Action Research


Hurry up and tell me the problem so I can fix it. Does that sound familiar? As educators we are problem solvers. In our haste to solve problems we sometimes waste time on solutions that don’t work or don’t last. Maybe we aren’t taking enough time to really understand the problem? Improvement Science is a powerful framework for for improving problems of practice in schools.

At the core of improvement science are three simple questions (Langley et al., 2009): What are we trying to accomplish? How will we know if a change is an improvement? What changes might we introduce and why? As educators, we generate new ideas, reflect on our practice, and make changes that we hope will improve student learning. Yet we often struggle to set clear, measurable goals, let alone develop systematic ways for tracking our progress. With its emphasis on developing a clear theory of action, “practical measures,” quick iterative cycles to guide teacher learning, and a network structure that facilitates sharing and accelerated learning, improvement science is a promising framework for scaffolding teacher learning and scaling good ideas (Bryk, Gomez, & Grunow, 2011; Yeager et al., 2013).


Understanding the Problem

The Tools: The Fishbone Diagram, The 5 Whys, The Interrelational Digraph, Empathy Interviews

There are many tools available to help you more deeply understand the problem of practice you are trying to solve or trying to improve. A few of my favorites are listed below.

The Fishbone Diagram plus the 5 Whys

The Interrelational Digraph

Empathy Interviews


Developing a Theory of Action

The Tools: A Driver Diagram plus a dive into the Research

Once you deeply understand your problem it is time to dig into the research and draw on craft knowledge to formulate a plan for your research. What is it you are aiming to improve? What are the drivers or the factors that you need to target to achieve your goal? Below is a protocol to help you create your own Driver Diagram. This protocol was created through the Center for Research on Equity and Innovation at he High Tech High Graduate School of Education.

Driver Diagram Protocol


Iterative Cycles of Inquiry

The Tools: Impact vs. Effort Chart, Plan, Do, Study, Act Template

After you have developed your evolving theory of action it is time to decide which change idea you will test out. It is important to consider which change ideas give the most "bang for your buck." That is, which ideas are potentially high impact, low effort? In the Driver Diagram Protocol from above, there is more information about impact vs effort. Once you have decided which idea you will try, you need to map out a plan to capture learning and guide short cycles
of inquiry, action, and reflection. This plan is called a PDSA cycle- Plan, Do, Study, Act.

Plan, Do, Study, Act

Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. So, if you want to change the results, you have to change the system.

W. Edwards Demming