Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Trials and Tribulations of Finding a Research Topic Focus

Narrowing down my focus on a single topic for my MEd research has been a STRUGGLE (yes I am yelling, virtually).  As a Special Education teacher in a Distributed Learning (DL) school, I wonder if it would have seemed easier to latch on to something if I worked in a more typical school environment. My areas of interest vary widely and, while I know I could have set myself up quite easily to have access to a classroom in a different school, I kept coming back to the fact that I’d prefer that my research topic be relevant to my own work environment. 

Over the last 3 years, I have seen a significant rise in students moving to our DL school as a response to personal challenges and obstacles to learning that they have not been able to overcome in their mainstream neighbourhood schools.  Many of the students who end up on my caseload are working hard to overcome anxiety and other mental health challenges while attempting to tackle grade level curriculum.  I find that the students on my case load require great flexibility in their learning plans and they benefit from a personalized approach. My first glance at BC's Ed Plan, specifically its description of “Personalized Learning for Every Student,” hooked me.  The explanation that educators will have “the flexibility to make sure each student is well served by their educational program,” the description of each learner as “unique”, and the commitment of our education system to “support each student’s interests and ways of learning” made me excited to be a teacher. The list of the 4 Action Steps that followed the explanation further inspired me; the talk of competencies, fewer but higher level outcomes and increased flexibility sealed the deal. While the document's proposed plan felt like a good fit for me upon first viewing, with its potential benefits for learners and flexibility with curriculum, others in our profession have been slower to warm up.  I have observed a good number of educators taking advantage of the opportunity, and encouragement, really, to shift their practice in the direction of personalized learning, while others prefer to stick with what they know and, in the context of their own classrooms, what they believe works. Risk taking is uncomfortable for many learners, the students I work with in particular, and I see a parallel that exists between my own peer group and the students we teach; just as we scaffold learning for our students, meet them where they are, I wonder if there are any specific supports or strategies that might better support shifts in practice among educators, as learners, navigating their way to a new approach.

My identified research topic is based in the adoption of personalized learning approaches in middle school. Curriculum/pedagogical change is needed to move ahead with personalized learning.  I am choosing to focus on middle school, as it seems to be a time when many students derail from the mainstream approach, some students’ families look for alternatives and while others simply stop attending. My identified Research Problem is to explore factors that prevent and/or support a pedagogical shift in practice even though recent curriculum documents encourage the move towards personalized learning as an instructional approach.I am looking at constructivism and Bandura’s Social Theory as theoretical frameworks for my research. 

My Research Questions:
  •         If teachers and students had something to help map out their project, term or semester to support personalized learning, would that help them adopt that approach?
  •         Would a “planner”, guide, or other structured template, that somehow linked to the learning outcomes, assist teachers and students in the successful adoption of personalized learning?
  •         How can we ensure there is visibility of learning and learning outcomes?
  •          Does learning transparency of the teacher, in the context of personalized learning, impact students? For example, does a teacher sharing out his/her own learning goals, risk-taking and reflections (as relevant) impact student learning? 

My questions are too many--I realize that--but I hope through readings and research I will be able to narrow my focus and peel back some of the layers to address a specific question.

On a positive note, I recently discovered the hashtag, #plchat, on Twitter, and I’ve taken to meandering through past links and posts put out by its users. I’m enjoying some good reads on @pernilleripp ‘s blog, Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension, with posts such as this one, titled,
9 Barriers to Personalized learning and How We May Work Around Them”. My time right now is mostly focused on trying to hone the craft of “searching” and fine tuning my key terms, as well as choosing my preferred methods and structures for curating and referencing resources I find. I am in a continued state of overwhelm, but I have my first two journal articles started. The ball is, officially, rolling.

So here I am, ready to conclude this blogpost update on my research progress and, believe it or not, I still have doubts about my topic. I will soldier on, however, continue with my reading, perusing and blogging, and hope with all my might that I settle into my groove and find my flow really, really soon.

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