What is action research (AR)?
The world of Research is broadly divided into Education and Educational Research. According to Whitty (2005), Education Research is broader than Educational Research and includes aspects such as Social Science. Conversely, Educational Research is more work-based. Action Research can, therefore, be categorised as an Educational Research.
Action research is simply 'researching' whether a particular action will be able to solve an identified problem. Lewin (1946) has often been described as the one to introduce this term to the Education fraternity (Holter and Schwartz-Barcott, 1993 as cited in Masters, 1995). He gave a straightforward definition of Action research as follows:
“Action Research is a three-step spiral process of (1) planning which involves reconnaissance; (2) taking actions; and (3) fact-finding about the results of the action.” (Lewin, 1946)
In later years, the importance of Action Research was based more on the fact that it is participatory and a ‘cooperative inquiry' (Stevenson, 2003). The whole essence of conducting an Action Research Project is no longer for individual professional development but for the improvement of the whole ‘learning team'. For such a project to work the team needs to be ready to embrace changes.
Strategic competencies are not just a ‘one man's job'. Leaders must develop a culture within the organisation in which the strategic visions can actually flourish (Davies and Davies, 2005). Therefore, there needs to be a culture of evaluation and learning inculcated and withheld within the organisation (Fullan, Cuttress and Kilcher, 2005)
Bennett (1994) explains the purpose of action research to be as follows:
“It gives educators new opportunities to reflect on and assess their teaching; to explore and test new ideas, methods, and materials; to assess how effective the new approaches were; to share feedback with fellow team members; and to make decisions about which new approaches to include in the team's curriculum, instruction, and assessment plans.”(Bennett, 1994, p 34)
Action research is, therefore, a project for improvement. Ferrance (2000) suggests that:
“Action research is used for various purposes: schoolbased curriculum development, professional development, systems planning, school restructuring, and as an evaluative tool.”(Ferrance, 2000, p 32)
An Action Research project will have a number of distinctive features among which the key ones are analysed in the next section. Zuber-Skerritt (1992) identified five key characteristics of Action Research as follows:
“Action research is:
1. Critical collaborative enquiry by
2. Reflective practitioners being
3. Accountable and making the results of their enquiry public,
4. Self-evaluating their practice and engaged in
5. Participative problem-solving and continuing professional development” (Zuber-Skerritt 1992, p.15)
The main aim of an Action Research is to solve a problem, which can be identified using a variety of methods namely survey questionnaires and interviews. However, as mentioned above, problem solving in Action Research is now considered to be a collaborative effort. Zuber-Skerritt (1992) describes Action Research as being a collaboration between researchers (external) and practitioners (internal). However, in modern Action Research projects, the Researcher is also a practitioner. There will be a group of educational professionals in an institution, for example, who would be identifying an area (or areas) to be improved, plan for such an endeavour, implement it and reflect on the results. As Fullan (2005) mentioned, the success to a strategic action plan will include the collaboration of all the participants which is possible only if there is a culture of learning and evaluation within the institution.
In an Action Research, the practitioner must also be self reflective. One of the main essential qualities of a teacher is 'self awareness' (Pennington, 1995). An effective teacher will be able to reflect on an event (session, meeting or discussion with a colleague or student) in his/her endeavour to maximise his/her professional effectiveness. Self improvement is an exercise which is in a never ending cycle. Due to the evolving nature of the educational world, an educational professional has to be constantly updating his/her skills. Thus an educational practitioner should be able to evaluate his/her own practice. Kolb (1984) in his Experiential Learning model included ‘Reflective practice' as a very crucial step towards improvement.
On the other hand, Zuber-Skerritt (1992) suggests that an Action Research is normally displayed to those for whom its results might be of use. However, whether this is a key feature of an Action Research is arguable.
Additionally, Dick (2000) , pushed the features of an Action Research Project deeper in stating that it is cyclical. This implies that when an Action Research is being carried out, it is likely to spin off another cycle to be improved and will thus take the shape of a spiral. Kemmis and McTaggart (1988) proposed the following steps : plan, act, observe, reflect; then, in the light of this, plan for the next cycle.
Dick (2000) also states that Action Research often uses and produces qualitative data. Since it is difficult and time consuming to quantify qualitative data, the results are also interpreted in a qualitative manner. Also, according to Zuber-Skerritt (1992), practitioners tend to be more responsive to results which are qualitative. Dick (2000) also identified AR to be ‘responsive' and ‘emergent': Action Research must respond to the current emergent needs of the industry. As soon as one cycle of improvement has been analysed, it will produce the next cycle which will be a development from the first cycle and so forth.
These are but a few characteristics which differentiates Action Research from other types of researches. For an Action research project to be valid, however, it needs to be implemented in compliance with certain principles.
The principles of action research
Many of the principles of Action Research form its characteristics. Among the main ones, there is therefore the fact that it must be collaborative. Winter (1989) emphasises on the fact that AR has to have a ‘collaborative resource'. This implies that the opinion(s) and suggestion(s) of each and every member of the AR team have an equal weight in the discussion process. Winter (1989), further points out that, for this to take place, the AR project has to have a ‘dialectical critique' which will give rise to opinions which will then form part of the change process. McBride and Schostak (1995) refers to the concept of collaboration in AR (whereby each member has equal right to expressing an opinion) as the ‘principle of empowerment'. Winter (1989) also points out that such discussions may lead to the participants being overly defensive of their ideas. Thus another principle an AR will be that this risk of opinions being argued against to be put forward. Also reassurance should be given that ALL ideas will face similar arguments. Winter (1989) explains further that an AR has to be a continuous ‘change process' whereby the action, which is based on a theory is researched to transform the theory which in turn will feed another action and so forth. This concept is supported by those researchers who believe that AR is cyclical (for example Kemmis and McTaggart,1988, Argyris, Putnam and Smith, 1985, Heron and Reason, 1995, Torbert (2004), Whitehead and McNiff, 2006, and of course Lewin, 1947).
For AR to be cyclical, its participants need to abide by a very important principle which Winter (1989) refers to as ‘Reflective Critique'. According to this principle, action researchers have to reflect on the ‘action' taken to determine the next cycle of improvement. This is, in fact, one of the stages in Kolb's concept of the Learning Cycle (1984), which is often used as a reflective practice tool.
Action Research itself is constantly being ‘researched'. In fact, over the years many models of Action Research have been developed and/or improved in attempts to find the best cycle of improvement. However, as it will be discussed in the next section, it seems that the core of each and every model is the principle of continuous development.