Understanding Action Research
Action research is not a single approach but rather represents a tension between a number of forces that lead to personal, professional and social change. I think of action research is a process of deep inquiry into one's practices in service of moving towards an envisioned future, aligned with values. Action research, can be seen as a systematic, reflective study of one's actions, and the effects of these actions, in a workplace or organizational context. As such, it involves deep inquiry into one's professional practice. However it is also a collaborative process as it is done WITH people in a social context and understanding the change means probing multiple understanding of complex social systems. And finally as research it implies a commitment to data sharing.
There are a range of modifiers that people use for action research and many different dimensions which can be highlighted in different ways to create what some have called a family of approaches to action research(Noffke and Somekh, 2009; McNiff, 2013; Rowell, Polush, Riel and Bruewer, 2015; Rowell, Riel & Polush, 2016). We use collaborative action research to highlight the different ways in which action research is a social process.
Action researchers examine their interactions and relationships in social setting seeking opportunities for improvement. As designers and stakeholders, they work with their colleagues to propose new courses of action that help their community improve work practices. As researchers, they seek evidence from multiple sources to help them analyze reactions to the action taken. They recognize their own view as subjective, and seek to develop their understanding of the events from multiple perspectives. The action researcher uses data collected from interactions with others to characterize the forces in ways that can be shared with other practitioners. This leads to a reflective phase in which the action researchers formulates new plans for action during the next cycle.
Action research provides a path of learning from and through one's practice by working through a series of reflective stages that facilitate the development of progressive problem solving (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993). Over time, action researchers develop a deep understanding of the ways in which a variety of social and environmental forces interact to create complex patterns. Since these forces are dynamic, action research is a process of living one's theory into practice (McNiff & Whitehead, 2010) or taking a living and learning stance to teaching (Clive Beck, 2016). This diagram illustrates the process of action research through time.
Figure 1: The iterative process of action research
The subject(s) of action research are the actions taken, the resulting change, and the transformation thinking, acting and feeling by the persons enacting the change. While the design of action research may originate with an individual, the process of change is always social. Over time, the action researcher often extends the arena of change to a widening group of stakeholders. The goal is a deeper understanding of the factors of change which result in positive personal and professional change.
This form of research then is an iterative, cyclical process of reflecting on practice, taking an action, reflecting, and taking further action. Therefore, the research takes shape while it is being performed. Greater understanding from each cycle points the way to improved practice (Riel and Rowell, 2016).
Action researchers differ in the weight that they put on different factors or dimensions of action research (for more discussion and examples, see Rowell, Riel and Polush, 2016). Each action researcher evolves his or her approach to doing action research as the conditions and support structures are unique. To understand how action research varies, I describe two points, A, and B, along six dimensions. When someone engages in action research, they (or others) make choices that place them at some point along the continuum for each dimension. Some will argue that side A, or B, or a perfect balance between them, is ideal, or even necessary, to call the process action research. Most will have very convincing arguments for why all action research should be done in the way they advocate. The dialogue is healthy and helps us each understand the value of the positions we take. By understanding the boundaries we develop a deeper understanding of the process. (If you click on the bar graphic, you can make your own choices and compare them with others. )
Authors and professors as well as practitioners often have very strong views about what are the essential (and non essential) characteristics of action research. Movement to one or the other side of each continuum represents shifts in the action research approach.
I like to think of action research as a disposition of mind as well as a research approach. It is a commitment to cycles of collective inquiry with shared reflections on the outcomes leading to new ideas. Action research forms a path towards a professional "adaptive" expertise. Hatona and Ingaki (1986) set out a contrast between efficiency expertise and adaptive expertise. I have added innovative expertise and created this chart.
Figure 2: The path to expertise
The yellow path can also be applied to the activist who is singled minded without researching the outcomes and consequences of action, The blue panel might be the path of researchers who do not apply their theories to change contexts. The green combines inquiry and activism to engage in action research. When you balance these two very different learning approaches you follow the green path of action research leading to adaptive expertise and the acquisition of a deeper understanding of yourself and others.
Goals of Action Research include:
Action research involves a systematic process of examining the evidence. The results of this type of research are practical, relevant, and can inform theory. Action research is different than other forms of research as there is less concern for universality of findings, and more value is placed on the relevance of the findings to the researcher and the local collaborators. Critical reflection is at the heart of action research and when this reflection is based on careful examination of evidence from multiple perspectives, it can provide an effective strategy for improving the organization's ways of working and the whole organizational climate. It can be the process through which an organization learns. We conceptualize action research as having three outcomes—on the personal, organizational and scholarly levels.
(from Riel and Lepori, 2011)
At the personal level, it is a systematic set of methods for interpreting and evaluating one’s actions with the goal of improving practice. Action research is often located in schools and done by teachers, but it can also be carried out in museums, medical organizations, corporations, churches and clubs—any setting where people are engaged in collective, goal directed activity. Equally important, not all teacher research is action research. Teachers can do ethnographic, evaluative or experimental research that is NOT action research. The process of doing action research involves progressive problem solving, balancing efficiency with innovation thereby developing what has been called an “adaptive” form of expertise.
At the organizational level, action research is about understanding the system of interactions that define a social context. Kurt Lewin proposed action research as a method of understanding social systems or organizational learning. He claimed that the best way to test understanding was to try to effect change. Action research goes beyond self-study because actions, outcomes, goals and assumptions are located in complex social systems. The action researcher begins with a theory of action focused on the intentional introduction of change into a social system with assumptions about the outcomes. This theory testing requires a careful attention to data, and skill in interpretation and analysis. Activity theory, social network theory, system theories, and tools of evaluation such as surveys, interviews and focus groups can help the action researcher acquire a deep understanding of change in social contexts within organizations.
(Activity Theory Model based on the work of Engeström, 2004))
At the scholarly level, the action researcher produces validated findings and assumes a responsibility to share these findings with those in their setting and with the larger research community. Many people acquire expertise in their workplace, but researchers value the process of building knowledge through ongoing dialogue about the nature of their findings. Engaging in this dialogue, through writing or presenting at conferences, is part of the process of action research.
Action Research and Learning Circles
Developing Action Research Questions: A Guide to Progressive Inquiry
The questions asked by action researchers guide their process. A good question will inspire one to look closely and collect evidence that will help find possible answers. What are good examples of action research questions? What are questions that are less likely to promote the process of deep sustained inquiry? The best question is the one that will inspire the researcher to look at their practice deeply and to engage in cycles of continuous learning from the everyday practice of their craft. These questions come from a desire to have practice align with values and beliefs. Exploring these questions helps the researcher to be progressively more effective in attaining their personal goals and developing professional expertise.
Good questions often arise from visions of improved practice and emerging theories about the change that will move the researcher closer to the ideal state of working practices. When stated in an if/then format, they can take the shape of a research hypothesis. If I [insert the action to be taken], how will it affect [describe one or more possible consequences of the action]? We will look at two examples, one from education and one from a business setting.
Development of Action Research Questions in an Educational Context
Suppose the researcher is worried about designing the learning context
to meet the needs of students who are currently not doing well in
the classroom. The general question might be:
This forms a good overall goal which can then lead to a number of possible cycles of action research, each with a separate question. I find that a help research question has two parts. the first part describing the action and second part focused on the outcome that is anticipated.
Consider this question:
This question suggests an action and possible outcome but is vague in both in the description of the action and in the possible outcome. It is not clear what is going to be done to increase attention to students and what evidence will help evaluate the action.
Now it is clear what the researcher intends to do and what a possible outcome might be. In listening to students, the researcher might discover information that will lead directly to an experiment in instructional design or might refocus the overall goal to one that was not apparent when the researcher began the inquiry.Development of Action Research Questions in a Corporate Context
The following is another example, from a business setting where people in diverse offices are working in ways that would benefit from greater coordination.
The action researcher might identify the problem as one in which poor communication results in decisions being made without attending to the issue of how a decision affects the larger system. The researcher might see a role for technology in forging a solution to this problem, such as creating a database for storing and sharing documents. The overall research question might be:
The next step is to define what kind of communication tool will be used and how the researcher plans to measure collaborative effectiveness of the distant teams.
Cycle questions that might evolve should be specific with respect to the actions taken and the outcomes that will be monitored:
A second cycle question that might follow when it is clear that other teams failed to use the wiki as effectively as the researcher had hoped:
Recognizing Weak Action Research
Sharing your Action Research with Others:
One of the strongest acts of leadership can be the act of writing—of sharing knowledge and insights gained. Writing enables contribution to the body of knowledge that exists beyond the researcher. The final report serves the purpose of sharing the knowledge gained through action research with others in a community of practice. Action researchers will need to decide what to write and to whom to write.
A Written Report
The following is the recommended template for the Master of Arts in Learning Technologies thesis for Pepperdine students. However, there are multiple ways that an action research report may be organized.
Beck, C., (2016) Informal action research: The nature and contributioni of everyday classroom inquiry. In L. Rowell, C. Bruce, J. Shosh & M. Riel, (Eds). Palgrave Interactional Handbook of Action Research. Palgrave: (in Press).
Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1993). Surpassing ourselves: An inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court.
Engeström, Y. (2004). "New forms of learning in co-configuration work", Journal of Workplace Learning, Vol. 16 Iss: 1/2, pp.11 - 21
Hatano, G., & Inagaki, K. (1986). Two courses of expertise. In H. Stevenson, H. Azuma, & K. Hakuta (Eds.), Child development and education in Japan (pp. 262-272). New York: Freeman.
McNiff, J. (2013). Action Research: Principals and practice (Third Edition). New York: Routledge.
McNiff, J., & Whitehead, J. (2010) You and your action research project. (3rd Edition). Abingdon:Routledge.
Riel, M. & Lepori, K. (2011). A Meta-Analysis of the Outcomes of Action Research. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association conference, April 2011, New Orleans.
Riel, M. & Rowell, L. (2016). Action research and the development of expertise: Rethinking teacher education. In L. Rowell, C. Bruce, J. Shosh & M. Riel, (Eds). Palgrave Interactional Handbook of Action Research. Palgrave: (in Press).
Rowell, L. Polush, E. Riel, M, & Bruewer, A. (2015) Action researchers’ perspectives about the distinguishingcharacteristics of action research: a Delphi and learning circles mixed-methods study. Access online at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09650792.2014.990987#.VPlW0IH-Oxw
Rowell, L., Riel, M., Polush, E. (2016). Defining action research: Situating diverse practices within varying frames of inquiry, science and action. In L. Rowell, C. Bruce, J. Shosh & M. Riel, (Eds). Palgrave Interactional Handbook of Action Research. Palgrave: (in Press).
Citation for Web Document: Riel, M. (2010-2016). Understanding Action Research. Center For Collaborative Action Research, Pepperdine University (Last revision Jan, 2016). Accessed Online on........ from http://cadres.pepperdine.edu/ccar/define.html.