Action research is one of those terms that many people have heard of, but that nonetheless remains a bit of a mystery.
So what exactly is action research? Books have been written about this (see below), but, for me, perhaps the most important point is that it is research carried out by practitioners into their own situations and practice.
Within education then, it is primarily about teachers trying to understand what is happening in their classrooms and how they could further improve their teaching, or the opportunities they provide for learning.
As the term action research implies, it is about research into the effect of a particular action. This might include reading about other people's theories, but it's always about the teacher investigating, evaluating and deciding for themselves what is right for their own individual context. As such, it can be very empowering.
What makes it action research, rather than just trying things out, is a certain amount of structure and rigour. The action research cycle has been represented in different ways, but it's always a cycle, which includes some kind of thought/planning, followed by carrying out an action, followed by reflection on the results of the action and then possibly planning another action.
How does it work in practice?
First, you need to decide what to investigate. This is likely to be a problem that needs to be solved. For example, how you can get your students to hand in their homework, or to contribute more in class. But it could also be something you are just curious about. For example, what would happen if you cut the amount you spoke as a teacher right down.
Then you need to choose how you will collect your data. It’s important to get a variety of viewpoints, not just yours, so you might try to get information from the students, or ask someone else to observe you, or discuss what is happening with a colleague. You can keep a journal, record the classes, take notes during the class, use surveys, structured discussions, collect in examples of students’ work. The possibilities are pretty much endless.
Once you have the data, you need to analyse it- which just means looking at it to see if it answers your question. Probably doing this will raise more questions, which means you can start on the next cycle of your research.
What could go wrong?
As you can imagine, some of the most interesting research questions have the potential to turn into a huge project. Teachers are busy people, and you probably won’t have the time to deal with anything too big. Limit the scope of your research question. You can always explore more aspects of the question another time.
Also think carefully about the research methods you use. If you record a class for example, are you going to try and write a transcript? This can take hours and hours. Questionnaires are also problematic. They are very hard to write well and you often end up without much useful information. They are also difficult to analyse. It might work much better to give students some questions to discuss than to set a questionnaire.
Remember that you don’t necessarily need to solve the problem you have identified, just try some things out. You are bound to learn something useful along the way.
Think about ethical considerations. For example, if you are recording a class you will need their permission. Also be clear if students are telling you something in confidence or not.
Action research is a big subject for a little blog-post, but if it sounds like something you’d like to try, you could take a look at some of the links below. And don’t forget to write up your findings in your own blogpost!
Useful online links
Carr, W. & Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming Critical: Education, Knowledge and Action Research. Lewes, Falmer.
McNiff, J. (1988) Action Research: Principles and Practice, Basingstoke, Macmillan.
Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York, Basic Books.