I-Search activism: an ethnographic case study of I-Search instruction in a basic skills English course

This ethnographic case study examines faculty’s perceptions of basic skills instruction as well as the efficacy of an I-Search curriculum implemented in a basic skills English class. I synthesized Macrorie’s (1988) popular I-Search assignment with Freire’s (2011) problem posing pedagogy to create a three unit sequence: in unit 1, students define a core belief and/or value; in unit 2, students define a problem with storytelling and engage in research to understand the nature of the problem; and in unit 3, students conclude their I-Search paper by writing about solution(s) to their problem. The purpose of this study is to propose an alternative to the traditional basic skills English curriculum. Prior research suggests that too many instructors cling to a behavioralist pedagogy in which instructors break complex literacy acts into sub-skills and present these sub-skills in decontextualized exercises and prescriptive processes (Grubb & Gabriner, 2013). The traditional pedagogy has been found to lead to a stagnation of success where less than 50% of basic skills English students achieve their educational goals (California Community College Student Success Task Force, 2011; California Community College Chancellor’s Office, 2014a). Since the literature suggests that I-Search can present students with a genuine, authentic need that can contextualize instruction, this study—which includes surveys and interviews of basic skills English instructors, ten weeks of observation, and survey and interviews of a case study class instructor and students—examines students’ perceptions of instruction and how those perceptions can foster development. The findings draw heavily upon Bronfenbrenner’s (1979, 1993, 1995) Ecological Model of Human Development to suggest that I-Search presents students with an ecologically rich learning environment. With I-Search instruction, the instructor supported students’ autonomy by allowing students to pick any topic they like, and students responded by choosing a relevant and impactful topic along the mesosystem (or other environments with which students interact); these mesosystem connections led students to positively perceive the classroom and experience a genuine and authentic need for instruction. Students’ positive perception of the classroom then led to greater student engagement and the formation of “a tight, cohesive community.” Another recurring theme in the case study classroom was validation, both the instructor and students validating each other considerably throughout the course. Validation in the case study classroom may have accounted for students’ increase in competence, or the reported belief that students can exert the effort to successfully write academic essays (Ryan & Deci, 2000). All these instances of engagement led students to perceive more of an overlap between students’ home and academic cultures and begin the formation of what de Anda (1984) calls bi- or multicultural identities. The findings culminate in an additional model, the Ecological Model of Student Engagement. While Bronfenbrenner’s (1979, 1993, 1995) model has been used to describe students’ college experience, there is a research gap about how his model can be applied to college instruction. The Ecological Model of Student Engagement not only accounted for engagement in the case study classroom but can also be used as a heuristic to help practitioners make their classrooms ecologically rich. This study also posits that I-Search instruction can be an alternative to traditional basic skills English curriculum, especially how I-Search provides natural scaffolding to help students understand the dialogic nature of academic discourse and write research papers.