RBF_4_06_Practitioner Research

Many factors came into play in the decision of the Robert Bowne Foundation (RBF) to focus its grantmaking on OST literacy education.  RBF staff recognized the valuable potential of the hours that many children spend between the end of the school day and the return of their parents from work. Moreover, there was a deep respect for both the commitment and the experience that community-based practitioners bring to their OST programs even as many of them lack formal educational training. As a result, Foundation staff created professional development opportunities that build on OST practitioners’ strengths, expose them to up-to-date research and methodology, address their questions and concerns, and allow them to interact directly with fellow practitioners, thereby sharing approaches and insights.

The development of professional learning communities comprised of grantee participants – all engaged in asking and studying their own questions – has become a central RBF strategy to build capacity among both program and management staff. Such practitioner learning communities range from Participatory Evaluation Institutes to those focused on developing management capacity such as the Fundraising Action Learning Seminars.

In all instances, practitioners’ own questions about their work create the groundwork for the effort. Bowne staff members also employ an action research approach in designing the Foundation’s support programs for interested grantee staff. As Program Officer Anne Lawrence explains to participants at an October 2014 orientation to the Julia Palmer Library Development and Literacy Support Project:

Lena [Townsend] and I come up with questions about our work at the Foundation, and [my work] keeps on evolving. ... We are not doing the same things every year. People have different needs.

Action Research

Over the years, several RBF programs have been designed explicitly to support practitioner action research. For example, from 2002-2006, Suzanne Marten of the Center for Educational Options facilitated an Action Research Seminar for RBF grantees. In a July 2011 interview, she describes the process:

The core of the idea [of the Action Research Seminar] was inquiry.  People had questions about their work.  People came together from different [afterschool] programs...as a group and worked to articulate a question, think about collecting data to help understand what they were looking at, analyze the data and then ask, “So what?  What does it suggest?”...

They could go through this process once in a cycle or five times in a cycle depending on how the question worked out. We set up the process using the steps of Action Research. The content came from the programs...

People come from a whole array of backgrounds. Some have formal training, some have none. They come to the Action Research from a variety of roles. We’ve had several Education Directors, several in jobs with titles responsible for people underneath them, and some who worked directly with kids. The questions varied by roles. This presented a challenge, but also an exciting convergence of people, ideas, and processes...

To put a concrete face on it, one of the Action Research groups I had toward the end included a wonderful woman who came to afterschool [as] a community person with no education experience. Kids just came to her for help and she said she didn’t know but she’d help them figure it out. She had fabulous questions. She struggled to collect the data and with the writing. It was not part of her life experience, but she had important things to say.  Eventually she produced a piece... She was in the same group as a person about to pursue a Ph.D. degree in educational evaluation.

Anne Lawrence continues to integrate the Action Research approach into such professional development activities as the Julia Palmer Library Development and Literacy Support project.

Each year, each participant creates an action research question to focus his or her inquiry throughout the year-long seminar. Participants use such questions to guide their data collection, experiments with program changes, observations, reflections, and revisions to activities based on what they have learned from their action research.  Examples of such questions include:

  • How do we make our library more accessible?
  • How do we define the purpose of our library?
  • How can we create a creative book club that promotes writing?
  • How do we integrate literacy into our program purposely?
  • How do we create a professional development model that engages youth in literacy?

Seminar participants appreciate the encouragement to focus on one or two issues of their own choosing as they strive to incorporate new learnings, all while continuing with their existing program activities and responsibilities. Participants who are researching similar program questions get together to form supportive learning communities, sharing ideas and providing differing perspectives about shared quandaries.

Afterschool Matters Initiative

In 2003, RBF launched its Afterschool Matters Initiative with the aim of stimulating research in the area of OST education. The Initiative grew out of an effort to find practitioners willing and able to generate articles for RBF’s journal Afterschool Matters. As described by Jane Quinn, RBF Board Member, in a 2006 report to the RBF Board, the Initiative aimed to encourage research that would:

  • Focus on describing and analyzing program activities conducted by OST practitioners;
  • Explore new theoretical constructs appropriate to the OST context as well as generate new language for describing the learning environment of OST programs; and
  • Consider the potential of OST programs to promote positive youth and community development.

Sara Hill, as RBF Research Officer, worked with several cohorts of practitioner Research Fellows, developing a curriculum to help spur their own research of the programs they worked with as well as establishing a professional writing retreat where they focused on translating their research into journal articles. In addition, the Afterschool Matters Initiative: promoted academic research through the Foundation’s Edmund A. Stanley Research Grants; spearheaded the establishment of an OST Special Interest Group (SIG) of the American Educational Research Association (AERA); and held several Research Roundtables--meetings that brought together practitioner-researchers with university researchers.

The Associate Executive Director of a Settlement House describes the impact of the Fellowships:

We have four staff who went through Research Fellowships [where they were expected to] ask a question and inquire into it… You can’t find your own answers if you can’t ask your own questions.

[The Fellowship] provided a space for us to understand what we do-- to put it into words and articulate it.  In the afterschool field, we do a lot that we don’t have language for.  When asked what we do, we give activity lists.  But to be able to articulate and describe it allows us to do it intentionally-- to be able to say, 'We’re developing young people in this way and this is why.’

Since 2007, the Afterschool Matters Initiative has been administered by The National Institute on Out-of-School Time at the Wellesley Centers for Women (NIOST) http://www.niost.org/Active-Projects/afterschool­matters­initiative. The curriculum and process based on teacher inquiry, originally developed by Sara Hill for the New York City Fellowship, has been adopted and adapted by Fellowships conducted in conjunction with the National Writing Project and local intermediaries in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, Pittsburgh, New York, and New Jersey.

Given the deliberate and ongoing practice of RBF personnel both to ask questions and to reflect on the outcomes of their work, Executive Director Lena Townsend notes that unmet goals remain to be thought through and addressed:

Youth practitioners are very important for shaping the field. One way we have attempted to make that happen is through the Fellowships. The Edmund A. Stanley research grants go to university researchers. Our vision was that practitioners and university researchers would come together to share knowledge and influence the field. This has not happened, but it was our goal.

Practitioner research – and hence their practice--continually evolves as the context, community, staff, and needs of participants change. The inquiry stance of the RBF both respects and encourages program practitioners to formulate and study their own questions – and thereby remain active, relevant actors in their own efforts and in the lives of the youngsters with whom they work.

INSERT LINK ...  Afterschool Matters archive of published journals TO NEW PAGE


  • Coalition for Hispanic Family Services Arts & Literacy staff member Melissa Wilhoit describes her action research investigation and the program changes it led to as a result of her experience in the Robert Bowne Foundation Action Research Seminar facilitated by Suzanne Marten from the Center for Educational Options.  [ML14_M_Wilhoit_CHFS_Intv_080712]
  • Snapshot: Examples of Research Fellowship Process in Action [PDF23_Snapshot_Research_Fellowship]
  • Interviews with Philadelphia participants in the Afterschool Matters Practitioner Fellowship [ML15_Philly_Fellowship_Intv_Full_022312]