Is Action Research research at all?

How many were there? There must have been 500 and more. How many of them were drawn there by the power of Twitter? Well, surely most of them had been told by the little blue bird that the event was taking place; without doubt, this was a community of Tweachers. Bloggers too, many of them. I am late off the mark with mine (a full 24 hours has elapsed), but I’m calculating that my 244 twitter followers won’t mind too much. This might get read, it might not, but new knowledge will emerge from it, for me if for no one else.

That’s enough, isn’t it? I have learned something, I am writing about it here, something new is now known. A little of this will seep into the consciousness of the others who are kind enough to listen to me when I am advising them, cajoling them (and doing those other verbs that Dr Joseph Spence, Master of Dulwich College, reminded us amount to teaching.) And that will be enough, or at least it will be something.

Or so I thought, before I spent the day at the Research Ed 2013 conference, mustered and mastered by @tombennett71 and @hgaldinoshea  (where do they get it from?) Now I understand that stuff arising from research demands a much higher standard before we can call it new knowledge.

Or perhaps I should start again. An event such as #rED2013 (what hashtag did we settle on?) must mean something different for every individual who attended. What were there – 40 odd sessions, divided into a 7-period day? Master Bennett, are you the timetabler in your school? Independent learners that we are, we self-selected what sessions to attend. So what if we sometimes had to sit on the floor? We could hope to nab a seat by avoiding the catnip of @johntomsett, or the @miss_mcinerney honeypot. In the past 24 hours (and indeed, during the event itself, despite the lack of wifi at pricey Dulwich College), attendees have been retelling the event from the evidence of their own experience, reducing it to its gist, extracting its essence, drawing out its strands.

For me, the theme was: Action Research – should we bother? It seems we absolutely should not, or absolutely should, or should but not in absolutely every circumstance. First, Ben Goldacre. I’m a big fan of his Bad Science, and Bad Pharma. I know he’s a charismatic polemicist, and I believe he plays a vital public intellectual role. His advocacy of Randomised Controlled Testing is compelling when applied to pharma; I’m less convinced by his similar advice to the DfE, but I don’t want to be that self-regarding creep (on the slide we didn’t quite see) who naysays before he has quite heard the case. Goldacre, however, dismisses the small-scale work that a teacher-researcher might realistically engage in in their own classroom. He wants research networks of hundreds of schools, where studies can be scaled up. Size matters to Ben, and bigger is clearly better. I wonder how deeply he has considered the differences between a pill and, say, a Physics programme taught across a number of schools. Patients, like pupils, are diverse and will respond to their ‘medicine’ differently. But, within a bottle of tablets, all the tablets are the same: the same cannot be said for the various teachers teaching from that Physics curriculum. Each teacher picks their own way through a course, no matter how standardized the materials they work with, and some teachers are ultimately better than others. So RCTs testing the effectiveness of an intervention in education will always have to allow for that variation in input.

Anyway, Goldacre is a smart guy, brilliant at what he does, and surefooted enough to demolish my little puff at his work. In me, he has nothing to fear. Perhaps even with Carol Davenport on my side. She is from the National Science Learning Centre, and her talk was called Using Action Research to Improve PracticeShe defends the little guy, the one examining their own practice in their own classroom. So what if the work is not always objective – it can still be rigorous and honest. She espouses  the action research cycle, where an action is analysed, a next step is planned, a research question is decided, research is planned and carried out, its results are analysed and shared. There may be bad research questions, but good ones are specific, focused, measurable and (I would add) interesting and important. Observation, questioning, pre- and post-testing are all data collection methods that – though flawed – are also part of what teachers always do. Teachers call this teaching, but perhaps Carol allows us to call this research.

Chris Husbands @Director_IOE would scoff. For him (pace Lawrence Stenhouse), research is ‘systematic inquiry made public’, or it is not research. Action Inquiry is not sharp enough to cut this mustard. It might be inquiring, but it is essentially unsystematic and rarely of sufficient generalisability to deserve publication. Husbands – a generous man – owns that Action Research may have a place in CPD, and it can change one person’s practice. But research it ain’t.

I admit that Phillipa Cordingley @PhillipaCcuree is too clever for me to understand a lot of what she says, and she says a lot of it very quickly for my slow-turning brain. But I’m pretty sure she thinks teachers can be engaged in something that – at least at the start – could be called action research, and that this matters. But the bar is still set high. Teacher-researchers need to know what is known. They must be clear about what is, and what is not, working. They must have a passion to make the difference for their students. And (there will be a catch here for many) they need peer and expert support, including coaching in research methods. Action Research may be possible, and will be useful, if it has access to specialist expertise, uses the evidence well, and engages the teachers in collecting and reflecting on the evidence in their schools.

What am I to tell those colleagues who don’t tweet, blog or attend geeky conferences on a Saturday? Actually, quite a few of them have engaged in Action Research, gamely claimed new knowledge and have acquired their MAs thereby. Dr Husbands might tell them they have done some worthwhile CPD, and Dr Goldacre would tell them to randomly find 200 friends doing the same thing and he might then be interested in them. But I still hold that, where they have asked a meaningful question, collected their data with care, and analysed how what they have found might be applied elsewhere (even where this might simply be down the corridor in the same school), then, well, they have just done some research.

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6 thoughts on “Is Action Research research at all?

  1. Pingback: Is Action Research research at all? | markquinn1968

  2. Pingback: ResearchED 2013: a Reading List | researchED 2013

  3. Pingback: Action Research: More than a Hobby | markquinn1968

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