Action research: an intervention or a potentially transformative process ?

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A teaching colleague recently told me how he had undertaken a highly successful action research project with his maths class. When asked, he explained how he had used a software programme to help his students learn 2D and 3D shapes. I thought the project sounded interesting and asked him to tell me some more about it. He explained how he was interested in using technology and decided to use the software to help raise students understanding of 2 and 3D shapes. He had done a pre-test and tabulated the results. He then introduced the students to the software and after a couple of weeks, administered a post-test. The scores showed that the students’ understanding had increased greatly and my colleagues was delighted.

I was disappointed when I realised that that was all he had done! In my opinion, action research encapsulates much more than trying out a new idea. While the aim of improving one’s practice is always admirable, I think that calling, what is basically an intervention, an ‘action research project’, demonstrates disappointing lack of understanding around the underpinning features of action research.

Maybe this is an opportune moment to remind ourselves what we mean by self study action research.

Undertaking an action research project assumes, for example, that one-

has an understanding of one’s educational values,

is living or trying to live, in the direction of one’s educational values,

has engaged in critical reflection on their practice,

experiences oneself as a ‘living contradiction’ (Whitehead, 1999)

is seeking to improve one’s practice or one’s understanding of one’s practice,

is aiming to generate a theory from one’s learning in the process of the project and

acknowledges that the focus of the research is ‘I’ (along with others). (See McDonagh et al. 2012 and Whitehead and McNiff 2006 for more on these ideas.)

Engaging in action research allows the the teacher to be a researcher and a theorist. It encourages a dialectic between theory and practice. It enables the practitioner to assume a sense of autonomy over their practice as they develop theories and ideas from a personalised grassroots perspective. It enables practitioners to potentially transform their thinking, their practice and their sense of professionalism while generating educational theory from their practice.

So, while I believe that self-study action research can encompass the staging of an intervention or an experimentation with a new idea in one’s classroom, its essence is far greater and more powerful than that. Let us not reduce the power of action research to  a hollow victory narrative based on increased test scores. Let us embrace self-study action research in its powerful, transformational wholeness and try make a sustainable difference in our professional lives!







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7 comments on “Action research: an intervention or a potentially transformative process ?
  1. I agree, Máirin, that the project you described does not meet the criteria for an action research project. An action has taken place and there is empirical evidence of improvement following the use of a software programme, and so the project could be called action learning. However, there is no critical reflection on the process and no engagement with the possibility that there could be other explanations for the improvements that occurred. Without these elements, the project cannot be described as action research. Furthermore, there is just one perspective presented – that of the individual teacher. Had the students’ views been given voice, the project could have met the requirements for collaborative, participatory action research.

  2. An interesting article, Mairin. I agree that an intervention, per se, cannot be called action research. Nevertheless, I’ll tell you a short story of using such an intervention from an early childhood setting to encourage the teachers to recognise, engage with anid extend their understanding of reflective practice as a precusor to action research.

    The polytechnic that I worked in then, in New Zealand, had just got degree granting status. Hence, the staff were now required (under New Zealand legislation) to engage with research and to refer to it in their teaching. But a lot of the polytech staff didn’t see themselves as researchers – indeed, had a tentativity, if not a fear, about engaging in research themselves.

    I worked as a staff developer there, but had also taught an action research course to the Early Childhood team’s students. So I was considering ‘a team member’ to some extent. I took an intervention the team had designed, and run two iterations of, that intended to help students to see how better to work creatively with children in early childhood centres. They’d critiqued the intervention and sought to improve it. The head of the team and I wrote up the project AS IF it had been action research from the outset. We did so quite overtly, describing our intention to diminish ‘research anxiety’ and to show how ‘normal practice’ can be extended into research.

    We took the paper to an Australasian conference, where it was awarded one of the ten best papers of the conference. In that way, we showed the team how they could work more overtly and systematically to show that they WERE conducting research. Of course, it required them to embed their work in established literature (which they didn’t currently do much) and to formally seek data (which they did informally as part of their reflective processes) but it wasn’t a big leap from ‘normal practice’ to ‘action research’. It’s fair to say they were already theorising about their practice, and why the previous way they’d taught was not working for their students. When the intervention worked so much better, they DID reflect on why, and construct their own explanations for this, so there was already that kind of internal critique and theorising occurring. It just hadn’t occurred to them to see this as a research process.

    So I guess I am saying that interventions of the type this teacher did with his students are not, per se, action research, but with support and encouragement can be used as the springboard to help him to make that wider leap.

  3. Thank you for sharing your insights, Pip!

    I agree wholeheartedly with you. I think in your case, your colleagues were more or less unknowingly engaging in the action research process. They were already aiming to improve their practice or understanding of their practice; they were reflecting critically on their work; they were collating data and generating theory. They were all but calling their work ‘research’ anyway. So in your case, this intervention was moulded (and beautifully so) into an action research project.

    But….when the main feature of the project is more about showing an increase in scores- then for me at any rate – it does not meet the requirements of self study action research. If it lacks reflection, the telling of the story of ones learning, critical thinking, putting one’s values at the heart of the research and so on, then to my mind, it is simply an intervention.

    However, I do admit that an openness to different ways of thinking and approaching research is always beneficial!

  4. I’m wondering about the desirability of including a multi-screen SKYPE conversation on the front page of:

    I’m thinking of a conversation, perhaps initially including Mary, Mairin, Pip, Caitriona, Bernie and myself, which focuses on what we are all doing, individually and together to enhance the influence of educational action research/living-theories in Ireland and globally.

  5. I am currently engaged in an action research project in my school as part of my diploma in education leadership. In my action research project, students are correcting their own tests and homework using marking schemes. I would like to network with teachers/schools that have done an action research project similar to this on assessment for learning.

  6. Hi Celine. Lovely to read of your interest in action research.
    You may be interested in the NEARI notice on this blog – we are holding an initial meeting at Dublin City University on 25 April (Saturday). 10.30 – 2.30 in the Interfaith Centre. Do let us know if you’d like to attend. We have to hold registrations to around 40, so get back to us if you can come.
    Kind regards

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