The Ontario Action Researcher


Presented at the Ontario Educational Research Council (OERC) 40th Annual Conference, Toronto, December 4, 1998.

Jackie Delong and Jack Whitehead

We are locating our enquiry into the continuous regeneration of developmental standards of practice in teacher education in the context of a recent study by the Ontario College of Teachers (the OCT) which shows that "an astonishing 41,000 teachers will retire in just five years and more than 78,000 of the College’s 171,500 members will reach retirement age over the next 10 years". (McIntyre, 1998, p. 10)

Everything we say about standards of practice in teacher education is based on the assumption that the quality of student learning within schools is influenced by the quality of teacher professionalism. If there is a shortage of well qualified teachers in classrooms, we are convinced that the quality of students’ learning will suffer. Hence we recognize the importance of the political and economic decisions made by the government in relation to rectifying the teacher shortage.

This paper focuses on the responsibility of the OCT to the public and the teaching profession for setting standards of practice and learning for teachers and for accrediting teacher education programs and providers. The College is responsible for ensuring that teachers receive the necessary training to provide Ontario’s students with an excellent education.(Ontario College of Teachers, 1998b)

We will be arguing that this responsibility could be fulfilled in the development of a form of research-based professionalism in teaching which is focused on the creation, by individual teachers, of their own living educational theories (Hamilton & Pinnegar, 1998, p. 242). Through such a process, teachers would define their own professional standards of practice while taking into account the standards of practice and responsibilities of the OCT.

Our interest in these standards of practice of teacher professionalism was stimulated by Dr. Fran Squire’s presentation to the International Conference on the Self-Study of Teacher Education Practices in August 1998. Fran is, as many of you will know, a program officer for ‘standards of practice and education’ at the OCT. In her paper (Squire 1998a) she asked the following questions:

  1. What implications arise when standards of practice are linked to action research endeavours?
  2. How do we keep the spontaneity and individualism inherent in action research as we establish criteria for its recognition in the educational community?
    We will now look at some implications of asking these questions.

What implications arise when standards of practice are linked to action research endeavours?

We are suggesting that a most significant implication of linking standards of practice to action research endeavours is that the standards become living and developmental. Jean McNiff (1992, 1993), an international figure in the action research movement, writes of the ‘generative’ nature of action research. The standards of professional practice in ‘generative’ action research are the values we use to make sense of, and to give purpose to, our lives in education. Jean has presented her ideas in numerous publications and an introductory booklet on her ideas has been included in an Action Research Kit (Delong & Wideman, 1998).

At the heart of a ‘generative’ approach to action research is the belief that teachers, as individuals, have the capacity to create their own living educational theories in the explanations which they offer for their professional learning as they ask, answer, and research questions of the kind, "How can I help you (the student) to improve your learning?" One distinguishing feature of this action research approach to professional learning is that the standards of practice used by action research are not the traditional kind of external criteria we are so familiar with in education. The standards of practice are the living values which are embodied in the teachers’ form of life. Their meanings are not communicated in linguistic lists with universal applicability. Their meanings are communicated through the descriptions and explanations which teachers create for their own professional learning. The standards are the living values which form the explanatory principles for the meanings and purposes which the individual teacher gives to her or his own professional life in education.

Perhaps the best example, at present, of the living and developmental standards of practice in an action research approach to teacher professionalism can be found in the work of Moira Laidlaw, a teacher of English at a secondary school in Bath, UK. Moira Laidlaw has already received her doctorate (Laidlaw, 1996) for her action research accounts of her work with her students as she researched her own standards of professional practice and helped her students to develop their own. Moira’s originality of mind can be seen in her insight that standards of professional practice, in her narrative of her professional growth, are the living and developmental values she uses to give her life meaning and purpose in education (Laidlaw, 1998).

Moira's materials are available online at the address: They include: a guide for introducing action research in programmes of initial teacher education (; her thesis on the creation of her own living educational theory in her classroom with her pupils (, and; a delightful paper on the values of fairness and love in her classroom (

How do we keep the spontaneity and individualism inherent in action research as we establish criteria for its recognition in the educational community?

We think that this is a most important question to address. We are mindful of the criticisms being made of the Teaching Training Agency (TTA) in England. The TTA has a set of similar responsibilities to the OCT and has been subjected to a barrage of criticisms for the way it has set out its standards of professional practice. Amongst these criticisms we have Professor Ted Wragg’s (1998) damning reference to:

the zombie method of training heads or teachers, whereby complex human behaviour is atomised into discrete particulars, or 'competencies'. This mechanical approach, much favoured by the hapless Teacher Training Agency is an unmitigated disaster. The tyranny of brain-corroding bureaucracy must end. Most important of all is to support creativity and imagination, collegiality and trust, not just foster the mechanical implementation of dreary, externally driven missives. (p.22)

We also have Jim Graham's point in an excellent article on teacher professionalism saying of the negative influences of the TTA, "For teacher professionalism, the over-prescribed, centralist regulation by the TTA established a technicist model of teaching at variance with the autonomy, flexibility, and collegiality necessary to create the learning organizations (of the future). (Graham, 1998, p.17)

One of the reasons why the Teacher Training Agency is in danger of becoming such a threat to enhancing teacher professionalism, rather than a support in enhancing professionalism, is that it has issued standards of practice as 'lists' of competencies. In the case of initial teacher education, each pre-service teacher has to provide evidence that she or he has met a list of 63 standards. Now it may not have been the intention of the TTA that these lists should be used as checklists which support a mechanical view of teacher education, but this is what has happened. One of the reasons why this has occurred, in our view, is that the TTA was not asking questions of the kinds Fran Squire has asked, "How do we keep the spontaneity and individualism inherent in action research as we establish criteria for its recognition in the educational community?"

There are studies being presented at this conference which show how teachers can take ownership of their own standards of professional practice through their action research as they produce autobiographical studies of their own learning. Cheryl Black is one such teacher and we do recommend her study (1998) on applying action research process to a grade 9 vocal music class published in this issue of the Ontario Action Researcher. While not on the formal programme, the study by one of us (Delong, 1998) on 'Seeking an understanding of influence by representing and explaining my life', addresses explicitly the OCT (1998a) draft standards of practice in an analysis of Jackie's professional learning as a Superintendent as she seeks to support the professional growth of Cheryl Black. Jackie is currently studying for her Doctorate at the University of Bath, and her paper emphasizes the importance of partnerships between the different sectors of the education system in providing support for teachers' professional growth.

Here are the relevant extracts from Jackie's paper concerned with relating professional learning to the draft standards of professional growth from the OCT. These standards themselves are in the process of development and we would urge the OCT to keep them under a process of continuous review. Indeed it may be better if the OCT could keep the developing standards as 'Draft' Standards to emphasize the importance of a process of continuous professional learning rather than an externally imposed set of standards.

It seems to us that the challenge is to provide living stories of teachers' professional learning so that, "All members of the College should be able to ‘see’ the work they do described in these standards of practice." (OCT, 1998b)

In emphasizing the capacity of individuals to see themselves in the standards as they live their lives in classrooms with students, we wish to send out a challenge to teachers to tell their stories of professional learning as they seek to enhance the quality of students' learning. We include ourselves in this challenge and Jackie has made a first attempt with Cheryl. Through focusing on their attempts to improve their professional practice they have integrated the standards within their stories in a way which shows their professional growth.

Can the draft standards be used to assess Cheryl’s growth as a teacher?

Jackie: What I thought I would do is see if an early version of the draft standards (Ontario College of Teachers, 1998a) could be used to assess Cheryl’s work, as she conducted research on her own practice. The data come from Cheryl’s own notes and transcripts of sharing sessions in which Cheryl took part. The lettered draft professional development standards below revolve around the OCT strand, "teachers committed to ongoing professional learning." The bullet points below each lettered standard indicate how Cheryl’s work demonstrates that she meets the standard.

  1. understand[s] that professional learning is an integral part of teaching and is directly related to student learning
     I have observed that Cheryl:
    • saw a problem in her teaching and set out systematically to solve it by asking the question, "How can I increase the self-esteem of my students so that they will take a more active role in their own learning?"
    • listened to her students to learn how to teach them better. She reported:
      So I decided to sit back and watch and as they entered the room. They would come in groups and I gathered from the way they were talking and nudging and looking that they were angry and that a lot of them had filled out questionnaires and found out that [the anger] was based on the [relationships from the] feeder schools.....I came up with the conclusion that that problem of self-esteem was there and not a bad attitude towards learning."
    • consulted with students, parents and teachers for understanding. She called a student’s father to discover the root of the defiant behaviour
    • hared her learning to check for validation.

    A teacher in the sharing session group stated:

    You were saying, too, that some of these changes could have or would have happened anyway? I don’t know about that. I don’t have secondary experience, mine is all elementary but I find that without interventions those kind of behaviours and the negativism will increase as the year goes on rather than decrease unless there is a teacher picking up on it and doing something about it like you did.

  2. understand[s] that teaching is a dynamic, changing profession, responsive to personal, social and political contexts
    I have observed that Cheryl:
    • adopted a new process, action research, as a means to improve professionally but recognized that the climate might not be optimal for engaging others during a work-to-rule sanction
    • recognized that despite the political contexts, classrooms need to be safe places for teachers and students and that understanding group dynamics is essential to the teaching/learning process
    • found that action research helped her articulate her values so that she could build stronger relationships in her classrooms. She became more resilient because external structures changed but internal ones remained consistent.
  3. understand[s] that teaching practice is enhanced by many forms of knowledge, ways of knowing and ways to access that knowledge
    I have observed that Cheryl:
    • came to know herself better through the Myers-Briggs Inventory and action research and came to trust her intuition as a way of knowing
    • became computer literate and increased her use of the internet
    • listened to voices of others including the students in learning how to get better at teaching them, a rarity in the practices of most teachers.
  4. draw[s] on and contribute[s] to various forms of educational research to improve their practice
    I have observed that Cheryl:
    • read some of the literature to find ways to improve her practice. Her list of books and articles on action research and on building self-esteem grows daily. While her project had limited references, her literature search has expanded since then. (Note: This is the way that Jack Whitehead taught me: engage in the thinking from your own experience first and then listen to the voices of others.)
    • started an organized data base of articles and books in her literature search
    • researched her practice and shared it with staff in her own board and with pre-service teachers and researchers across Ontario.
  5. anticipate[s] and plan[s] the kinds of learning they will need to respond to a variety of educational contexts
    I have observed that Cheryl:
    • set about to improve her skills in painting and drawing when she was assigned an Art class
    • planned a session for the pre-service teachers from Queens’ University to fit with their needs
    • learned how to promote her work when she proposed to present her project at OERC
    • pursued accreditation in art, music specialist, vocal music and special education.
  6. engage[s] in a variety of meaningful learning opportunities both individual and collaborative that are integrated into practice for the benefit of student learning
    I have observed that Cheryl:
    • went beyond the expectations of the Professional Growth Strand (PGS) process which is a process for ongoing teacher evaluation used by the school board for whom we both work. She could have chosen to use the ‘normal’ process in which the principal recommends areas for professional development even if those areas are not considered by the teacher to be of personal need or interest. Although that is frequently the implementation of the PGS, it is not the intention of the process. In fact, the process is intended to be inquiry-based and, if not teacher-controlled, at least involving a collaborative setting of goals. Cheryl needed to make her learning meaningful for her and for her students.
    • investigated the action research process to complete her PGS. She was introduced to the process by Jack Whitehead at a Dec 5, 1996 leadership program session. I noticed that she bought an action research resource book (Halsall & Hossack, 1996) to the session. To her knowledge, no one in her school had any experience with it. She was able to convince her principal to give her control over her own PGS.
    • her focus is consistently on how to improve her teaching for the benefit of the students; her principals’ report commends her for her commitment and knowledge
  7. reflect[s] on their practice and learn[s] from experience
    I have observed that Cheryl:
    • reflects on her assumptions about teaching and learning. Cheryl wrote, "I realize that having taught for seventeen years, there may be some things that I have begun to take for granted. The changes I witnessed this year have served to remind me that students always appreciate positive reinforcement."
  8. create[s] opportunities to collaborate with colleagues
    I have observed that Cheryl:
    • involved other teachers in the inquiry to find the resolution to the problem. She found a critical friend; she shared her learning with colleagues.
  9. act[s] as role models who build and confirm the idea of lifelong learning
    I have observed that Cheryl:
    • has articulated her intention to pursue studies for advanced accreditation and has already started a new action research project with extended reading and writing.

The commentary above shows that Cheryl clearly meets the standard as one of the "teachers committed to professional learning. " I believe when they articulated the standards they must have been thinking of her. Even in the midst of a work-to-rule sanction, her professionalism shines through. What I am struck with, though, is that linguistic checklists like this cannot capture the magic and energy that Cheryl brings to her classroom and that her students share with her. There is an analogy to standardized testing in that the OCT Standards may serve as a useful tool - as a starting point in a dialogue on performance indicators of effective teaching - but not as a summative evaluation or measuring stick. Fran Squire’s question on how we can make them regenerative and living is the salient one. (Squire, 1998)

Can the draft standards be used to assess Jackie’s work as an educational leader?

Jackie: As a professional teacher in the role of superintendent, the OCT standards also apply to me work. The question that haunts me is, "Is there any evidence that anything that I have done has helped to improve student learning?" This is probably the most difficult question associated with my work. While I want to believe that what I do has an impact on the classroom and on student learning, I recognize that it is only through others that that can happen. When I work with teachers like Cheryl, I am at least one step closer than when I try to influence principals in order to influence teachers who can influence students. And if the answer to the question is, "No!" what is the meaning and purpose of my work? I believe and so does Cheryl that her action research has improved student learning and that she has gone this direction because of my influence.

As I had with Cheryl, Cheryl tried to apply the same OCT draft standards of practice to my work. Under each of the lettered draft standards below are Cheryl’s words as found in her learning journal and Email correspondence with me.

  1. understand[s] that professional learning is an integral part of teaching and is directly related to student learning
    "By encouraging me to participate in action research without being heavy-handed, you increased my professional learning thus improving my teaching ability. One of my peer tutors, Shannon, conducted an OAC independent study using a modified form of the action research process. (OAC stands for Ontario Academic Credits, the final year of secondary school for university-bound students) This is recorded in my PGS. Shannon expressed enthusiasm that she was doing a project that was directly applicable to the class and not purely theoretical. She was excited about the quality of the responses to her survey questions. ‘They took the time and made the effort to think about their responses just for me.’"
  2. understand[s] that teaching is a dynamic, changing profession, responsive to personal, social and political contexts.
    "You introduced the process of Action Research which allows for independent research within a flexible framework thus allowing for various personal, social and political contexts."
  3. understand[s] that teaching practice is enhanced by many forms of knowledge, ways of knowing and ways to access that knowledge.
    " You understand that individuals have their own way of approaching a problem and arriving at a solution. Many forms are necessary to meet the needs of varied individuals. Professional experience is valid knowledge and your willingness to be structured in your approach allowed for and acknowledged that experience. Thus, elementary classroom teachers, principals and secondary school teachers can adapt the method to suit their own special circumstances and each person learned the structure and then adapted it."
  4. draw[s] on and contribute[s] to various forms of educational research to improve their practice
    " By encouraging me to present, you added to the number of people affected by my project and widened my circle of influence. That increased my interest in, and awareness of other educational research. Your workshop taught me what action research and as well what it isn’t."
  5. anticipate[s] and plan[s] the kinds of learning they will need to respond to a variety of educational contexts
    "Your practice of asking me what I needed for me to continue my project placed the onus on me to become aware of new developments in education and thus be ready for changes in the education system."
  6. engage[s] in a variety of meaningful learning opportunities both individual and collaborative that are integrated into practice for the benefit of student learning.
    "I worked on and thought about my project a great deal. However, when we met in my office, your reminder to obtain a critical friend meant that I made an effort to make time for extra conversations with her. You also brought in Jack to answer questions from his standpoint. You created situations where we were able to exchange ideas, and you did not chair every meeting--you had Elaine guide us through the writing process. There was a variety of learning experiences."
  7. reflect[s] on their practice and learn[s] from experience.
    "The action research process by its very nature causes participants to reflect on their practice and learn from experience. I had the opportunity to prove that my philosophy of education, that of teaching and motivating the child and then working on the curriculum, is sound and creates a more positive learning environment."
  8. create[s] opportunities to collaborate with colleagues.
    "I’ve mentioned meetings which started with those present outlining their action research project and which allowed us to make suggestions to help each other."
  9. act[s] as role models who build and confirm the idea of lifelong learning.
    " Your positive comments, your refusal to set yourself up as the one with all the answers, and your commitment to your own lifelong learning has acted as a role model to me this year."


If the OCT standards of practice are to fulfill their promise of helping to improve student learning and professional practice, and if they are to avoid the pitfalls of linguistic checklists, we, the practitioners, must protect the spontaneity and individualism by providing the stories/case studies of our professional learning. In that way we can ensure that our professional standards are living and developmental and not part of an oppressive form of external control.

Our challenge is that each one of us should take responsibility to share a story/case study that makes one or more of the standards exist in our images of ourselves in our educative relationships with our students and colleagues. We recognize that the most powerful form of sharing, as part of our professional learning, takes place in face-to-face, small groups. We do, however, believe that we should be exploring the potential of the Internet for sharing our stories/case studies of our professional learning. Jack Whitehead has done this on his action research home page and it is one of the key goals of the Ontario Action Researcher.

In our view, the profession needs to strengthen its standards of practice in partnerships between schools, school boards, universities, teacher unions, parent/teacher/community groups, and the College of Teachers. We believe that one important way of doing this is to focus on the development of action research-based teacher professionalism for the enhancement of student learning. We are suggesting that the following questions raised by Fran Squire, Program Officer for Standards of Practice and Education at the Ontario College of Teachers, could be usefully addressed by educational action researchers in Ontario:

  1. Should action research be integrated into the pre-service programs currently being offered at faculties?
  2. Should an Additional Qualifications course be established to introduce teachers to action research?
  3. Should the leadership competences related to supporting action research initiatives in schools and systems be a component of the Principals’ Qualification program?
  4. Should teachers be able to have action research recognized in a formal way on their teaching certificate?
  5. Should the notion of action research be incorporated into the way we describe what it means to be a member of the teaching profession? (Squire, 1998b)

We have raised our concerns about the dangers of standards being seen as ‘general’ and ‘abstract’ criteria, rather than the living and development values which are embodied in teachers’ practice. By publishing our paper in the Ontario Action Researcher we are hoping to contribute to a conversation among Ontario educators which will help to resolve the tension between linguistic ‘checklists’ and living accounts of practice. We believe that the development of collaborative enquiries between Ontario educators offers a way of ensuring that the OCT standards of practice become an integral part of the process of continuous professional revitalization as we focus on enhancing the quality of students’ learning.

Reference List

Black, C. (1998). Improving group dynamics and student motivation in a grade 9 music class. Ontario Action Researcher, 1 (1). [On-line]. Available:

Delong, J. (1998). Seeking an understanding of influence by representing and explaining my life. Paper submitted to a validation meeting held at the Annual Conference of the Ontario Educational Research Council, Toronto December 3, 1998.

Delong, J., & Wideman, R. (Eds.) (1998). Action research: School improvement through research-based professionalism - professional development kit. Mississauga, Ontario: Ontario Public School Teachers’ Federation.

Graham, J. (1998). From new right to new deal: Nationalism, globalisation, and the regulation of teacher professionalism. Journal of In-Service Education, 29 (1), 9-29.

Hamilton, M. L., & Pinnegar, S. (1998). Conclusion: The value and the promise of self-study. In M. L. Hamilton (Ed.) Reconceptualizing teaching practice: Self-study in teacher education (p. 242). London: Falmer.

Laidlaw, M. (1996). How can I create my own living educational theory through accounting to you for my own educational development? Doctoral dissertation, University of Bath, UK. The Action Research Homepage. [On-line]. Available:

Laidlaw, M. (1998). In loco parentis with Sally: A matter of fairness and love; Discussion paper for the chat room. The Action Research Homepage. [On-line]. Available:

McIntyre, F. (1998). Shortage looms: Almost half of Ontario teachers to retire in the next 10 years. Professionally Speaking, (December), 10.

McNiff. J. (1992). Action research: Principles and practice. London: Routledge.

McNiff, J. (1993). Teaching as learning: An action research approach. London: Routledge.

Ontario College of Teachers. (1998a). Draft standards of practice for the teaching profession. (June). Toronto: author.

Ontario College of Teachers. (1998b). Draft standards of practice for the teaching profession. (October). Toronto: author.

Squire, F. (1998a). Action research and standards of practice: Creating connections within the Ontario context. Paper presented at the Self-Study of Teacher Education Practice Second International Conference, ‘Conversations in Community’, Hersmonceaux Castle, East Sussex, England, August 16-20, 1998.

Squire, F. (1998b). Questions to the annual conference of the Ontario Educational Research Council. Toronto, December 4, 1998.

Whitehead, J. (1998). The Action Research Homepage. [On-line] Available:

Wragg, T. (1998, September 16). Times Educational Supplement, p. 22.