Adaptive Action and My Professional Learning

Posted by Marla Robertson, University of Texas – Arlington and North Star of Texas Writing Project

I experienced firsthand as a 3rd and 1st grade teacher the tension between teachers and administrators/policymakers when it came to teaching practices in the classroom. Often I was asked to do things as a classroom teacher that went against my beliefs about what was best for my students. I felt that students needed authentic reading, writing, and learning activities to provide engagement and to support their motivation to learn.

However, policies at the state level designed to provide accountability seemed to require me to spend precious classroom time preparing my students for high-stakes assessments designed to determine their learning. I felt the assessments took much of my class time and caused students to lose interest in learning and even become stressed about their future. These assessments also seemed to be used to control the system through curriculum decisions, professional development decisions, and grading policies subsequently influencing many aspects of my job as a teacher. For example, I was told things like “Your students don’t have to write in 3rd grade. They aren’t tested on writing until 4th grade” and “You need to focus on these test taking strategies to help you students pass the tests.”

Incidents like these led me to ask myself questions, such as:

  • What can I do to increase awareness of how policies are affecting how I do my job and how students engage in school?
  • What influences administrative decisions made at the school and district level that leads to these accountability practices?
  • What can I do to educate teachers on how to influence policy decisions at the local and state level?

Those inquiries eventually led me to pursue a doctorate in Reading. In my Literacy Policy course I was introduced to complex adaptive systemsSlide1 theories. These theories resonated with me. I could see how schools fit many of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems. I was also introduced to the Adaptive Action Cycle as a tool for framing inquiries into my teaching practice. I have since used these questions, What? So What? Now What?, as a guiding framework for my inquiries, particularly when I began thinking about researching teachers and schools.

I eventually decided to conduct qualitative research into what influences a writing teacher’s decision about writing instruction in a high-stakes writing assessment grade. To analyze the data, I used a complexity framework. I have incorporated the Adaptive Action cycle into my research work and continue to pursue inquiries into policies that influence the decisions that teachers make in their classrooms.

My next action is to publish from my research and continue to participate in research into teachers work and what influences their decisions, particularly focusing on professional development and adaptive teaching.

long term AA

I’ve learned that my life is a constant adaptive action and these three questions make a difference in the decisions that I make on a daily basis as a new professor. What are the most important things my middle grade preservice teachers need to know about English language arts in order to be prepared for student teaching next semester? What are effective ways to create a community of learners in an Masters level online literacy course? What are the most important topics to teach inservice teachers in a literacy academy course on writing in a diverse urban district?

My list of questions continues to grow as I go through iterations of adaptive actions in my work.

For more information about adaptive action, go to

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