During the 2022 – 2023 school year, the Tang Institute partnered with ten educators from across the United States to launch the Action Research Program—a collection of projects aimed at implementing stronger approaches to student support in the educators’ school environments. Throughout the year, they learned to apply the principles of improvement science with guidance from Dr. Rebecca Stilwell, organizational psychologist at Teachers College, Columbia University. Now that a year has passed, we’re catching up with the educators to learn how their projects have progressed.

In this post, Kurt Prescott offers insight into the ongoing work of his Action Research project, The Office Hours Conundrum,” which aims to support students as they develop self-advocacy and related skills. Prescott is a humanities teacher at Maret School in Washington, DC, and former faculty in the philosophy and religious studies department at Phillips Academy.


Describe your Action Research project.

The focus of the project is to better understand the factors that shape 9th-grade self-advocacy. I work at Maret School, a K – 12 day school to which students arrive from Maret’s middle school, as well as other neighboring middle schools. Because students come to Maret from different backgrounds, I sought to better understand the dynamics that shape students’ self-advocacy. 

What did you hope to achieve at the start of the project and what have you achieved up to this point?

At the start of the project, I was thinking about this in terms of office hours: Why do some kids take advantage of office hours? Why don’t other kids? How can we better attend to the ways in which students are learning to use office hours?

My initial assumption was that because new students have less institutional knowledge, they would make less use of the Office Hours space. My first goal, then, was to understand the existing barriers, recognizing the importance of doing so in order to develop interventions related to office hours. But what I found was the opposite of my original hypothesis: new students were more likely to self-advocate than returning students.

Through informational interviews, I learned that there is a significant scaffolding cliff between 8th and 9th grades. Students transition from a middle school context in which nearly all their time is scheduled for them to an upper school experience in which they have considerably more free time and are able to determine how that time is used. As well, 9th-grade students generally arrive in Maret’s upper school prepared to advocate for themselves, as they have been selected through an admissions process that identifies candidates at a point in their development where they have been able to hone certain skills, including that of self-advocacy.

To understand the competing factors, I then aimed to gather data from students through a survey that would help me understand how students:

  • view their own self-advocacy
  • evaluate their own self-advocacy
  • evaluate their executive-functioning skills
  • use office hours in free periods

Coming out of the survey, I learned that for a lot of 9th-graders, office hours compete with their social time and time set aside for clubs. Asking students to voluntarily meet with teachers means they must sacrifice the only free time they have outside of lunch and free periods.

The survey also bore out that male students were reporting higher degrees of confidence in their self-advocacy skills, which didn’t necessarily mesh with my experience. As a result, there were two things I wanted to do:

  1. Shift the onus of self-advocacy away from office hours and into the classroom. Stop making them compete with other things. With that in mind, I’ve introduced protocols into class time where I prioritize 1‑to‑1 conferences with students.
  2. Include more metacognitive processing opportunities in class. I want to understand if students’ self-perceptions are accurate — if students don’t know what effective self-advocacy looks like, can we expect them to do it on their own? As a result, I’ve been doing more modeling of how to self-diagnose challenges in student work, using feedback capture grids in class, and explicitly surfacing how students understand their challenges and how to create active solutions. This is all meant to raise awareness of what effective self-advocacy looks like.

What is your learning through the current phase(s) of your project work? Is there something that has further inspired your work or served as a reminder of the continued relevance of the work?

In October, I had the opportunity to present this work at the 2023 Festival of Education hosted at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland. This was a great opportunity not only to think more deeply about how this work can translate into other educational communities, but it was also a reminder of how new these tools are to many educators. People can immediately recognize the potential in this approach, but it can initially feel daunting. This is why taking the time to lift the veil on the process and give people the opportunity to test them out for themselves is so important.

At Maret, I plan to readminister the same student survey from last year and determine if my interventions are working. I have been paying a lot of attention to how students are processing feedback in class, which is a natural extension of this work. As well, I am noticing how students solicit help outside of class or connect with teachers when they’re struggling, which involves understanding the skills associated with this project. In addition, I’m aiming to help students recognize when they’re not meeting these skills or whether they are improving at said skills.

It is helpful for me to be in conversation with the students, walk them through the core skills of a course, and provide them with language in order to articulate if they are struggling. As well, I require students to actively engage with the feedback they receive in my classes. Using various methods, I am looking to help students be able to process feedback and self-diagnose, an essential component of self-advocacy. I am working with students to help them become authors of their own learning, to be able to narrativize their growth, and to make interactions between themselves and teachers even more meaningful.

Please share your thoughts about your experience working with the Action Research cohort, including guide and facilitator Dr. Rebecca Stilwell. How did working with fellow educators help you design and develop the ideas and research at the center of your project?

I am such an advocate of the cohort model when it comes to professional learning. Having multiple opportunities throughout the year to work alongside other educators not only enhances the depth and scope of our own projects but enables actual relationships to develop — relationships that have had intangible effects on my own work. I also think there is tremendous value in doing this work alongside educators from other settings. Schools can become very siloed at times and, as a result, turn into a bit of an echo chamber. Stepping outside of that can be a great way to gain perspective on our work and perhaps see challenges or solutions that we had previously been unable to locate.

Having multiple opportunities throughout the year to work alongside other educators not only enhances the depth and scope of our own projects but enables actual relationships to develop — relationships that have had intangible effects on my own work.

Back to Top ↑

Be a part of our community!

Subscribe to our newsletter, Notes on Learning, for monthly updates.