In this final blog post introducing pre-meeting reading running up to the #micer16 meeting in May, Jane Essex of Brunel University introduces us to her topic – action research as a methodology. You can read Jane’s paper on mentoring: “An exploration of the effects of mentoring on post-16 Chemistry students’ exam performance” on the CERP website, which is free to access. Feel free to comment below as these comments can help us inform the discussion after Jane’s talk.
My session will look at a key but challenging distinction, the distinctive features of Action Research as a methodology. I will illustrate this by describing my own research journey, tracking the impact of individual mentoring upon A level Chemistry students both as an action researcher and, by contrast, as an outsider researcher.
Action research is unique as a methodology in being defined both by the relationship of the researcher to the context of the research as well as by its philosophical position. In practice, many of us operate an empirical model of it as an approach which lets you make improvements to your own practice or understanding, which is feasible to undertake and of very immediate relevance to us as practitioners. In fact, the very ‘common sensical’ nature of Action Research is both a strength, because it looks straight forward, and a drawback, because it hardly appears to have a theoretical framework so that which exists is commonly overlooked completely! I would argue, nevertheless, that it is important to recognise that it does, indeed, have a philosophical underpinning as well as strategies for researching your work. If you don’t acknowledge its position, your methods could be inconsistent with the values and assumptions inherent in AR methodology. And this, in turn, could jeopardise the confidence with which you can make inferences based upon your work.
For those who are cynical about whether research can have a valid, let alone interesting, philosophy, I hope that the participatory and, not unusally, emancipatory, nature of the work is a great attraction. The approach derives from Bourdieu’s (who has recently been a key influence on the ASPIRES project) work, which integrated structural and phenomenological analyses. Or you might say it is an approach which can make use of data relating to the structures (or ‘hardware’) of your situation as well as the lived human experiences associated with what you’re studying. Many educators feel very straight-jacketed by regulations and expectation but Action Research holds out the promise of collaborative research with our learners, in a way which lets all contributors shape their future. For example, an early Action Researcher, Paolo Freire, studied the marginalised of Brazil and secured their stake in their own economic development. But if you’re feeling less radical, and so-called Emancipatory Action Research doesn’t appeal, there is also the (more likely for this audience) Practical Action Research, aimed at improving practice.
Action Research is conducted where educational action (educational practice, as we might now call it) and reflection-on-action (Schön, 1983) interface and to comprise elements of both. The amalgam of reflection and practice might well be considered to be an essential component of good i.e. effective teaching. Much of it is also embodied in the ubiquitous plan-act-review reflective cycle. However, the critical distinction between good teaching and Action Research is conveyed by Stenhouse’s (1983) definition of it as ‘systematic enquiry made public’; only if the exploration of interface of action and reflection is systematic and shared does it become Action Research. I will consider the varying degrees of formality in reporting which are consistent with Action Research evaluate the impact of small scale upon which Action Research is commonly undertaken.
Another of the key distinctions between scientific research and educational research is what is considered to be an ‘outcome’. Some Action Research, sometimes designated Technical Action Research, is looking for short-term improvements in processes. However, it is common for educational researchers pose problems and seek to understand them but not ultimately to be able to solve them conclusively, if at all. In Action Research, insight is considered to be as valuable an outcome as a final answer. A further bonus is that the lack of a pre-determined outcome also opens the researcher to the pleasure of serendipitous or unexpected findings. This is not, of course, to say that there are no draw backs to undertaking Action Research. I will be considering the demands of the approach which includes distinct ethical requirements, a strong understanding of the researcher’s role in shaping the data and the risk inherent in creating unrepresentative date simply by researching something. Nevertheless, I hope to persuade you that this really is a robust research approach which can offer you much!