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Action Research in

Education
Currently overseen by Maureen McGinty

Originally prepared by Dr Stephen Waters-Adams

© S Waters-Adams, Faculty of Education, University of Plymouth,
2006

CONTENTS
Part One: Introduction

Part Two: A Theoretical Underpinning for Action Research in
Education

Part Three: Doing Action Research

Part Four: Limitations and Criticisms of Action Research

Part Five: Tasks

Part Six: Further Reading

PART ONE

INTRODUCTION
1 Why should I use action research?

Because you want to change your practice. You may be concerned
that things might not be going as you wish, or you may need to
implement a new initiative but are unsure how to do it effectively.
What you want is a way of sorting out these concerns that offers
practical solutions, but that derives from the specific circumstances
of your practice. You know that someone else’s solution may have
merit, but that it is never quite right for the individual situation
within which you work. You know that practice is always influenced
by context.

2 How does this qualify as research?

Because the act of finding your solution makes you understand your
practice better – not only what you are doing, but also the factors
that affect what you do. Action research therefore has two aspects.
The starting point is to sort out a problem or issue in practice; to
this extent an action researcher seeks a solution. But the process
can also be used as a deliberate attempt to understand practice
better – a traditional research attitude. What is most important in
both approaches is that you are open, honest and rigorous.

3 What do we mean by practice?

From the perspective of action research, the best way to think about
practice is the way you carry out your professional actions. This is,
of course, what you do, but it is also why you think you should be
doing things the way you do. You will hear of the ‘theory-practice
divide’; action research as an approach cuts across this divide,
encouraging a practitioner to consider both aspects as part of a
single whole.

The aim of an action researcher is to bring about development in his
or her practice by analysing existing practice and identifying
elements for change. The process is founded on the gathering of
evidence on which to make informed rather than intuitive
judgements and decisions. Perhaps the most important aspect of
action research is that the process enhances teachers’ professional
development through the fostering of their capability as professional
knowledge makers, rather than simply as professional knowledge
users. In an age of centralisation and the proliferation of national
guidelines and strategies, action research can help teachers feel in
control of their own professional situation.

Consider:

 What aspects of your professional practice are you currently interested
in developing?

4 What is action research about?

Action research is a practical approach to professional inquiry in any
social situation. The examples in this component relate to education
and are therefore of particular relevance to teachers or lecturers
engaged in their daily contact with children or students. But
professional practice need not be teaching: it may be management
or administration in a school or college, or it may be in an unrelated
area, such as medicine or the social services. The context for
professional inquiry might change, but the principles and processes
involved in action research are the same, regardless of the nature of
the practice.

Indeed, action research did not arise in education (see Lewin 1948),
but was applied to the development of teaching as its potential was
identified. Of particular influence was the work of Lawrence
Stenhouse, who famously advocated that ‘curriculum research and
development ought to belong to the teacher’ (Stenhouse, 1975 p.
142). He was most adamant that ‘it is not enough that teachers’
work should be studied: they need to study it themselves’ (p.143).
Key text: Stenhouse, L. (1975) An Introduction to Curriculum Research
and Development, London, Heinemann. (particularly ch.10 – The Teacher as
Researcher)

As its name suggests, action research concerns actors – those
people carrying out their professional actions from day to day - and
its purpose is to understand and to improve those actions. It is
about trying to understand professional action from the inside; as a
result, it is research that is carried out by practitioners on their own
practice, not (as in other forms of research), done by someone on
somebody else’s practice. Action research in education is grounded
in the working lives of teachers, as they experience them.

Carr and Kemmis (1986) describe action research as being about:

 the improvement of practice;

 the improvement of the understanding of practice;

 the improvement of the situation in which the practice takes
place.

The notion of improvement can be problematic when viewed from
the outside. One person’s improvement can be another person’s
deterioration. It depends on the beliefs and values underpinning the
individual’s perspective. Paradoxically, however, this uncertainty is
perhaps the one truth of professional practice. Practice is contingent
upon the practitioners’ intentions, values and beliefs and the
situation in which those elements are given form. Educational
research through action research does not produce understanding
that has universal truth; it is about me in the here and now
understanding what I can do to ensure my values and intentions are
realised in my teaching situation. If my deliberations produce an
understanding which helps me, then I can offer it to others to try.
In this sense, action research can produce generalisations about
practice, but such generalisations are only part of a wider search for
understanding. They are not directly applicable beyond the
contingencies of my practice. Hamilton (1981) encapsulated this
when he reflected that ‘to generalise is to render a public account of
the past, present or future in a form that can be ‘tested’ through
further action and inquiry’.

Consider:

 To what extent do you ever merely implement a teaching directive? Is
it possible?

The reality of practice in a social situation means that it is
impossible to separate the three areas Carr and Kemmis mention.
Focus on one may give insights into the others, for it is frequently
impossible to improve teaching without understanding the dynamics
of the situation in which that teaching is carried out. Children,
students, classrooms and colleges all vary, as do the management
structures, schemes of work, course programmes and assessment
procedures which impose structure on them. Practice is not easily
packaged! Some writers about action research, Carr and Kemmis
amongst them, have explored the potentially political nature of
analysis within the process that follows from this realisation and
have promoted action research as a means of social change. They
see action research as being ‘emancipatory’, producing an
understanding of the workplace that is empowering professionally.

Key text: Carr, W. & Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming Critical: education,
knowledge and action research. Lewes, Falmer.

Action research can thus be used to:

 understand one’s own practice;

 understand how to make one’s practice better;

 understand how to accommodate outside change in one’s
practice;
 understand how to change the outside in order to make one’s
practice better.

5 How does action research work?

At its heart, action research involves the careful monitoring of
planned change in practice. A decision is taken that a particular
action may either yield improvements or provide information as to
the nature of the teaching situation. The action is thus used as a
research tool. Both elements of action and research are of equal
prominence in the approach. It can be thought of as:

research on action

by using

action as a tool for research

with the process being driven by a dialogue between the elements
of:

action and the intentions behind action

or

practice and the values behind practice.

Emphasising the individual nature of action research, Jack
Whitehead (1985) puts forward a simple representation of how the
process feels:
1. I experience a problem when some of my educational values
are negated in my practice;

2. I imagine a solution to my problem;

3. I act in the direction of the solution;

4. I evaluate the outcomes of my actions;

5. I modify my problems, ideas and actions in the light of my
evaluations.

(p.98)

Key text: Whitehead, J. (1985) An Analysis of an Individual’s Educational
Development: the basis for personally oriented action research, in:
Shipman, M. (ed.)Educational Research: principles, policies and practices,
Lewes, Falmer.
Reading and research series
SQ3R reading method
SQ3R is a reading strategy formed from its letters:
Survey! Question! Read! Recite! Review!
SQ3R will help you build a framework to understand your
reading assignment.
Before you read, Survey the chapter:
the title, headings, and subheadings
captions under pictures, charts, graphs or maps
review questions or teacher-made study guides
introductory and concluding paragraphs
summary
Question while you are surveying:
Turn the title, headings, and/or subheadings into
questions
Read questions at the end of the chapters or after
each subheading
Ask yourself,
"What did my instructor say about this chapter or
subject
when it was assigned?"
Ask yourself,
"What do I already know about this subject?"
Note: If it is helpful to you, write out these
questions for consideration.
This variation is called SQW3R
When you begin to Read:

Look for answers to the questions you first raised
Answer questions at the beginning or end of
chapters or study guides
Reread captions under pictures, graphs, etc.
Note all the underlined, italicized, bold printed
words or phrases
Study graphic aids
Reduce your speed for difficult passages
Stop and reread parts which are not clear
Read only a section at a time and recite after each
section
Recite after you've read a section:

Orally ask yourself questions about what you have
just read, or summarize, in your own words, what
you read
Take notes from the text but write the information in
your own words
Underline or highlight important points you've just
read
Reciting:
The more senses you use the more likely you are to
remember what you read Triple strength learning:
Seeing, saying, hearing
Quadruple strength learning: Seeing , saying ,
hearing, writing!!!
Review: an ongoing process

Day One
After you have read and recited the entire chapter,
write questions in the margins for those points
you have highlighted or underlined.
If you took notes while reciting,
write questions for the notes you have taken
in the left hand margins of your notebook.
Complete the form for a critical reading review
Day Two
Page through the text and/or your notebook to re-
acquaint yourself
with the important points.
Cover the right hand column of your text/note-book
and orally ask yourself the questions in the left hand
margins.
Orally recite or write the answers from memory.
Develop mnemonic devices for material which need
to be memorized.
Make flash cards for those questions which give you
difficulty.
Days Three, Four and Five
Alternate between your flash cards and notes and
test yourself
(orally or in writing) on the questions you
formulated.
Make additional flash cards if necessary.
Weekend
Using the text and notebook, make a Table of
Contents - list all the topics and sub-topics you need
to know from the chapter.
From the Table of Contents, make a Study Sheet/
Spatial Map.
Recite the information orally and in your own words
as you put the Study Sheet/Map together.
As you have consolidated all the information you
need for this chapter, periodically review the
Sheet/Map so that at test time
you will not have to cram.
By S.S. Strichart|C.T. Mangrum — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall

Learning About SQRW
SQRW is a strategy for reading and taking notes
from textbooks. Each letter is SQRW stands for a
step in the strategy. Use this rhyme to remember the
steps:
Survey, Question, Read, and Write
That will make your notes just right
Here are the four steps in SQRW. As you learn about
each step, underline the words that will help you
remember what to do for that step.

Survey: In this step you read to learn what a
textbook chapter is about. You read the:
 Title. It is found at the beginning of the chapter.
The title tells the general topic of the chapter.
 Introduction. The introduction gives an
overview of the information in the chapter. It is
found in the first paragraph or two of the chapter.
 Headings. The headings tell the specific topics
that will be covered in the chapter.
 Summary or Conclusion. A summary restates
the main points made in the chapter. A conclusion
provides a generalization made from the facts and
ideas presented in the chapter. A summary or
conclusion is usually found in the last paragraph or
two in the chapter.
Question: In this step you form questions that help
you understand what to look for as you read. You:
 Use the words who, what, where, when,
why, or how to change headings into questions.
Sometimes more than one question needs to be
created for a heading.
Read: In this step you read to find the answers to
your questions.
Write: In this step you write your answers.

Excerpted From:
Excerpt from Teaching Learning Strategies and Study Skills
to Students with Learning Disabilities, Attention Deficit
Disorders, or Special Needs, by S.S. Strichart, C.T.
Mangrum, 2002 edition, p. 20.