Teachers are constantly, perhaps unconsciously, making decisions about their teaching practice. Refining what they do about individual students, assessment, worthwhile learning activities and a whole range of other issues. This process of reflection usually occurs on the run so to speak, usually while engaged with the teaching/learning process. Usually reflection occurs as a solitary event. Action research is much more that this. Action research is a collaborative approach to working in schools by teachers committed to improving their teaching for the benefit of all students. For our purpose action research has these three key elements: operational or technical, collaboration, and critical reflection.
Most action research approaches describe some form of research spiral, such as:
- Plan, act observe, reflect
- Describe, inform, confront, reconstruct
- Provocation, redesigning curriculum and which data, doing the teaching and collecting data, reflecting and analysing.
The spiral provides a set of stages or a process to work with. In reality the process is a bit messier but the spiral is a useful format to guide planning.
The research process is best conducted in a network of critical friends, and ideally having the opportunity to reflect and plan with other teachers and university researchers. A community of critical learners can provide an environment where people can share frustrations, ideas, strategies, as well as critical, supportive feedback about their work in schools.
‘Critical’ action research aims to contextualise teachers’ work. Put simply, we don’t work in isolation but in local school contexts that are in large part constituted through (inter)national policy processes. Critical reflection ponders such questions as: in whose interests? How did things get to be this way? How can schooling be changed to serve the most disadvantaged students? Critical reflection examines: how we talk about and categorise teaching and students; our practices – what counts as learning and participation and; the structures and organisation – how people relate to each other (power and authority relations).
What is good action research?
Put briefly, defining good action research might be understood to have the following characteristics:
Focused on improving practice
Action research projects aim to improve practice; and in the case of classroom action research the focus is to improve teaching and learning (pedagogy).
Owned by teachers / the school
Most importantly, action research is research that is owned by the teacher and focuses on the teacher’s own practice. Action research does not involve someone researching someone else. Action research may involve others as facilitators or critical friends, but the process must be owned by the participating teachers. The process is most powerful if teachers get to design their own questions and have complete control of the research process. Action research can be used as a part of performance management but this may impede the process if teachers feel that their careers are on the line.
Has a well defined clear research problem/question
The quality of action research projects is in large part determined by the thoughtfulness of the research problem/question. In the spirit of inquiry, you want a question in which you don’t know the answer. The quality of the research question often determines the outcome so it’s important to spent time thinking about the question. It needs to be one that represents your inquiry into something that you really don’t know in advance. Otherwise why do the research. The question needs to be a real inquiry into practice.
Action research takes teachers’ learning seriously
Action research provides teachers with a rigorous learning process about their practice, which after all is the most important thing for teachers. Action research brings rigor to teacher’s learning through forms of reflection that demand reading, and writing, and preferably discussion with other colleagues and critical friends. Our model also suggests that the findings of action research projects are presented to an audience of peers for further discussion and reflection.
Systematic examination involving collection and analysis of evidence/data
What distinguishes action research from daily reflection by teachers about their teaching is the demand for systematic examination of evidence/artefacts/data. This can take the form of journals, student artefacts from classroom learning, video, audio, questionnaires, records, interviews, data on assessment and attendance, etc… The sort of rigorous reflection that is required demands some artefacts that can be analysed and thought about at some time after the lesson. Memory is not enough.
Producing your own knowledge about what works in your context
Because action research is focusing on your own practice then it aims to produce knowledge about what works in your own context. As such in the first instance, you’re interested in the intricacies of your own situation and not the need to generalise. Many teachers have developed very sophisticated knowledge about practices that work in their context. Action research provides an opportunity to document this knowledge and examine how it might be further improved.
Collaborative and professional community building
Good action research works to undermine the privatism that depowers teachers and that impedes redesigning teaching practice. There are many models of collegiality including ‘research roundtables’, study circles, and professional learning community models of various kinds. Working in groups provides a context for professional community building that is essential for substantial whole school reforms that are so urgently required in many schools.
Making the ordinary ‘extra-ordinary’
Many experienced teachers treat their quite complex theory and practice as ordinary, even mundane. Its what you do everyday! But then teaching is a very complex practice—it’s quite extraordinary—and action research provides a process to reveal some of the complexity in ways that can be examined, modified, documented, redesigned.