Action Research:

Is educative
Deals with individuals as members of social groups
Is problem-focused, context-specific and future-orientated
Involves a change intervention
Involves a cyclic process in which research, action and evaluation are interlinked
Aims at improvement and involvement
Is founded on a research relationship in which those involved are participants in the change process

(Hart E and Bond M - 1995)

Good action research is developmental; namely, it is a form of reflective inquiry which enables practitioners to better realise such qualities in their practice. The tests for good action research are very pragmatic ones. Does it improve the professional quality of the transactions between practitioners and clients/colleagues? Mission Statement, CARN

Literature and websites

The following selection of references offer a range of perspectives on action-research applicable to educational development. Many of these texts are written with schoolteachers in mind though they are transferable to any field of education. I have derived key principles from these references for the action-research checklist below.

Carr W and Kemmis S (1983) Becoming Critical: Education, Knowledge and Action Research, Falmer. This is a theoretical exploration into reflective practice and epistemology in education. The authors privilege action research as a method that can produce transformative practice in contrast to positivist or interpretivists research methods. Carr and Kemmis argue that action research can problematise the socio-historic context of research and can sustain a dialectic between theory and practice in ways that other methods fail.

 Elliott, J. (1996) Action Research for Educational Change, Open University Press.  This book is concerned with action research as a form of teacher professional development. See especially Ch.5 on ‘the dilemmas and temptations of the reflective practioner’ for a discussion about insider research and teaching as craft v. reflective practice.

Hart E and Bond M (1995) Action-Research for Health and Social Care: A Guide to Practice, Open University Press. An assessment of the usefulness and the distinctiveness of action-research over other methodologies; much can be transferred to educational development.

Kemmis S and McTaggert R (1982) The Action Research Planner, Deakin University Press.  This is a guide to implementing action research in education. The reader is taken through a self-reflective spiral of planning, acting, observing, reflecting, re-planning with suggested questions and problem solving scenarios.

Lewin, K. (1946) Action Research and Minority Problems, Journal of Social Issues, Vol.2.  Lewin is a US founding father of action research; he describes action research as a spiral of steps that proceeds from planning to action to observation and finally to reflection. Lewin originally formulated action research for social problems but educationalists have borrowed much from it.

McGill I and Beaty L (1995) Action Learning: a guide for professional management and educational development, Kogan Page.   How to share and solve problems through the use of action learning sets.  The processes described for developing professional practice follow similar cycles as that of action research.  A good supportive text.

McNiff, J (1988) Action Research: Principles and Practice, Routledge. This very accessible book focuses on the methodology of action research and the aim of developing a ‘reflective practioner’ approach.. McNiff provides a short and useful overview of the history and theoretical underpinnings to action research. She critiques certain models of action research (Kemmis, Elliott and Ebbutt) as low on scope for self-reflexivity. Her approach follows that of Whitehead (see below) which offers a ‘dialetectical logic’ founded on dialogue and on change as metamorphisis.

 McNiff J (1993) Teaching as Learning: An action research approach, Routledge.  A teacher-user guide to action research as praxis and self-development. This book reviews a number of case studies of school based action research. McNiff discusses the nature of knowledge and how it can be generated from educational inquiry; she offers a critique of what she calls the ‘normative-analytic’ approach which tests the processing of information but does not engage with the quality of education. Action research, according to McNiff, closes the gap between teaching and learning.

McNiff J, Lomax P and Whitehead J (1996) You and Your Action-Research Project, Routledge. This is a ‘how to’ book for an action researcher wanting clear, basic guidelines and suggestions for their project. This book is not theoretical but it gives references that are.

Schon, D.A (1983) The Refective Practioner: How professionals think in action, Basic Books.  Schon is the founding father of professional development by reflective practice.  A classic read.

Somekh B and Thaler M (1997) ‘Contradictions of Management Theory, Organisational Cultures and the Self’ Educational Action Research, Vol.5,1.  Through transnational case studies, this article looks at the role of participative action research (PAR) in turning an organisation into a learning one; it examines blockages created by ‘defensive routines’; it urges organisation members to negotiate ‘multiple selves and relationships’ to maximise their effectiveness and for the acquisition of Aristotlean ‘nous’.

Stenhouse, L. (1979) ‘Using research means doing research’ in Dahl H et a (eds) Spotlight on educational research, Oslo University Press.  Strenhouse brought action research to the field of education in Britain and did much to popularise the idea of the teacher as a researcher, the classroom as a laboratory and teachers as part of a ‘scientific community’. This is one of a number of articles that engage with this perspective.

 Whitehead J (1987) ‘Action Research and the politics of educational knowledge’, British Educational Research Journal, Vol.13, No.2.

Winter, R (1998) ‘Finding a Voice - thinking with others: a conception of action-research’ Educational Action Research, Vol.6,1. Winter focuses on the democratic, collaborative aspect of action-research for the production of really useful knowledge/theorising. This is a readable snapshot of Winter’s perspective.

Winter, R (1987) Action Research and the Nature of Social Inquiry: Professional innovation and educational work, Gower.  This somewhat dense book explores the theoretical underpinning to action-research and its analytic capacities against those of positivism. Winter promotes a reflexive action research which treats ‘action’ and ‘research’ or ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ dialectically and which is sensitive to context.

Winter, R. (1989) Learning from Experience: Principles and Practice in Action-Research, Falmer.  Winter discusses and describes the reasons for and process of action research. His outline of ‘six principles for the conduct of action-research’ is useful both in terms of a theoretical rationale for action research and for implementation procedures.

Zuber-Skerritt O (1996) Action Research in Higher Education: examples and reflections, Kogan Page.  This book (also rather dense) is about the dialectic of theory and practice within the framework of action-research. Exploration is based on case studies in higher education in Australia. Producing more effective HE learners is linked to the need for students to have ‘learning skills’, i.e. to know about the process of learning (metalearning) rather than to learn study skill techniques only. Producing reflective lecturers, the author urges, is about involving them in the process of identifying, analysing and solving the problems they confront themselves rather than presenting them with research done by others.

 Useful sites

A new on-line journal: Action Research International

Action research links to resources elsewhere

The Centre for Action Research in professional Practice (CARPP): http://www.bath.ac.uk/carpp/ 

The Collaborative Action Research Network (CARN)

An excellent site from Colorado University

A good review of action research literature

Here is an excellent article on action-research for teaching  -  http://www.qualitative-research.net/fqs/fqs-eng.htm

A checklist for action research

There is no neat sequential process in action research. All theorists of action-research offer models based on spirals or cycles in which thinking, doing and watching are interwoven and repeated throughout the research activity. Here are some checklist points under three common headings for the action-research process (planning, acting and reflecting).

Planning

  1. Identify a problem in your own practice. Write a statement of this problem.
  2. Clarify what changes you can make to overcome the problem. Write up your anticipated design of practice. How does it differ from the status quo? What are the hoped for outcomes?
  3. Share your thoughts, Ensure that your research is question driven through dialogue with others (action learning set members, critical friends, involved subjects,etc.) - this helps you to be rigorous and to avoid bias; it also helps you to avoid forms of self-validating inquiry that presuppose the answer to a problem (e.g. I will change this to see if it will rather than I will change this because it will).
  4. Consider your own embeddedness (culturally, professionally, socially, etc.) and the influence this has on your research plan. Will your professional status affect your communication with students? Are your questions skewed by your own social and educational experiences?
  5. Keep your planning reasonably provisional. Be open to the shifting focus your research might reveal (this is the principle of generative action-research) and to the revision of your original identification of the problem/need.
  6. Ensure that the scale of your research project is realistic (starting small is usually best).
  7. Establish how long you have and/or need to watch changes happening as a result of your action
  8. Ensure that supportive resources and involved people can be mobilised for the research.

Acting

  1. Clarify the action part of the action-research. What is its distinctive character?
  2. Experiment with not on students or colleagues. Ideally, there is no subject-object dichotomy in action research. Keep all concerned people informed as you progress with your research. Ensure good quality feedback at important points of the research process.
  3. Collect evidence, e.g. logs, personal field notes, video observation, questionnaire data, evaluations, performance measures, etc. Make it as rich as possible by thinking about different ways of showing change (quantitative and qualitative). Aim for ‘triangulation’ (the process of gathering data from many sources). Clarify with your co-researchers their role in data gathering?
  4. Analyse your data as you gather it. Compare your observations with those of your students/colleagues if applicable. Critically assess the usefulness of your evidence. What has changed? How can you show this? Identify what is missing/further research questions.
  5. Synthesise your data and share it in various public forms (meetings, publications, etc.) and encourage debate about your findings.

 Reflecting

  1. Adopt a formative approach to your research so that you are open to new problems, directions and revisions. Action-research is not a finite project because entering its spiral processes is a way of being a reflective practitioner at all times.
  2. Blur the distinction between your personal and your professional development by asking questions about your practice and assumptions from both areas.
  3. Do not inform your work with pre-defined quality indicators because the research itself must throw up questions of quality in the light of the practice researched.
  4. Be open to unintended outcomes and to mistakes or to the possibility that the status quo worked better than the change (which means reformulating the problem and the imagined solution).
  5. Consider the ethical issues and those of value relating to your research. For instance, are you making educational judgements or political and wholly finance lead ones? Will your practice create barriers for some groups or will it expand access? Are all those implicated in your research being informed of its purpose and progress?
  6. How are you checking that the judgements you are making are reasonable ones?