Academic Exchange Quarterly         Fall 2004: Volume 8, Issue 3



Beginning a Team Journey of Discovery

Patricia Ann Marcellino, Adelphi University


Patricia Ann Marcellino is an assistant professor of higher education.  She was awarded the Doctor of Educational Administration by Hofstra University.  Her teaching-research agenda includes leadership and team development in education and business settings.



The purpose of this study was to conduct an exploratory action research investigation of team units in an educational leadership course.  The instructor and action researcher presents her qualitative journey with seventeen graduate students who were registered in an educational leadership program.  Students were teachers and aspiring principals.  Results illustrated that students gained self-awareness and learned about the strengths and weaknesses of working in teams.  Team members provided multiple perspectives about their teams, which enabled the instructor to increase her understanding regarding team units.  The instructor was able to redesign her team instructional model or “action plan” concerning utilizing teams in the classroom.



Today, teams are popular in classrooms and at worksites.  Adults are asked to work in teams to change and adapt to new developments and technological advances.  Theorists posit that individuals will change more quickly working in teams (rather than working alone) because multiple team members can influence an individual to change and adapt  (Bolman & Deal, l997; Senge, l990; Senge, Kliner, Roberts, Ross, Roth, & Smith, l999; Senge, Cambron-McCabe, Lucas, Smith, Dutton, & Kleiner, 2000).  Furthermore, when teams are utilized in the classroom, the assumption is that what is learned will transfer to the workplace.  The cooperative group model works well in schools (Johnson & Johnson, l999; Slavin, l999), but as adults transfer to the worksite, they formulate assumptions that affect their behavior and how they interact in teams.  Because of this, adults may experience tension when they participate on a team (Katzenbach & Smith, l993; Lipnack & Stamps, l997; Pacanowsky, l995; Thompson, 2000).  How each individual reconciles this tension seems to determine whether the adult learns from the team experience. 




The purpose of the study was to conduct an exploratory action research investigation of four teams over a sixteen week period in an educational leadership course.  Three teams had four members, while one team had five members.  The instructor was not a member of the teams; but she was the primary action researcher and the facilitator to the teams.  Students were also action researchers, as they investigated, discussed, reflected and added to their understanding about teams and the interaction of team members.




According to Thompson (2000), teams enhance creativity and problem solving because of the diversity of team members.  The participants were seventeen teachers and aspiring principals in an educational leadership program.  Multiple perspectives were presented as diverse team members interacted.  Fifteen of the participants were female and two were male.  Nine of the participants were coded as culturally and/or racially diverse.  These diverse individuals were balanced across the teams.  Both males were coded as culturally and/or racially diverse.  Two of the teams were heterogeneous as one male was placed on Team 1 and the other was placed on Team 4.  Team 1 had three diverse members, while Teams 2, 3 and 4 had two diverse members each. 


Acquiring Partners


According to Bogdan & Biklen (l998), in action research, “teachers and their students define the real world together” (233).  Therefore, the qualitative journey is not solitary.  By engaging in action research, the instructor applied a “theory into action” model and tried to close the gap between theory and practice (Senge, l990).  Moreover, her graduate leadership students simultaneously implemented the action research model as they interacted in their teams and set about investigating both their chosen team topics and their teams.  The instructor was a participant observer of the teams as they evolved; she was not a member of the teams.  But by engaging in action research, instructor and students became partners in the research process. 


Theoretical Framework


Mills’s (2003) action research model served as the framework for this study.  According to Mills, the goal of action research is to improve teaching and learning.  Action research “is about incorporating into the daily teaching routine a reflective stance – the willingness to critically examine one’s teaching in order to improve and enhance it” (10).  Continual reflection is an integral part of the action research process, as participants evaluate how they may have supported the team constructively or unconstructively.  Mills’s broad research guidelines are: (1) identify an area of focus; (2) collect data; (3) analyze and interpret the data, and (4) develop an action plan.  This action plan may be the redesigning of an instructor’s syllabus.  In this study, the area of focus was the team unit.  Within the action research model, the instructor–as-an-action-researcher monitored and evaluated the classroom situation and the interaction of participants by engaging in a field of action that involved discussing, rethinking, re-planning, reflecting, understanding and learning.  According to Osterman & Kottkamp (l993), the instructor’s role changes in a reflective model.  The instructor is no longer there to lecture and deliver information, but instead the instructor becomes a facilitator and coach who is there to guide individual learners and initiate personal inquiry and growth.  She does this, by providing opportunities for students to discuss, re-think, re-plan, reflect, generate and learn from one another. 


A Pilot Study


Team disunity developed in a pilot study on teams conducted by the instructor in another educational leadership course, so she decided to actively monitor the teams in this study and have each participant update her on a weekly basis.  Updates were provided through e-mail and in person.  In this way, the instructor was able to track and code team tensions as they developed.  She began to widen her support of the teams by coaching her students through their team tensions.  In the previous study, the instructor remained on the periphery and did not coach her students when tensions developed.  When the pilot study ended, several students reported that the team experience was disappointing.  One student commented, “We didn’t become a team.  We were like ships passing in the night.  We were six separate individuals doing our own thing.” 


Design and Methods


Most team studies are quantitatively designed and by intention, variables are limited (Kline, l999).  As a result, quantitative studies don’t seem to provide an in-depth view of what happens to the team from the perspective of all team members.  The researcher, therefore, adopted a qualitative design because it seemed well-suited in exploring multiple perspectives.  Applying a metaphor to the design of the study, rather than investigate snapshots of the before or after team experience, the researcher constructed an “evolving collage” so teams could be explored from multiple perspectives as the team process evolved. 


In action research, a triangulation of methods is recommended to ensure the study is trustworthy and stands up to the rigors of scholarship (Mills, 2003).  Methods included field notes, individual/team updates, evaluative surveys (including field-tested pre and post inventories and a team member feedback questionnaire) and reflective team assignments such as, developing and signing team contracts, writing one summative team process paper and compiling team metaphors.  These methods became the data sources and provided the chronology for analysis.  Because monitoring teams can be unwieldy, Miles & Huberman’s (l994) structured guidelines were followed in the analysis of themes, patterns, contrasts and surprises.  Four team stories were compiled from multiple perspectives.  A categorization process was established.  Categories were created based on the number of participants mentioning a pattern as well as any divergence from established themes. Overall, the dependability of the data is supported by the credibility of the “words” of the participants (Miles & Huberman, l994). 


According to Mills (2003), personal inventories and questionnaires may be included in action research.  Students were given a pre-tested inventory regarding their preference for working in teams.  This inventory had a Crombach reliability rating of .87.  It included 28 Likert scale questions and several open ended questions.  Students who were coded “individualistic, mixed or team oriented” were also balanced across the four teams.  Initially, there were eight “team oriented” students; four students were characterized as “mixed” and five were coded as “individualistic.” 


The qualitative journey is exploratory (Denzin & Lincoln, l994).  It is a journey of surprises, twists and turns.  After teams were formed, several students seemed to change their original perceptions about working on teams.  This change could be traced to the reality of the team formations and disappointment regarding individual team members placed on the teams.  Students were re-coded and tracked regarding these changes.  Their “words” verified this initial change.  There were four students now coded “team oriented,” eight were “mixed” and five were “individualistic.”


Students were coded as Individualistic if they declared:  “I would have been happy not

interacting with anyone.”   “I cringed at the prospect of working on a team.”  Students were coded as Mixed if they commented:  “I consider myself team oriented, but

I pulled back initially and changed my feelings about this team.  People on this group seemed overpowering and I said to myself, oh, oh, what am I getting myself into on this team.”  “I would have preferred choosing my own teammates rather than working on this diverse team.”  Students were coded as Team oriented if they acknowledged:  “I was excited about working with this group.” “I believe as team members we have the potential to become a team.”







Many questions were asked throughout this study.  But overall, the instructor was interested in exploring how students interacted and changed in teams.  From multiple perspectives, students analyzed their teams.  The team process was circular, not linear.  There was movement, change and shifting toward and away from teams and team members throughout the team experience. 


Human beings in a university classroom do not exist in a vacuum.  Human beings are “very complicated organisms, and compared to chemicals – and mice, for that matter – their behavior is disorderly and fairly unpredictable” (Mills, 2003, p.3).  There are multiple factors that affect individuals and the learning that evolves in a classroom.  When there was tension, the instructor discussed it with individual students and sought to have them analyze their team tensions by turning reflective analysis inward.  She advised students to first evaluate their own perceptions and assumptions about team units and team members by asking questions, like, “What could you have done differently?” and “What can you do to rectify this situation.”  Team tensions were not traced to differences in the culture, race or gender of team members, but were traced to individual differences in perceptions and assumptions about expectations concerning the team’s work and productivity.




An adult does not change unless the individual sees value in changing.  As peers, students evaluated their team products, their teams and one another (Topping, l998).  By the end of the study, 12 students were coded as “team oriented, one student was coded as “mixed” and four students were coded as “individualistic.”  But this coding became secondary.  What was significant was the value students attached to the team experience in regard to their personal growth and development.  Participants widened their knowledge base about the weaknesses and strengths of team units; and through their interactions in teams, they developed self-understanding, tolerance and appreciation of others.  Students stated: 


On Team 1:  The best lesson I learned (besides the fact that it’s good to work outside your comfort zone) is that every person has their own talents and strengths and it’s worth it to take the time to find out what they are. 


On Team 2:  I have realized that I am weak when something new is presented and need to be more open minded.


On Team 3:  I learned to trust the expertise of other members of the team.


On Team 4:  I learned about myself and not to be so intense; I learned to share with my team members.


Qualitative researchers never know where the research will take them.  The research process is not neat; at times, it meanders.  It may start in one direction and end in another.  Initially, the instructor set off to study her students in their teams, but realized she needed to focus on herself and how she interacted with her students.  In the process of qualitative research, the researcher collects and weaves through the data and may discover herself (Emerson, Fritz, & Shaw, l995).  While implementing the action model, the instructor engaged in the action cycle of discussing, rethinking, re-planning, reflecting, understanding and learning (Mills, 2003).  She turned the reflecting mirror outward and tried to develop an understanding of her students in their teams.  More importantly, the instructor turned the reflecting mirror inward and realized that she also changed.  Unwittingly, she became a participant in the study [the 18th].  She extended herself, gave more time to her students and tried to support them by guiding them through their team tensions.  In so doing, she changed her teaching practice and improved it.  Through e-mail, she became available 24/7 in order to facilitate the teams.  One student said, “You were always available to discuss what was happening on my team.” She changed her syllabus to include the periodic revisiting of team contracts and holding open class forums so that all team members could discuss and compare their teams openly and learn from one another’s experiences.      


Adults initially enrolled in this course to improve their leadership skills.  By engaging in an action research study about teams, students evaluated themselves as team members and became aware of their interactions in diverse teams.  By discussing team tensions with the instructor and one another, students became aware of their own individual weaknesses and strengths.  These discussions initiated self-discovery and change.  On three teams, students opened themselves up to feedback from others.  They began to appreciate one another’s diverse skills and talents and began to trust in the feedback offered in order to implement personal change.  On one team, not all students accepted the feedback offered and team members had a difficult time implementing suggested changes.      


Concluding metaphors were compiled and shared with class members so students could compare different team experiences.  Developing metaphors widens perspectives and broadens creativity (Couger, l995; Kemp, 1999; Koro-Ljungberg, 2001).  Team members stated:


Team 1:  Our team process was like baking an apple pie.  Many ingredients are used and although they are used in varying amounts, no one ingredient is more important than the rest.       


Team 2:  If I had to use something to symbolize the meaning of this process, I would use a deck of cards.  You never know what you are going to get, but as you continue to go through the deck, you eventually get four of a kind - and that is what happened to us, we became four of a kind.


Team 3:  We were like a train and no matter what happened you couldn’t stop the train.


Team 4:  Our team was as strong as a paper chain . . .toward the end, we were all starting to break apart.


The instructor took a research journey with her students and together they learned about their own learning.  Hopefully, what was learned in the classroom about teams will transfer to the worksite.  Photographs were also taken of and by the students to chronicle their experiences and to serve as visualized back-up data (Bogdan & Biklen, l998).  These photographs were shared and may serve as reminders for continued reflection and learning. 


Research Significance


Four teams were explored.  This journey into team research may serve as the impetus for other action research studies by team instructors.  By engaging in action research, team members turned the reflective mirror outward and assessed their team products.  Teams investigated educational problems and presented recommendations in solving these problems.  They also turned the reflective mirror inward and constructed and deconstructed their own team interactions.  Periodic assessment, comparison, discussion and feedback helped initiate personal change and self-discovery.




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