Action Research | What does yours look like?

Divya Madhavan has been inspiring teachers around the world through her personal action research journey for several years now. I first experienced Divya (and action research) for the first time a couple of years ago while watching a livecast talk from the ISTEK conference in Istanbul. Her talk, punctuated by incisive quotes, really struck a chord with me and I’ve been interested in action research (AR) ever since. While Divya’s talk in Istanbul was largely focused on the ‘why’ of AR, she facilitated a webinar for BELTA in early March which explored the ‘how’.

Diyva and I co-wrote this post, and it’s based on the ideas, questions and steps that were explored in the webinar – Action Research – what does yours look like? I’m guilty of dawdling and not publishing this post when it was ready to go online. The webinar this post is based on might be slightly old but the ideas and questions Divya laid out are fresh, relevant and practical for any teaching professional who is interested in starting their own AR journey. You might also want to check out Divya’s blog – Unwrapping the Education Box, an extraordinary collection of critical reflections about our profession. My favourites include What if teaching became a prestigious profession? and How do you draw a line so fine?

action research

Written with Divya Madhavan. 

What does Action Research look like?

 Where is the book in which we can read what teaching is. The children themselves are this book. We should not learn how to teach through any other book other than the one lying open before us and consisting of the children themselves. In order to read this book, however, we need the widest possible interest in each individual child and nothing must divert us from this.

 – Rudolf Steiner     

This is a useful quote for framing an exploration of Action research and we can unpack three ideas from it:

  1. -“the one lying open before us”- The most important source of improving our practice is the one we physically engage with every day… this goes all the way back to the work of John Dewey, who said things like, education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living – we have, before us, in classrooms every day, what we call our practice, what we do, how we do it, our moments of requisitioning why we do it, this is a process that’s very alive and constantly changing in very organic ways. It’s about rolling up your sleeves, getting involved, getting messy and learning within and with a community, this doesn’t just happen with books, it happens by doing, being and living.
  2. -“In order to read this book”: Connectedness is a not given, not something automatic. Being a teacher doesn’t automatically put you in a position to research your practice, there is a whole mental make-up that goes with having a research mindset, understanding what you’re looking for, and it is something that requires a certain amount of preparation.
  3. -“widest possible interest, nothing must divert us from this”: AR is quite dependent on the amount of discipline and rigour we apply to it, and so not being distracted when we’re in ‘research mode’ is fairly important. One of the most important conditions for research is the attempt to understand and document everything that the scope of research demands.

Questions to consider in your Action Research journey

  1. Research question
  • What sort of a critical lens do you have?
  • What’s happening in your classroom?
  1. Plan, plan, plan: You don’t need a hypothesis, but you do need a plan. Your plan comes from your research agenda and from your world view.
  • What kind of information are you going to get or excavate from the context?
  • How do you see this information as being available to you?
  • Do you have a very scientific mindset? Do you think this information will be black & white or testable?
  • Are you of a much more a participative mindset? Do you prefer to engage with the social reality of the classroom, finding out things as they emerge?

It’s not that you can’t ever have a hypothesis in action research, but that’s just not where your thinking starts.

  1. Action & observation
  • How will you document? Will you keep a journal? Will you use Evernote where you can capture both audio and written notes?
  • What exactly are you going to do?
    • You’ll find that once you start, everything happens quite quickly because you’re right there in the classroom with both your teacher and researcher hats on and the multi-tasking is quite overwhelming if you don’t have enough clarity with what you are doing.
  • When will you reflect?
    • Reflection time is something that we might initially cut back on. However, it’s important to give yourself more time before re-engaging with the context. Practically speaking, you could time it so that your project would end just before the holidays if you teach in an educational institution so you would have some time to digest how it happened.
  • What are you trying to change?
    • What are the individual changes?
    • What are the social changes?
    • What are you trying to deal with?
    • Are you comfortable with talking about these changes?
    • Are you comfortable with doing so in academically responsible language free of unnecessary hyperbole?
  • How will you report?
    • Are you comfortable with going public with what you’ve done, flaws and everything?
      • It’s quite rare for research projects to be perfectly flawless but what matters is how responsibly we report it. When you report something as inadequate, you explain how you would do it differently the next time round and then apply it in the next cycle.

Don’t we plan, act, observe and reflect in our everyday lives as teachers?

The difference is the rigour we impose on our documentation and analysis. We might test drive new things in the classroom all the time. However, we wouldn’t necessarily document, analyse and look up theory.

“Action research is a form of collective self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own social or educational practices, as well as their understanding of these practices and the situations in which these practices are carried out … The approach is only action research when it is collaborative, though it is important to realise that the action research of the group is achieved through the critically examined actions of the individual group members.”

– Kemmis and McTaggart

Three important attributes

1. Reflexive

Give yourself adequate time for self-reflection where you have opportunities to think through what’s happening at each stage. The reflexive critique also requires an awareness of your own biases, cultural, linguistic and administrative, in perception. The important thing is not the absence of bias but how you take ownership for them and report them. You recognize who you are as a researcher and are aware of how you are about to engage with the context. Therefore, you take responsibility for the impact you create in that context and how that in turn has an impact on your thinking

2. Dialectical

These are dimensions of thinking where you notice the relationship between all the different phenomena in the structure and the context. Upon analysing the data, you can infer that X relates Y because Z happened or identify single events that might have changed the course of the project.

3. Plural structures

It’s crucial to get a rich description of your data so you can analyze several threads from it. You will have a problem when you document your data from just one perspective and then reconstruct inefficiently it from memory. One way to overcome this is to video students or use a dictaphone, after having them sign consent forms. In this way, you can take your time with analysing the interaction. Additionally, while writing up parts of subsequent cycles, you may want to revisit what happened before. Instead of going back to your notes which represent just one version, you study the original in the form of audio or audiovisual media

Demystifying research

Research is a powerful tool.

     Research is a tool of power

                         Research says

Research is used as a tool of power in everyday discourse and  the phrase “research says” skews the general opinion of what research is.

Research becomes the yardstick by which we measure all professional practice with often insufficient regard to context. Throwing in a comment about research shuts up a conversation because we perceive research as the outcome of hard academic labour and many of us don’t have access to it as it might sit behind pay-walls as is the case with most journals.

Research becomes a tool of intimidation however well-meaning. It raises a barrier between those who can and those who can’t. While this might distance academic practice from teaching practice, action research is very elegantly situated between the two. To tell a teacher who is in a classroom every day that they must do research in order to become a better teacher is patronizing. It reduces research to yet another badge on your CV. Not every teacher needs to do research and many teachers have perfectly happy and fulfilled careers without being researchers. However, certain reflective processes in a lot of teaching practice could benefit from research.

We often perceive research as a tool but the only limitation with this line of thinking is that we see it as a fairly nuts and bolts process. So, it becomes quite dull and therefore untenable whereas you could be doing far more interesting things with your time. If we start with the view that research is an end defined by data collection, we miss the wider complex structures of research being a means through which we understand our scientific, social and critical realities.


Image attribution: Teaching Assistant Orientation (TAO) 2012 by Center for Teaching Vanderbilt University | CC BY-NC 2.0


One thought on “Action Research | What does yours look like?

  1. Hi Adi

    Thanks for posting another valuable write-up – this time on AR – with Divya. You both have succinctly captured quite a lot to ponder on. The questions can really act as a guide to any teacher who is genuinely interested in taking up an AR. Thanks for putting them all together and sharing.




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