Action research is a type of research in which educators, rather than academics, inquire to their teaching practices, examine the results of these inquires, and learn how to effect positive change in classroom environments. Educators can work alone or collaboratively, and can conduct their research at the classroom, school, and school district levels. The practice tends to rely most heavily on qualitative methods, although quantitative data collection and analysis methods can also be used.
Keywords Action Research; Collaborative Action Research; District Wide Action Research; Individual Teacher Action Research; Qualitative Data; Quantitative Data; Reliability; School-wide Action Research; Traditional Research; Triangulation; Validity
Research in Education: Action Research
The term “research” often evokes images of scientists conducting experiments with controlled variables and testing hypotheses. Teachers have long attempted to understand how these theoretical findings relate to what they actually do in the classroom. They know that there are many variables, often interacting in complex, unpredictable ways, that influence their effectiveness in serving the educational needs of children (Brown, 1995). Brown (1995) posed the question as to why, if both educational researchers and teachers are interested in learning about teaching and learning, there has long been a lack of shared understanding between the two regarding how to seek answers to the many questions found in the field of education. However, Ross and Bruce (2012) did show that collaborative action research, for example, improved teacher outlook on “educational research” and “teacher efficacy,” adding weight to the call for qualitative research among educators.
Traditional Research vs. Action Research
Mills (2000) contrasts traditional research with what is known as action research. He explains the two types of educational research that exist and how teachers can themselves begin to find answers in improving their daily practice through action research. In traditional research, the researchers are usually those in academia who perform their studies on experimental and control groups. Researchers start with a theory, obtain data through observation, and test the hypothesis. Relationships between variables are often clarified through statistical analysis. Researchers use quantitative methods to investigate cause and effect relationships and the strength of those relationships. Experiments are conducted in a controlled environment, and when complete, findings are published and can then be generalized to larger populations (Mills, 2000).
In action research, educators conduct the research (Mills, 2000). Action research is a disciplined inquiry that allows teachers to examine their own practices, learn from them, and take action to effect positive change within the contexts of their own teaching environments. This research can be done individually or collaboratively with other educational stakeholders. It can be conducted in a class, school, or district environment (Calhoun, 1993; Ferrance, 2000). It is a cyclical process often using primarily qualitative methods (Mills, 2000) but sometimes using quantitative data collection and analysis methods (Berry, 2005; Calhoun, 1993; Ferrance, 2004; McCarthy and Riner, 1996; Sardo-Brown, 1995; Waters-Adams, 2006) to describe, document, and interpret what is happening. In the years since its development, action research continues to influence education researchers and activists (Glassman, Erdem & Bartholomew, 2013).
To better understand how action research functions in education, it is helpful to note that is has many forms (Ferrance, 2000; Calhoun, 1993; McTaggart, 1997; Waters-Adam, 2006). Noffke's 1997 study (as cited in Noffke & Brennan, 1997) explains that there are different versions of action research in the field of education depending on the history, culture, ethics, and values of those involved in the research and the location in which they practice. Noffke further explains (as cited by Whitehead, 1997) that action research is not one methodology of research; instead, it is a group of ideas that have arisen from different contexts. An overview of the history of action research will help in understanding its current forms and some of the issues that surround its present use.
History of Action Research
The history of action research is commonly thought of as having two stages:
• one from the 1920s to the 1950s; and
• a rebirth of sorts from the 1970s continuing into the twenty-first century (Carr, 2006).
Kemmis & McTaggert (1988, as cited in McTaggart, 1997), credit Kurt Lewin (1946, 1952), a social psychologist, as the first to develop the concept and term of action research. Lewin recognized that as social situations were complicated, it was not possible to predict everything that would need to be done in practice. He came up with a research process that was cyclical, flexible, and responsive in allowing those using it to change their plans accordingly when their experiences gave them new information. Lewin wanted to do more than collect information about various social issues and write about them; he wanted to resolve them in practice (Noffke, 1997). Adelman's 1990 study (cited in Mills, 2000) explains how Lewin respected the powers of reflection, talking with others, making a plan, and taking action that ordinary people used when researching a common problem together.
Stephen Corey was one of the first to use action research in the solution of problems identified in education (Noffke, 1997; Ferrance 2000). He believed that the scientific method would help educators solve problems (Ferrance, 2000). He encouraged teachers to use hypothesis testing with solutions in order to help them improve in their practices (McKernan, 2008). Corey's 1953 work (as cited in Noffke, 1997) explains his belief that everyday problem-solving was actually similar to scientific research. In his view of action research, problems were best solved by cooperative groups of educators who could encourage each other and share talents. The educators could call in experts to consult in their research; however, the educators themselves were responsible for most of it. Corey held that eventually, the quality of the educators' research skills would improve with practice. Yet, McFarland and Stansell (as cited in Ferrence, 2000) explain that action research was criticized in the 1950s as unscientific. Action research was devalued by members of the social scientific community at that time because it believed that research in the social sciences should be able to produce empirical generalizations using quantitative data collection and analysis techniques (Carr, 2006).
Action Research Today
Interest in action research was renewed in the 1970s when educators started to question the usefulness of scientifically designed research that was based on education theory but not practice (Ferrance, 2004). This interest continues into the twenty-first century. Action research is used in teacher preparation programs as a way for teachers to improve their own individual practice in the field, for teacher in-service programs, and as a method of gathering information and making educational reforms in policy, curriculum, and school structure (Ferrance, 2000; McCarthy & Riner, 1996; Sardo-Brown, 1995). Researchers (Allen and Calhoun, 1998; Calhoun, 1993: Delong, 2004; Ferrance, 2000; Hollingsworth, 1997; Hudson, Owen, and Veen, 2006; McTaggart, 1997; Mills, 2000; Waters-Adams, 2006) agree that action research has many definitions, interpretations, and forms. Fortunately, within this great variety there are four universal themes identified by Ferrance (2004) that all action research reflects.
• empowerment of those who participate,
• working with others through participation,
• obtaining knowledge, and
• a commitment to action based on that knowledge to effect positive social change.
Earlier forms of educational research have involved outside researchers doing studies on teachers. Action research gives teachers the opportunity to be in control of asking their own questions and of searching for additional knowledge (Mills, 2000). Being able to systemically investigate, gain better insights into what does and does not work in the classroom, and act on the research gives teachers confidence by improving their skills and validating reasons for the classroom decisions they make. When action researchers share their knowledge with others, they model their commitment to their own professional improvement (Delong, 2004). This commitment to continual problem solving and action can bring new energy to the communities in which they practice and support individual teachers, buildings, and districts in making education reforms (Calhoun, 1993).
While Ferrance (2000) identified common themes in the various interpretations of action research, Mills (2000) found four common steps, or phases, that researchers were advised to follow when conducting action research. He also found that in each version of action research, the process was cyclical in that by following the four phases, researchers were consistently led back into the process itself. Based on these findings, he created the dialectic action research spiral, which involved a four-step process that included identification of an area of focus, data collection, data analysis and interpretation, and the development of an action plan.
Stages of the Action Research Process
Deciding on an Area of Focus
The first phase of an action research cycle requires the researcher to decide on an area of focus, problem, or question that they want to investigate (Mills, 2000). The works of Elliott and Sagor (as cited in Mills, 2000) suggest that when reflecting about and deciding on this area of focus, the researcher should use four guiding criteria. First, the researcher should make sure that whatever is being considered as an area of focus should involve teaching and learning. Second, the area of focus should be something that is within the control of the researcher. Third, it should be something about which the researcher cares deeply. Fourth, it should involve something the researcher would like to act upon by changing or improving.
Once the researcher has an area of focus, the second phase of the action research process involves collecting data (Mills, 2000). The type of data collected will depend on the problem or area of focus that the specific researcher has chosen. Action research uses both qualitative and quantitative forms of data (Delong, 2000; Ferrance, 2000, McCarthy and Riner, 1996; Mills, 2000; Waters-Adam, 2006) that the researcher chooses based on the question or area of focus of their practice that they wish to investigate. Careful attention by teachers to the concepts of validity, reliability, and generalizability is important because their understanding and application of these concepts affects the quality of the action research. Teachers need this knowledge both as critical consumers of action research and as action researchers themselves (Mills, 2000).
Validity means that the data actually measure what is supposed to be measured (Mills, 2000). This is important, as action researchers may or may not have support in creating data collection instruments and collecting data (McCarthy and Riner, 1996 and Sardo-Brown, 1995). For example, if the researcher develops a survey with (unintentionally)...
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