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Chapter 4: Action Research

Chapter 4:




Introduction to
Qualitative Research
Qualitative Data Collection Techniques
Action Research
Case Study
Other Qualitative Methods
Qualitative Data Analysis
Coding Qualitative Data


When you have completed this chapter, you will be able to:
Define what is action research
Justify the use of action research
Describe the steps involved in action research
Differentiate between the types of action research
Discuss thePREAMBLE
role of ethics in action research

This chapter focus on understanding what is action research and how it is used in

What is action research?
What is not action research?
Why action research
Who gets involved in action
Action research models

Case study: Mathematics

Types of action research

Key Terms


qualitative research. The rationale for using action is discussed and who are the
people are often involved in action research. There are many several models of action
research but in this chapter focus will be one approach that consists of six steps.
Different types of action research are identified as well the issue of ethics is discussed.

Chapter 4: Action Research


Have you reflected or though about your teaching? Have you asked yourself
whether what you have doing in the classroom is really helping all students learn? Is
there another way of doing things? Action research is a qualitative research method
that encourages the practioner (or teacher) to be reflective of his or her own practice
with the aim of improving the system (McNiff, 1994). As schools are increasingly
being held publicly accountable for student achievement, action research may provide
a way for helping schools understand better their problems and to make more
informed decisions about their practice that can lead to desired outcomes.
Action Research



Theories and

Test Ones
Theories in the

Figure 4.1 Action Research bridges theory and practice

Action research is becoming increasingly popular in education (or for that
matter any social organisation). Action research is based on the belief that the teacher
(or practioner) is the best judge of his or her teaching (or practice). Each teacher has
his or her own personal theories of educational practice. Action research helps the
teacher to bridge the gap between theory and practice (see Figure 4.1). Here teachers
have the opportunity to test some of their personal theories in the classroom using
action research.
According to Guskey (2000), educational problems and issues are best
identified and investigated where the action is, i.e. at the classroom and school level.
By bringing research into these settings and engaging those who work at this level in
research activities (i.e. teachers), findings can be applied immediately and problems
solved more quickly. Action research in education has also been called several
different names such as:
classroom research,

Chapter 4: Action Research

self-reflective inquiry,
teacher research,
teacher self-evaluation,
teacher as researcher.

Kurt Lewin is generally considered the father of

action research. He was a German social and experimental
psychologist who was concerned with social problems
especially in addressing conflicts, crisis and bringing about
change within organisations. He first coined the term
action research in his 1946 paper Action Research and
Minority Problems. He was interested in using action
research to investigate into conditions in organisations that
would lead to social action, He proposed a process which
was a spiral of steps involving planning, action and factfinding about the result of the action.
Another proponent of action research was Eric Trist
(1911-1993), an English social psychologist who was
Kurt Lewin
engaged in applied social research. He and Lewin
emphasised on the importance of professional-client
collaboration and were proponents of the principle that decisions are best
implemented by those who help make them.
The main reason for action research is for teacher to engage in the
improvement of their own teaching. Action research leads the teacher to come to their
own understandings about their own teaching. Most importantly, action research seek
to change some of the beliefs teachers have about how students learn and to improve
the quality of education.

Carr and Kemmis (1986) define action research as a form of self-reflective

enquiry undertaken by participants (teachers, students or principals, for
example) in social (including educational) situations in order to improve the
rationality and justice of (a) their own social or educational practices, (b) their
understanding of these practices, and (c) the situations (and institutions) in
which these practices are carried out.

OBrian (1998) defines action research as learning by doing in which a

person identifies a problem, does something to resolve it, see how successful
his or her efforts were, and if not satisfied to try again. To achieve this goal,
the teacher (or practioner) has to work in collaboration with students (or
clients) stressing the importance of co-learning as a primary aspect of the
research process.

McNiff (1994), states that action research when applied to classrooms is an

approach to improving education through change, by encouraging teachers to
be aware of their own practice (reflective), to be critical of that practice, and
to be prepared to change it.

Chapter 4: Action Research

Ferrance (2000) defines action research as a process in which

participants examine their own educational practice systematically
and carefully, using the techniques of research.


a) What is meant
by the statement that action research is the
bridge between theory and practice?
b) Based in the definitions given, provide your definition of
action research?
Is about
c) Relate one example you are not happy
similar to
problem solving?
First, action research is not problemsolving or consulting in the sense that
you are trying to find out what is wrong,
but rather a quest for knowledge
about how to improve. Even though
the word research is used, it is not
about doing research on or about
information on a topic looking for the
correct answers. For example, it is not a
library project where you investigate
about a problem or issue; neither is it
interviewing people to find out why. It involves people (your
students) working to improve your skills, techniques, and strategies,
that is to improve practice.

Second, action research is not about learning why we do certain

Third, the main focus of action research is on turning the

people involved into researchers (OBrian, 1998). People
learn best, and more willingly apply what they have learned,
when they do it themselves. The teacher or practioner as
researcher spends refining the methodological tools to suit the
demands of the situation, and collecting, analysing, and
presenting data on an ongoing, cyclical basis.
Fourth, the researcher makes no attempt to remain objective,
but openly acknowledges his or her bias towards the
subjects or participants
Fifth, action research has a social dimension whereby the
research takes place in real-world situations, and aims to
solve real concerns.

things, but rather how we can do things better. It is about how

we can change our instruction to impact students.

Chapter 4: Action Research
In short, action research is any systematic inquiry conducted by teachers,
principals, school counsellors, or other stakeholders in the teaching/learning
environment to gather information about how their particular school operates, how
they teach, and how well their students learn. This information is gathered with the
goals of gaining insights, developing reflective practice, effecting positive changes in
the school environment, and improving student outcomes and the lives of those
involved (NEFSTEM, 2996).


There are two main reasons for action research. One is to involve practioners
(such as teachers) in their work. The other is to encourage practioners (or teachers) to
be researchers with the purpose of bringing about improvement in what they are
doing. Action research means ACTION, both of the system under consideration and of
the people involved in that system.
The system could mean schools, factories, offices, airlines and so forth.
The people means teachers, managers, workers, supervisors, principals and so
For example, a teacher who discovered that if he adopted an alternative style
of dealing with students with discipline problems, student attention in class greatly
improved. He recommends the alternative method to his colleagues and soon the
whole school is seen practicing the method in all the classes. The action of action
research, whether on a small scale or large scale, implies change in peoples lives, and
therefore in the system in which they live.
Action research is used in real situations, rather than in contrived,
experimental studies, since its primary focus is on solving real problems. It can,
however be used by social scientists for preliminary or pilot research (OBrian, 1998).
However, action research is most often used when you want change to take place
quickly or holistically and is preferred because it is flexible. It is often selected as a
method by practitioners who wish to improve understanding of their practice or an
academic invited into an organisation by decision-makers aware of a problem
requiring action research (OBrian, 1998).


a) How is action research different from problem-solving,
consulting and other types of research?
b) Why would one want to engage in action research?
c) Action research is about how can we do things better

Chapter 4: Action Research

The Teacher who gets involved in action research:

Is not satisfied with the status quo and has the confidence
and resolution to attempt to change what is going on. He
or she will not be satisfied with the present way of doing
things and seeks to change it.
Is resourceful, committed and above all curious.
Refuses to be a servant, but instead wants to be an acting
agent and rise above being a skilled technician and move
towards becoming an educator.
[source: Jean McNiff, Action Research, Principles and
Practice, McNiff, 1988, 50]

Action research is conducted by individuals who want to change their practice.

You are concerned that things are not going as you wish. For example, the curriculum
for teaching reading is not helping children who did not attend preschool and hence
you want to implement a new approach in teaching reading to children who do not
have preschool experience. You want practical solutions to your problem. You may
have read about how others have solved the problem but not sure whether it will
work for your group of pupils because you know that practice is often influenced by
What is the difference between teaching and action research on teaching?
When doing action research you will need to adopt a more systematic approach to
making observations and keeping records than may presently be the case. At various
stages in a project, your findings can be communicated to colleagues through

Chapter 4: Action Research
seminars, conferences and journal publications. There are several other models of the
action research process. In this chapter we will discuss three such models: The
original work of Kurt Lewin, the action research model by Gerald Susman and the
education action research model by Kemmis and McTaggart.
The social psychologist Kurt Lewin was most interested in studying social
issues in organisations. He felt that the best way for an organisation to progress is for
its people to engage in improving their own practice. He stressed the importance of
the researcher to work collaboratively with others. He described action research as
being a spiral of steps: Planning, Acting, Observing and Reflecting (see Figure 4.2).





Figure 4.2 Spiral Steps of Action Research


How can I make my dog better behaved? Perhaps I should take him to
training classes.


I take him to training classes.

Observing: I see how the dogs behave at class.

Reflecting: Perhaps I should do the same at home in a consistent fashion.
[source: Kurt Lewin, 1946. Action Research and Minority Problems,
Journal of Social Issues, 2: 34- 46]
This first phase continues to the second phase of the cycle involving Re-planning,
Acting, Observing and Reflecting. Lewin did not intend for his ideas to be applied in

Chapter 4: Action Research
education as he was more interested in social issues in organisations. However, his
concept crept into education and today his basic model is widely adopted in
educational settings with slight modifications [Refer to the action research model by
Kemmis and McTaggart].
The model by Susman (1983) specifies five phases of the research cycle (see
Figure 4.3). The first step is identification of a problem followed by collection of
information about the problem. Then the data is analysed to find potential solutions
and based on the analysis, one possible solution or intervention is implemented.

4.3 Susmans Action Research Model (1983)
Later the data on the outcome of the intervention is studied and reviewed to
find out how well was the plan was carried out and whether the outcomes was
successful or not. The Problem is reassessed and cycle starts again and continues to
evolve until an adequate solution is found.

What types of person will be involved in action research?

Briefly describe the action research model proposed by
Gerald Susman (1983).
Action research is essentially a series of cycles of REFLECTION,
PLANNING and ACTION. Kemmis and McTaggart (1988) developed a concept for

Chapter 4: Action Research
action research. They proposed a spiral model comprising four steps: planning, acting,
observing and reflecting (see Figure 4.4).

Phase 1

Phase 2

Figure 4.4 Carr and Kemmiss Action Research Model (1986)

The diagram shows the four steps in action; the movement from one critical
phase to another, and the way in which progress may be made through the system.
Action research is all about what happens in the classroom. Teachers are encouraged
to be researchers investigating what is happening in their classrooms.
Basically it is an approach to improve your own teaching practice. You start
with a problem you encounter in your teaching practice. It could be a concern that
students do not spend enough effort in reviewing course materials; or they have great
difficulty learning a particular topic in the course. Faced with the problem, the action
researcher will go through a series of phases (reflect, plan, action, observe) called the
Action Research Cycle to systematically tackle the problem.
In practice, things rarely go perfectly according to plan first time round.
Usually you discover ways to improve your action plan in light of your experience
and feedback from the students. One cycle of planning, acting, observing and
reflecting, therefore usually leads to another, in which you incorporate improvements
suggested by the initial cycle. Projects often do not fit neatly into a cycle of planning,
action, observation and reflection. It is perfectly legitimate to follow a somewhat
disjointed process if circumstances dictate.

Chapter 4: Action Research


I am not happy with the textbook we are using, but it is the only
one available. What can I do about it? I cannot change the book:
should I change my method of using it? Perhaps I should try paired


I show the children how to ask and answer questions of each other
to make otherwise boring material relevant to themselves. We try
out this technique in class.


I join various pairs and listen to their conversations. I record some

conversations. I keep my own notes.


The activity is lively, but some questions wander from the text. I
want to get across the material in the text.


Perhaps I could develop with the children an interview technique,

where A asks B questions which will elicit responses based on the
material. Will that make it boring again? How can I guard against
this? Perhaps I can involve them even more actively.




The children record their own conversations. There are not enough
tape recorders to go around, so they work in fours, taking it in
turns to listen and talk. At the end of the two sets of interviews
they listen and comment on individual recordings.

They really enjoy this. And they seem to be gleaning information

from the text in formulating their own question and answers.
Points to ponder:
Am I correct pedagogically in teaching the content through this
process? I must consult my head of department on this. Should I
aim for this sort of learning more often and with other classes? I
am worried about practical difficulties such as too much noise and
insufficient tape recorder.

[source: Carr, W. & Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming Critical: education, knowledge and
action research. Lewes, Falmer]

Chapter 4: Action Research

Phase 1:
QUESTION YOUR PRESENT PRACTICE (Reflect on your practice)
Before you begin, you should ask yourself the following questions (Barrett and
Whitehead, 1985):
1. What is your concern? Is there something
bugging you that you are not happy about? You
are mathematics teacher teaching primary 3 pupils.
About one-third of pupils in your class are not able
to do fractions. It is already the end of the first
2. Why are you concerned? These one-third of
pupils who are ill-equipped with fractions skills
will find it difficult to cope when they proceed to
the second semester.
3. What do you think you could do about it?
I can do something about it. I have read extensively
about peer-tutoring which works quite in
mathematics teaching.

1. PLAN:
I will reduce the amount of content to be covered. Break it down into smaller
manageable bits. Pupils are broken up into groups of three with one good pupil (i.e.
tutor) assigned to help the other two pupils (i.e. tutee) in the group.
2. ACT:
I begin the lesson with teaching the whole class about fractions. Then, pupils work
in their groups on the problems given to them. The good pupil is told to help the other
two weak pupils in his or her group. My role is that of a facilitator attending to
questions and issues raised by students.
[You have to decide what kind of evidence you need to collect to help you make some
judgement about what is happening]. I join the different groups and listen to their
conversations. I record as much of their conversations as possible which is jotted in a
journal. I keep notes of my impressions.

Chapter 4: Action Research

The lesson is lively but not all students are asking questions. They are not discussing
with other. Some tutors did not know what to do and how to help their groups mates.
This is not what I had in mind. [You have to check that your judgement about what
has happened is reasonable, fair and accurate].
Phase 2:
I have to train pupils on the process of peer tutoring and strategies for
fulfilling their role of tutor or tutee.
I have to device a structured tutoring procedure in which tutors present
material previously covered by the teacher, and provide feedback to the tutee.
2. ACT:
Tutor: The purpose of this lesson is to understand fractions as part of a
whole. (Tutor states the learning objective.) You will practice writing a
number as a fraction by looking at the parts and the whole in different

Tutor: Look at Picture #1. Tell me how many small squares there are in the
Tutee: Four small squares
Tutor: Good! This is the number of small parts in the whole figure. Write that
number in the square at the bottom of the fraction sheet.
Tutor: Now, how many of those small squares are shaded?
Tutee: One small square.

Chapter 4: Action Research
Tutor: Great! This is the number of shaded squares in the whole figure. Write
this number on the top in the shaded square of the fraction sheet.
Tutor: Now we want to name this fraction by using the number of shaded
squares and the number of small squares. What are the numbers?
Tutee: 1 and 4
Tutee: That is correct! To name the fraction we say 1 out of 4. The bar divides
the parts on the top with the whole on the bottom. Another way is to say it is
that 1 shaded square out of 4 squares means , or one fourth.
Record their interactions by placing a tape-recorder in each group. Students are really
enjoying themselves. There is greater group discussion and consensus in decision
Weak pupils when grouped with a good pupil benefits from the peer tutoring process
which results in mastery of skills in fractions. I also realises that tutors tended to drill
their tutees to master the concept of fractions. Peer tutoring should move beyond
drillings skills. Should I aim for this sort of learning more often and with other
classes? I am worried about practical difficulties such as too much noise.

What is the first step in action research?

Describe what is done at the act stage of the process
c) Discuss the role of reflection in action research.


There are different types of action research depending upon
the participants involved. According to Ferrance (2000), a plan of
research can involve a single teacher investigating an issue in his
or her classroom, a group of teachers working on a common
problem, or a team of teachers and others focusing on a school- or
district-wide issue. She identified the following types of action
A) Individual Teacher Research

Chapter 4: Action Research
Individual teacher research usually focuses on a single issue in
the classroom. The teacher may be seeking solutions to problems of
classroom management, instructional strategies, use of materials,
or student learning. Teachers may have support of their supervisor
or principal, an instructor for a course they are taking, or parents.
The problem is one that the teacher believes is evident in his or her
classroom and one that can be addressed on an individual basis.
The research may then be such that the teacher collects data
or may involve looking at student participation. One of the
drawbacks of individual research is that it may not be shared with
others unless the teacher chooses to present findings at a staff
meeting, make a formal presentation at a conference, or submit
written material to a listserv, journal, or newsletter. It is possible for
several teachers to be working concurrently on the
same problem with no knowledge of the work of others.
B) Collaborative Action Research
Collaborative action research may include as few as two teachers or
a group of several teachers and others interested in addressing a
classroom or department issue. This issue may involve one
classroom or a common problem shared by many classrooms. These
teachers may be supported by individuals outside of the school,
such as a university or community partner.
C) School-Wide Action Research
School-wide research focuses on issues common to all. For example,
a school may have a concern about the lack of parental involvement
in activities, and is looking for a way to reach more parents to
involve them in meaningful ways. Or, the school may be looking to
address its organizational and decision-making structures. Teams of
staff from the school work together to narrow the question, gather
and analyse the data, and decide on a plan of action. An example of
action research for a school could be to examine their state test
scores to identify areas that need improvement, and then determine
a plan of action to improve student performance. Team work and
individual contributions to the whole are very important, and it may
be that problem points arise as the team strives to develop a
process and make commitments to each other. When these
obstacles are overcome, there will be a sense of ownership and
accomplishment in the results that come from this school-wide
D) District-Wide Action Research
District-wide research is far more complex and utilizes more
resources, but the rewards can be great. Issues can be
organizational, community-based, performance-based, or processes

Chapter 4: Action Research
for decision-making. A district may choose to address a problem
common to several schools or one of organizational management.
Downsides are the documentation requirements (communication)
to keep everyone in the loop, and the ability to keep the process in
motion. Collecting data from all participants needs a commitment
from staff to do their fair share and to meet agreed-upon deadlines
for assignments. On the positive side, real school reform and change
can take hold based on a common understanding through inquiry.
The involvement of multiple constituent groups can lend energy to
the process and create an environment of genuine stakeholders.
Because action research is carried out in real-world
circumstances, and involves close and open communication among
the people involved, the researchers must pay close attention to
ethical considerations in the conduct of their work. Richard Winter
(1996) lists a number of principles:
Make sure that the relevant persons, committees and
authorities have been consulted, and that the principles
guiding the work are accepted in advance by all.
All participants must be allowed to influence the work, and
the wishes of those who do not wish to participate must be
The development of the work must remain visible and open
to suggestions from others.
Permission must be obtained before making observations
or examining documents produced for other purposes.
Descriptions of others work and points of view must be
negotiated with those concerned before being published.
The researcher must accept responsibility for maintaining
To this might be added several more points:

Decisions made about the direction of the research and the

probable outcomes are collective
Researchers are explicit about the nature of the research
process from the beginning, including all personal biases and
There is equal access to information generated by the process
for all participants

Chapter 4: Action Research

The outside researcher and the initial design team must

create a process that maximises the opportunities for
involvement of all participants.


Discuss the differences between the types of action research.

What are the ethical considerations when doing ethical research ?


Action research
Learning by doing

Chapter 4: Action Research


Action research is a qualitative research method that encourages the practioner

(or teacher) to be reflective of his or her own practice with the aim of
improving the system.

Action research is based on the belief that the teacher (or practioner) is the
best judge of his or her teaching (or practice).

Action research helps the teacher to bridge the gap between theory and
practice where teachers have the opportunity to test some of their personal
theories in the classroom using action research.

Action research in education has also been called several different names such
as classroom research, self-reflective inquiry, teacher research, teacher selfevaluation, teacher as researcher.

Action research is not problem-solving or consulting in the

sense that you are trying to find out what is wrong, but rather
a quest for knowledge about how to improve.

Action research leads the teacher to come to their own understandings about
their own teaching.

Action research adopts a spiral approach comprising four steps: planning

acting, observing and reflecting.

One cycle of planning, acting, observing and reflecting, therefore usually leads
to another, in which you incorporate improvements suggested by the initial

Because action research is carried out in real-world

circumstances, and involves close and open communication
among the people involved, the researchers must pay close
attention to ethical considerations in the conduct of their

Chapter 4: Action Research

Barrett, J & Whitehead. J. (1995) . Supporting teachers in their classroom research.
University of Bath, School of education.
Carr, W. & Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming Critical: education, knowledge and action
research. Lewes, Falmer.
Elliott, J. (1991) Action Research for Educational Change, Buckingham, Open
University Press.
Lewin, K. (1946). Action Research and Minority Problems, Journal of
Social Issues, 2: 34- 46.
McNiff, J. (1988) Action Research: Principles and Practice, Basingstoke, Macmillan
NEFSTEM, The Northeast Florida Science, Technology, and Mathematics Center for
Education. 2006.
OBrien, R. (1998) An Overview of the Methodological Approach of Action
Research. Faculty of Information Studies, University of Toronto
Susman, G.(1983) Action Research: A Sociotechnical Systems Perspective. Ed. G.
Morgan. London: Sage Publications, 95-113.
Winter, R. (1996). Some Principles and Procedures for the Conduct of Action
Research, In Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt (Ed.). New Directions in Action Research,
London: Falmer Press, 16-17.


Chapter 4: Action Research