Ako Ngatahi: Action Research, what is it? What purpose does it serve?

Re-reading an old Centre of Innovation report (Ako Ngatahi Teaching and Learning Together as One.  From Leadership to Enquiry.  Teachers’ work in an Infants’ and Toddlers’ Centre) this morning, I came across a couple of interesting discussion points. The one that most caught my eye was the authors interpretation of ‘action research’… Under their discussion of methodology, the authors write (and I’m just going to quote extensively from their report):

“The action research design

Reason and Bradbury (2001), say that the question “what is action research?” has no easy answer; their working definition is: ‘Action research is a participatory, democratic process concerned with developing practical knowing in the pursuit of worthwhile human purposes, grounded in a participatory worldview which we believe is emerging at this historic moment. It seeks to bring together action and reflection, theory and practice, in participation with others, in the pursuit of practical solutions to issues of pressing concern to people, and more generally the flourishing of individual persons and their communities’ (p.1)

All good teachers engage in reflection through a variety of processes and records of assessment and evaluation; how is action research different from this? […-p.25] Action research is characterised by closely and iteratively (cyclically and repeatedly) linking reflection and action, especially in a collaborative community of researchers (Altrichter, 1999). Data are confronted from different perspectives, incorporating holistic and inclusive reflection in the development of educational values.

Action research is an approach to improving education by making a change in practice and learning from the consequences of the change: it is participatory, as people work together toward the improvement of their own practices; it develops through the self-reflective spiral, a spiral of planning, acting (implementing plans), systematically observing, reflecting and then continuing this cycle; it is collaborative, involving those responsible for the programme in improving it; it establishes self-critical communities of people participating and collaborating in all phases of the research cycle and who are committed to enlightening themselves; it is a systematic learning process, in which people act deliberately, though remaining open to surprises and responsive to opportunities (Kemmis & McTaggart, 1988; Lomax, 1995). As expressed by Elliot (1991):

“The fundamental aim of action research is to improve practice rather than to produce knowledge. The production and utilisation of knowledge is subordinate to and conditioned by this fundamental aim” (p. 49).

While many of these descriptions of action research could be equally applied to both reflection and to whole-centre professional development, Zuber-Skerrit (1993) makes the distinction for action research as being “more deliberate, systematic and rigorous, and it is always made public” (p. 46). Henry and McTaggart’s (1996) criteria for claiming action research as belonging in the category of research is also that published accounts are an outcome of the research. Such a deliberate intention to publish leads to a more careful approach to the data generation and documentation of processes and reflection for all participants. The intention that outcomes of their action research will be disseminated widely within the New Zealand (and beyond) early childhood community is significant in the Ministry of Education’s selection of their Centres of Innovation.” (24-25) The authors continue:

“Links between co-constructed understanding and action research

The term “co-constructing understandings” is a sociocultural one. The same principles of supporting children’s learning addressed in the sociocultural model are equally applicable to the processes of action research with adults. The co-construction of action research, involving a team of teachers working with their chosen research associates encourages what Cole and Engestrom (1993) describe as the effective use of “distributed” cognition. From a coconstructive perspective, cognitive development is viewed as a function of the group or institution – “distributed” – rather than of an individual or collection of individuals. A researcher working with a teaching team will fulfil the role of an “expert” in the research process and/or in the specific area of the teachers’ research. The teachers are the “experts” in their own centres: they know their culture, their routines and processes, each other, the children and their whānau and how their innovation works. Together the teachers and the research associates who are acting as facilitators, co-construct their research, each extending the others in their zones of proximal development, each going further than they could have gone alone.

In co-constructing meaning, issues of power and agency are important, as roles are seen as mutual and reciprocal in initiating and managing the shared interactions. Thus, coconstruction of understanding is an interaction strategy that emphasises the learner as a powerful player in his/her own learning, “rich in potential, strong, powerful, competent and linked to other learners” Malaguzzi (1993, p. 10). It is developed over a period of time as a group becomes a community of learners (Konzal, 2001). Individual and social learning interacting over time strengthen one another in a “reciprocal spiral relationship” (Salomon & Perkins (1998, p. 18). This idea of spiral reciprocities between the different planes of learning is especially supportive of the concept of co-construction of understandings across space and time. Collaboration occurs, not only in face to face relationships, but also “amongst people of different eras and locations” (Rogoff, 1998, p. 726) through engagement with printed articles and research reports.

Further similarities are found between co-constructive principles and Borgia and Schuler’s (1996) description of action research as being composed of five C’s: commitment, collaboration, concern, consideration, critical assessment of one’s own behaviour, and change. Both sociocultural practices and action research involve collaborative relationships, [-p.27] self and collective reflection, and inquiry and critique of current activities. The three broad areas common to both action research and to an early childhood programme founded on sociocultural principles can thus be summarised as: collaborative relationships; commitment to critique and change; and documentation and dissemination.

In Centre of Innovation action research the research associates will always be ‘outsiders’ to the close-knit centre teams with which they are co-constructing research. Poskitt (1994) and Zeni (2001) discuss the insider-outsider relationship as one of the contradictions in action research. Teachers are generally more concerned with the daily practicalities of their children’s lives and of their own interactions with them, with what Graue and Walsh (1998) call the “little-t theories”. University researchers have more access to and work at the level of the “big-t theories” and the application of these to centre practice. The Ministry of Education has encouraged Centre of Innovation teaching teams and their research associates to develop a strong ethos as a research team, each member making valued contributions from their own area of expertise.” (26-27)

[I am not comfortable with this binary or the approach it invites – the distinctions made between researchers from universities and those from fields of early childhood  practice, that is… I recognise where it comes from and how the distinctions come about, but really… I’m not convinced that how these relationships are viewed are actually as positive as they seem here – there is a lot hidden within this that we choose not to discuss…] Anyway, though, the authors continue:

“The use of case studies

The case study method of research is particularly applicable to qualitative action research. Kemmis and McTaggart (1988) and Elliot (1982) all suggest the report of the action research project should be a “case study” of the process of the work, basically in narrative form. Case studies are “typically eclectic and combine some of the elements of ethnographic research, programme evaluation and descriptive methods” (Anderson, 1990, p. 112).

The selection of the particular case is an important issue. Selection on the grounds of representation of a larger group is hard to defend, given the complexity of each case and the lack of generalisability across cases. The first criterion for case selection is to maximise what can be learnt, deciding which cases will lead to understandings, to assertions, or even perhaps to modifying generalisations. A case need not be chosen as a typical one. Even the choice of multiple cases from a large selection is unlikely to include sufficient multiple variables to be considered suitably representative. The strength of a case study is the contribution of many “voices” as sources of evidence (Schratz, 1993, p. 183; Winter, 1989; Yin, 1993).” (27)

In their conclusion, the authors also write: “With reference to the teamwork in which early childhood teachers engage, David (1996) discusses the natural transition of early childhood teachers working in teams in centres, to these same staff members carrying out research in teams. “By seeing research as part of the process by which we understand our work better and are able to improve our practice, we are also making our professional lives far more challenging and rewarding” (David, 1996, p. 55). According to David, action research is the ideal process through which teachers are able to come to see themselves as researchers, as they develop their skills of reflection on their programmes and practices. However, results from action research should be seen as specific to the environment in which the research took place. It is based on critical enquiry and in the form that it was used here aims to improve practice within the centre. The process of action research has been excellent in encouraging the centre to become more reflective about its current practices….” (140-141) [this connects in with my concern about the researcher-teacher binary above – and is an important outcome!]

Ref: (Ako Ngatahi Teaching and Learning Together as One.  From Leadership to Enquiry.  Teachers’ work in an Infants’ and Toddlers’ Centre, published 2008. Author(s): Raewyne Bary, Caryn Deans, Monika Charlton, Heather Hullet, Faith Martin, Libby Martin, Paulette Moana, Olivia Waugh, Barbara Jordan & Cushla Scrivens

summary and full report available at the education counts website: http://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/publications/ece/22551/22583

It is worth noting that a strong outcome of this piece of action research was clearly the development of the teachers themselves. The authors write: “As the teachers have become more aware of the theoretical underpinnings of their teaching, they have developed a model that has clarified for themselves the mutually constitutive processes that underpin their teaching and its outcomes. Their model depicts their understanding that outcomes for infants and toddlers in relation to their disposition to enquire are the result of attention to all aspects of the centre: a system of distributed leadership that enacts their philosophy of trust; empowerment of all participants in the centre; and the maintenance of security for infants and toddlers,  parents and teachers.” (see brief report summary at website above)

Explaining this choice, they write:

“The model of action research employed in Centres of Innovation is different from traditional work of researchers such as Kemmis and McTaggart (1988) and Elliott (1991) in that it is not problem-based. In contrast, centres are challenged to document their innovation and in so doing to provide evidence that their claim to being a Centre of Innovation is indeed justified. [-p.36] Clearer articulation, documentation and reflection on practice inevitably contribute to debates and negotiations, so that in providing their evidence for their quality outcomes for children, a Centre of Innovation teaching team is likely to improve these.

Action research is an appropriate choice of both paradigm and methodology for researchers who hold a sociocultural theoretical perspective. Further, the very strong links between sociocultural theory and action research enables the reinforcement of similar interaction skills amongst the research team as are advocated in the early childhood teachers’ work with children. According to David (1996), action research is the ideal process through which teachers are able to come to see themselves as researchers as they develop their skills of reflection on their programmes and practices. It is of course the intention of the Ministry of Education to grow this research expertise in early childhood teachers through the processes of the Centre of Innovation projects.” (35-36)

[Note: The principal research question was: “In what ways does educational leadership, within a community of practice, impact on infants’ and toddlers’ disposition to enquire?”]

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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