‘While we may lead a horse to water we cannot make him drink’: three physical education teachers’ professional growth through and beyond a prolonged participatory action research project | A summary


Lars Bjørke, Øyvind Førland Standal & Kjersti Mordal Moen
Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences


Although much research has endeavoured to find effective models for continuing professional development (CPD) for teachers, there is still no simple answer to how such learning experiences should be organized so that it will ‘work’ as intended. Instead of what has been characterized as a ‘frenetic rush’ to find out how CPD should be organized, other have suggested to take one step back and rethink why CPD is a good idea in the first place, and what effective CPD really is about. Hence, in this paper, we draw on John Dewey’s educational theory and specifically his notion of education as growth to investigate three physical education (PE) teachers’ experiences from a prolonged CPD. The two research questions posed in the paper are:

    • How do three PE teachers experience their engagement with a prolonged CPD initiative using participatory action research (PAR)?
    • How do their experiences facilitate and/or obstruct development and growth?

The CPD experience investigated in this paper was a two-year participatory action research project in which three Norwegian primary school PE teachers worked together with Lars (the first author) to implement Cooperative Learning (CL). Prior to the project, the teachers mainly used direct instruction to teach PE and expressed a wish to experiment with a more student-centred approach, hence CL was chosen as an alternative pedagogy

The study draws on data from interviews with the teachers conducted at four points through their CPD-journey, from nine professional development workshops and from about 100 pages of Lars’ reflective diary. Analysing the data, we identified four themes relevant to understanding the teachers’ CPD-journeys over the course of the project.

Our first theme, PAR as an educative CPD experience, highlight how the teachers experienced PAR as significantly different to how they previously had experienced CPD initiatives. While CPD previously had been equal to top-down initiatives given at the local university by an external expert on various theoretical perspectives, the teachers found working closely together at their school with an external facilitator as far more useful. Over the course of the project, these experiences made the teachers change their attitude towards CPD from being something irrelevant that they just had to do in their everyday life as teacher, to something that could enable them to develop their pedagogical practices.

Findings from our project acknowledge that education must be understood as a complex endeavour making the directions of teachers’ learning journeys hard to predict.

The second finding, experiencing CL as something that «works» and «costs», shed light on all the hard work the teachers had to put in to make CL work with their students. The process of finding out how CL could be implemented required a lot of time, and during the project implementation the teachers went through several problematic experiences with their students. Therefore, perhaps not surprisingly, after finally experiencing success in teaching through CL with their students, the teachers in many ways felt as they were finished. In other words, after finally finding out one way that CL worked in practice, there was no need for experimenting with other ways of teaching through CL.

The next finding, reconstruction of mis-educative experiences, underpin how the prolonged duration enabled the teachers to experience how other ways of implementing CL also could work. As the project progressed, the «costs» (as highlighted in the second finding) were also reduced as it gradually required less time and effort to find good ways to implement CL.

Finally, the theme «further development and growth», shows how the three individual teachers took different paths in their development beyond the formal project. For one teacher, the project had served as some kind of a catalyst for his CPD as he had radically changed how he taught not only PE, but also other subjects in school. The two other teachers however, had not changed their role as radically, although the project had given them new perspectives and some tools that they continued to use.

Altogether, we found that the teachers experienced PAR, participatory action research, as a meaningful CPD, continuing professional development, approach to develop their pedagogical practices. Over the project, all teachers experienced how CL, Cooperative Learning, could be a relevant student-centred approach to teaching PE, and how CL offered new possibilities compared to their traditional instructional ‘do-as-I-do’ approach. However, not all experiences were equally educative over the project, and some restricted possibilities for further development and growth. For example, the challenge of making CL work with their students restricted the teachers wish for continuing to experiment with different ways of teaching through CL. We also found that the teachers’ journeys beyond the pedagogical intervention developed along different paths. Findings from our project acknowledge that education must be understood as a complex endeavour making the directions of teachers’ learning journeys hard to predict. Therefore, we conclude that future CPD project needs to have flexible and individualized designs in order to meet the different needs that teachers might have.

Copyright © Lars Bjørke, Øyvind Førland Standal
& Kjersti Mordal Moen
 2021

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