2006). Celebrating school improvement: Six lessons from Alberta’s AISI projects. Edmonton, AB: School Improvement Press.


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