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Action Research in the classroom: notes for a seminar

Jean McNiff
Visiting Professor, University of Limerick, email: 106642.1700@compuserve.com

Keynote Address presented at the Register of Primary Research seminar conference 'Action Research in the classroom' Royal Geographical Society, 8 March 2001

Available in Occasional Paper: No 2 2002 ISBN 0-9538154-1-2 available from the Editor, 9, Humber Road, Blackheath, London SE3 7LS

Abstract : Action research is a term given to the process of people researching their own learning with a view to generating their own theories of practice. This view is contrary to some views in the literature, which assume that we study action research as an object. A common sense view of action research is illustrated. Action research is a form of self-study and self-evaluation and can potentially be done by everyone and everywhere. When action research is seen as a living practice, the issue becomes how people can come to understand their work and think about it in a coherent way - that is, theory can become live as an aspect of practice. The process of investigating how we are as persons, and how we are with other persons is delineated. The implications are considered and the conclusion suggests personal enquiry can be the basis for social renewal. To change in an educational and sustainable way we have to see the sense of changing and want to change Educational enquiry should be educational for all participants. This means educative relationships - the kind of relationships in which all participants may grow in life-affirming directions. (Editor abstract)

What is action research ?

Action research is a term given to the process of people researching their own learning with a view to generating their own theories of practice. Action research is not a 'thing' or an object of study. When we speak about action research we are always speaking about people investigating their work with other people. This view is contrary to some views in the literature, which assume that we study action research as an object. The divergence of opinion in the literature about how we understand action research reflects how we understand human enquiry in general, whether we observe life from a distance, or whether we are active participants, and what implications this has for the form of theories we generate.

A common sense view of action research is this :

See Fig 1

Who does action research?

Potentially everyone. Common perceptions are that only professionals do action research - that is, reflect on their practice and gather data on how they might improve it. However, people in bus queues and flower shows can be doing action research, though they may not call it action research. The focus of action enquiries is the 'I'. Traditional views of education research (which is commonly regarded as a form of social scientific research) are that one person observes another. New paradigm research focuses rather on people studying themselves. Action research is a form of self-study and self-evaluation. An aim is to improve your own self-understanding in order to see how you might influence your particular situation for good.

Where is action research done?

Potentially everywhere, not only in professional learning contexts, though the focus on professional learning has popularised the idea of action research as a form of practitioner-based enquiry. There is a common assumption that people in workplaces do action research and people positioned as knowledge workers in the academy offer theories about action research. This view perpetuates the theory-practice gap, where theory is seen as an abstract body of knowledge and practice is seen only as activity. However, when action research is seen as a living practice, the issue becomes how people can come to understand their work and think about it in a coherent way - that is, theory can become live as an aspect of practice. The issue then becomes what kind of theory is most appropriate for understanding action research processes. On the view that action research is about real people studying their own practices, the theory is embodied in the people as they offer descriptions and explanations for how they come to know and how they use their knowledge, Whitehead's idea of 'living educational theories'.

A common sense view of action research

How do you do it?

The primary focus of the enquiry is how a person can improve their own understanding of their particular context. This involves investigating how we are as persons, and how we are with other persons.

Whitehead (1989,1999) suggests that the impetus to undertake an action enquiry usually arises from the position of recognising oneself as a living contradiction. The idea of a living contradiction is in the notion that 'I' hold certain values but they are not realised in my practice. For 'I' to move away from the situation of being a living contradiction, I need to find ways to live my values in my practice. This will inevitably involve asking questions of the kind, 'How do I improve what I am doing?' It also provides the starting point to an action enquiry, which can take the following form:

(Whitehead, 1999).

This approach can then be developed as an action plan, which can take the form:

(Whitehead, 1989; see also McNiff, Lomax and Whitehead, 1996)

What are some of the implications?

Reconceptualising educational theory

On this view, theory is not an abstract body of knowledge but a form of practice which is rooted in an individual's values and focuses on improving personal understanding for social benefit. Schön's work is instructive here (Schön 1983, 1995) when he says that on the topology of professional landscapes theory produced by people on the 'high ground' tends to be regarded as valid theory but is often not relevant to practical everyday work situations; while practitioners working in the 'swampy lowlands' can generate valuable practical knowledge which sometimes neither they nor the high ground occupants regard as valuable research. The situation is changing however, because a critical mass now exists which challenges the dominance of abstract theory and presents a view of workplace-generated theory as a valuable form of knowing.

Personal enquiry for wider social renewal

Personal enquiry does not stop at the level of the person but inevitably involves and influences other participants. When all participants undertake their enquiries into how they can improve their practice, groups engage in collective enquiries which ask questions of the kind, 'How do we improve our work for one another?' On this view, personal enquiry is the basis for social renewal (see McNiff 2000). However, this does require all people to accept the responsibility of their own work, This can often be difficult for people who are accustomed to a social and intellectual tradition in which they look outwards for answers from more knowledgeable authorities.

Creating our own personal and professional identities

Many people live in situations where others shape their identities. They are persuaded to become the persons others want them to be. Transcending this situation can be very difficult, because it involves 'recognising that one is in the situation in the first place, and then resolving to do something about it. Often it is more comfortable to stay within our own prisons. While we might complain about entrapment, the familiar can be comforting. However, individual and collective change begins in the individual mind; to change in an educational and sustainable way we have to see the sense of changing and want to change. This requires courage and tenacity.

The need for educational enquiry to be a caring practice

Educational enquiry should be educational for all participants. This means developing what Dewey calls educative relationships - the kind of relationships in which all participants may grow in life-affirming directions. Educative relationships are characterised by care, that is, recognition of the other as a human being capable of making their own decisions and speaking for themselves, and concern to enable them to do so.

Thank you for your care and involvement here today.

References

McNiff. J. Lomax, P. & Whitehead, I. (1996) You and Your Action Research Project. London and New York, Routledge.

McNiff, J. & Whitehead, J. (2000) Action Research in Organisations, London and New York, Routledge.

Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. New York, Basic Books.

Schön, D. (1995) Knowing-in-Action: The New Scholarship Requires a New Epistemology, Change, November-December.

Whitehead, J. (1989) 'Creating a living educational theory from questions of the kind, "How do I Improve my Practice?", Cambridge Journal of Education 19, 41-52.

Whitehead, J . (1999) 'Educative Relations in a New Era', Pedago, Culture and Society 7, 73-90.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 16 January 2003