Action Research and Its Misconceits

When I was in education school and teaching at the same time, we were all required to complete an “action research” project. I objected to this on ethical grounds but ended up doing it anyway. (I made my project as harmless and unobtrusive as possible.) At the time, I ransacked the Web for critiques of action research. The only substantial critique I found was an intriguing article by Allan Feldman, professor of science education at the University of South Florida, who suggested that action research should be more like teaching practice and less like traditional research. (Feldman has written extensively on this subject; he supports action research vigorously but recognizes its pitfalls.)

Action research is research conducted by a practitioner (say, a teacher, nurse, or counselor) in action—in his or her normal setting. It is often informal and does not have to follow standard research protocol. The researcher poses a question, conducts a study or experiment to investigate it, and arrives at conclusions. The action research study may or may not ever be published.

To some degree, teachers conduct action research every day. They frequently try things out and make adjustments. The difference is that (a) they don’t call this research and (b) they don’t have to stick with a research plan (if something isn’t working out, they can drop it immediately). Action research, by contrast, calls itself research and requires more sustained experimentation (if it is to have meaning at all). There lie its problems.

First of all, action research (that I have seen) adheres neither to traditional nor to alternate standards. To call it research is to muddy up the very concept, unless one clearly states what it is. What can action research be? It clearly cannot follow traditional research design. First, it is difficult, if not impossible, for a practitioner to conduct a scientifically valid experiment while performing his or her regular duties. Second, most practitioners have mitigating influences: their prior experience in that setting, their knowledge of the individuals, and their preferences and tendencies. This almost inevitably shapes the findings. If action research is to follow an alternate protocol, then this must be defined with care.

Now for the second problem. Although most action research projects probably do little or no harm, it is ethically problematic to require them. First of all, the teacher may distort her work more than she would do otherwise; she may find the project more distracting than helpful. Second, because of the sheer number of required action research projects, there is rarely much supervision. Teachers conducting such “research” are not required to obtain permission from parents or even notify the students. If education schools were to institute a protocol for action research, they’d double or triple their own work and that of the teachers. That would be impractical. Thus many novice teachers conduct their experiments without even the schools’ knowledge.

I originally thought that the ethical problem was the primary one. I am no longer sure. Most teachers conducting these projects are just getting their bearings in the classroom. An action research project usually amounts to a mild distraction at worst and an interesting investigation at best. However, there should be a standard protocol for such experiments, and they should be voluntary.

The greater problem, in my view, is the intellectual one, with all its implications for policy. We already have enough trouble with the phrase “research has shown.” Again and again we find out that research hasn’t quite shown what people claim it has shown. Because few people take time to read the actual research (which can be cumbersome), researchers and others get away with distorted interpretations of it. Add to this a huge body of quasi-research, and anyone can say that “research has shown” just about anything.

Proponents of educational fads can almost always find “research” to support what they do. Some of it is action research of dubious quality. For instance, the Whole Brain Teaching website cites, on its “Research” page, a “study” titled “Integrating Whole Brain Teaching Strategies to Create a More Engaged Learning Environment.” (I am linking to Google’s cached version of the “Research” page, since the original “Research” page is now blank.) As it turns out, the study took place over the course of a week. The author was testing the effect of “Whole Brain Teaching” on student engagement. She made a list of nine student “behaviors” and observed how they changed between Monday, October 19, 2009, and Friday, October 23, 2009.

One could write off Whole Brain Teaching as some fringe initiative, yet it made its way into an elementary school where I previously taught. It touts itself as “one of the fastest growing education reform movements in the United States.” (I have written more about it in my book and in my blog “Research Has Shown—Just What, Exactly?”) Important or not, it cites shaky research in support of itself—and so do many initiatives. One way to combat this is to insist on basic research standards.

Now, I recognize Dr. Feldman’s argument that action research should try to be less like traditional research and more like actual teaching practice. But in that case, its claims should be different. Its purpose should be to inform the practitioner, not to produce findings that can be generalized. Even in that case, it should have some sort of quality standard. In addition, those conducting the research should exercise caution in drawing conclusions from it, even for themselves. Any action research paper should begin with such cautionary statements.

I am not suggesting that action research be abolished; it has plenty of useful aspects. Of course, teachers should test things out and question their own practice—but voluntarily and perspicaciously. Should such investigation be called research? I’d say no–but the name isn’t really the problem. The challenge here–and for education research overall–is to dare to have a modest and uncertain finding.

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  1. I was recently accepted into a leadership-academy cohort at my local community college and will be doing individual action-research over the coming academic year. I’m grateful the academy is open to adjuncts like me, and I’m looking forward to completing my project. But I am confident that nothing I learn about my own teaching will be reproducible, or even appealing, for other English instructors, because my oddball teaching style is just that: my own oddball style, developed ad-hoc and by trial and error over the last seven years of teaching college English. Need every professional insight be revolutionary?

  2. Thank you for this comment, James. I would have no qualms with action research if (a) it were not disruptive, (b) appropriate parties were always informed, and (c) its results were put in proper perspective. In my action research course, we were often told that we were researcher-practitioners and that our action research could serve as evidence of the viability of our teaching approach. That is, if we could show others that the “data” supported what we were doing, then we were engaging in evidence-based practice (the good kind of practice).

    It’s a lot trickier than that, as you point out. We have our particular styles–so two teachers following an identical, detailed lesson plan might have strikingly different lessons and experiences. There are all sorts of subtle things we do (and that our students and schools do) that influence the bigger picture. It’s good to become aware of these things, but it isn’t really a scientific process. Yes, it involves trial and error and some testing of hypotheses, but such trial or testing is uncontrolled, imprecise, and unrepeatable.

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