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Criticism of Action Research

The use of action research in higher education is growing (Mertler, 2006). Action research involves a systematic inquiry wherein educators can utilize their knowledge as practitioners to change and improve educational practices (Kemmis, 2009; Craig, 2009). By systematically and intentionally studying problems within the educational community, they not only contribute to knowledge production but to meaningful reforms as well. Action research is defined as “a reflective process of progressive problem solving led by individuals working with others in teams or as part of a “community of practice” to improve the way they address issues and solve problems” (Riel, 2010). The aim of action research is to understand practice and to articulate a philosophy of practice which improves practice (McCutcheon & Jung, as cited in Herr, Anderson, & Herr, 2005). As a research design, action research is relatively new. Despite its recent popular application, there is still debate on where action research really falls as to its nature of inquiry (Ary, Jacobs, Razavieh & Sorensen, 2009). Some research experts associate it more with the qualitative tradition, while others assert that its concrete application in research has showed that it relies more on quantitative inquiry (Burns, 2007). However, literature would suggest that action research possesses certain overall characteristics that are different from other research approaches. These are:

  • Problem-solving is highlighted in the scientific study (Pine, 2008; Koshy, 2005;
  • Methodological tools are not rigid and can be modified to suit the demands of the research situation (Cooke & Cox, 2005);
  • The research is process is cyclical (Schmuck, 2006; Riel, 2010);
  • There is leaning toward practitioners as researchers (Mertler, 2006; Walter, 2009);
  • No great attempts at objectivity are intended (Kock, 2005);
  • The inquiry has a social dimension (Walter, 2009, IISD, 2010).

What sets action research apart from other research approaches is its cyclical nature. This means that as a research method, it proceeds through a chain of steps repeatedly. Unlike traditional research, action research does not end upon the determination of findings and the formulation of conclusions – on the contrary, this sparks a renewal of the research process. Hence, action research follows what Riel (2010) calls “progressive problem solving” (see Figure 1).

In the entire research process, there could be multiple cycles and multiple foci of the study. In one research cycle, an action research proceeds in five general steps: “1. identifying an area of focus; 2. Developing an action plan; 3. collecting data; 4. analyzing and interpreting data; 5. reflecting” (Herr, Anderson, & Herr, 2005, p. 15). Beginning with the identification of the problem, the researcher/s come up with research questions and identifies the type of data needed. Types of data involved in action research can be quantitative or numerical, qualitative or descriptive, but usually both (Creswell, 2005). After data collection, the researcher/s interpret and analyze data. Conclusions are the drawn followed by a period of reflection which researchers engage in to be able come up with another plan of action to improve practice. This goes on until the problem identified is solved or objectives are met (Koshy, 2005).

Another important characteristic of action research is that it is value-laden. It rejects neutrality and instead, situates its inquiry in a setting where there are conflicting values or power differentials. It challenges traditional notions of power and values and investigates a problem by analyzing day-to-day realities of the people or community involved. Still another important characteristic of action research is its reflexivity. Reflexivity is essential to action research because it aims to interrogate and examine received proposals for change or improvement by analyzing who benefits of actions implemented in the end (Craig, 2009).

Since the foundation of action research by acknowledged pioneer Kurt Lewin, several approaches have emerged and albeit similar in purpose, differ in method and steps toward inquiry (Craig, 2009). Reviewed are three action research methodologies that have been used by researchers in higher education and other disciplines to come up with solutions to pressing problems: practical, participatory, and teacher action research. A discussion of advantages and disadvantages of action research is also discussed.

Practical action research

Practical action research focuses on a specific research question with the aim of improving practice (Schmuck, 2006). This is sometimes referred to as “practical-deliberative” action where the researcher (an outsider) collaborates with practitioners in identifying research problems, its causes, and possible forms of intervention. Kemmis (2009) defines it as “action research which sharpens individual practical reasoning” (p 76). Problem identification is done after dialogue between research and practitioner until consensus is reached. In this sense, the end of practical action research is “to improve practice through the application of the personal wisdom of the participants” (Grundy, as cited in Pine, 2008, p. 76).

Practical action research was influenced by Lewin’s research within organizations which relied heavily on group dynamics, field theory, and T-groups. While practical action research works toward the improvement of practice, it takes a conservative stance and works in reforming the status quo without addressing power structures or differentials.

Practical action research is also a vehicle toward generating practical knowledge (Manfra, 2009). Supporters of practical action research believe that practical knowledge is the most important form of knowledge in teaching (Koshy, 2005) and that the focus of action research must be on teacher’s issues and problems because they produce knowledge helpful to them in redefining their profession.

Practical action research is more concerned with examining “real classrooms and real schools” (Manfra, 2009, p. 2). In the context of higher education, practical action research aims to help teachers become better practitioners. Because “Conducting research has helped teachers we know to consolidate new knowledge, learn about new issues, and develop new teaching methods and strategies” (p. 176). Proponents of practical action research emphasize the practicality of action research for teachers as they strive to become better practitioners. Since “practical inquiry is more likely to respond to the immediacy of the knowledge needs teachers confront in everyday practice and to be foundational for formal research by providing new questions and concerns,” (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, as cited in Mertler, 2006, p. 43) practical action research is deemed to be the more authentic methodology for education practitioners.

There are criticisms on the authenticity of practical action research (Kemmis, 2009). Some have accused practical action research as straying from the unique spirit of action research because it was influenced by techniques and inputs of “outsiders” (Pine, 2008). In effect, it ran the risk of research questions being “externally formulated” and issues which were not reflective of real sentiments and problems of practitioners (Kemmis, 2009). Practical action research is often associated with testing the effectiveness of practices or the applicability of findings conducted elsewhere to local settings. While in general, these studies may contribute to the improvement of practice, practical action research becomes vulnerable to being exploited to legitimize reputations of outsiders’ reputations than being applied meaningfully in practice (Ary et al., 2009).

Participatory action research (PAR)

While practical action research is deliberative in purpose, participatory action research takes on a more emancipator role. Traditional research seeks only in the investigation of phenomenon whereas the critical analysis is entrenched in PAR. While practical action research only describes classrooms and schools, PAR is more concerned with how to change structures and in the transformation of society. PAR “promotes emancipatory praxis in the participating practitioners; that is, it promotes a critical consciousness which exhibits itself in political as well as practical action to promote change” (Grundy, as cited in Manfra, 2009, p. 4). A primary aim of PAR is to “transforming educational theory and practice toward emancipatory ends and thus raising fundamental questions about curriculum, teachers’ roles, and the ends as well as the means of schooling” (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, as cited in Manfra, 2009, p. 5). As a result, PAR has two overarching objectives (Cooke & Cox, 2005):

  • Knowledge production and action for the benefit of a group of people through study, research, education, and sociopolitical action.
  • Empowerment of people by enabling them to construct and use their own knowledge.

The key elements in PAR are participation and action (IISD, 2009). These elements are the foundation of the PAR method. With action, research entails beyond merely seeking information but having that action factor that enables positive change. With participation, research should be a participatory process with “equal and collaborative” involvement groups or communities of interest. Hence, unlike practical action research, PAR does away with “process consultancy” or the use of “outsider experts” going into communities and examining, theorizing, and proposing solutions for problems (Kemmis, 2009). The research topic, questions, and solutions must emerge from the communities themselves.

Practical action research is not intended to be participatory because the aim is generally extractive; meaning, researchers retain power over process. PAR on the other hand, seeks at empowering the community of interest by opening up the entire research process to their participation. Practical action research is collaborative and is not shy on taking outside partners in planning, data gathering, and data analysis phase. PAR’s research goals are politicized and aims to illuminate on how social, economic, and political constraints affect the marginalized and powerless sectors in society (GDRC, 2009).

Teacher action research

Teacher action research is “research that is done by teachers for themselves” (Johnson, as cited in Mertler, 2006, p. 72). This type of action research enables teachers to make their own classrooms, their methods of instruction and assessments the focus of the study in order to inform and improve practice. Teacher action research benefits teachers by allowing them to understand their work better and from there, come up with ways to improve their effectiveness in the classroom. As a teacher-centered approach to action research, teacher-action research acknowledges first and foremost that the teacher is the most knowledgeable person when it comes to conditions on the ground and recognizes their expertise in carrying out research for the improvement of educational processes and outcomes.

There are several motivations for adopting teacher action research:

  • This approach respects and gives significant to the position of the teacher about the problems and issues at the classroom level. Simply put, it acknowledges the teacher as a “local expert” who has more knowledge about classroom issues than outside experts or consultants (Mertler, 2006).
  • By acquiring data about their own classrooms and practices, teachers are better situated to reflect upon them and are in a better position to implement policies or measures that will enhance their effectiveness.
  • Teacher action research is a feasible way in improving instructional practice and enhancing the intellectual environment among educators.
  • Educators are uniquely positioned to evaluate the classroom situation, implement plans of action, and evaluate them afterwards (Creswell, 2005).

Methods, data collection, and analysis

The three forms of action research do not differ in their methodology but in the assumptions made and participants’ worldviews that influence the choice of methodology to be used in implementing the action research (Grundy, as cited in Manfra, 2009). The method of action research involves four general stages of collectively 1) planning, 2) acting, 3) observing and 4) reflecting. This phase leads to another cycle of action, in which the plan is revised, and further acting, observing and reflecting undertaken systematically to work towards solutions to problems whether of a practical or emancipatory nature.

Action research accommodates all types of data collected through various techniques. Action research even considers it important to collect multiple measures on the variables of interest in a given study. It allows – and in fact, encourages – the researcher to triangulate the collected data for greater research credibility. There are four main categories of data collection in action research (Craig, 2009; Mertler, 2006; Cooke & Cox, 2005):

  • Observations recorded through fieldnotes or journals to describe in detail what is seen and heard.
  • Interview data through interviews or surveys.
  • Existing documents or records such as lesson plans, student portfolios, school newspapers, minutes of meetings, attendance records, etc.
  • Quantitative measures such as ratings, checklists, tests, or scoring rubrics.

Data analysis in action research occurs beginning data collection and afterwards. Most quantitative researchers begin analyzing data after all data is gathered. Qualitative researchers begin analyzing data at the start of the data collection process. Action research combines both processes. Johnson (as cited in Mertler, 2006) suggests that “as you collect your data, analyze them by looking for themes, categories or patterns that emerge” (p. 87). Analyzing data allows other foci to emerge and influences the research on what other data to look for. Data analysis is not really as exhaustive or as complex in action research as it is with traditional research. However, action research lately has been influenced to adopt more quantitative analysis in order to establish integrity and credibility in the findings. Coding, content analysis, and other qualitative forms of analysis are sometimes buffered with inferential statistics to boost credibility (Sagor, 2005).

Critique of action research

Action research is applied, empowering, collaborative, democratic and emancipatory. Unlike other research methods, it offers practical solutions toward positive change in practice and in society. It also has its flaws. Its disadvantages include:

Subjectivity. One of the main criticisms of action research is that when left unchecked, results are laden with subjectivity (Kock, 2005). There is a tendency for the researcher to be over-involved to the extent that personal biases come into play in the analysis of the findings.

Vulnerability to pressure. Another risk factor in doing action research is that the researchers are often subordinates in an organizational setting. When the researcher is an insider in an organization, power relations and differentials may complicate the conduct. Researchers might be pressure or coerced to alter the findings to suit organizational objectives (Noffke & Somekh, 2005.

Time consuming. The cyclical research process in action research is aimed at understanding and action. The initial research question is rough and may be refined thereafter depending on initial findings. Critics of action research question the “fuzzy methodology” in action research and the equally “fuzzy answers” that it gets (Walter, 2009). The redefinition of the research question and the refining of methodology takes time, making the entire research process time-exhaustive and complex. In particular, PAR is inherent undefined in terms of end date. There is no clear timeline when the research is stopped because technically, it stops only upon the resolution of the problem. In terms of knowledge production, PAR is unpredictable and is unlikely to be included in referred journals or get competitive funding (GDRC, 2009).

Proposed action research process

Despite acknowledged weaknesses, action research is still a viable tool among education leaders in influencing change within the organization. I propose a collaborative teacher action research to enhance professional identity of mid-career faculty leaders through mentoring activities. Enhancing the professional identity of teachers is important especially as they transition into later leadership roles. Like any organization, teachers need to be part of an active and supportive community to guide them in the process of transition. Some teachers in my local setting are ill-prepared to take on leadership roles. Mentoring has been found to improve self-awareness, skills in collaboration, leadership skills, sense of community and commitment to the teaching profession.

Since this is a collaborative teacher action research, I will find other teacher-researchers willing to work with me to address the problem of leadership preparation among mid-career educators. We will need to establish understanding about action research as a way to improve leadership capabilities among teachers. Since this is a collaborative research, workload and responsibilities will be divided through consensus and everyone will be a co-researcher to the project. The research action process will proceed in eight steps (Mertler, 2006):

  • Identify the problem (lack of leadership preparation among mid-career teachers)
  • Gather information (done through informal interviews)
  • Review related literature (research on possible solutions)
  • Develop a research plan (meet with co-researchers and come up with a plan)
  • Implement the plan and collect the data (through questionnaires, interviews)
  • Analyze the data (content analysis, descriptive statistics)
  • Develop an action plan (plan a mentoring strategy to solve the problem)
  • Share and communicate results
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