[ Abstract for this presentation ] [ Proceedings Contents ] [ Schedule ] [ Abstracts ]

Action research for staff professional development: A case study of a school in Uganda

Jaya Earnest
Research Unit for the Study of Societies in Change
Curtin University of Technology
WAIER logo
To date, only a few studies of school improvement, action research and staff professional development have been undertaken in Uganda and none have been at the early childhood level. The present study evaluates one early childhood institution's attempt to improve the school effectiveness and classroom environments that teachers create, through positive leadership and on-going teacher professional development.

This longitudinal study, implemented over four years, involved the investigation of factors that influenced school effectiveness, and teacher professional development in an early childhood institution in Kampala, Uganda. The study made use of action research methodology with a framework of teacher professional development. Uganda's rapidly expanding education system and largely teacher centred mode of delivery makes this study timely, because it provides potentially significant insights into how a school improvement program using action research methodology can provide a sustainable means of professional development.


This paper reports the findings of a longitudinal study that investigated the effectiveness of a professional development program implemented in an early childhood institution in Uganda. The objectives of the study were:

Background to the study

A historical background on Uganda

Uganda became a British Protectorate in 1894. In the late 1950s and early 1960s; Uganda was called the Pearl of Africa. The colonial structure of government remained in place with very little modification until a form of central government was instigated in 1953. The British had laid down necessary infrastructure for success. Makerere University; internationally known for its tropical medicine program and Mulago Hospital were well regarded institutions throughout the world, and industry, agriculture and trade were flourishing. On the other hand tribal, religious and political differences made the task of government very complex (Government of Uganda, 2002).

Figure 1

Figure 1: Map of Uganda

In October 1962, Milton Obote became the first Prime Minister of Independent Uganda. Obote's own political ideologies were directed to creating a United Republic. He did this by abolishing all kingdoms. The constitutional crisis in 1966, unearthed Major General Idi Amin, who was now head of an army Obote could not do without. This situation prevailed until the January 1971 when Amin ousted Obote, and took over as Head of State. Killings in the army, where Amin's tribesmen engaged in systematic massacres, were the first signs to a watching public of the madness to follow. The Asian exodus in 1972 was one of the most significant events in Uganda's history. It has scarred Uganda for the rest of its national life and the wound, only now beginning to heal, was open for nearly a quarter of a century (Government of Uganda, 2002). Milton Obote won his second reign in December 1980 and this came to be known as the Obote II reign. Yoweri Kaguta Museveni was sworn in as President of Uganda in January 1986. The distorted and violent policies of a whirlwind of governments had left Ugandans without a true belief in their leaders.

Education, rehabilitation in all spheres and awareness have been the key areas targeted by government programs initiated. With political stability since 1986 and infrastructural redevelopment underway, the Government was able to focus on the ailing economy. Currently 80% of the population is agrarian and rural. The magnitude and impact of the HIV/AIDs crisis also had a grave impact on the economic and social life of Ugandans. The Government published a White paper on education in 1991, since the early 1990s there has been a steady expansion of the education system (Government of Uganda, 2002).

The Aga Khan Education Services (AKES)

The Aga Khan Education Services (AKES) is one of four agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) an international non-governmental organisation and developmental agency, supporting activities in the field of education. AKES currently operates more than 300 schools and advanced educational programs in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Tajikistan. AKES is also developing new schools in Kyrgyzstan and Madagascar and studying the feasibility of services and facilities in Mozambique (AKES, 2002).

The leading characteristics of the work of the Aga Khan Education Services are:

The Aga Khan Education Service was set up in Kampala, Uganda in mid 1993 and rehabilitation and establishment of the Aga Khan Nursery School was the first project of the AKES in 1993. I was appointed Principal in December 1993 and worked at the school until September 1997. In January 1994, the Aga Khan Nursery School opened its doors and the school started with 39 students and 5 teachers. It was to this small teaching team that I communicated my vision and introduced a strategy of classroom improvement, school effectiveness and professional development.

Theoretical framework

Linking school leadership and professional development to improve school environment

The new paradigm of management emphasises an environment in which growth and empowerment of the individual are the keys to success. Many educators believe that the school is a learning organisation and that a school climate that maximises human potential can be developed, monitored and sustained (Costa, 1994). Leaders must know how to cultivate and sustain learning under conditions of complex, rapid change (Fullan, 2001). In successful schools, leaders hold professional values that are first and foremost about learning. There are five themes in leading for change: vision, understanding change, developing relationships, knowledge building, coherence making (Fullan, 2001). The present study examined how I; in the role of the school principal, implemented the school improvement program, influenced the school-level environment and brought about sustained change among teachers.

Action research cycle

According to Kemmis and McTaggart (1992, p. 16) action research is "concerned with changing individuals, on the one hand and, on the other, the culture of the group or social institution to which they belong". Action research involves a self-reflexive spiral in which strategic planning, achievable steps, implementing the plan, observing and evaluation, reflecting and then replanning, further implementation and further reflecting, are involved as the cycle continues. In this study, action research combined reflective practice, empowerment of the teachers, professional development, active learning and collaboration (Cohen, Manion & Morrison, 2000).

Effective schools

I was influenced by the characteristics of effective schools outlined in the Halton Approach by Stoll and Firk, (1996). Twelve characteristics are outlined that fall into three main categories:
  1. A common mission: which a shared and communicated vision of school goals. The principal plays a major role in communicating this vision to teachers, parents', and students'.
  2. An emphasis on learning: characterised by teachers who have and convey high expectations to their students. Teachers also use a variety of teaching and monitoring strategies to create curriculum materials that are linked to school goals.
  3. A climate conducive to learning: where morale of teachers and students is high, where there is recognition and incentives. Under this category are the characteristics of student involvement, responsibility and behaviour, of parental and community involvement, of recognition and incentives.

School improvement program

The aim of the study was to evaluate the success of a program designed to improve the classroom environment created by teachers at a private early childhood institution in Uganda. The program was designed to develop reflective practice among the teachers in the school, to link practice and research, to promote collaboration and to empower the teachers through involvement in the study at all stages. Thus a combination of effective leadership, mentoring and professional development was used to enhance classroom environments and improved the quality and effectiveness of teaching and learning in the school.

During the course of the program a cyclic action research model of professional development was developed, in which on-the-job training, workshops, peer-coaching and mentoring were coupled with leader support and regular feedback. I was influenced by Fullan's (1992, 2001) model of change and school improvement. According to Willis (1999), reflective practice is a way for teachers to understand, critique and improve their professional work. The reflective practice cycle involves describing activities that are used during teaching, appraising them, suggesting ways in which they can be improved in future sessions and planning for subsequent action. Finally, continuous support through weekly workshops, professional development courses and contact with peers and the head teacher was used to encourage sustained change.

As principal of the early childhood school, I used Michael Fullan's 1992, model of the three interconnected cogs of the wheel, where the teacher as learner changes the classroom-learning environment, under the leadership of the principal and brings about school improvement in the school. Research in western countries indicates that successful educational change is achieved by treating the individual school as a unit and ensuring that the school principal is a key player who mentors teachers repeatedly as they deploy new skills in their classrooms (AKDN, 2004). My study tested how far this formula held true in a unique post-conflict context where many of teachers have no more than high school education themselves and where there is extreme shortage of funds.

Methods and data sources

This interpretative study (Erickson, 1998) was carried out over four years (1993-1997) and used a qualitative case study and action research approach in which I, as the school principal was involved in action research. The aim of the study was to evaluate whether a professional development program, aimed at improving the classroom environment that teachers created, was successful.

The framework for analysis emerged from the case study and was shaped by the introspective data available from long-term collaboration in which both the head teacher and the teachers in the school were involved in reflecting on their teaching to improve the classroom learning environment and school effectiveness (Wallace & Louden, 2000). The present case study made use of interpretative and ethnographic analysis from multiple research methods.


The sample consisted of all 22 teachers of one private early childhood institution in Kampala, Uganda. These teachers were involved in the professional development and school improvement program.

Gathering of qualitative information

Qualitative information was gathered at each stage of the program using discussions and in-depth interviews with teachers, classroom observations, anecdotal records and narratives written by the researcher.

Action research for organisational change

Action Research as a methodology supports teachers in their struggle with the challenges related to their classroom practice; as they reflect on these challenges (Altrichter, Posch & Somekh, 1993). Elliott has defined Action Research as the 'study of a social situation with a view to improving the quality of action within it' (1991, p.69). It was important that teachers in the school understood the changes and believed in the changes, only then could they change their own practice.

Figure 2

Figure 2: The Action Research Cycle developed at the school

The importance of action research is not to be underestimated, because it provides teachers with a legitimate and more appropriate alternative to traditional research designs' (Hopkins, 2002a). Hopkins (2001) recognises that a teacher's perception of research involves time that most busy teachers cannot afford. By recognising that a teacher's first and most important role is to teach, this study confined itself to improve teaching practice within the classroom and bring about change in the classroom learning environment and student learning in a rehabilitated school in a post-conflict country.

The head teacher as a mentor

Tilley (2002, p.17) strongly asserts; "Mentors need to be committed to the educational exercise and to take an interest in the personal and professional development of the mentee. Mentors need to be flexible enough to tolerate and appreciate the uniqueness and individuality of the mentees". As a principal in a school, in one of the poorest countries in the world, I had

Before taking up my position as the principal of this early childhood institution in Uganda, I had worked as a teacher in three other developing countries. I was passionate about teaching especially teaching in the developing world. I was well organised and flexible and was excited by this challenge of establishing a school in a complex situation of post-conflict, poor infrastructure, limited funds, poverty and HIV/AIDs.

Professional development

Professional development in the school was school-based where the whole school was a unit of change, where there was on-going professional development of teachers. The emphasis was on enhancing teacher's general pedagogical expertise; there was a focus on the adoptio n and use of "child-centred" activity oriented methods of teaching and learning. A professional development plan for the year was developed with the help of teachers and weekly professional development sessions were held in school on a Thursday afternoon with the staff over a period of two years.

Classroom observations and interviews

Classroom observations and interviews with all teachers were carried out on an on-going basis each month for 2 years. In addition, four teachers were selected for more in-depth data collection. These teachers were selected as a representative sample of the staff, ranging in experience, qualifications and grade levels. Classroom observations were made on a weekly basis in each of these teachers' classes. In addition, in-depth interviews about the school improvement program and the associated professional development were held at least once every two weeks.


Three issues were at the heart of change initiatives in the school:
  1. The teachers and I in the school began to understand the change process;
  2. We built a professional learning community of teachers at the school level;
  3. In the fourth year of the school we began focussing on an outreach program to assist and help other early childhood institutions in Kampala.
The success of the school improvement program was measured at four levels: the school, the classroom teacher, the principal and the student level.

At the school level

At the school level, implementation of the school improvement program was found to increase interaction between the head teacher and the teachers, increase teacher cohesiveness and teacher collaboration and improve teacher self-efficacy. The school improvement and professional development program was a systematic approach to school-wide improvement that incorporated every aspect of a school -- from curriculum and instruction to school management.

At the classroom teacher level

At the classroom level, the results indicated that teachers who were involved in the program developed student-centred classrooms, incorporated cooperative learning in their lessons. The teachers began using team teaching, as there were a group of three teachers in a class. They had weekly planning meetings where they developed strategies suitable for their group of children. There were attractive student displays in the classroom. Teachers began to use locally available low cost material to make resources.

At the student level

At the student level, an overall improvement in student achievement (literacy and numeracy) was noticeable over the four years and student enrolments increased sevenfold. A program and a process was designed to enable all students to meet challenging academic content and performance goals of the Ugandan primary system that was exam oriented. The students at the school were happy, responsive, energetic and had high self esteem and this was measured by classroom observations, parent feedback and discussion, teacher feedback and talking to students.

At the school principal level

During the crucial first years of establishing the school, I found I was the curriculum leader and mentor for the teachers, initiator of the professional development program, a manager of resources available for the school. I was also a public relations officer and responsible for budget preparation and maintaining on-line budgetary control. I also had to attend to school management issues and other organisational meetings. At the end of the study, I felt that a clear vision and leading by personal example influenced and improved the effectiveness of the school improvement program. I had developed a school induction and appraisal policy for new teachers, and initiated a school development plan with the teachers. I gained a wealth of experience and knowledge that comes from practically working in a situation of post-conflict and I have benefited tremendously from this experience. I have understood complex issues of grief and trauma, human rights violations and admired the resilience of my teachers and parents to survive against great odds.

Educational importance

This study is important because it is one of only a handful of studies in the field of school improvement in Uganda, and it represents one of only a few studies worldwide that have focused on the learning environment at the early childhood level. The study is valuable because it has the potential to create a clearer picture of how leaders and teachers can work together to create positive attitudes and improved academic performance. The study indicates how positive contexts established by leaders can encourage teachers to create positive classroom environments.

The main strength of the initiative was that there were no school improvement and capacity building initiatives at the early childhood level in Uganda, in that sense the effort was a pioneering effort. The whole program was conceptualised to fit into the educational culture of Uganda where there is a desperate need for curriculum and teaching programs to directly impact student learning in achievable and practical ways (Hopkins, 2002b).


AKDN (2004). The Aga Khan Education Service School Improvement Programs. [verified 9 Sep 2004] http://www.akdn.org/akes/AKESbrochure2004.pdf

AKES. (2002). The Aga Khan Education Services, Kenya. The Aga Khan Foundation's Education Activities [verified 9 Sep 2004] http://www.akdn.org/agency/akes.html

Altrichter, H; Posch, P. and Somekh, B. (1993). Teachers Investigate Their Work. Routledge, London

Costa, A. (1994). The school as a home for the mind. Paper presented at the Annual conference of the Association of International Schools in Africa, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2000). Research methods in education. NewYork, USA: Falmer Press.

Erickson, F. (1998). Qualitative research methods for science education. In B.J. Fraser and. K. Tobin (Eds.), The international handbook of science education (pp. 1155-1159). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Fullan, M (1992). Successful School Improvement. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco, US: Jossey-Bass.

Government of Uganda (2002). A political history of Uganda. [verified 9 Sep 2004] http://www.government.go.ug/static/history.htm

Hopkins, D. (2001). School Improvement For Real. London : Routledge / Falmer.

Hopkins, D. (2002a). Improving the Quality of Education for All. London: David Fulton Publishers.

Hopkins, D. (2002b). The Aga Khan Foundation East African School Improvement Initiative: An International Change Perspective. In Anderson, S. (Ed), School Improvement in the Developing World: Case Studies of the Aga Khan Foundation Projects. The Netherlands: Swets and Zeitlinger Publishers

Somekh, B. (1995). The contribution of action research to development in social endeavours: A position paper on action research methodology. British Educational Research Journal, 21, 339-355.

Stoll, L., & Firk, D. (1996). Changing our School: Linking School Effectiveness and School Improvement. Open University Press, Philadelphia.

Tilley, D. (2002). In Helm, N. & Allin, P. (Eds.) Finding support in ministry. pp. 16-19. Cambridge: Grove Books Ltd.

Wallace, J., & Louden, W. (2000). Teachers' learning stories of science education. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Willis, P. (1999). Looking for what it's really like: Phenomenology in reflective practice. Studies in Continuing Education, 21, 91-112.

Author: Jaya Earnest PhD, an educator and sociologist, is currently a lecturer a t the Centre for International Health and Research Unit for the Study of Societies in Change (RUSSIC) at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia. Her research interest lies in health and education policy in post-conflict transitional societies. This interest is a result of working in countries where education systems were being rebuilt after years of political instability. For fifteen years, she has worked in India, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Australia. She won the WAIER 2004 Early Career Award and is currently involved in a study in East Timor.

Dr Jaya Earnest, Lecturer/ Research Fellow
Centre for International Health, Research Unit for the Study of Societies in Change
Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia

Please cite as: Earnest, J. (2004). Action research for staff professional development: A case study of a school in Uganda. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2004. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2004/earnest.html

[ Abstract for this presentation ] [ Proceedings Contents ] [ Schedule ] [ Abstracts ]
Created 9 Sep 2004. Last revised 19 May 2006. URL: http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2004/earnest.html
The Forum Proceedings are © Western Australian Institute for Educational Research. However
the copyright for each individual article remains with the authors of the article.
HTML: Roger Atkinson and Clare McBeath