What makes Action Research tick?

Susman’s model (19883)

These notes started with me asking myself “Why are students allergic to research?”

Ask new students about research, and they’ll see it as a bookish pursuit, which invariably means sitting down and concentrating, neither of which are overly popular. There’s also an assumption that research is at the planning stage- before the exciting ‘doing’ stage, especially in practical media subjects such as mine.

Adding the word Action might be a good idea. If students could think of research as being about changing their practice then it might gain more purchase. Especially if it is framed as a way to stop the student going down a dead end. I think a bit of negative campaigning is called for. Students rush through research because that’s not where the meaty stuff is- they want to get into making something shiny. However if you explain research stops them wasting time later, stops them being embarrassed in a year’s time when they look back at that shiny tchotchke they created and cringe, then maybe you have a different way to sell research.

By researching, students are not only changing their future work, they are changing themselves. They are entering into the portals of only a select portion of the population, and gaining control over their output because they become conscious of how ideas grow, and their efficient regulation. Be a player or be played. You become a player.

I’m suggesting that students like mine are introduced much earlier to Action Research because they can probably relate to it as a methodology which is intended to have both action outcomes and research outcomes rather than just the latter.

Why action research?

Kemmis_Action_ResearchWe learn by doing. We need to change something, solve a problem. A real problem, not an intellectual conceit. Models of Action Research invariably involve feedback loops, and this is probably something that students are also allergic to- the lack of linear progress. Kemmis suggests the typical action research process cycles through four stages: Plan, Act, Observe and Reflect, finally breaking out the cycle with a revised plan, seen here.

Gerald Susman (illustrated at the top of this article) sees five phases: identifying or defining your problem, planning alternative courses of action, Selecting and taking your action, Evaluating or studying the consequences, then identifying the general findings, which may lead to a new cycle of re-defining the problem…Kurt Lewin, the acknowledged author of action research neatly referred to the ‘action research spiral’ which sums up an idea of getting closer to the solution as you loop…

Action Research is for practitioners, not theorists. If we can get that across to students, we can sell it to them.

Essentially, no matter how many phases or loops you want to delineate, Action research just comes down to three phases- Observing/Defining the problem; reflecting/analysing; and the Acting to resolve the issue.

The Search Conference

One of the tools action researchers can utilise is the Search Conference. A group of stakeholders meet for 2 to 3 days in relative isolation. Opening sessions list or diagnose the items, review objectives, and then material pertinent to the issue/problem/challenge is discussed in smaller groups, who present their findings in stages as debate develops over the time period. A final plenary sees an emergent task group reporting.

It’s been pointed out that Action Research is very close to Donald Schön’s ideas of reflective practice and reflection in action. It shares some characteristics- it’s cyclic, participative, qualitative rather than statistical, and reflective of outcomes. Action research is emergent- cycles (or spirals) of refinement and distillation may be needed over time. Because of these cycles Action research can be seen to be responsive, and modulating when needed.

How might I use Action Research in my work?

As a participant in the MOOC I have designed I would like to investigate bottlenecks that might have developed in a program of study, and whether these areas of learner attrition can be minimised by good design. A cycle of Kemmis’s Plan, Act, Observe and Reflect leading to revised plans based on outcome, could lead to an action research spiral to identify how learning can be as ‘frictionless’ as possible.

Such Action research could be applied to my physical course too- what elements create the most attrition? The issue with carrying this out on a physical course is the longitudinal delay. With a MOOC, a small change can be monitored and evaluated over days, whilst a change to a physical coursetakes longer to reflect on due to the limited sample.keep-calm-and-action-research





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