How action research is transforming schools

The Thinking-Based Learning (TBL) program started at a university in the US before becoming a non-profit organisation to help students harness the academic benefits of deep cognitive thought and creative problem-solving.
Professor Robert Swartz from the National Centre for Teaching Thinking (NCTT) in Newton, Massachusetts, runs a TBL workshop at Kambala, an independent Anglican girls’ school in Sydney’s Rose Bay.
Swartz’s workshop shows teachers how to conduct “action research”, which are mini studies into how students’ learning outcomes are impacted by TBL.
“The students are guided to use higher-order thinking skills that they learn in the classroom to think about the content they’re learning so there is deeper and richer engagement,” Swartz said.
“If you do a lot of good mini studies, and they show the same positive results in schools that are quite different from one another, then you’ve got something that’s quite significant.”
Swartz pointed out that while students have the ability to develop TBL skills, most teachers are unaware their students possess them and subsequently never challenge them in this area.
“These are generic skills, and when the students learn them, they will be good thinkers for the rest of their lives. However, to focus these skills on the content they’re learning and the curriculum, well, that’s a double-whammy,” Swartz said.
Swartz said that while it was too early to talk about the outcome of the program at Kambala, TBL had demonstrated “tremendous improvements” in student learning outcomes in other schools that had participated in the program.
In 2007, Swartz was invited by a school in Barcelona – whose teachers had attended one of his TBL conferences – to help develop the program for its students.
“They later told me the program was so successful that it had changed their whole school,” Swartz said, adding more than 50 schools throughout Spain were now running the three-year program.
Swartz also worked with some schools in New Zealand. One of them, based in Wellington, set up an action research project around the impact of TBL on student writing. The school’s study revealed that its students’ writing abilities had improved by 50%.
“It was amazing and wonderful, but we wanted to know if this was unique to Wellington or whether this program could get the same results elsewhere,” Swartz said.
Swartz was later invited to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia to explore TBL with interested schools. Swartz said the schools later reported significant improvements in their students’ learning outcomes as a result of the program.
“I thought to myself: ‘these are two entirely different cultures and yet they get the same results.’ That’s quite significant given that they are good results, so I’m trying to get teachers to do the same thing here in Kambala,” Swartz said.
Swartz said having limited resources and staff makes it difficult to spread the program as far and wide as he’d like, but was encouraged that other programs exist which are targeted at addressing similar issues.
“There are groups like the Harvard-based Visible Thinking Group and the Habits of Mind Initiative, however, they’re pieces of a bigger puzzle that needs to be put together to get a comprehensive program,” Swartz explained.
“To put them together and make something that is a powerful and unified program is really what needs to happen – and is beginning to happen – in a country like Australia. It’s time for a big synthesis.
“We can get teachers from one school to work with teachers from another school to get a kind of synthesis happening. That’s a great opportunity for a city like Sydney,” Swartz said.