Action Research for Professional Development: Concise Advice for New Action Researchers (excerpted)
Copyright Jean McNiff, 2002. Reprinted by permission.
by Jean McNiff, Professor of Educational Research, York St. John University (UK)
What is Action Research?
Action research is a term that refers to a practical way of looking at your own work to check that it is as you would like it to be. Because action research is done by you, the practitioner, it is often referred to as practitioner based research; and because it involves you thinking about and reflecting on your work, it can also be called a form of self-reflective practice.
The idea of self-reflection is central. In traditional forms of research – empirical research – researchers do research on other people. In action research, researchers do research on themselves. Empirical researchers enquire into other people’s lives. Action researchers enquire into their own. Action research is an enquiry conducted by the self into the self. You, a practitioner, think about your own life and work, and this involves you asking yourself why you do the things that you do, and why you are the way that you are. When you produce your research report, it shows how you have carried out a systematic investigation into your own behaviour, and the reasons for that behaviour. The report shows the process you have gone through in order to achieve a better understanding of yourself, so that you can continue developing yourself and your work.
Action research is open ended. It does not begin with a fixed hypothesis. It begins with an idea that you develop. The research process is the developmental process of following through the idea, seeing how it goes, and continually checking whether it is in line with what you wish to happen. Seen in this way, action research is a form of self-evaluation. It is used widely in professional contexts such as appraisal, mentoring and self-assessment.
How do I do action research?
The basic steps of an action research process constitute an action plan:
- We review our current practice,
- identify an aspect that we want to investigate,
- imagine a way forward,
- try it out, and
- take stock of what happens.
- We modify what we are doing in the light of what we have found, and continue working in this new way (try another option if the new way of working is not right)
- monitor what we do,
- review and evaluate the modified action,
- and so on …
(see also McNiff, Lomax and Whitehead, 1996, and forthcoming)
Two processes are at work: your systematic actions as you work your way through these steps, and your learning. Your actions embody your learning, and your learning is informed by your reflections on your actions. Therefore, when you come to write your report or make your research public in other ways, you should aim to show not only the actions of your research, but also the learning involved. Some researchers focus only on the actions and procedures, and this can weaken the authenticity of the research.
A number of models are available in the literature. Most of them regard practice as non-linear, appreciating that people are unpredictable, and that their actions often do not follow a straightforward trajectory. The action plan above shows action reflection as a cycle of
identify an area of practice to be investigated;
imagine a solution;
implement the solution;
evaluate the solution;
change practice in light of the evaluation …
This action research cycle can now turn into new action research cycles, as new areas of investigation emerge. It is possible to imagine a series of cycles to show the processes of developing practice. The processes can be shown as a spiral of cycles, where one issue forms the basis of another and, as one question is addressed, the answer to it generates new questions.
Remember that things do not often proceed in a neat, linear fashion. Most people experience research as a zig-zag process of continual review and re-adjustment. Research reports should communicate the seeming incoherence of the process in a coherent way.
A number of action plans are available in the literature. The action plan that has grown in popularity around the world is the one developed by Jack Whitehead. The aim is to encourage you, a practitioner, to ask critical questions about your own practice, and find the answers for yourself. No one else can give you answers. Other people can comment and advise, but only you can say what is right for you and your situation. It could be that there are no answers to your particular issue, but the process of asking questions is as important as finding answers.
Here is a modified version of Jack’s action plan. On the next page, the plan is explained in greater detail.
- What issue am I interested in researching?
- Why do I want to research this issue?
- What kind of evidence can I gather to show why I am interested in this issue?
- What can I do? What will I do?
- What kind of evidence can I gather to show that I am having an influence?
- How can I explain that influence?
- How can I ensure that any judgements I might make are reasonably fair and accurate?
- How will I change my practice in the light of my evaluation?
There is always a dilemma between suggesting action plans and avoiding making them appear as prescriptive. In action research, everyone takes responsibility for their own practice and for asking their own questions. You do need to ensure, however, that your research is reasonably systematic and rigorous. In doing your research you are aiming to make a claim that you have improved practice, so you do need to produce validated evidence to support that claim.
The action plan in detail
In deciding to do action research, you are showing your intent to learn more about a particular issue within a particular situation. Your research is a conduit for your learning. It can take the following form:
What issue are you interested in researching?
Some researchers present the idea of a research issue as a problem. Action research is not only problem solving, though it contains elements of problem solving. It does mean problematising issues and engaging with them; questioning what is happening, and asking how it might be improved. This then involves asking questions about the conditions that are allowing the situation to be as it is, and finding ways of changing the conditions. The main point is to identify an area you wish to investigate, and be reasonably clear about why you wish to get involved.
It is important, in your first action enquiries, to be reasonably sure that you can do something about the issue you have identified. You should be practical and ask, ‘Can I actually do something about this issue? Can I influence the situation, or is it outside my scope?’ If it really is outside your scope you should be realistic and leave it. Having said that, do not give up altogether. Aim to address one small aspect of your work. While it might be true that you cannot change the world, you can certainly change your bit of it; and if everyone changed a small bit at a time, a lot of change could happen quickly.
Once you have identified a research issue, you should formulate a research question. This can be stated in terms o
How do I …?
The main ideas are:
- I am asking a real question about something that is important to me, and I am hoping to find ways of engaging with it;
- I am a real person;
- I am trying to improve something; this might be my own understanding, or it might be an aspect of the social situation I am in (remember: improvement does not mean perfection. Any improvement is still improvement, no matter how small).
Why are you interested?
You need to be reasonably clear why you want to get involved. The reasons for our actions are often rooted in our values base, that is, the things we believe in and that drive our lives. If you believe that all people have equal rights, you will try to ensure that your workplace is a place in which everyone does have equal rights, and you will organise your own work so that everyone has the opportunity to exercise their rights. The trouble is, we often work in situations where it is not possible to live in a way that is congruent with what we believe in. You might believe in equal rights for all, but your workplace could well be a place where the rights of some people are denied. As your research progresses you might find that you are the one who is denying equal rights to others. You should expect surprises like this.
Action research is a way of working that helps us to identify the values that are important for our lives and to live in the direction of those values, that is, take them as the organising principles of our lives. It is unlikely that we will ever get to a situation where our work and situations are entirely congruent with our values. But we are not aiming for ‘end products’; we are aiming to find right ways of living.
What kind of evidence can you gather to show why you are interested?
If you are in a situation where things are not as you would wish them to be, how can you show that situation so that other people can relate to what you are experiencing? How can you show what the situation was like, which made you resolve to do something about it?
You need to gather data about the situation, and you can use a variety of methods for this – journals, diaries, notes, audio and videotape recordings, surveys, attitude scales, pictures, and so on. You can use different data gathering methods at different times if you wish. You will compare this first set of data with later sets of data, to see whether there is any change and whether you can say that you have influenced the situation. Aim to gather as much data as you feel is right; most people gather too much to begin with.
You need to begin identifying working criteria to help you make judgements about whether the situation might be improving. These criteria would be linked with your values. If you believe that all people should be treated fairly, a criterion will be whether you can show that people are being treated fairly. The criteria you identify might change as the research project develops. Your data will turn into evidence when you can show that it meets your nominated criteria.
What can you do about the situation? How do you act in order to influence it in an educative way?
You need to imagine ways in which you might begin taking action. You might want at this stage to consult with others about how you could move forward. These others could be your critical friend or your validation group. A validation group is a group of people you invite to look at your research from time to time, and offer critical feedback. The decisions you come to about what action to take will be your own decisions; you take responsibility for what you do. You need to consider your options carefully and decide what you can reasonably expect to achieve, given the time, energy and other resources you have.
Having decided on a possible strategy, you now need to try it out. It might work and it might not. If it does, you will probably want to continue developing it. If it does not, you will probably abandon it, or part of it, and try something else.
What kind of evidence can you gather to show your educative influence?
This is your second set of data, which will also turn into evidence by meeting your nominated criteria. You can use the same, or different, data-gathering methods that you used before. Perhaps you used surveys and interviews to gather your first set of data; now you might want to use audio and video tape recordings which will capture not only people’s words but also their expressions and body language. You should try to show, through this set of data, whether there is an improvement in the situation, even though that improvement might be very small. You might also be able to show a development in your own thinking and learning. This is an integral part of the action research process.
How do you explain your educative influence?
Remember that the focus of the enquiry is you. You are always in company with others, so what you do is bound to have an influence on them. How can you show that your influence was as you wished it to be? To gauge your impact on them, you need to get their reactions to how they perceive their relationship with you.
Remember that you are not trying to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship between you and other people’s actions. You are not saying, ‘I brought about improvement’ or ‘I made that happen’. You are saying, ‘I can show that certain changes took place as I changed my practice, particularly in myself, and different relationships evolved.’ You are aiming to show a development of influence, an unfolding of new understandings and actions from people working together in new ways, and their influence on one another, that is, how they learn with and from one another.
How do you ensure that any judgements you make are reasonably fair and accurate?
If you say, ‘I think that such and such happened’, you can expect someone to say, ‘Prove it.’ The answer is that you can’t. You can’t prove anything. The word ‘prove’ does not exist in action research. You can however produce reasonable evidence to suggest that what you feel happened really did happen, and you are not just making it up.
In saying that you believe you have influenced your situation for good, you are making a claim to knowledge. You are also producing evidence to back up the claim. Now you need other people critically to consider your claim and agree that you have good reason for making your claim. They might agree that you are justified in making your claim, and their agreement would be validation of your claim. They might suggest that you need to look at the research again and gather further data, perhaps, or tighten up the link between your data and your criteria. Once you have other people’s validation you can say in all honesty, ‘I am claiming that I have influenced this situation because I started looking at ways in which I could improve what I am doing, and I now have the endorsement of other people to show that what I say I am doing constitutes a fair and accurate claim.’
How do you modify your practice in the light of your evaluation?
You will probably carry on working in this new way because it seems to be better than the way you were working before. It is more in line with the way you wish things to be. You are living in the direction of your values (though you might still have far to go).
This does not mean closure. Although you have addressed one issue, others might have emerged which now need attention. Perhaps in addressing one issue, you have unearthed other issues that you had not expected. There is no end, and that is the nature of developmental practices, and part of the joy of doing action research. It resists closure. Each ending is a new beginning. Each event carries its own potentials for new creative forms.
This is what makes action research a powerful methodology for personal and social renewal. You are thinking and searching all the time. You are never complacent or content to leave problematic situations as they are, because you refuse to become complacent or lazy. As long as you remain aware, alert, constantly open to new beginnings, you will continue growing into all the persons you are capable of becoming.
The full booklet on performing action research is available at no cost online at: http://www.jeanmcniff.com/ar-booklet.asp
Dr. McNiff is a Professor of Educational Research at York St John University, UK: and holds Visiting Professorships at the University of Limerick, Ireland; the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, South Africa; and the Ningxia Teachers’ University, People’s Republic of China. She has published a new and updated resource for researchers interested in performing action research:
Action Research for Professional Development:
Concise advice for new (and experienced) action researchers, by Jean McNiff
Publication date: 14 November 2010
Price £14.99, including post and packing
Whitehead, Jack and Jean McNiff. Action Research: Living Theory. London, UK: Sage Publications, 2006.
McNiff, Jean. Action Research for Teachers: A Practical Guide. London, UK: David Fulton Publishing, 2005.
(available in the Research Academy Library):
McNiff, Jean. All You Need to Know About Action Research. London, UK: Sage Publications, 2005.
Cross, K. Patricia and Mimi Harris Steadman. Classroom Research: Implementing the Scholarship of Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1996
Angelo, Thomas A. Classroom Assessment and Research: An Update on Uses, Approaches, and Research Findings. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998.