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What is Action Research?


Action research is known by many other names, including participatory research, collaborative inquiry, emancipatory research, action learning, and contextual action research, but all are variations on a theme. Put simply, action research is learning by doing - a group of people identify a problem, do something to resolve it, see how successful their efforts were, and if not satisfied, try again. According to O'Brien (2001) a more succinct definition of action research is that,

"Action research...aims to contribute both to the practical concerns of people in an immediate problematic situation and to further the goals of social science simultaneously. Thus, there is a dual commitment in action research to study a system and concurrently to collaborate with members of the system in changing it in what is together regarded as a desirable direction. Accomplishing this twin goal requires the active collaboration of researcher and client, and thus it stresses the importance of co-learning as a primary aspect of the research process."i[i]

But what separates this type of research from general research practice is the emphasis on scientific study, which is to say the researcher studies the problem systematically and ensures that the process is supported by theoretical considerations. Much of the researchers time is spent on refining the methodological tools to suit the expediency of the situation, and on collecting, analyzing, and presenting data on an ongoing basis. Again according to O'Brien (2001) as cited in Richardson (2002), several attributes separate action research from other types of research. Primary is its focus on turning the people involved into researchers, too - people learn best, and more willingly apply what they have learned, when they do it themselves. It also has a social dimension - the research takes place in real-world situations, and aims to solve real problems. Finally, the initiating researcher, unlike in other

disciplines, makes no attempt to remain objective, but openly acknowledges their bias to the other participants.

The Action Research Process

Kemmis has developed a simple model of the cyclical nature of the typical action research process. Each cycle has four steps: plan, act, observe, reflect. Susman (1983) gives a somewhat more elaborate listing. He distinguishes five phases to be conducted within each research cycle. Initially, a problem is identified and data is collected for a more detailed consideration. This is followed by a collection of several possible solutions, from which a single plan of action emerges and is implemented. Data on the results of the action research are collected and analyzed, and the findings are interpreted in light of how successful the action has been. At this point, the problem is re-assessed and the process begins another cycle. This process continues until the problem is resolved.

The Decline and Rediscovery of Action Research

As Stringer pointed out (2007), action research did suffer a decline during the 1960s because of its association with radical political activism. (There is always a tension between providing a rational basis and the recognition that individuals are constrained by their cultural and social perceptions and the systems of which they are a part). There were, and are, questions concerning its rigor, and the training of those undertaking it. However, as Bogdan and Biklen (1992) asserts, research is a frame of mind a perspective that people take toward objects and activities. Once we have satisfied ourselves that the collection of information is systematic, and that any interpretations made have a proper regard for satisfying truth claims, then much of the critique aimed at action research disappears. Subsequently, action research has gained a significant position both within the field of community-based, and participatory action research; and as a form of practice directed to the improvement of educational activities.

According to Stringer (1999), a fundamental premise of community-based action research is that it starts with an interest in the problems of a group, a community, or an organization. Its purpose is to assist people in extending their understanding of their situation and thus resolving problems that confront them. Community-based action research is seen as a process of inquiry that has the following characteristics:

It is democratic, enabling the participation of all people. It is equitable, acknowledging peoples equality of worth. It is liberating, providing freedom from oppressive, debilitating conditions. It is life enhancing, enabling the expression of peoples full human potential. (Stringer 1999: 9-10)

As the concluding remark I should add two other points here. The first is that with the cyclic nature of action research or the action research spiral there is the danger that action research becomes little more than a procedure. It is a mistake, according to McTaggart (1996: 248) to think that following the action research spiral constitutes doing action research. He continues, Action research is not a method or a procedure for research but a series of commitments to observe and problematize through practice a series of principles for conducting social enquiry. The approach is only action research when it is collaborative, therefore it is important to realize that action research of the group is achieved through the action of individual group members. Another point is that we as language educators should take a view of action research that is linked to education - a view of action research as research oriented toward the enhancement of classroom practice just as Carr and Kemmis define action research: Action research is simply a form of self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own practices, their understanding of these practices, and the situations in which the practices are carried out (Carr and Kemmis 1986: 162). Many people in the field of language teaching are drawn to this understanding of action research because it is firmly defined in the area of learning activities- it is tied to self-reflection. As a way of working, it is very close to the notion of reflective practice that is a useful technique in language teaching.

REFERENES Bogdan, R., & Biklen, S. K. (1992). Qualitative research for education. Boston: Allyn & Bacon. Carr, W., & Kemmis, S. (1986). Becoming critical. Education, knowledge and action research. Lewes: Falmer. McTaggart, R. (1996). Issues for participatory action researchers. In O. ZuberSkerritt (Ed.), New directions in action research. London: Falmer Press. O'Brien, R. (2001). An overview of the methodological approach of action research. In R. Richardson (Ed.), Theory and practice of action research. Joo Pessoa, Brazil: Universidade Federal da Paraba. (English version) Available from: http://www.web.ca/~robrien/papers/arfinal.html Stringer, E. T. (1999). Action research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Stringer, E. T. (2007). Action Research: A handbook for practitioners (3rd ed.). Newbury Park, ca: Sage. Susman, G. (1983). Action research: A sociotechnical systems perspective. London: Sage Publications.