Saturday, 12 May 2012

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’.