The term ‘action research’ or enquiry describes an approach that seeks to understand what teachers do from ‘the inside’, enquiry carried out by teachers themselves rather than ‘done to them.’ Supporters point towards its practical, empowering and participatory nature. The focus tends to be on the learning and teaching process. But because action enquiry is very much rooted in what matters to the practitioner and is wrapped up in the specific context, the outcomes may have limited general application.
Action research can be undertaken by an individual as a personal inquiry, part of a group or whole school or wider network of schools. Learning Wales offers further guidance on conducting action enquiry as part of a professional learning community (PLC).
When undertaking action research you need to reflect upon how your dual roles, as teacher and researcher, might impact on students.
Action enquiry cycle
There are different models of action enquiry. A simple version is shown in Figure 2.5.1.
Follow this example of how a teacher undertook a simple action enquiry. Think about ethical issues that might arise at each stage.
For information on the use of sociograms, see mapping the emotional dynamics of a classroom (external link).
‘Planning’ begins with a trigger point turned into a research question, which could be:
- an observation in the class or another school
- an issue or problem identified in the school improvement plan
- a recommendation from an Estyn report
- something that arises from talking to learners or others
- a news story
- a piece of research carried out elsewhere
- an item raised in a staff meeting
- an interest sparked from attending a course
- a professional hunch or itch about how you might improve learning or teaching.
It can be challenging to think of a good research question. Sentence starters can help.
- One thing I would like to change is . . .
- I would like to know . . .
- The most important thing about teaching in this school is . . .
- Our learners really need to know how to . . .
- My practice could be improved by . . .
- I wonder why . . .
Background reading around the issue can help frame the question. You might find, for example, another practitioner or academic has explored something similar. Facilities such as Google Scholar (external link) can help narrow down relevant material of a rigorous standard.
A good question should enhance your understanding and be of value to your learners and the school community. It should focus on something that is important to you and which can be answered given the time and other resources available. By its very nature, action research is fluid and research questions can change.
You can search for examples of research questions at the UK Data Service (external link). Many of these are relevant to educational research.
‘Action’ involves implementing the intervention. You need to consider what you and the learners will do, when and how to organise any changes and reflect upon possible implications.
‘Observation’ involves monitoring the actual impact of any changes introduced and gathering data. This might involve a new routine or teaching approach. In action enquiry, it is necessary to make ‘before and after’ observational notes so that you can see what has changed. You might want to keep a diary or journal. Other forms of data capture, such as surveys or interviews, might supplement observations.
‘Reflection’ runs through the action enquiry cycle as it feeds on what has happened and informs next steps. One of the challenges with action enquiry is acknowledging one’s own assumptions and values. This is why it’s useful to share ideas with a critical friend or group of fellow practitioners. It is also important to think about how to share findings with others within and beyond the school, for instance at network meetings, conferences or in publications. It may be that you decide that another cycle of action enquiry is needed.
Download a copy of the Action research planner[.docx] and use it as a framework for your own enquiry. Is there scope to work alongside colleagues?