Empowering teachers through action research


Erik Ketcherside

Craig Mertler, associate professor and director of the Educational Leadership and Innovation doctoral degree program at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, decided he wanted to be an education research professor while he was still in high school — as a teacher. The school was Philo High School on Ohio’s Muskingum River, where Mertler taught biology and earth science. That was a quarter of a century ago, but the experience continues to influence and inform his research today.

Craig Mertler

Associate Professor Craig Mertler directs the Educational Leadership and Innovation doctoral degree program

“It absolutely does!” he says. “Most all of my work in higher education has been focused on the work of teachers and administrators in schools. I’ve worked to produce materials, processes, trainings and so on to help professional educators do their jobs better. I think I can trace a good deal of that back to my time in the classroom.”

The path Mertler chose toward that goal is called action research. He’s written three books on the topic. One of them, “Action Research: Improving Schools and Empowering Educators,” is in its fifth edition. “Action Research Communities: Professional Learning, Empowerment, and Improvement through Collaborative Action Research” is due out next month. He has also written articles on action research for journals including the Journal of Ethical Educational Leadership, and he currently chairs the Action Research Special Interest Group for the American Educational Research Association.

“I have been extremely passionate about action research for nearly 20 years,” Mertler says. “I conduct professional development trainings and workshops for educators around the country on the topic of incorporating it into their practice. I joined the Action Research SIG roughly 15 years ago, and when I was approached in 2015 about running for the elected position of chair; I felt it was a positive way to give back to AERA and to the SIG that represents a field of study that is so important to me.”

What is action research?

Mertler says action research differs from that traditionally carried out by academics or professional researchers because it’s conducted by practitioners and active members of the education community working in real-world, real-time settings. “I like to explain action research as more of a mindset than an actual research methodology,” Mertler explains. “Action research is about practitioners using traditional educational research methods and techniques to conduct research on their own practice in their own settings.

Mertler proposes an example of a high school teacher unhappy with the way her students are performing on tests, and the fact that they don’t seem to value classwork and homework. She learns about a strategy called knowledge folders — folders maintained by students, containing their classwork and homework, that can be used during tests.

“She incorporates knowledge folders into her classes the fall of the following school year,” Mertler suggests, “and for the first three units of instruction, compares student scores on the unit tests with scores the previous year’s students received, when there were no knowledge folders. That shows that scores on the test for students who scored low the previous year improved substantially. She also surveys the students and discovers they are happy with being able to use their homework to help them on tests. Her conclusion is that knowledge folders are very beneficial, and she determines she will continue using them.”

The Action Research Special Interest Group

Sharing Mertler’s views on the value of this research method are the members of the AERA Action Research Special Interest Group. Established in 1916, AERA is the most prestigious professional organization for educational researchers. Within the membership of more than 25,000 are 150 special interest groups, each one a community with a shared interest not accommodated by AERA’s divisional structure.

Mertler says the Action Research SIG he chairs has more than 300 members worldwide. “Our role is to encourage and assist educational practitioners in the generation of educational knowledge and development of their skills in applied research and professional inquiry to improve educational decision-making at all levels,” he says. “We focus our collective energy on promoting the beneficial uses of action research in a variety of educational settings.”

Their efforts take the form of dialogue, collaboration and sharing of resources and information throughout the year, highlighted by presentations of research and innovative concepts at the AERA annual meeting each spring. Mertler says, “Each of our members is passionate about action research and strives for educating others about — and promoting — its positive use.”

Action research is taking action

Promoting that use is important, Mertler says, because “action research is all about educators becoming empowered to create their own knowledge about what works and doesn’t work in our nation’s schools, and more specifically in their own settings. These educators-slash-action researchers are then responsible for taking action themselves to improve any and all aspects of education, but in particular, the aspects with which they work directly and in which they have such a vested interest.”

Learn more about the EdD program in Educational Leadership and Innovation.