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Educational action research – has it a role to play in higher education?

Paul Greenbank*
Edge Hill College of Higher Education, Ormskirk, email:

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Manchester, 16-18 September 2004


This paper considers the value of educational action research to teaching and learning in higher education, drawing upon the author’s experience of carrying out such research in a department of business and management. The paper begins by examining the changing environment within which higher education operates and how the system is now characterised by central control and accountability and with it reduced lecturer autonomy. It is contended that educational action research represents an opportunity for lecturers to gain more control over pedagogic issues and provides a means, especially when a collaborative approach is adopted, of improving teaching and learning. Educational action research enables teaching and learning to be prioritised as an important aspect of the lecturer’s professional role. It is also argued that a collaborative approach provides an opportunity to develop a new form of professionalism in which academics enter into a dialogue with stakeholders about what constitutes right action (in relation to core educational values). The introduction of collaborative action research does, however, represent a significant challenge because it requires the commitment of participants; it needs both a critical and a supportive role from those involved; and it entails the management of a process in which participants often have different values and degrees of influence. Such challenges can only be met by learning from the experience of introducing educational action research into higher education. It is advocated that an action research approach to introducing educational action research is required.


Whilst the use of action research has been traced to a number of social reformers (McKernan, 1996), the term is generally associated with the social psychologist Kurt Lewin (Elliot, 1991; McTaggart, 1991; Kember and Gow, 1992). Action research was first applied to education by Stephen Corey in the 1940s (Walker, 2001) and in the UK a key factor influencing the growth of educational action research was the ‘teacher-as-researcher’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s promoted by academics such as Lawrence Stenhouse and John Elliot (Zeichner, 2001). In higher education, however, apart from teacher educators and a small number of other examples (e.g. Kember, 2000, 2002; Walker, 2001) limited use has been made of educational action research (Watters et al., 1998; Zeichner, 2001).

This paper focuses on educational action research and will critically evaluate the value of such research to teaching and learning in higher education. The paper draws upon my experience as a lecturer in business and management at Edge Hill College of Higher Education, especially my recent and continuing attempt to introduce more collaborative forms of assessment on to our undergraduate and post-graduate courses using an action research approach (see Greenbank, 2003).

The paper will begin by identify key contextual issues that it is believed may impact upon the application of educational action research in higher education. It then goes on to consider whether action research can offer anything new to the way lecturers in higher education currently approach their teaching. Issues around adopting a collaborative approach to action research are then discussed. Finally, the paper will critically examine whether educational action research can improve teaching and learning and contribute to a redefinition of the professional status of lecturers in higher education.

Higher education: key contextual factors

The ending of the polytechnic-university binary system in 1992 supposedly created a single university sector (Gammie and Gammie, 2002). It is important, however, to keep in mind, that the ‘university sector’ retains a significant number of colleges, such as Edge Hill, who provide higher education. Moreover, the culture and organisational strengths and weaknesses inherited from the old polytechnics’ management and funding structure continue to influence the way they operate in the unified system. As a result, differences along the old binary lines remain. Care therefore needs to be taken when generalising about the higher education sector. Nevertheless, a number of changes have occurred over the past three decades that are relevant throughout the sector - although the impact of these changes are likely to vary both between and within HEIs (Light and Cox, 2001).

Higher education: a changing sector

The most important change has probably been the transformation of higher education from an elite to a mass system. This has brought about a more diversified student body in terms of age, ability and experience (Ottewill and Macfarlane, 2002). There are also claims that students have become more instrumental in their approach to study (e.g. Tapper, 1999; Packham and Miller, 2000; Ottewill and Macfarlane, 2001a). For example, Kneale (1997) refers to ‘strategic students’ who attempt to maximise their marks by concentrating only on work that is to be assessed (cited by Ottewill and Macfarlane, 2001a). According to Ottewill and Macfarlane (2001a, 2002) business and management students are particularly instrumental, because they enrol on courses for their vocational relevance and subsequent economic benefits, rather than from an intrinsic interest in the subject being studied. Willmott (1995) also argues that student loans may have raised student awareness of the costs and benefits of higher education, a factor that he feels may have contributed to students behaving more like ‘consumers’ of education.

During the period of expansion the government also created a more competitive environment which pitted HEIs against each other for scarce financial resources (Groves et al., 1997). This was juxtaposed with increasing levels of accountability through teaching quality assessments; the audit of institutional systems for quality assurance; and the evaluation of research activity, latterly through the research assessment exercise (RAE) (Groves et al., 1997; Parry, 2001). The management response to increased competition, accountability and declining financial resources per student was the adoption amongst HEIs of what Henkel (1997, p. 137) refers to as ‘centralised decentralisation’. According to Henkel (1997) centralisation involved the establishment of a strong senior management team augmented by cross institutional support units covering areas such as staff development, teaching and learning and quality; whilst decentralisation involved the devolvement of responsibility and budgets. However, decentralisation was also accompanied by management control through the setting of performance targets (Holley and Oliver, 2000).

Increased centralisation and the introduction of performance targets and other management controls have fundamentally altered the character of the lecturers’ work in higher education (Nixon, 1996; Morris, 2000; Walker, 2001; Gammie and Gammie, 2002). The role of centralised units with a remit to cover areas such as quality, teaching and learning and staff development - combined with accountability to external agencies - has reduced the ability of lecturers to unilaterally determine course content and the approach they adopt to teaching and learning (Holley and Oliver, 2000). It is also claimed that such changes have had a detrimental effect on individual creativity and the propensity to take risks (see for example Kember and McKay, 1996; Henkel, 1997; Macfarlane, 2002). On the other hand, Willmott (1995) has pointed out that if institutions want more than mere compliance from lecturers they have to allow them a degree of autonomy. Moreover, Trowler (1997) argues that it is very difficult for senior managers to fully operationalise strategic decisions because individuals will always find ways of pursuing their own objectives within the constraints of the control infrastructure introduced by management. Trowler (1997), for instance, provides examples of how lecturers at one institution were able to manipulate the quality regime in order maintain some control over their own teaching activities.

Attitudes to teaching and research

Despite HEIs and lecturers stressing the importance of both teaching and research, it is the latter which tends to be prioritised (Rowland, 2000; Kember, 2000)1. This is because research is often regarded by lecturers as being more satisfying and having greater intellectual status than teaching (Rowland, 2000; Levin and Greenwood, 2001). As discussed above, funding mechanisms also encourage institutions (and therefore lecturers) to focus on research rather than teaching (Kember, 2000). Willmott (1995) argues that performance indicators like the RAE tend to marginalise activities, such as teaching, which do not make individuals accountable. This means that lecturers in higher education often have to concentrate on research as a means of securing employment and obtaining promotion (Schratz, 1993a; Light and Cox, 2001). As Schratz (1993a) argues, "One often gets the impression that teaching stands in the way of their [the lecturers] ongoing research commitments …" (p. 112).

Educational action research could provide a means of bridging the teaching-research divide by allowing lecturers to combine their roles of teacher and researcher (Ottewill and Macfarlane, 2001b). Research by Rowland (2000), however, indicates that some HEI departments may not regard educational research as part of their remit. For example, one head of department believed that educational research should be carried out by experts in that field (ibid., p. 24). Others though did not feel the same way - with some heads indicating that staff were already actively involved in educational research (Rowland, 2000, pp. 24-25).

In my own discipline of business and management, teaching and learning is part of the academic discourse as evidenced by the activities of the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN) for Business, Management and Accountancy and the publication of a number of educationally focused business and management journals. It is, nevertheless, impossible to know the level of educational research activity in business and management departments without carrying out further research.

In the department I belong to educational research has been encouraged, with members of the department accounting for one- third of those entered under education in the 2001 RAE (although none of this research involved action research). However, centrally set performance targets relating to research output look likely to create pressure to carry out disciplined based research in order to raise our research profile in business and management. This highlights the importance of published research to HEIs and how centrally produced performance targets can impact upon lecturers.

It has been argued that the primary function of educational action research is to improve practice rather than contribute to the advancement of knowledge (see for example Elliot, 1991). Such an approach is, however, unlikely to be encouraged by HEIs who are seeking to build or maintain a research profile. Other writers have contended that action researchers have an obligation to contribute to the development of their profession through the dissemination of their research (e.g. Ebbutt, 1985; Whitehead, 1985; Kember, 2002). By making their research public, action researchers produce a body of case study evidence that can contribute to the advancement of educational practice (Lomax and Parker, 1995; Zeichner, 2001) and the development of theory (Nixon, 1981; Kember and McKay, 1996).

Action research: ‘… it is something we already do’

It can be argued that the reiterative action research cycle of planning, action, evaluation and reflection is a process that teachers in higher education intuitively adopt. As one lecturer commented in Blakley-Reid (2000), "… it is something we already do" (p. 2). My own personal experience of trying out new ideas in the classroom involves a process that incorporates the key components of the action research cycle. Nonetheless, before I actively adopted an action research approach the evaluation and reflection stages were often not formalised. This meant that information was acquired by observing and talking to students and this informal (and invariably unconsciously absorbed) knowledge informed the formulation of what often remained tacit personal theories of teaching and learning. Similarly, Carr and Kemmis (1986) have put forward the view that teachers tend to utilise ‘implicit theories’, based on what they regard as effective practice, to inform their teaching. Schön (1995) refers to such knowledge as ‘knowing-in-action’ and argues that this, "…makes up the great bulk of what we know how to do in everyday and in professional life" (p. 30).

A number of writers (e.g. McCutcheon and Jung, 1990; Schön, 1991, 1995; McNiff, 2002) have stressed the importance of tacit knowledge, based on experience, as an effective way of operating in complex, changing and unique social environments. Similarly, in management a number of writers have advocated the use of intuition as a viable alternative to more ‘rational’ forms of decision-making (see for example, Lank and Lank, 1995).

Lecturer/action researchers may, however, want the results of their research to be accepted by their colleagues or the wider teaching and research community, and such ‘unscientific’ methods may not be perceived as credible (Winter, 2002). This might mean that they have to adopt more rigorous approaches to evaluation and reflection, involving the use of questionnaires, interviews, document analysis, diaries, field notes, analytic memos, etc. (see Armstrong, 1981; Elliot, 1991; McTaggart, 1991; McNiff et al., 1996; McNiff, 2002). Besides offering a more ‘rational’ and ‘scientific’ approach, these multiple sources of information also allow triangulation to take place (Elliot, 1991; McTaggart, 1991; McKernan, 1996). Whilst such an approach can be criticised as pandering to positivistic notions of research validity (Carr, 1989), it may be necessary to adopt these techniques if the findings of action research are going to be accepted by others.

More importantly, however, intuitive forms of ‘knowing’ may be subject to a number of unconscious cognitive biases (see Bazerman, 1990; Henry, 2001 for summaries). For example, intuition tends to rely on personal experience, but this can be influenced by the fact that people more readily recall recent or out of the ordinary events which may not be truly representative of a situation (Earl, 1990). They may also assume (often wrongly) that their personal experience of events mirrors that of other people (Dawes, 1990). Therefore, whilst additional more formal sources of information may not eliminate cognitive (or other forms) of bias they may provide a check on the researcher’s intuitive feelings (Winter, 1996; Kember and McKay, 1996). 2

It might also be argued that teachers will automatically reflect on their practice. However, the degree and effectiveness of their reflective process is likely to vary enormously (Schön, 1991), with Elton (2001) commenting on the poor level of self-reflection amongst lecturers in higher education. The discipline of following an action research model may encourage a more systematic and rigorous approach to reflection (Lomax and Parker, 1995). Indeed, research carried out by Kember (2002) found that lecturers claimed to have become more reflective about their teaching as a result of engaging in educational action research. However, the reflective process is complex and little understood and therefore ensuring that it takes place does not guarantee it will be carried out effectively (Day, 1993). Participants bring their own frame of reference and values into a situation, and critical reflection requires individuals to question these (Meizirow, 1990; Day, 1993; Clouder, 2000). One way of facilitating this process is to involve others in the reflective process (Kemmis and McTaggart, 1982; Kember, 2000; Christenson et al., 2002). As Kember (2000) argues, "…it is through group discourse that participants become aware of unconscious assumptions or false perspectives" (p. 28).

Collaboration in the action research process

The previous section introduced the idea of groups of people working together as part of the action research process. Such approaches are often advocated (e.g. Nixon, 1981, McTaggart, 1991; McKernan, 1996; McNiff et al., 1996) with the terms ‘collaborative’ or ‘participative’ action research frequently being used. However, the nature of collaboration within the action research process can very enormously. At one end of the spectrum an individual action researcher may work with a class of students and obtain feedback from them, for example, through questionnaires or interviews. In contrast, those adopting a more egalitarian approach will attempt to give all those involved an equal voice and democratic control of the action research process (see McTaggart, 1991; Zuber-Skerritt, 1996). Collaboration can also include participation by those not directly involved in the teaching/research situation. For example, the utilisation of observers, critical friends, in-group forums, validation groups and support groups (see Elliot, 1991; McNiff et al., 1996; Berg, 2001; McNiff, 2002) can provide insights and additional mechanisms for validating the results of action research (Altrichter, 1993). As Christenson et al. (2002) argue, "… teacher researchers need collaboration on many fronts to insure solid research methodologies and interpretations" (p. 272).

Facilitating collaboration can, nonetheless, be problematic. A number of commentators (e.g. James and Ebbutt, 1981; Burnard and Yaxley, 1998) have highlighted the difficulty of obtaining the commitment of fellow teachers, especially if they do not regard the research as important or relevant. Similarly, achieving student involvement may not be easy, particularly if they are behaving instrumentally. In this respect, gaining the commitment of students outside time-tabled hours may be difficult.

It has been suggested that it may be easier to obtain the involvement of teachers if they are already working with the action researcher, for example, as part of a course team (Day, 1993). This appeared to be the case when I asked the lecturers in my module team to become involved in an action research project relating to collaborative assessment. I was, however, the module leader and the two lecturers who worked with me were junior members of staff on one year contracts (in fact I had taught them both as undergraduates). Therefore, they may not have felt sufficiently empowered to refuse to co-operate. Similarly, students may feel compelled to acquiesce, because they may believe that refusal will jeopardise their marks. In both instances described above, there are issues around the extent to which the action researcher should exploit the relationships they have with others. Of course power can be used positively (Rowland, 2000 citing Foucault, 1984) and I personally felt that both the lecturers and the students would benefit from their involvement in the project. But to what extent was my judgement prejudiced by self-interest?

There may also be concerns about the influence that participants exert within the action research process. Some writers would contend that all participants should have an equal voice and there should be democratic control over all stages of the research process. For example, McTaggart (1991) advocates suspending status and power. The problem is that power differentials are likely to exist at some, if not all stages of the research, and will influence both the process and the outcome of research however much action researchers attempt to reduce (or deny) their existence (Chisholm, 1990). For example, Weiskopf and Laske (1996) have demonstrated how attempts to introduce more egalitarian forms of action research simply redistributed, rather than reduced, power differentials. Rowland (2000) also points out that the very act of initiating a research project is a manifestation of power. Moreover, there is often an inherent hierarchy within action research groups, for example between lecturers and students, and a limit to the extent that this can be redressed (Weiskopf and Laske 1996; Warhurst, 2001).

I was aware of such factors in the research we carried out at Edge Hill. Although I tried to reduce the effect of power differentials in the way I acted, I was conscious of my inability to fundamentally change the situation and also aware of some of the contradictions in the way I behaved. For example, in the lecture theatre I exerted my authority in order to maintain control of a situation that has the potential to degenerate into chaos, whereas in the seminars the students were expected to adjust to my more relaxed and approachable manner.

In practice, however, it was my fellow lecturers, rather than the students who tended to be much more deferential and therefore reluctant to be critical. When I asked them about this they agreed that they were reticent to be critical, arguing that this arose out of a respect for my experience and judgement, rather than any perceptions about my status. This perspective makes sense because in other situations I will defer to the ‘authority’ of others when I feel they have superior knowledge of a particular situation or circumstances. For instance, student opinion has authority because only they can comment on the experience of being ‘a student’. This does not, however, mean that their opinions will automatically be deferred to. It can be argued that as lecturers:

We may well learn from the student’s life experiences. But do not we have a different starting point in our acquired  knowledge and capacity to handle it and are our obligations not quite different? (Kogan, 2000, p. 210)

I would argue that lecturers do have obligations arising out of their position and if they always concede to student opinion this represents an abdication of their responsibility as professional educators. However, lecturers also have a duty to continually develop their own understanding and values. This means lecturers must be willing to remain open to new perspectives (Whitehead, 1989). As Barnett (1997) argues, "Our frameworks … have to be susceptible to challenge. Our frameworks of value, understanding, self-identity and action all have to be continually in the dock" (p. 174). Assuming lecturers do this, I would contend that they are justified in influencing students (and other participants in action research) and if necessary, insisting on particular processes and outcomes. For example, if the students wanted to do something that was, in the opinion of the lecturer, unethical or potentially harmful to themselves or others, the lecturer has a duty to prevent this happening - even if such a step is regarded by the students as undemocratic. At the same time, when lecturers are reflecting upon the values that inform the process and outcomes of action research, they have a responsibility to consider the other participants’ interests. This means, for instance, that lecturers have a responsibility to prepare students for the type of environment they are likely to encounter in their professional lives.

As can be seen collaborative action research has the potential to create conflict. Indeed, many accounts of this type of research have identified difficulties arising out of the different values participants bring to the process (see for example Schratz, 1993a; Weiskopf and Laske, 1996; O’Hanlon, 1996). However, a lack of conflict can be equally problematic if it has the effect of restricting the level of critical analysis. This may occur when collaborative action research involves friends or well established teams. For example, Janis (1996) referring to what he calls ‘groupthink’ behaviour, suggests that teams working together over a sustained period of time may adopt similar values or ‘group norms’ which can lead to the suppression of critical dialogue. Janis (1996, pp. 176-177) suggests a number of ways of overcoming such behaviour, including bringing in outsiders; dividing the group into smaller units; and actively encouraging criticism. Rowland’s (2000) view that representation from different disciplines can facilitate analysis may also be relevant. Schratz (1993a), however, recounts how an attempt, during an action research programme, to involve academic staff from various disciplines led to problems. This occurred because of the diverse values they held, particularly the differing epistemological values that lecturers brought to the action research process. Therefore, establishing teams that have a critical function, but are also able to operate without excessive levels of conflict (and are capable of providing support to other participants when it is needed) presents a significant challenge to collaborative forms of action research.

The rationale for educational action research

A number of writers have advocated educational action research as a means of improving teaching and learning in higher education (e.g. Kember and Gow, 1992; Schratz, 1993a; Zuber-Skerritt, 1996; Walker, 2001; Elton, 2001). This is supported by the work of Kember (2002) who concluded, after evaluating a large number of educational action research projects, that the vast majority resulted in improved teaching and learning.

Such improvements can arise for a number of reasons. For example, Netzer (1988) describes how he was able to improve his lectures through an action research approach that utilised video, observation and feedback from the students (cited by Schratz, 1993a). Similarly, when we introduced collaborative assessment at Edge Hill the types of question we asked were technically oriented, focusing on whether this form of assessment would ‘work’ and how we might improve the way it is introduced and managed in the future. Such issues were addressed by the research and we now, for example, provide a more comprehensive and clearer rationale as to why we are adopting a collaborative approach to assessment. Nevertheless, as the research progressed it became clear from our discussions with the students that economic, social and cultural influences affected their response to collaborative forms of assessment. For instance, their need to work substantial hours in part-time employment often limited the amount of time they were able to commit to their studies and their educational values were strongly influenced by social and cultural factors. From this it would seem that the so-called ‘instrumentality’ of students arises from a complex combination of factors.

Therefore, action research developed our awareness of the wider environment within which teaching and learning takes place without my colleagues or me making an explicit commitment to adopting more practical or critical forms of action research. This is perhaps what Hanrahan (1998) had in mind when she argued that technical, practical and critical forms of action research may not, in practice, be easily separated. As a result of this dialogue with the students my attitude towards them changed. Instead of seeing the students as simply lacking motivation, I appreciated how the pressure of their part-time work commitments and the influence of their socially constructed values impacted upon their approach to academic life.

Schratz (1993a) has argued that lecturers undertaking action research become more highly motivated teachers and pay greater attention to their students. Similarly, Kember (2002) found that action researchers adopted a more student centred approach to their teaching. In my own case I have found that educational action research has impacted in all of these ways, but most fundamentally, it has rekindled my enthusiasm for teaching. Indeed, advocates of action research argue that the continuous cycle of planning, action, evaluation and reflection encourages a more sustained commitment to improving teaching and learning than centralised staff development programmes (Kember and McKay, 1996). On the other hand, action research requires a considerable investment in time (see for example Armstrong, 1981; Enwright, 1981) and there might be doubts over whether this motivation is sustainable in the long run.

The improved understanding of the context within which teaching and learning takes place may also have a positive influence on how the lecturer conceptualises the subjects he or she teaches. For example, I have a background in accounting and economics which obviously effects the way I now teach my specialist subjects of small business management and business decision-making. The research into collaborative assessment increased my awareness of social and cultural factors. This has been incorporated into the teaching I am currently engaged in, especially decision-making, where such factors provide an important influence on the way individuals and teams make business decisions.

Similarly, skills developed in carrying out action research may transfer into other situations (Zeichner, 2001). For example, action research may improve research skills (Kember and McKay, 1996) and Kember’s (2002) research suggests that it can help develop participants’ team working skills. The reflective process might also focus on the action research team, with the aim of improving the group’s future operation (Shratz, 1993b).

The process of action research may result in attitudinal changes. Apart from increasing motivation, which has already been discussed, it is claimed that educational action research encourages lecturers to be more creative (Kember, 2002) and proactive (Jackson, 1981) and that it increases their confidence (Jackson, 1981; Walker, 2001). It cannot be guaranteed that all these changes will benefit teaching and learning. What is apparent, however, is that some lecturers who become involved in educational action research can change significantly (see Walker, 2001) and this will obviously influence the way they teach.

Finally, educational action research can facilitate the development of other participants, which is particularly relevant to students. By engaging in action research the students may be able to develop skills and undergo personal change in the same way as the lecturers. For example, Macfarlane and Ottewill (2001) argue that student participation in the action research process develops skills in evaluation and reflection. It may also improve their ability to work in groups. In addition, students, especially those in employment and studying part-time, may wish to engage in action research projects within their own organisations. Their involvement in educational action research should provide them with a useful, and relevant, learning experience.

This highlights the importance of relating educational action research to the needs of students in order to obtain their full participation in the process. However, Levin and Greenwood (2001) argue that students have been encultured into being passive and uncritical which may not prepare them for an active role in educational action research. Indeed, attempts to engage them in action research may even result in a hostile reaction, especially if the lecturers willingness to admit to uncertainty about what represents effective teaching strategies is interpreted as incompetence (Ottewill and Macfarlane, 2001b). On the other hand, if action research is successful in encouraging students to become more critical, this may be an unwelcome development to other teachers.

Educational action research: towards a new professionalism?

It can be argued that lecturers in higher education will utilise their informally absorbed knowledge to make intuitive decisions about their teaching and they may, with varying degrees of success, operate as ‘reflective practitioners’. This is how people operate in time pressured dynamic environments. There may, however, be issues that require greater deliberation. In these circumstances, action research, especially if a collaborative approach is adopted, offers the possibility of carrying out a more rigorous and systematic form of educational enquiry that facilitates reflection, reduces bias and increases the reliability and validity of any findings.

Educational action research can help establish a culture of enquiry and creativity within HEIs that provides the right environment to facilitate the improvement of teaching and learning. This can be achieved not only through technical improvements in teaching, but by lecturers acquiring a better understanding of the context within which their practice takes place. This paper also demonstrated how educational action research can enhance an academic’s knowledge of their own subject area. It may also improve lecturer skills and facilitate attitudinal changes. In addition, other participants in the educational action research process, such as students, can develop in similar ways.

This paper has identified how changes over the past three decades have reduced lecturer autonomy and promoted a ‘top-down’ approach to improving the quality of teaching through a system characterised by centralised control and accountability. It can be argued that this process has reduced lecturer autonomy over pedagogic issues and therefore their professional status (Nixon, 2000). At the same time, these centralised systems of control have undermined the standing of teaching in higher education, because they have encouraged lecturers to become more research oriented. This has undoubtedly contributed to criticisms about their lack of commitment to teaching (see Light and Cox, 2001). This mirrors more widespread societal concerns about professionals servicing their own needs rather than those of their clients (Schön, 1991). Educational action research represents a research based opportunity for lecturers to prioritise teaching and learning as an important aspect of their professional role, whilst at the same time reclaiming some control over pedagogic issues. It can therefore help elevate the status of teaching within higher education and enhance the professional standing of lecturers.

Nixon (2000) also argues for the development of a new form of professionalism for lecturers in higher education, based not on traditional notions of status and autonomy, but on a moral approach that entails communicating professional values through practice. As Walker (2001, p. 192) argues a professional’s work should be representative of ‘who they are and what they stand for’. However, Nixon’s conceptualisation of professionalism goes beyond simply communicating, or even defending, values - but instead involves academics entering into a dialogue within their communities in order to facilitate ‘right action’ (Nixon et al., 1997; Nixon, 2000). Barnett (1997) echoes such sentiments when he criticises academics for being ‘inward looking’ and calls for lecturers to engage with their external environment.

Collaborative action research could facilitate such an approach, by providing a way for effective practice, based on the values of both the academics and the communities they serve, to be developed. By adopting a collaborative approach - lecturers, students and other stakeholders from within the institution (e.g. management, central units such as quality, staff development, careers, etc) along with those external to the institution (e.g. employers, parents, etc.) - can participate in the educational action research process. As Griffiths (1985) argues, perspectives from outside the institution are particularly useful because they provide fresh insights that are not influenced by taken for granted institutional norms.

On the other hand, there is a danger that academics may start to adopt society’s dominant values and in doing so unintentionally contribute to the suppression of critical debate (Barnett, 1997)3. There is also the risk that introducing more participants into the action research process may marginalise less experienced and articulate contributors, such as students. Weiskopf and Laske (1996), for example, found that although they attempted to adopt a democratic approach to collaborative action research, power differentials manifested themselves because of individual differences in the participants. The task for lecturers adopting collaborative educational action research is therefore the difficult one of effectively managing a process where the participants have different values and degrees of influence. They themselves also have to remain open to new ideas, whilst being sufficiently independently minded to promote the values that they believe are important.

Concluding comments

Educational action research has the potential to help improve teaching and learning in higher education and to contribute to a redefinition of the lecturers professional role and status. It does not, however, represent a panacea that can solve all the problems confronting teaching in higher education. As such a commitment to educational action research does not mean that other forms of educational research (or staff development) should be eschewed. One of the problems with some action researchers is that they are inclined to be over-enthusiastic in elevating its status (for similar comments see Webb, 1996; Munn-Giddings, 2001). There are strengths and weaknesses to different forms of research, and adopting methods that are appropriate to what is being studied is a superior strategy than adhering to pre-determined methodologies (Gummesson, 1991). Action research utilises a range of techniques and it can also be used in conjunction with other research methods. For example, a case study I carried out into student placements in small firms (see Greenbank, 2002) made tentative recommendations about how these placements should be managed. A follow-up action research project to test the validity of these conclusions would be very useful, especially if it was carried out collaboratively with students, small business owner-managers and other lecturers. As we have seen, however, introducing collaborative forms of educational action research represents a particular challenge and more research (including action research) needs to be carried out into how it can be successfully introduced.


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*Author contact:

Paul Greenbank
Lecturer in Business & Management
Department of Business, Management & Leisure
Edge Hill College of Higher Education
St. Helens Road
Lancashire L39 4QP
Tel. 01695 584541


  1. Even in an HEI such as Edge Hill which obtains only a very small proportion of its income from  research there is still a strong emphasis placed on research activity.   

  2. However, little is known about the way in which intuitive and more formally acquired information  inter-relates to determine a researcher’s interpretation of a social situation (Stake, 2000). 

  3. My own experience of working with small businesses and enterprise organisations has highlighted to me how easy it is to uncritically adopt values. In this particular case it was the values of ‘enterprise’

This document was added to the Education-line database on 05 October 2004