|PART ONE: GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS
Teachers have an enormous fund of knowledge about their own practice, their children and their classrooms. Much of the time though, they are told by external forces what constitutes meaning in their own unique environments. Action Research empowers classroom teachers to construct their own knowledge and to make it available to others for their benefit and the benefit of their pupils.
This Guide aims to give practical advice to student teachers who wish to embark on an Action Research enquiry. It will be divided into four sections; the first will comprise a guide to those aspects which need to be borne in mind throughout the enquiry; the second will deal with individual aspects of the research; the third will look at a quality which always emerges with Action Research, that of collaboration; and the fourth will constitute some reflections by a P.G.C.E. student, Jonathan Jones (1990/91) about the process of working with Action Research. In addition this section will include some conclusions from the Final Reports of four students (1991-92) Throughout the Guide I will be using case-study material from Justine Hocking (1991/92), two of last year’s P.G.C.E. students, Jayne Prior (1990/91) and Jonathan, of the enquiries that they conducted on first Teaching Practice, and from an Undergraduate Biological Sciences student, Zac Watkins (1990/91) and the work he did on Second Teaching Practice. The whole Guide will take you through the various stages and try to answer the questions that have occurred most often in my experience of advising on Action Research.
So there will be explanatory notes first on the fusion between the two terms ‘Action’ and ‘Research’, the Criteria for Success, and also the importance of exercising your professional judgement about confidentiality, and in addition a section about the significance of Validation Groups. The Guide will look at the framework of an enquiry and then offer sections on the significant aspects. These will include finding the question, the role of a ‘critical friend’ and that of the observer, and then subsequent ones on the use of talk, writing, and the notion of ‘making public’ which must be borne in mind during any enquiry, some words on collaboration and then Jayne’s and Jonathan’s reflections. This is followed by a section on the validity of an Action Research Enquiry and how it must relate to pupil-learning.
I taught for ten years in a mixed 11-18 rural comprehensive. My main subjects were English and German, but I also taught some lower school Music and R.E., together with General Studies in the Sixth form. I was redeployed due to falling rolls. I secured a secondment on full pay to read for an M.Ed. at Bath University in 1988/89, during which time I had the good fortune to meet Jack Whitehead who has spent the last eighteen years familiarising the educational world with the values of a qualitative approach to educational research.
Put simply there are two approaches to educational research. One is called quantitative, and the other qualitative. The former concerns itself with measurements of one sort or another, and finds itself often expressed as statistics for example. Within the quantitative approach lies the implicit assumption that all interactions between individuals in places such as classrooms can be measured. Action Research believes that such human interactions may not be adequately defined through numbers and furthermore that there is a valid reality in the insights of individual teachers and pupils who struggle systematically to bring the truth and reality of their settings into formal expression. To put it very simply: the quantitative approach measures the number, length, etc., and the qualitative approach tries to describe the quality and flavour of an experience, to breathe life into words and cross barriers of understanding and insight so that you might exclaim: ‘That’s the way it is. I see it now!’. This is not to suggest however, that quantitative methods of analysis cannot be used within a qualitative framework if this appears to be required by the context of the enquiry. Indeed quantitative analysis can throw useful light onto a variety of qualitatively held judgements.
My own concern for the individual is already documented (‘The Diary of a Frog Lover’, 1988, M.Ed. thesis, 1989, ‘Making Sense of an Educational Experience’, 1989, ‘A Celebration of an Experiment with Freedom’ 1990,). I believe that true education is about unique people making sense of their worlds and their subsequent development into positions in which they can make the most of their innate qualities, and that it should be the purpose of schools to facilitate this process to the best of their abilities.
After my M.Ed., I did not go back to Shropshire, and instead decided that I would like to write fiction for a while. This I did, but I was drawn more and more to work within the School of Education at Bath University with the emerging initiative within Avon to promote all staff development in schools through Action Research. I was involved in the training of some of the county’s eighty advisory teachers and the hundreds of Staff Development Tutors. Over the last two years I have become involved with student teachers at the School of Education here who have taken on Action Research as part of their Teaching Practice.
1) Aims of the Guide
For my own research I am interested in seeing how I can best facilitate those who are beginning action enquiries, and that aim constitutes one of the reasons for the writing of this Guide.
Another is the firm belief, founded on personal experience, that Action Research provides a facilitative framework for greater effectiveness in one’s practice through greater self-knowledge.
Thirdly I must admit to a feeling of dissatisfaction with an idea implicit within the INSET mentality that teachers need to be told what to do in their own classrooms because the outsider knows best. I actually believe that teachers can generate their own knowledge for themselves and colleagues, and that Action Research will assist greatly in this process. You as student-teachers are in an excellent position while starting your professional lives, to accustom yourselves to an educational research method which asks you to isolate those aspects that require improvement, and the means whereby you can achieve this improvement.
Please note. It is you who must decide what needs to be improved, not anyone else.
I believe that until teachers do process their own understanding and use it to benefit themselves and their pupils, they will be forever at the mercy of the vagaries of politicians who seem at best to be motivated to make educational changes for change’s sake; and at worst by a cynical manipulation of professionals into a belief that others will automatically know better than they in the construction of the practitioners’ own knowledge. This lays the foundation for the deskilling of the teaching work-force into a group of technicians carrying out instructions from on high.
Teachers tend to denigrate their own experience and not assume that it can have any general applicability. They know it’s real but they cannot necessarily formulate it usefully. First, Action Research would question the dubious conclusion that the individual’s conclusions cannot hold general applicability, and secondly it offers a way whereby the teacher’s perceptions can take on this generally useful form. It would argue that teachers undergoing systematic enquiries, whose aim is to improve the quality of learning for their learners, have indeed much to say that can and should form part of the professional development of the individual. By sharing that development there is the potential for collaborative growth as well.
WHO IS IT FOR?
‘Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.’
(T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding.”)
Action Research is for those people who wish to improve the quality of learning for their learners. This Guide is written specifically with practising teachers in classrooms in mind and the examples in the book will be drawn from those sources, but is applicable to anyone in a situation involving the development of self-understanding for the purposes of enhancing any learning situation. So it is for student and experienced teachers from any type of school - infant, junior, secondary, special, or for lecturers in Further and Higher Education, or for staff at a community school, or sixth-form college. It is also for administrators in these institutions whose activities have a direct bearing on the learning environment and therefore shape the quality of learning possible in their establishments.
WHAT IS IT?
‘What we call the beginning is often the end’
(T.S.Eliot. ‘Little Gidding’.)
It is a practical answer to a question of principle: ‘How can I improve the way I teach the tenth years on a Friday afternoon?’ for example; or ‘How can I enhance the status of dance within the school’s curriculum?’ People engaging in Action Research believe that individual teachers within the classroom are in the best possible position to reflect on their practice, and a systematic application of a cyclical form of reflection and adaptation of methods as a result of that reflection as the most efficacious way of improving existing practice.
Let us imagine the process as a circle of some sort, or as a series of interrelated steps in which the beginning and the end are fused. The following is a guide to the stages inherent in an Action Research enquiry:
1) Externally your enquiry begins with a question (although the insights and the need to solve something arise out of your past practice and experience). There is something happening now about which you are uneasy, and would like to be able to tackle. So you formulate a question, like, ‘How can I enable my class of non-examination eleventh year pupils to get the most out of their last term at the school, when it is obvious from the attitude of some of them that they are bored and want to move on?’
2) You decide on a solution. What would a solution to your particular concern look like? Perhaps you decide to give your pupils more autonomy in their choice of learning areas for their last term, or you decide that you would make the most of existing links between your school and work so that they have more of an idea of what it is they can do to prepare for the experience of life outside school.
3) You implement your perceived solution. Perhaps you arrange for speakers from outside school in employment in the area to talk to them. You might also set up opportunities for them to study application procedures, interview techniques, engage in some role-play on it, and the like.
4) You observe how it appears to be going. Many of the pupils seem to be more positive in their attitude and this is remarked upon by visitors and observers. You ask them what they think of what is happening as well.
5) You reflect on it and either carry on, or adapt, or change your plan altogether.
6) The cycle begins again.
2) ACTION OR RESEARCH
When I was working with the Staff Development Tutors in May 1990, I found that one of the common worries was how people were meant to respond to the seeming duality of the name ‘action research’.
“Isn’t it one or the other?” one of the teachers asked me.
“Isn’t research about reading books all the time? When are we supposed to have time to do that?” remonstrated another.
Of course it can be very illuminating to read about the conclusions that others have come to. Indeed should not all teachers be in the business of adding to educational knowledge through their practice, as I state at the beginning of this Guide? This short chapter is an attempt to answer the questions that have been raised to me and to show that the name ‘Action Research’ is entirely appropriate for its various purposes.
TALKING IT THROUGH
WITH A COLLEGUE
(look at S.D.P. - School
CARRYING OUT PLAN
OBSERVING EFFECT OF
WRITING A JOURNAL
MAKING FINDINGS PUBLIC
It should be clear from this that the name encompasses the fusion between the two terms. Yes, there is research (what is the collection of data, the discussions, the writing, reading and reflection if it is not that?) but there is action as well, in as much as the researcher needs to implement strategies as a result of growing insights, s/he needs to plan and act on the solutions that s/he imagines. However to split the two terms in this way is arbitrary and enables some of the power of the fusion to trickle away.
The dual concepts of Action Research need to be unpicked. It is the fusion between the two notions that gives Action Research its enormous potential for the improvement of practice and the quality of learning for the learner.
3) CRITERIA FOR SUCCESS
You’ve got an action enquiry underway. How do you know when you’ve made an improvement in the quality of your practice? By what criteria can you judge it? The following are some pointers towards how you might do that. I will give you a scenario, my own, because it is a real enquiry, not just because I am an egotist! I want to facilitate in the processes of people beginning Action Research enquiries. I have to ensure at all times in this facilitation that I am doing what I set out to do, and that I build the criteria for the success of my research into every stage of the research. I will take you through this in the form of the Action Research enquiry itself, thus showing what an integral part it is in the proceedings. I will use the part of my research that has revolved around Justine to illustrate my point.
a) The criteria for what constitutes success or failure must be built into every stage of your enquiry. I set out to facilitate Justine in her undertaking of an action enquiry on her second teaching practice. I believed at the beginning of the year (and still do) that she had to discover for herself what her concerns and values in the classroom were. I believe that it is only through an exploration of our values both through reflection and in action that we can empower ourselves professionally, and come to know ourselves through our practice for the ultimate benefit of our learners. I believed that I could help her, through discussion and writing, to articulate and act on her concerns and values. To do that I would have to be available to answer her queries, to challenge her insights and where appropriate, give advice. Something was needed in the quality of my facilitation which would give Justine a sense of the importance of coming to know her own values and realities in her own classroom based upon systematic research into her own practice. It was in the formulation of my own concern for her to maximise her own insights that subsequently meant, in Action Research terms, I had found the question: ‘How can I best facilitate Justine’s growing awareness of her own values in ways which will be able to help her to articulate and live out those values in the classroom and in her subsequent writing about them?’
b) I then had to imagine a solution. I saw that this would require a multifaceted approach. We would have to work together, exchange ideas, both verbally and in writing. We would have to keep in close touch before, during, and after her teaching practice. We would have to keep open a channel of communication even at times when it would be difficult and seemingly impractical. I would have to make available to her, my Guide (as it stood then). And these ploys I endeavoured to undertake. So later on if I could make claims, with the help from the insights of others, to the reality of my imagined solution, if I could at the end of the academic year point to the fact that I had engaged in these activities, and more importantly that these activities have indeed enhanced Justine’s understanding of significant factors which she has encountered in her initial forays into Action Research, then I could start making claims to the validity of my own perceived success. You, the reader, can study Justine’s report now with certain questions in mind about the validity of my claim that it was partly through following my imagined solution which facilitated Justine in her production of her action enquiry report.
c) After I imagined my solution, I had to act. I had to facilitate in a manner, and with the content that would best enable Justine to begin an understanding of Action Research. My English Elective and my P.G.C.E. Tutorial Groups (both of which Justine attended) meant that I was in almost daily contact with her for certain parts of the course. At this stage I had to engage in discussion with her and others about how I could best go about my proposed course of action. Would success really look as I expect it to, or was I missing something? Justine wrote to me and I to her. We had taped conversations. We talked to others about what we were doing.
d) Then came the Observation stage of the enquiry. This happens sometimes simultaneously with the action stage. If others could confirm my own perceptions of what I was trying to do in relation to my research and Justine’s, I knew this would increase self-confidence and make the claim of validity in the research even more telling later on. I kept a log of what was happening (see chapter on Writing for further explanation of the necessity of discovery and self-monitoring through writing), I talked to as many students as I could, I wrote the earlier draft of this Guide for the scrutiny of others, and hopefully as well to facilitate your practice in Action Research, and I talked to impartial outsiders who can be very helpful in gaining another perspective. I had almost daily discussions with Jack Whitehead, my research supervisor, about my work. And all the time I was trying to ensure that the criteria for success were in the forefront of my mind. This enabled me to be consistent. And consistency in my experience is one of the key concepts in Action Research. If everything you do is consistent - you outline at the start what you need to do, what qualifies as success in your book - you follow it through - you keep to a systematic pattern of self-questioning - you involve others in the development of your perceptions to ensure a greater degree of generalisability and validity - you analyse how the enquiry is progressing at all stages of the research - you keep the relevant people informed of what is happening - you open it up in writing to some form of public scrutiny - if you do all that, you are being entirely consistent with the notion of a systematic endeavour to improve your practice, and can actually make the claim to validity should anyone question your research.
e) Then I had to reflect on what happened. I amassed a great deal of data on the teaching aspect of my research and I used it to inform me about whether I was meeting my own criteria for success. I talked to Jack Whitehead at every stage of the enquiry, and always kept Justine informed about my thinking, as I expected her to keep me informed about hers. When I’d done all that I’d proposed, I was then in a position to see what needed revising, given whether I had succeeded, or to what degree I had or hadn’t, in attaining what it was I set out to do in the first place. After Justine had written her report which forms the second part of this publication, I wrote an explanation of how the earlier draft of the Guide was metamorphosed into her essay. This writing will form the basis for my transfer from my M.Phil. studies to a Ph.D.. I have subsequently shown this paper to Justine who has agreed that it represents a fair description and explanation for our joint processes. This corroboration makes me feel a greater degree of certainty in any claims I make about the validity of the writing that I have done about our work together.
f) Next comes the modification stage. The learning that I have been engaged in on my research will lead now to revisions in the ways in which I will facilitate students in the academic year 1992/93. I am now attempting to evaluate the work that I did with Justine this year and seeing what I need to do differently next year. Adaptation, modification, openness to change and collaborative evaluation are necessary to move the research forward. I have shown Justine the paper I have written in order to give her an opportunity of disputing my insights and findings, and also because I do not believe it is right to speak on behalf of others without their full co-operation. I make the point here, which I believe to be crucial, that my research has been with Justine and not on her. Together my students and I have attempted to discuss what I can do better for next year’s students as I facilitate them in their action enquiries.
It is in our collaborative evaluation that improvement and moving forward are facilitated. Justine was able to tell me where my help turned out to be a hindrance, or when my conclusions were mistaken and where I will need to re-think my approach for next year. Similarly I was able to point out to Justine when I thought that her conclusions were wide of the mark. To use the old cliché, we only really learn from our mistakes.
So it should be clear that the criteria towards which you are targeting the research, are a fundamental part of the research itself. Process and product are fused in this form of enquiry.
4) CONFIDENTIALITY AND ETHICS
At times during your research you will be required to write down impressions, ideas, judgements of a kind, and conclusions about people, and/or the school in which you have been conducting your research. You must be aware at all times of the possibly sensitive nature of the information you have at your disposal. Some staff, or even the pupils if they know exactly what you are doing, might express concern at the uses to which you are going to put your findings. And quite right too. Imagine if you were going to be discussed in someone else’s journal, or your work was going to appear as an example, good or bad, in someone else’s research Report. Or you were going to be the subject of discussion. How would you feel?.. Quite! There are times when you are going to have to exercise your professional judgement about how sensitive the material is. For example, I have decided in integrating Jayne’s draft Report into my chapter on Writing, to delete the name of the school. Otherwise, I believe that we might together be doing something unethical. Had she had the time to gain the staff’s permission, then I would not have felt the necessity for censoring that information. Justine expressed concern that certain passages in her report might be misread or in fact be unwise to publish. Together we decided which parts of the report it might be better not to include in the final version available towards the end of this Guide.
The following comprise answers to the questions most commonly raised by action researchers to me and others about confidentiality during the time I have been involved with Action Research, and here I draw on my own diary-entries written over the last two years which document such things.
1) Remember that research always involves others - staff, pupils, administrators, etc. and that you have to exercise your professional judgement as to how much you require their permission to carry out your research.
2) If you are writing entirely confidential notes as part of your own learning development you do not need to ask for permission from anyone for anything you may write about.
3) If you wish, however, to share your notes with a critical friend then you have to start thinking about what you should show that person. Be discrete if necessary.
4) If you are going to make anything public, and you name the school, do you name the staff, or any pupils? And if the answer to any of those is yes, then you must ask permission from those concerned. As student teachers, you have the power to name pupils without their permission, but people following an Action Research enquiry do not transgress that rule. Pupils are of paramount importance and you do not ride roughshod over their rights. You may have the power, but you do not have the right. If you are going to name pupils, ask their permission. I think that is a matter of courtesy anyway. (When I wrote my essay, “A Celebration of an Experiment with Freedom”, I had already asked the children if they minded it being displayed.) If the nature of your research is such that you cannot tell the children exactly what your research is, because the telling of it might damage what you are trying to do, then disguise their names in a Report. However if you have not described or named the school, then giving the first name of the child is acceptable. Use your discretion.
5) Where appropriate, you should give copies of a written Report to anyone whose work you have commented on during your research. This will ensure that you are very very careful about value-judgements concerning your colleagues or pupils.
6) Some people find the idea that you might be commenting on them very threatening, as indeed you might. You must always convey the point that what you are seeking to improve is your practice for the benefit of your pupils.
In a recent letter to an M.Ed. student here at the University who is looking into her own facilitation skills, in a school in Bath, I wrote the following:
Confidentiality and ethics of such research. Bear in mind, Maggie, the things we said this morning. Who is your audience? What preconceptions are they likely to have? How will they understand what you have written? Will they understand it in the way you want them to? Your writing has to lead them to your conclusions and the only way you can do that is to write with discretion, authenticity and clarity. A difficult combination. Who will read the final document? What use might they make of it? (13.7.92)
In conclusion, remember this golden rule: treat others as you would want to be treated yourself.
5) VALIDATION GROUPS
(See also the section in Writing chapter about who you are writing for.)
These are groups which are formed by the action researcher in collaboration with trusted colleagues, who are usually themselves engaged in action enquiries of their own. They serve the function of enhancing the researcher’s perceptions and methods of making claims about pupil learning. They come into their own when the researcher has reached the stage of writing up in draft form. Such a group meets at prearranged times, before which it is sensible to have circulated the draft-report, in order to give colleagues enough time to read and reflect on it. The aim of such a meeting is to help the researcher move forward, to challenge, support and guide. Its principle tenet must be the willingness to enter into the researcher’s reality, and to enable this, the researcher’s draft-report must be unambiguous, clearly written, and with the emphasis on the integration between teacher-development and pupil learning. The following extract (first in written note form) is from a validation meeting held on 13th May 1991, in which the question of the sharing of a communal reality was problematic. Zac you have already met, was talking to Jenny, a P.G.C.E. Science student.
Zac. I found that what I needed to do was against my principles.
Moira. Can you tell us your question again?
Zac. Yes. “How can I gain the level of respect I need in certain situations without going against my educational values?”
Jenny. And what are they, your values?
Zac. That’s the point. You see I wanted them to be able to respond to my commands if it were absolutely necessary, but without going against what I believe in: that we are equal in the classroom. And I can’t do it. It’s not possible. I realise now, that I had to be hard at first, and then I could soften up a bit.
Moira. Jenny, you look as if you don’t like that.
Jenny. I don’t. I think it’s awful. It’s really sad.
Moira. But it’s what he found.
Jenny. Yes I know, but I still don’t like it.
Zac. Nor do I. But it’s the reality for me.
Moira. And that’s the point. For Zac. One of the purposes of this group is to come to share a reality that can be accepted by everyone. I don’t mean that you have to agree with what Zac is saying for yourself, Jenny, but if Zac can show us that he has been entirely consistent, that he’s been through a process which he has systematically analysed and in the analysis of his experience he has been clear, unambiguous and consistent within himself, then surely we as a group have to accept his findings as valid.
Murmurings of assent as this point.
I was to reiterate this point over the next two weeks because I believe it was an important distinction. Action Researchers are not clones of each other, but they do have to justify their claims. And I still stand by the process which we went through of trying to get people to understand where it was the other researcher was coming from.
However, the above is interesting to me now (July 1992) though, as I re-write this chapter in the light of the remarks that have been made to me about this Guide and my own enquiry by students and colleagues. I had to go through a Validation meeting with students and colleagues on the 26th June 1991. For it I wrote a paper in which I was attempting to explore the nature of an educative relationship with Zac. In fact I realise now due to the Validation meeting, that what I wrote was instead an explication of my educational values, and how I had tried to live them out in my practice. One of the values I said I wished to be judged by was:
‘I will endeavour to validate their experiences if they are expressed as the result of systematic research on themselves and their pupils.’
This could, if taken to its logical extension mean that I had to respect the insights, learning and direction of a student’s research whatever constituted them, as long as they were done systematically. If, then, I were confronted with a student who believed in hitting children to gain the control necessary to teach them, then as long as that belief was researched systematically, and the student was consistent within her/his own parameters, I would have to go along with it. This of course denies entirely my own hierarchy of values which says that there are times when issues of social justice and democracy, for example, are more important than enabling individual freedom. I am in education because I have a desire to move the world to a better place, and because I am concerned that children are treated with the respect and processes which validate them and at the same time alert them to their social and personal responsibilities. I do not take back my stated desire to conduct research systematically and rigorously, and to wish others to do the same. However systems must enhance learning that accords to collaborative notions of social justice; and rigour can, if taken to ridiculous lengths, crush out the life of a study and induce ‘rigour mortis’! (This term was coined by Marion Dadd in a paper about the form of written accounts.) It was through the Validation meeting that I first understood that I had confused the enabling of individual autonomy with validity in research. I now realise that there are occasions when issues of social justice will supersede for me the empowerment of the individual. And I would state this openly now.
When the participants enter as openly as possible into the reality of others, bearing in mind that the onus is on the researcher to bring evidence for every claim s/he makes, such meetings can be formative to one’s understanding and can be inspirational. Without such an openness to enter the lives of others Validation meetings run the risk of being only negatively critical.
For more information about how Validation Groups function, write to Andy Larter, Greendown Community School, Swindon, Wilts. He will be able to give you insights into the workings of a long-term action research group.