Session 8: Thursday 4th June, 14:00-16:00, room 731         

Action Research

Professor Paul Dowling

In session 3 (conceptualizing research) I suggested that research might be thought of as the deployment of theoretical and methodological technology in the production and analysis of a text—the data corpus—and a commentary on that text, which may (should) also interrogate or otherwise contribute to the technology. The figure below illustrates the three components.

The bidirectionality of the connections between the three components indicate that the separation between them is analytic rather than essential. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which the text might be thought of as finally consumed by the research process, which ultimately results in the production and publication of a report or reports. These reports will go into more or less detail on the technology and the commentary, which will be presented in accordance with some form of logic—often, at this stage, deductive logic—and coherence. The text, in contrast, if generally plundered for suitable illustrations of the theory, the methodology, and/or the commentary, and so decimated or, worse, counted! The subjectivity of the researcher is generally presented as residing within the technology and the commentary is constituted as their pronouncement on the matter. In each of the research articles presented so far on this course, the  purpose of the research appears to have been the production of academic knowledge: knowledge about children’s attitudes to dance, or about parents’ strategies in attempting to get what they want for their children, or on the structure of life experiences in moving from performance through wreckage to relationality, or on the carnivalesque nature of children’s play or tensions in a Javanese culture, or on the nature of stress in going up to university, or on how literature works. Of course, many if not all of the researchers may hope and even expect that their efforts will result not only in publication in learned journals and in academic career advancement, but that they may also be recruited in non-academic contexts in schools, in the management of sports activities or university student care, or in clinical practice, or in official policy and so forth; you may care to reflect on the likelihood of the realization of such impact.


Action research (AR) is different. The approach has emerged from pragmatist philosophy (John Dewey, Donald Schön), from more technical concerns (initially Kurt Lewin), and from emancipatory interests (Wilf Carr and Stephen Kemmis). Janet Masters (1995) has provided a concise history of the various approaches. In general, AR is concerned to solve problems identified in a professional setting. Carr and Kemmis (1986) argue that the only legitimate educational research is research setting out to solve an educational problem, which is to say, a situation in which the outcomes of one’s performance as an educator fall below one’s expectations. I might also point out that, in the publication cited—very useful, not least for its summary of educational research up to the mid 1980s—Carr and Kemmis seem to be using the term ‘education’ to mean—exclusively—schooling; we would perhaps be rather more flexible in our interpretation of the sites of education these days, as would some of us have been even in 1986.


I disagree with Carr and Kemmis, even accepting their limited interpretation of education as schooling. Essentially, no field of study should be restricted to applied research or research that is intended to be directly useful in a non-research setting. In my view this is because I contend that opportunities for development in any field of activity depend upon dialogue and one potentially productive region of dialogue lies in the transaction between academic research—the educational form that establishes the university—and other sites of education, including, but not limited to the school. In order for there to be a dialogue, there need to be at least two voices and each must be allowed the space to develop in its own right. This is not simply an advocacy of ‘blue sky’ research—although that is often productive as well. The constitution of an educational site as an object of academic study generates commentaries on that site that are not possible from within it. What research can offer are modes of interrogation (see the subtitle of the first edition of Dowling & Brown, 2010) of educational sites that can reveal problems and possibilities rather than or in addition to simply responding to them.


The paper that I have set as preliminary reading for this session concerns a project involving a particular kind of AR, participatory AR (PAR). This mode of AR proceeds as a collaboration between academic researchers and practitioners in the setting. Where these practitioners are teachers, it is, as DePalma and Atkinson imply, unreasonable to expect them to acquire the academic knowledge and research skills of the researchers, because their responsibilities lie elsewhere, with the elaboration and development of their teaching skills, subject knowledge, knowledge of official policy and professional expectations, and so forth. The researchers, on the other hand, do have skills and knowledge that make an alliance between them and the teachers worthwhile. This does not have to be a hard division of labour; after all, practicing teachers do enter into the academy to undertake masters and doctoral studies and educational academics have quite often been school teachers in an earlier phase of their careers. In the collaborative action research reported in Banegas et al, all of the authors were practicing teachers in the same school, but the first named author also had an academic identity as a doctoral student.


Nevertheless, in AR of any kind, it is development in the setting—the text moment in the diagram above—that is paramount. This entails that there may be far less and even no perceived need to publish accounts of the work in academic journals. Possibly as a result, that which is published in the journals often tends to be concerned with theoretical and methodological issues relating to the approach rather than accounts of particular projects. The DePalma and Atkinson paper does report on a particular project, but in a way that focuses on limited aspects of the AR process. The collection by Armstrong and Moore is perhaps more helpful for those interested in adopting an AR approach.


As is the case with all research approaches, there is considerable variation in the matter in which AR is prosecuted. At a general level, however, we can describe it as an iterative process that begins with the identification of a problem in the setting. The DePalma and Atkinson ‘No Ousiders’ project begins with the recognition that apparatuses of heteronormativity are prevalent within schools and PAR is deployed to address this. The second phase in most AR projects involves exploring the literature relating to the problem that has been identified and sometimes also empirical research in the setting. This is also apparent in the DePalma and Atkinson paper and this research phase leads to the third phase, which is the design of an initiative that is intended to address the problem, again apparent in the preliminary reading as a set of principles for supporting local initiatives. In the fourth phase, the initiative is implemented and then evaluated in the fifth phase, though these two phases are not necessarily sequential, evaluation sometimes, as perhaps in the ‘No Outsiders’ case, constituting a running commentary on the implementation of the initiative. The DePalma and Atkinson paper terminates the discussion at this point. AR, however, is generally a cyclical process. At the completion of the first cycle, the researcher returns to the initial statement of the problem to consider whether, in the light of the research so far, a reformulation is in order and the second cycle repeats the first and so on. My own view—and, incidentally, that of the pragmatist, Donald Schön—is that this kind of reflexive practice should be viewed as normal professional practice, irrespective of whether or not academics are also involved. I think the discussion of reflection in the school settings in the DePalma and Atkinson paper illustrates the potential productivity of this.

Though not AR per se, critical race theory (CRT)—illustrated in the paper by Nicola Rollock—is another form of academic practice that is intended to have a direct impact beyond the academic setting, in this case, by raising general consciousness about the experiences of individuals or groups who are excluded or subordinated by what may be generally understood as benign or neutral practices and structures. The approach originated in law faculties in the US, but has generated interest more generally in social research. I find myself somewhat bewildered by the name of the approach and in particular the use of the term ‘theory’. Much of the work in this area seems to have something in common with autoethnography, but this is certainly not to dismiss it. Some of the tensions revealed by participants in the ‘No Outsiders’ paper that relate to the maintenance and potential destabilizing and even fluidity of binary identities point, perhaps, to the need for conscientising of the form advocated and practiced by the proponents of CRT.

Preliminary Reading

DEPALMA, R. & ATKINSON, E. (2009). ‘No Outsiders’: moving beyond a discourse of tolerance to challenge heteronormativity in primary schools. British Educational Research Journal.

Further Reading

ARMSTRONG, F. & MOORE, M. (Eds). (2004). Action Research for Inclusive Education: changing places, changing practices, changing minds. London. RoutledgeFalmer.
BANEGAS, D., PAVESE, A., VELÁZQUEZ, A. & VÉLEZ, S.M. (2013). ‘Teacher Professional Development Through Collaborative Action Research: Impact on foreign English-language teaching and learning.’ Educational Action Research. 21(2). 185-201.
CARR, W. (2007). ‘Educational research as a practical science.’ International Journal of Research and Method in Education. 30(3). 271-286.
CARR, W. & KEMMIS, S. (1986). Becoming Critical: education, knowledge and action research. Oxford. RoutledgeFalmer.
KHOO, Elaine & COWIE, Bronwen. (2011). ‘Cycles of negotiation and reflection: a negotiated intervention to promote online teacher development.’ Educational Action Research. 19(3). 345-361.
MASTERS, J. (1995). 'The History of Action Research' in I. Hughes (Ed.). Action Research Electronic Reader, The University of Sydney, online. www.behs.cchs.usyd.edu.au/arow/Reader/rmasters.htm
ROLLOCK, N. (2012). ‘The invisibility of race: intersectional reflections on the liminal space of alterity.’ Race Ethnicity and Education. 15(1). 65-84.
SCHÖN, D.A. (1987). Educating the Reflective Practitioner: toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. San Francisco. Jossey-Bass.