Action research: when the practitioner becomes the researcher. An essay by Dr Penny Lacey

pjl3In this article I am intending to describe and explore action research and show how I have used the approach in my own educational research. I will also provide some examples of projects written up for master's dissertations in the hope that you, the reader, will be encouraged to conduct your own action research studies, though not necessarily for an academic qualification. 

Biography: Dr. Penny Lacey: I am a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham's School of Education (UK) where I run a distance education programme in severe, profound and complex learning difficulties and disabilities. I began as an infant teacher in a mainstream school but quickly moved into special education to work with children with severe and profound and multiple learning disabilities (SLD/ PMLD). After 15 years in the classroom (plus some management experience) I moved into higher education to train others to teach children with SLD/ PMLD and conduct research. I have now been in higher education for 20 years. During these 20 years, I have also run courses in schools and worked alongside staff in classrooms, offering new ideas on working with individuals with PMLD. 

What is action research?

Fundamentally, action research is about practitioners investigating and evaluating their own work (McNiff and Whitehead, 2006). It provides a framework for developing what practitioners do and one of the most important aspects of the approach is its capacity to enable practitioners to change their practice (Taylor, Wilkie and Baser, 2006).  Cohen, Manion and Morrison (2007, p 297) describe action research as a 'powerful tool for change and improvement at a local level'.  

Other writers take similar stances but emphasis slightly different aspects. For example, Elliott (1991, p 69) gives this definition. Action research is: 

'the study of a social situation with a view to improving the quality of the action within it.'

– and McNiff (1988, pp 1-2) suggests it is 'a form of self-reflective enquiry' – which enables changing a taken-for-granted situation whilst Denscombe (2003, p 74) emphasises its capacity to help solve practical problems.

Although the textbooks use slightly different terms, there is a consensus on the importance of action research for bringing about change that is based on evidence. Although there are many different types of action research, for example, technical action research, collaborative action research, emancipatory action research, feminist action research (Punch, 2005), in this paper I shall try to refer to the common features of the different varieties, rather than dwell on the differences between the various brands.

The action research framework

'Doing' is a very important aspect of action research and this is often represented as part of a cycle or spiral such as this:

The cycle is a simple but powerful iteration and reiteration of 'plan, do, review' that underpins reflective practice such as that advocated by Schon (1985) and Pollard et al. (2002) for teachers. Reflective teaching stems from the work of Lawrence Stenhouse (1975) who argued that teachers should act as 'researchers' of their own practice, not just planning and acting but also 'monitoring, observing, collecting data on their own and the children's intentions, actions and feelings' (Pollard et al. 2002). This evidence needs to be critically analysed and evaluated to enable teachers to proceed from an evidence base rather than from intuition or accepted practice.

The power of action research

Carr and Kemmis (1986) suggest that action research can be distinguished from the everyday action of practitioners because:

  • it is more systematic and collaborative in collecting evidence on which to base rigorous group reflection
  • it is about problem-posing as well as problem-solving.  It is motivated by a quest to improve and understand the world by changing it and learning how to improve it from the effects the changes have
  • it is research by people on their own work to help them improve what they do

Most importantly, research is characterised by the systematic and deliberate way in which data is gathered and analysed. 

Most action researchers would claim that they have been able to change and develop what happens in their practice, improving their understanding of that practice and often changing their underlying beliefs. Noffke and Zeichner (1987) go further and claim that action research can do the following for teachers: 

1.    It brings about changes in the definitions of their professional skills and roles.

2.    It increases their feelings of self-worth and confidence.

3.    It increases their awareness of classroom issues.

4.    It improves their disposition towards reflection.

5.    It changes their values and beliefs.

6.    It improves the congruence between practical theories and practices.

7.    It broadens their views on teaching, schooling and society.

These are strong claims and suggest that action research is very powerful indeed. Certainly from my own experience of using action research, it has enabled profound changes in the way that I view my practice. For example, I used action research to develop a one-day course in collaboration for multi-disciplinary teams (delivered many times) within which I gradually improved my engagement with the participants to maximise the short time I worked with them. My initial dependence on 'telling' participants became what I called 'teaching through comment'. I encouraged the participants to talk about their practice and then used my understanding of collaboration to comment on that and encourage them to suggest how they might improve. I wanted to be an effective facilitator for their learning so that when they went back to work they had themselves planned what they were going to do. From the data gathered from my own reflections and participants' opinions, I achieved my aim of helping participants to improve their practice as well as improving my own. I will write more about this project later in this article.

The process of action research

Action research is part of the toolbox of reflective practitioners, who need a systematic way of researching what they are doing. McNiff and Whitehead (2006, p 8) suggest that the systematic process encourages researchers to: 

  • take stock of what is going on
  • identify a concern
  • think of a possible way forward
  • try it out
  • monitor the action by gathering data to show what is happening
  • evaluate progress by establishing procedures for making judgements about what is happening
  • test the validity of accounts of learning
  • modify practice in the light of the evaluation 

Bassey (1998, pp 94-5) describes a similar process but the language is a little different – indicating that action research is described in different ways – though there is a consensus on the basic cyclical process:

1.    Define the enquiry.

2.    Describe the situation.

3.    Collect evaluative data and analyse it.

4.    Review the data and look for contradictions.

5.    Tackle a contradiction by introducing change.

6.    Monitor the change.

7.    Analyse evaluative data about the change.

8.    Review the change and decide what to do next.

There are likely to be several cycles such as this as different aspects of the original concern are trialled and evaluated. It might be said that action research is never complete because a good reflective practitioner never stops asking questions and seeking evidence of their practice. However, in practice, the researcher usually has to stop at a certain point to write up what has happened and share that with colleagues.

When to use action research

McNiff and Whitehead (2006, pp 13-14) also helpfully suggest when to use action research:

1.    To improve your understanding.

2.    To develop your learning.

3.    To influence others' learning.

They also suggest questions that are useful to begin your enquiry:

'How do I?'...or 'How can I?'...and 'What is happening here?'

The first question emphasises the importance of the researcher as the centre of the research.  Certainly in the type of action research recommended by McNiff and Whitehead (2006), the practitioner-researcher is paramount. They encourage researchers to develop their own living educational theories whilst transforming their practice. Also emphasising the importance of practitioner-researcher, Robson (2011) suggests that improvement and involvement are central to action research. He writes of:

1.    Improvement of practice.

2.    Improvement of the understanding of practice.

3.    Improvement of the situation in which the practice takes place.

It is often claimed that action research is an excellent way to bring about professional development. It is most usually employed within award-bearing courses, where course participants are encouraged to develop their own practice. They are advised to choose a topic that relates to their everyday practice and work towards understanding and developing that practice. Teachers in special schools choose a range of topics such as: 

  • Intensive Interaction
  • Storytelling
  • Teaching counting
  • Classroom organisation 

These are all topics chosen recently by students on courses related to severe and profound learning difficulties. The storytelling study started with the question, 'How can I enable the pupils with SLD in my Year 6 class to learn to be storytellers?' The project lasted for several weeks during which the teacher tried a range of strategies to help the children understand the elements of a story and how to tell one themselves. She also provided them with a supportive environment and suitable resources and the stories did indeed develop. The final videos show the enormous progress the children made.

Collaborative action research

Although the most important results of action research are centred around the practitioner-researchers themselves, there is a strong emphasis on co-operative, collaborative activity. In my own study, it was the development of the course and my teaching approach that were central but I was also trying to influence other people's practice. The success of my project was based on how well I had changed the practice of others. That is not so in all projects but in order to be fully effective, action research should be, at the very least, shared with others. 

Part of the validation of the study is sharing and justifying what happened with peers who can evaluate the worth of the process. I worked with colleagues at the University of Birmingham to achieve this in my study. Not only did we discuss data collection and where to go next but colleagues also observed my teaching and gave me feedback. I wrote up the whole project as part of my PhD thesis which was then, of course, validated through the marking system.

Whether or not action research is part of an award-bearing course, one of the best ways of informing others of what is happening is to include them in the research right from the beginning. Research in the classroom could involve colleagues or even the pupils themselves to help the practitioner-researcher to devise the study, develop the data-gathering tools, collect the data and help to understand what it means. This can be a powerful experience for anyone who collaborates in the study and potentially more influential in terms of changing practice in an organisation.

Another project in which I have been involved was born of collaboration between the University of Birmingham and Birmingham Central Public Library. Together we asked the question, 'How can we develop a public library that is inclusive of people with learning disabilities?' We planned several different actions based on a combination of our joint analysis and an evaluation provided by a group of self-advocates with learning disabilities.  The group evaluated again after some of the changes had been made. The action clustered around our analysis of the library situation and featured changes in six areas:

1.    The library strategy

2.    Training of staff

3.    Relationships between the stakeholders

4.    Accessible resources

5.    Activities specifically for people with learning disabilities

6.    The physical environment 

Library staff produced an accessible booklet for users to complete the project.

Getting started on a project

I have already mentioned the importance of 'How can I...?' questions and when students find it hard to locate a good topic I usually ask them to brainstorm all the things that really puzzle them or annoy them about their practice. What keeps going wrong? One teacher wanted to improve the time-keeping in her classroom. She worked with pupils with profound learning disabilities and was frustrated by the amount of time that was spent on positioning pupils, fetching resources and completing unimportant tasks. So she asked the question 'How can I increase the amount of time for learning in my classroom?' She went round the action research cycle several times before she and her support staff felt that they had made a significant difference to their own work. They timetabled the use of equipment, purchased and filled boxes of resources and generally became more aware of the purpose of individual activities as opportunities for learning. They realised, for example, that care sessions around going to the toilet were actually excellent learning moments, on which they then capitalised.  It was interesting that although the emphasis was on how to speed up what they saw as interruptions to learning, in actual fact they understood that these times had the potential to be more productive than they originally thought.

Elliott (1991) describes the activity of 'reconnaissance' where the practitioner-researcher attempts to describe and explain the facts of the situation under scrutiny. The student in the time-keeping example began by timing the events of the day and trying to explain why basic organisation was taking so long. The simple answer was that equipment was not stored well and was hard to find, or was being used by another child. The teacher discussed the situation with the support staff and together they devised what they were going to do.

One of the first actions to take in an action research project is often to find out what others have said about your situation. Is there advice in the professional literature? Is there any previous research that sheds light on the situation? What aspects of the topic do other people think are important? Undertaking a brief literature review can be very helpful and essential if the project is part of an award-bearing course. Usually though, a single analysis of the literature is not sufficient and every new action step can bring new need to consult with what others have said on the topic. The literature on classroom management was important at the start of the time-keeping project but it became less important as the staff began to realise the potential of seemingly unimportant activities to pupil learning. It was then important to consult with the literature on Intensive Interaction (Nind and Hewett, 2001) to consider how best to use it as part of toileting procedures.

Once these first enquiries have been taken, it is necessary to think of the first action step.  Elliott (1991) suggests that often this is a cluster of activities rather than neatly one per action cycle. McNiff and Whitehead (2006, p 131) suggest that three questions are useful at this early stage (and again at other steps):

1.    What data am I looking for?

2.    Where will I look for the data?

3.    How will I monitor my practice over time?

To answer the first question, practitioner-researchers need to be focused on the research question which is likely to become more refined as the project develops. For example, if the original concern is 'How can I work more collaboratively in a multidisciplinary team?', this may develop into something specific such as 'How do I learn how to work collaboratively?' and 'How can I organise my time to enable team meeting to occur regularly?'

Locating the data you require can be hard.  If your question is 'How can I improve the interpersonal skills of young people through outdoor activities?', it is important to establish the inter-personal skills that concern you. You may find a published assessment tool that can help you to collect relevant data. You may think that videoing young people during outdoor activities would enable you to carry out an analysis of what is happening. You may feel that interviewing young people to understand their views of inter-personal skills would be useful.  All of these and other things could be helpful and often it is necessary to start with one idea and then add others until there is a range of data collection going on.

Collecting and analysing data

There are no special ways to collect data in action research as the umbrella nature of the approach enables many different data collection methods to be used. Although the approach is more often associated with collecting words rather than numbers, either and both can be used.  Often practitioner-researchers want to show numerical evidence for claiming that change has occurred and so they choose a test to administer at the beginning and the end, like a pre-test, intervention, post-test experiment. Even if measurement is employed, usually there is other data which describes what is happening, enabling the researcher to look at the quality of what is happening as well as measuring changes.

Data can be collected in various ways including observation, interviewing participants, administering written questionnaires, keeping field notes and participant diaries, focus groups and sociometry. Documents can be analysed, for example those concerning risk assessments or therapy programmes. Teachers can collect evidence of pupils' work or can analyse examination results (Hopkins, 2008). There are, of course variants amongst the aforementioned methods.  For example, observation can be participant or non-participant; structured or unstructured or somewhere in between; it can be videoed; it can be carried out by the researcher or another person; it can be based on a published scale or devised especially for the project. Decisions need to be made and ideas put into action.

When I developed the collaboration course, I mainly used a field diary, questionnaires, participant observation, non-participant observation (of me) and interviews with course participants and their managers as data-gathering tools. I found that these tools provided me with a 'triangulation' of perspectives on the course. Triangulation is usually used to examine a phenomenon from more than one point of view. It does not have to refer to three. Two could be sufficient or it could be many more.

Analysing the data is perhaps the point at which some action research projects founder. Often there is a considerable amount of data and this can be overwhelming for practitioners used to making instant decisions based on what they see or hear. As with any research, the researcher needs to get to know the data very well, reading and rereading so that the main ideas can surface and be checked for validity. For example, the six areas that drove our analysis in the Inclusive Libraries project (strategy, training, relationships, resources, appropriate activities and environment) emerged from the data. We then spent time allocating the different data bits to these categories to check that most aspects would fit in; which they did. Addressing each of these categories in the report back covered what we felt were the most important aspects of developing a public library that was inclusive of people with learning disabilities (Lacey and Smith, 2010).

The public libraries project has not quite finished. A video was made of the project and along with a booklet these are waiting to be put onto the website of the British Institute of Learning Disabilities. When those are in the public domain the project can be fully judged. This final stage is very important and usually involves writing up a report or presenting research to a live audience. Clarity is of paramount importance whether the report is an academic dissertation, a summary for a funding body or a PowerPoint presentation to work colleagues.  Cautious claims are also important. Action researchers can be over enthusiastic in their claims, forgetting that their projects are situated very firmly in their own contexts and cannot be generalised. Generalisation is not necessary, though, for an action research project to be useful for others. Practitioners find accounts of other studies really helpful for reflecting on their own situations. They can also be spurred on to carry out studies of their own.


Action research has fundamental principles but is incredibly flexible. It is founded on making changes in practice and can provide a framework for practitioners to make these changes in a systematic way. Critics of the approach suggest that it is not sufficiently rigorous to be considered as serious research (e.g. Gibson, 1985; Lewis, 1987). For their evidence they cite insufficient self-critique and examples of poorly designed studies that have little to offer the world as they are too specific to one situation to be useful to others. It also could be said that action research is little different from 'reflective practice' (Pollard et al. 2002) which one might expect of every teacher, nurse, therapist and social worker. Indeed starting from reflective practice can be very productive for novice action researchers. Usually what shifts reflective practice into action research is collecting and analysing data systematically and then sharing the process and results in a public manner such as a written paper or a presentation.

Action research is a powerful tool and is not difficult to put into practice, though it is usually time consuming if taken seriously. The 'living educational theories' described by McNiff and Whitehead (2006) can be as important as the actual changes you can bring about in practice, as developing your own theories and principles are vital to providing lasting change which can be transferred from situation to situation. Hopefully the short introduction in this article can help you, the reader, to start your own project and develop your practice in a systematic and thoughtful way.

Address for correspondence: Penny Lacey - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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