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Action research for staff professional development: A case study of a school in UgandaJaya Earnest
Research Unit for the Study of Societies in Change
Curtin University of Technology
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.
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 leading characteristics of the work of the Aga Khan Education Services are:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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|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
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