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Rhetoric and practice in action research

Dr Eileen Piggot-Irvine
Director New Zealand Principal and Leadership Centre, Massey University, New Zealand. Email: e.piggot-irvine@massey.ac.nz

Paper presented at the annual conference of the British Educational Research Association, University of Exeter, 12-14 September 2002

Abstract

This paper begins with a description of the elements of a Problem Resolving Action Research Model (PRAR) that I have developed (Piggot-Irvine, 2001) for working with groups in management development. The model has many features in common with other approaches to action research. It also has characterising features and these are given specific attention.

The next part of the paper provides a brief overview of one example of an action research project that adopted the PRAR model. It involved five middle managers (all appraisers) in a New Zealand secondary school participating in a year-long intervention to improve the way that they established an "educative" process with appraisees. The third part of the paper draws upon the findings from the observation of this project to demonstrate factors that both limited and contributed to the implementation of the PRAR model.

Limitations include low ownership, reduced collaboration and restricted time. Factors contributing to the PRAR model implementation include data-based reflection, consciousness-raising associated with exposure of the espousal-practice gap in change implementation, the employment of mutually informing theory and practice, narrowing the theory-practice gap, providing extended support and the opportunity to repeat learning.

Introduction

During the last ten years I have facilitated multiple action research groups, taught others how to implement the approach, and established (in 1993) the New Zealand Action Research Network (NZARN). Such involvement and experience in action research has been associated with a roller-coaster of emotions concerning my own abilities as an action researcher and the "worth" of the process to participants, or education, or research in general. In this paper I will describe a small segment of a component of the roller-coaster journey. As noted in the abstract, the paper begins with a description of the features of a model that I have employed with action research groups.

The Rhetoric: The Problem Resolving Action Research (PRAR) Model

The PRAR model (Figure 1) has multiple features, theoretical and philosophical underpinnings frequently described for action research (see Piggot-Irvine, 2001 for

detail). A brief description of the latter is provided followed by a more detailed focus on characterising features of the model.

Figure 1: The PRAR Model

Features in Common with Other Action Research Approaches

Iterative

The iterative, or cyclical, action research process is apparent in the PRAR model. Wadsworth (1998) suggests that in action research there are countless tiny cycles of reflection on action, learning about action, and then new informed action, which is then the subject of further reflection. The iterative nature of the critical reflection on action is a strong determinant of the PRAR process.

Experiential

The PRAR model, as with most other action research models, involves experiential learning cycles (Kolb, 1984). In experiential learning, knowledge is gained from observations, questioning and reflection related to concrete experience or action. This learning leads to generalisations or the formulation of abstract concepts, the implications of which are tested in new situations. A new concrete experience then occurs, followed by another cycle of learning. Understanding, improvement and transformation of the specific situation in which the group are working, is the ultimate outcome of these learning cycles (see Cardno & Piggot-Irvine, 1996, for elaboration of the action research and experiential learning links).

Intra-Organisation Focused

As with other action research models, the PRAR model focuses on research carried out within the organisation of the participants themselves.

Rejection of Positivistic, Value-Free Espousals

The PRAR model, like other action research models, rejects the positivist value-free espousals (Cardno & Piggot-Irvine, 1996). In the PRAR model the exposure and examination of values is given high priority.

Acknowledgement of Multiple Perspectives

In action research generally (and emphasised in the PRAR Model) multiple perspectives are acknowledged through the employment of multiple data collection methods, or triangulation (Cohen & Manion, 1994).

Developmental

The assumption of improvement is explicit in many reports of the goals of action research (Kemmis, 1988; McNiff, 1990; Oja & Smulyan, 1989; Shumsky, 1958; Taba & Noel, 1957), as is an aligned educative feature of knowledge generation.

... teachers ... are taking on the personal challenge of attempting to find ways in which they can improve and develop both themselves and the situations in which they live. (McNiff, 1990:52)

Zuber-Skerritt (1989) accentuates this further by stating that action research is professional development. In the PRAR model the action research is improvement orientated and therefore constitutes a form of professional development.

Public accountability

The PRAR model includes public accountability in order to enhance the validity of the action research. As Passfield (1992) suggests it is an ethical requirement to make the findings of action research public through publication or presentation. It is through this public reporting of the research that the "critical response of a skeptical public" (Bawden, 1991:41) is achieved. Public accountability generally occurs in action research through such diverse avenues as the publication of the findings in a thesis or paper for a journal, a press release, or a report for an organisation.

Characterising Features of the PRAR Model

Transformative

Action research has not yet achieved, nor may ever achieve, paradigm status (Kuhn's, 1970, description of the set of beliefs, values, techniques and so on, shared by a given community). As an approach, however, what distinguishes it as a form of research is its emphasis on transformation or change.

It focuses on changing practice to make it more consistent with the ideal. (Elliot, 1997:25)

The "implementation" or "change" phase of the PRAR model explicitly aims to transform practice. Change, however, does not just happen at one specific point, or cycle, in the action research. It happens throughout the entire process and leads to a frequent unpredictability about the focus and outcomes of the process. In keeping with Zeichner & Noffke's (1998) perception, transformation elicited in the PRAR model is most strongly situated to occur at the personal level (see also the work of Elliot, 1991; McNiff, 1993; Posch, 1993; and Schratz & Walker, 1997). It could occur at the professional level (as reported in studies by Calhoun, 1993; Carr & Kemmis, 1986; Elliot, 1991; Kemmis & Grundy, 1997; Lomax; 1994; Stenhouse, 1975) and/or management development level (as suggested by Calabrese & Bartz, 1990; Cardno & Piggot-Irvine, 1996; Perry & Zuber-Skerritt, 1994; Robinson, 1986; Zuber-Skerritt, 1996).

Action research is often touted as leading to transformation at the political level. Kemmis & McTaggart (1990), for example, present action research as a new, emergent, research paradigm that has a "praxis for critical theory" (Habermas, 1972) underpinning and emancipatory goal. Carr & Kemmis (1986), and McTaggart (1997), advocate that action research should emancipate the group from the social and political constraints of the organisation and society in which they operate. They believe the emancipatory approach (which is classified as "strong" action research by Peters & Robinson, 1984) to be an essential feature of action research. These authors offer this emancipatory approach as being the only legitimate approach to action research. The consequent implied rejection of either technical or practical action research, the "weaker" (Peters & Robinson, 1984) forms is, in my opinion, flawed for several reasons (see Piggot-Irvine, 2001) and rejected in the PRAR model. In the PRAR model the more realistic, yet still personally emancipatory, claims for critical social science suggested by Fay (1987) are intended. Fay says that critical social science should:

... give up any pretensions to capture the 'essence' of liberation. [It should offer] an account of the ways in which it is inherently and essentially contextual, partial, local and hypothetical. (Fay, 1987:213)

The PRAR model is designed to be contextual, partial, local (primarily personal, but still political) and hypothetical and also contains elements of the technical, practical and personally emancipatory typologies (Carr & Kemmis, 1986) of action research. It embraces the conception of the overlapping and interweaving, simultaneously operating features of each of the typologies and acknowledges the unrealistic segmentation of action research into such a categorisation. It is eclectic - an approach also supported by McKernan (1991) and Robinson (1993).

Action research is not necessarily a technical, critical, liberal or emancipatory endeavour. It may be any of these depending on the nature of the particular problem and the resources required to resolve it. (Robinson, 1993:287)

Narrowing the Theory - Practice Gap

In the PRAR model, like other types of action research, the aim is to narrow the gap between theory and practice by practitioners carrying out an investigation on their own practice (Kincheloe, 1991; McKernan, 1991; Prideaux, 1995; Stenhouse, 1975).

It offers an alternative to the view that theory is the province of academics and, at best, is marginally useful for those engaged in the reality of practice ... action research involves practitioners theorising about their practice through reflection on action. (Prideaux, 1995:5)

The PRAR model, however, rejects the requirement for practice to precede theory. Instead it is underpinned by a "constructivist/interactionist epistemology" (Peters & Robinson, 1984:121) where theory and action develop together. In such a reciprocal relationship (also supported by Grundy, 1987) theory and practice are seen to inform each other and are mutually interdependent.

Data-based Reflection

It is effective when ... reflective practice is data-based; multiple perspectives are acknowledged. (Cardno & Piggot-Irvine, 1996:20).

In order for rigorous reflection to occur in the PRAR model, data is drawn from a number of sources. As with most action research, the predominantly qualitative data collected (but not always, because quantitative data can also be collected) is interpreted, analysed and reflected upon by the collaborative group or the individual researcher. Both reflection-upon-action (reflecting retrospectively to action) and reflection-in-action (reflecting whilst in the action), as described by Schön (1983), are employed. In the PRAR model an important element of reflection involves participants becoming aware of the potential fallibility of their own stance or assumptive frameworks (adapted from Robinson, 1993). The latter is extremely complex: a type of "double-loop learning" (Argyris & Schön, 1974) involving the action researchers using the multiple data collected to examine the underlying values and assumptions that generate their behaviour.

Problem-Solving and Dialogical Interchange

... diagnosing a problem in a specific context and attempting to solve it in that context. (Cohen & Manion, 1989:217)

Practitioner understanding of problems and problem-solving (Calhoun, 1993; Cardno, 1994; Elliot, 1991; Rapoport, 1970; Robinson, 1993) is given prominence in the PRAR model. Such involvement situates the action researcher as an "active seeker and negotiator of meaning" (Zuber-Skerritt, 1992:35). The understanding of problems can be arrived at in multiple ways, but a particular emphasis is placed on dialogical interchange between the practitioners themselves in their analysis of practice. Such interchange involves collectively and openly discussing, debating and reflecting upon data with other action researchers. Such dialogical interchange is designed to challenge and deepen insights.

It is based on the epistemological assumption that knowledge is constructed socially through a process of dialogue. (Hall, 1993, in Zeichner & Noffke, 1998:18)

This dialogical interchange requires, early in the process of the action research, an understanding of practitioner value-laden interpretations of their world (Robinson, 1993:264). Unraveling these interpretations is a complex, lengthy, intensive personal examination and involves confronting the gap between "espoused theories" and "theories in use" (Argyris, 1985). Pope & Denicolo (1991) reiterate the need for this personal examination when they suggest that a person's core constructs need to be changed or challenged in order to bring about change.

Collaborative?

Action research is usually a collaborative approach. Where an outside expert is involved, the ideal is for this person to be an equally collaborative practitioner in the study (McTaggart & GarbutcheonSingh, 1986), with the learning seen as a social enterprise and an emergent property of the group (Piggot-Irvine & McMorland, 1997).

Action research is not something that the outsider should ask others to do. (Prideaux, 1995:6)

The advantages of collaboration to participants are cited as manifold (Kemmis & McTaggart, 1988; D'Arcy, 1994; Tripp, 1990; Wadsworth, 1998). In the PRAR model, where dialogue is a feature of the interactions, collaboration allows for public testing of private assumptions and reflections, that is, it helps to avoid self-limiting reflection (Schön, 1983). The collaboration can also enhance ownership and commitment to change and leverage the change to a level frequently unattainable through individual reflection alone.

The ideal of collaboration, however, is not always realistic, nor is it always realised, despite the best of intent. It can also be problematic. In the PRAR model, where action research aims to effect change at the personal level, there is a potential for the production of "severe tensions in the maintenance of a collaborative situation" (Waters-Adams, 1994:195). Specifically, this tension can occur in the process of reflection. Reflection requires objectivity based, as Waters-Adams suggests, on the two frequently incompatible features of intensely personal action on the one hand (for example, the examination of the espousal and action gap in values and strategies), and intersubjective discourse (the expectation of group dialogue) on the other. Where personal and collective values vary, Waters-Adams thinks it is naïve to believe that practitioners will initially be able to put aside differences in the quest for agreed understanding. He also adds that the highlighting of differences itself may increase insecurity, mistrust and tension in already stressed practitioners and consequently decrease their confidence.

Other problems with collaboration are also evident in action research generally. A major issue often surrounds how this can occur effectively in the complex environments of the organisations many of us work in. In the school context this complexity as well as overload is particularly extreme. In such environments just the physical difficulty of negotiating to find a common meeting time is often fraught for action researchers (an issue also raised by Reimer & Bruce, 1994).

Judith McMorland and myself (Piggot-Irvine & McMorland, 1997) examined the form which collaboration often takes and determined challenges at five deepening levels of collaborative learning in an action research context. The fifth and deepest level of collaboration occurs when new levels of awareness of both ourselves and others emerge as courage is expressed and inquiry leads to action. This level is often distinguished by spontaneity, synergy and creativity and we note that it is the fifth level that is associated with openness, trust and learning in action research groups. In the PRAR model this is the ideal.

An Example PRAR Model Project

The action research group that I will use as an example of application of the PRAR model, the "Appraisal Project", involved five appraisers in middle management positions (Heads of Departments) from a New Zealand (NZ) secondary school of a low to middle socio-economic level, 890 students and approximately 60 staff. The appraisers chose to participate in the group as part of a full year developmental approach. Their focus was to improve the way that they established open, bilateral, problem-confronting, high trust relationships with appraisees. I have described such a relationship as "educative" (Piggot-Irvine, 2001) in the appraisal context. Three of the five appraisers made considerable progress with this difficult improvement - a signal that the action research had somewhat "successful outcomes" as recorded in an earlier report (Piggot-Irvine, 2001).

During the year I sought permission from the group to track all action research group interactions in meetings and to map individual appraiser and appraisee progress via multiple sources of data. The latter included taping and transcribing all appraisal interactions, surveying and interviewing appraisers and appraisees.

My role with this action research group therefore was not a participant but rather an external recorder and, when requested, a coach for both the action research approach and the educative process. It was the first time that I had adopted such a non-participant role in action research and this only occurred in order to reduce any conflict of interest associated with the fact that I was observing the group as part of a PhD study. This detached role is not one that I would have preferred. In all other action research groups I have been associated with I have tried to be an equally collaborative practitioner in the study (McTaggart & GarbutcheonSingh, 1986).

In this paper I wish to only report on conclusions drawn from the tracking of the action research group interactions. The second component of my data collection linked to appraisal interactions and outcomes is reported on in Piggot-Irvine, 2001.

Factors Limiting the PRAR Model Implementation

My observation of the action research group led me to conclude that several of the earlier mentioned features of the PRAR model were frequently unrealised. A summary of these factors is discussed but it should be noted that they are based on the "Appraisal Project" alone and although they are not presented here as generalisable they do provide key reminders for good practice.

Ownership

My experience with every action research I have been involved in has shown that the issue or central focus for the group has to be owned by the group. In the "Appraisal Project" I thought that this existed because participants self-selected to come into the project following an invitation to collaborate in long-term professional development associated with an educative appraisal process. However, observation of the group revealed low levels of commitment (for example, frequent dependency on me to organise meetings and a low level of willingness to make time for involvement) that indicate low ownership.

A key recommendation from the findings is that external assistance needs to be minimised to ensure that group participants take responsibility for group decision-making and process development. As Grundy (1982) suggests, my idea was the source of power for action, and therefore I may have been seen as potentially controlling the power.

Collaboration

Tracking of the project showed that participants barely moved beyond Levels 1 and 2, the "introduction" levels of collaboration (Piggot-Irvine & McMorland, 1997). Fewer meetings, and the lack of collaborative activity, I believe, may have reinforced limited levels of learning. I do not think the group moved beyond Level 1, the "introduction" level of collaboration (Piggot-Irvine & McMorland, 1997), where collaboration is of a superficial and task specific type.

The higher levels of collaboration described in the PRAR model were not achieved. For example, collaborative interactions based on reduced threat and defensiveness were not evident in observations of the group nor were the outcomes of high trust and openness. The transformative dialogue interactions that characterise higher levels of collaboration did not occur.

Analysis of participant feedback revealed that a major contributing factor to this low level of collaboration was group member unwillingness to share results of their individual analyses linked to interactions with their appraisees due to the sensitive nature of these interactions. The lack of willingness to share collaboratively is in keeping with Waters-Adams (1994) concerns about tensions created as a result of trying to combine the two frequently incompatible features of intensely personal reflection on actions and the expectation of group dialogue. In the appraisal context, where anxiety about interactions is usually high, it may have been unrealistic to expect that group participants would have collaborated in sharing reflections on action.

A recommendation may be that action research is best suited to dealing with issues of low personal threat.

Time

Even if the issue had not been threatening, creating collaboration at the deep level described earlier required considerable time from the action research participants. In the "Appraisal Project", finding time to meet was a continual problem and when the group did meet the time spent together was limited by late arrivals, early departures, frequent interruptions, or on several occasions members forgetting that meetings had been planned. Reluctance to meet before or after school was an issue with some of the group members, which left only lunch-breaks or pre-arranged release time. In all cases these times were too short. The physical difficulty of finding a common meeting time was not only fraught with this project but was an issue also raised by Reimer and Bruce (1994). The lack of meeting itself may have added to the lack of ownership and commitment of participants in the project.

I have reflected on what could have been done to change the issues associated with time. Perhaps I should have been more assertive in negotiating with management that time would need to be made available for the appraisers' involvement. I suspect however that it is doubtful in the current climate of limited funding for development that the school management would have seen this as an high enough priority to provide the support for the time required.

In my experience in school settings, overload is high: spare time is rare or non-existent. Teacher involvement has only ever occurred in action research groups that I have been associated with if there has been funding to cover the costs associated with relief from timetabled teaching. The implication therefore is that for the type of action research described in the PRAR model to be implemented in schools either local or national support is required. Such support requires commitment to the philosophy that value and behaviour shifting change best occurs in longer-term interventions rather than the short-term courses that proliferate for teacher development. In New Zealand, recent emphasis on central development funding being awarded to longer-term action research type interventions provides evidence of such commitment.

Factors Contributing to the PRAR Model Implementation

The tracking of the "Appraisal Project" group also revealed some features that contributed to realising the implementation of the PRAR model features.

Data-Based Reflection Leading to Transformation

In this project the appraisers who actively engaged in substantial data-based analysis of interaction transcriptions as a tool for reflecting on their practice were those who subsequently demonstrated substantial change in their educative process skills. These participants also reported that they got most out of the action research approach. Further, this change or improvement was evidenced in later appraisal interactions and also reported by appraisees. For those appraisers who showed little engagement in this data-based reflection the improvement in practice was least evident (see Piggot-Irvine, 2001, for a detailed account of the results). For three appraisers transformation of practice occurred at the personal, professional and management levels, as intended in the PRAR model.

Consciousness-Raising

As well as the transcripts providing data for critical reflection they also provided the vehicle for consciousness-raising. It is my belief that the success of the three appraisers in applying the educative process skills strongly hinged on the use of the transcripts as a point of consciousness-raising. It was only when appraisers examined their initial meeting transcripts in the reconnaissance stage of the action research that the extent of the gap between the theory and practice of educative process skills implementation became clear. Or to put this another way, change only occurred when appraisers saw that they had a problem in their own practice and that there was a need to change/improve. In Down, Chadborne & Hogan's terms this was when the appraisers felt "the need for help" (2000:219). The transcripts, in effect provided undisputable evidence of practice. In Dick & Dalmau's (1999:5) terms they "generated the dissonance" which was so necessary to motivate improvement. They starkly highlighted the gap between the appraisers' espoused theories and theories-in-use (Argyris, 1982), the two facets of theories of action (Argyris & Schön, 1974). This was a turning point in the learning for the three appraisers - one that was in keeping with the suggestion by Argyris (1990:95) that trainees needed to diagnose the extent to which they had created and maintained problems.

Mutually Informing Theory and Practice

As intended in the PRAR model, in the "Appraisal Project" theory and practice mutually informed each other and in doing so helped to narrow the theory-practice gap. The latter is a feature of action research stated by the likes of Kemmis & McTaggart (1990) and Prideaux (1995). Appraisers used the transcripts of their own practice as an observation point and the theory associated with an educative appraisal process provided criteria for analysis of the transcripts. The analysis, in turn, provided a catalyst for further practice, that was further informed by the theory linked to the criteria. I believe that this complex, dialectical and mutually interdependent relationship between theory and practice was linked to improvement. Such informed action based on a reciprocal theory and practice relationship is also supported by Grundy (1987).

Narrowing the Espousal-Practice Gap

The results of this research showed that the appraisers who were committed went beyond just highlighting the espousal-practice gap: they narrowed the gap by actively changing their educative interactions with appraisees. This was an intent articulated for the PRAR model and is supported by others such as Kemmis & McTaggart (1990) and Prideaux (1995). The three successful appraisers made considerable shifts in order to "to resolve the inconsistency" (Dick & Dalmau, 1999:5) which the transcripts highlighted.

Extended Support

I believe that another condition associated with the successes shown for some appraisers in this action research was linked to the extended support which I was able to offer. Not that I am suggesting I am the only one who could have supported the appraisers, but this action research, because of its longer-term, follow-up characteristic, allowed me the opportunity to provide intensive assistance for those appraisers who wanted it. This support needed to be challenging of trainee assumptions and actions on the one hand, and on the other respectful of the fragile learner. When I provided this support I needed to have an immediate astuteness in recognising either defensive or productive values and strategies, that is, to be able to reflect in action (Schön, 1991). I believe that I achieved this with the three appraisers who made progress with the implementation of the educative process skills and feedback from these appraisers confirms this. An outcome of this extended support (and challenge) was hopefully greater trust between myself and the appraisers - the sort of trust and openness which I was also encouraging them to develop with their appraisees.

Repeated Learning Opportunities

Another possible condition for success which was highlighted in the results for this action research was linked to appraisers having the opportunity to repeat their learning experience with further appraisal interactions. This was in keeping with Argyris' (1990) suggested fourth stage for training for productive reasoning and it provided extended and deepening learning due to opportunities to examine continuing practise.

Conclusions

Superficially, action research is a deceptively simple approach to development. In reality, as the report on the "Appraisal Project" shows, it is complex and has multiple constraints to implementation. The challenge for action researchers is to persist in confronting the challenge to close the rhetoric and practice gap, regardless of the action research model employed.

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This document was added to the Education-line database on 17 February 2003