You and Your Action Research Project

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This works on the assumption that action research is a panacea to fix all ills, which is a naive and dangerous practice. In this sense, action research becomes yet another grand theory to be imposed on practi- tioners from a disciplines perspective, rather than a way of enabling practitioners to generate their own living practice-based theories from an educational perspective.

We authors, Jack and Jean, are all for prac- titioners doing action research, but for the right reasons — not because they are told to with the implication that action research could become yet another innovation to be implemented. This chapter addresses these issues: first, by looking at where action research is in the world today; second, by considering why practition- ers should do action research, for the right reasons; and third, taking into account what practitioners need to know to ensure that they real- ise their own potentials as action researchers and retain control over its real form as a means of theory generation for personal, social and cultural renewal.

If you had gone into the action research shop in the s, in the US, it is likely that you would have been able to buy only one brand. This was the brand created by Kurt Lewin, who is generally considered one of the founding fathers of action research, although the values and concepts underpinning action research can be found in many historical records. Later, in the UK dur- ing the s and s you would have probably found two basic brands, each in one of two shops: one in East Anglia, presided over by John Elliott and his colleagues, and one in Bath, presided over by Jack Whitehead see McNiff a for a historical account.

Whitehead has been influential in promoting living approaches, by which individuals research their own practices and offer descriptions and explanations for what they are doing in the form of their own living theories of practice. From broader perspectives, things are dif- ferent today from the s. Action research seems to be everywhere, and much of what goes by the name of action research would probably not be recognised as action research by Lewin, Elliott or Whitehead.

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This situation raises considerable problematic issues, concerned with how action research is perceived and how it is used. Addressing the problems involves first addressing the questions that are at the heart of all research, which are to do with knowledge and theory, and which inevitably give rise to power struggles about what is known, who knows and who says.

Questions of knowledge and theory At the heart of debates about the nature and uses of action research are ques- tions about theory: Which form of theory is most appropriate for offering explanations for how we come to know what we know?


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Who creates the knowledge and generates the theory? How is the knowledge and theory validated? Who says who is qualified to do so? The theory exists as a grand theory, to be imposed on people, who are expected to apply it to their practices. It is not only what the theory says that is taken as normative, but also that the form of theory is as it is. The form of theory is premised on a model whereby a researcher stands outside a situation, and observes, describes and explains what is happening within the situation; i. In reality, this is not the case, as many different forms of theory exist.

One form takes a living, in-the-moment form, in which people offer explanations for what they do as they do it; this book is premised on this view. Practitioners become researchers as they enquire into, and offer explanations for, what they are doing. They generate their own living theories of practice. These power struggles around what counts as valid knowledge and who counts as a legitimate knower have emerged recently as several broad, linked sets of discourses within the wider domain of research.

Here, we outline two of them, and explain where action research is located within them. What counts as traditional scholarship and the new scholarship In , Ernest Boyer wrote Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Pro- fessoriate, an influential book that said that it was time for a new form of scholarship to supplement traditional kinds of propositional scholarship. This new form of scholarship would focus on real-life practices, whereby practitioners would generate knowledge about their practices and have that knowledge legitimised by the Academy.


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  6. Concurrently, Jack Whitehead, since the s, had been promoting the idea that practi- tioners need to generate their own living theories of practice, through which they offer descriptions and explanations for what they are doing, and show how they accept the responsibility of holding themselves accountable for their work. To help practitioners produce a strong evidence base that shows the living reality of real-life practices, they also need to find new ways of representing their research, perhaps by using new forms of multimedia.

    The production of their visual narratives of practice would help them commu- nicate what ways of knowing are appropriate for generating living theories of practice, and for those theories to be understood and validated as educa- tional. This brings us to the second point, about education and educational research. Whitty said that education research should be seen as the broad domain of research into education, whereas educational research should be seen as matters of policy and practice.

    He suggested that edu- cation research, which embraces much social science research, should be distinguished from educational research, which embraces practice-based research. This view has serious implications. First, it turns education into a discipline or subject, a field of study that can be studied and explained theorised from an externalist stance. There is no requirement for the researcher to become involved in their own research, or to show how the research has been educational for themselves.

    Second, those who position themselves as practitioners, who wish to account for what they are doing by offering explanations for their practices in the public domain, are positioned as of lesser worth than those who generate theories about their discipline, in this case, education. And so the form of theory is perpetuated by those whom the form of theory suits; and, because they are usually the people who are already in power, as they already possess the means of validating and legitimising forms of theory, the situation stays as it is.

    From a Marxian perspective, it becomes clear that established elites retain control over the means of production: the product in question is the form of theory. These debates are on the horizon. The significance of the debates The significance of the debates is concerned with who gets to have a say in what the future looks like by acting in the present. The key questions are about what counts as knowledge, who counts as a knower, and who says so.

    Currently, the Academy is still positioned as the body that has greatest influence in these matters, so for many it becomes a question of influencing the Academy, so that the voices of practitioners can be heard. However, if practitioners wish to be heard, they need to make sure that what they have to say is worth hearing, and this is a key reason for doing action research and ensuring that the quality of the research will be such as to ensure that the practitioner is actually taken seriously.

    Action Research 101

    This brings us to the second point, about why practitioners should do action research, but for the right reasons. Why should you do action research?


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    • Action research.

    Two further debates have emerged that have direct bearing on your decision whether to do action research. This debate, for us authors, contains both the wrong reasons why practitioners should do action research as well as the right reasons. The right reasons are about how action researchers can contribute to social and cultural regeneration. Debates about economic globalisation The first debate is about how universities can contribute to future economic sustainability, a crucial issue given the long-term outlook for economic regen- eration and its implications for social sustainability.

    For example, the multimillion-dollar injection of cash into the US economy has a deliberate focus on renewing confidence in the public sector, including home owner- ship as a symbol of the American dream. Universities are caught up in these debates because they are seen as institutions for turning out employable citi- zens who will contribute directly to the economic regeneration.

    Embrace Action Research

    Hence, the idea of work-based learning becomes central. It is understood that universi- ties will produce people who have the skills and capacities to implement fiscal policies. Some thought, however, leads one to see that these efforts are not far removed from efforts of previous times when workers were seen as implementing company policies, and judged in terms of efficiency and productivity Callahan Because work-based learning is strongly asso- ciated with action research, action research therefore comes to be seen as a means of enabling practitioners to implement government policies, rather than a means of enabling practitioners to think for themselves.

    These, for us authors, are the wrong reasons for doing action research. However, combating these wrong reasons and articulating the right ones means engaging with issues of demonstrating the validity of what you are doing as an action researcher. This brings us to the second debate, about validity in action research. This had a direct bearing on work in the field, and a new focus developed. The situation is explained in influential papers by Furlong and Furlong and Oancea If a field cannot articulate its own criteria and standards of judgement, it must expect to be judged in terms of associ- ated fields: if rugby had not its own rules and standards, it could expect to be judged by the rules and standards of football.

    Hence it is crucially impor- tant for a person or field to be able to articulate their reasons and purposes for doing something theorise it , and explain how their practices should be judged in terms of those reasons and purposes. In the case of action research, dominant assumptions were that it could continue to be judged in terms of the traditional yet inappropriate criteria of generalisability and replicability. Consequently, a good deal of work by the practitioner research community has gone into finding new forms of criteria and standards.

    The work in this book represents one school of thought about how validity can be demon- strated. This thinking revolves around the need for practitioners to do good- quality action research and be able to articulate how they make judgements about why their work should be understood as good quality; in this case, this is done through articulating the values-based criteria and standards of judgement used. For us authors, practitioners do need to research their own practices to show how they have improved the quality of those practices the action of action research and also be able to articulate how and why those practices should be understood as high quality the research of action research.

    We emphasise the research as much as the action. We also emphasise that accounts need to contain reasons and purposes, and not be seen simply as stories of action, which positions action research as a means of professional development but not as a means of generating new theory. They can encourage others also to think for themselves and to realise their capacities for contributing to international debates about what counts as a decent society and how it may be nurtured. This brings us to the final point about how it is possible to resist current moves that threaten to turn action research into an instrumental policy- oriented activity, and retain control over its real form as a means of theory generation for personal, social and cultural renewal see Hymer et al.

    How do you explain the potentials of your action research? We maintain throughout that if you wish your knowledge to be seen as good-quality knowledge, worthy of contributing to public debates, you must show that you are aware of what is involved in generating and validating that knowledge, through demonstrating your capacity to conduct high-quality work-based research that is the grounds of your knowledge. You also need to be aware of the potentials of your research for informing new thinking and new practices.

    Many texts tell how cultural change happens. In our view, a key strategy in influencing normative cultures is to build a parallel culture that works alongside the normative one. Action research represents one such paral- lel culture.

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    People investigate their practices and do educational research alongside those who maintain a subject focus and do research into education or management, or leadership, and so on. Most of the time they live in peace, as do states that share the same territory, such as Israel and Palestine. Sooner or later, they need to learn to live together, not as separate entities, but as singularities who are willing to share their identities and influence the thinking of the other.

    This can be done through the sharing of stories, and the creation of a knowledge base that shows how people have improved the quality of their lives and are able to explain how they judge that quality in the interests of their own moral accountability. These days are probably still a long time coming, both for Israel and Pal- estine, and for action research.

    In the meantime, it is up to the participants in all contexts to show that what they have to say deserves to be taken seri- ously, and to create a knowledge base that represents contemporary think- ing in the field. This book constitutes one such knowledge base, to show how it can be done. Summary This chapter has discussed why it is important for practitioners to do action research, and to be aware of the need for theory generation as much as for improving practice.

    In offering a rationale to practitioners for doing action research, the chapter explains that the right reasons and the wrong reasons are often used by different agencies representing different interests. You should be aware of the associated debates and implications, so that you can offer your own rationale.

    Checklist of reflective questions The following checklist may help you to come to an appropriate decision about whether or not to do your action research project, and how deep a commitment you are prepared to make. Do you perceive yourself as a researcher too? How do other people position you?