Some literature questions if action research can really be regarded as research. However, Kemmis (1997) asserts that internationally, theorists have fostered the development of action research as a notion—it is seen as a means of connecting theory and practice, conducting research and improving practice. Action research is "a form of [collective and collaborative (Kemmis 1997)] self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their practices, their understanding of these practices, and the situations in which the practices are carried out" (Harmse 2003: 89). Action research is research with a social agenda to meet the needs of people (Van Willigen 2002). Improved practice and understanding of practice, as well as improvement of the situation are commonly derived from action research (Erasmus 2003). By definition, an action research/learning set consists of six- ten people who meet regularly (Erasmus 2003; Hammond 2002; Kalliath & Kalliath 2003; Seale, Wikinson & Erasmus 2005).
Action research typically starts with someone notices an area of concern or problem—refer to the middle tier of Brown's (2001:514) Participatory Action Research Scandinavia Style co-generative research model in the sketch below. The inquirers, both insiders to the problem and outsiders to the problem, engage as participants in an action research process are reflected in the top tier. The double-headed arrows in the model illustrate the interactivity of the tiers of the action research process. The bottom tier of the model contains the action research triangle of knowledge, which is theory-action-evaluation. The double-headed arrows illustrate simultaneous action. Theory is generated by each of the participants as they grapple with the problem or area of concern at hand.
Action research is often characterised by learning derived from spiral cycles that may include analysis, fact-finding, conceptualisation and critical reflection (Van Willigen, 2002), [reconnaissance], planning, participating in execution or collaborative-acting, observing (more fact-finding), evaluative or new critical reflecting (Erasmus 2003), then re-planning, [repetition] further action, further observations and again reflecting (Kemmis 1997). However, Zuber-Skerritt (2003) cautions that there is not a prescriptive recipe for action research because of the dynamic nature of real-life challenges. Louw (2003) refers to the four "moments" of action research: (i) planning, (ii) acting, (iii) observing and (iv) reflecting. The plan is about intentional action, but it must be sufficiently flexible to accommodate unforeseen circumstances. To acting takes place in a real world, is deliberate and critical. Observing implies collecting data about action, and documenting in order to have material to reflect on. Reflecting is about recalling the action and evaluating the action with the view to taking remedial action. Kemmis (1997) highlights three domains that apply to each point or phase, namely: language and discourse, activities and practices, and social relationships and forms of organisation.
Burnard (1996) suggests that both action and reflection are human attributes, but that the secret is to increase the amount of conscious reflection in order for it to become second nature. Owing to work pressures and simply having to get on with things, we often cannot afford to reflect. Burnard suggests setting aside time to reflect about what we have done and learn from the experience. Brown (2001:504) regards action research as a lived experience in which the researcher not only investigates the subject at hand but, but also document an account of the way in which the investigation both shapes and is shaped by the investigator. Such an approach calls for researcher accountability in respect of practices, outcomes and ethical responsibility, that is, the how, what and why of enacting practice.
Based on Argyris, Brown (2001) draws the distinction between Model I and II behaviour. Whereas actions based on Model I behaviour entail unquestioned acceptance of assumptions, Model II behaviour encourages inquiry and testing. Model I is about what feels intuitively right, or "seat of the pants" actions (p 504), that arise without reflecting on process or outcome and "unilateral control over others" (p 507). This kind of behaviour is espoused by few but practised by many. Model II behaviour leads to informed improvement of practice and results in collaborative relations, greater risk taking and freedom of choice.
Over time, action research has developed into varied degrees of participation by the persons involved in the research. Whereas in traditional research the researcher plans the "what" and "how" of the research and imposes the plan on the subjects, action research usually entails full participation of all those who take part in the process. According to Brown (2001:505), the purpose of action research "is to create and evaluate change that works for all the research participants". Action research employs the knowledge and talents of the various participants in order to yield an outcome relevant or beneficial to all involved. The participants "come together as equals in a process to craft research from inception to evaluation" (Brown 2001:506).
Kurt Levin, a social psychologist who fled the repressive German regime of the 1940s and settled in the United States of America, is credited with originating action research. Levin introduced a simple model of change to achieve a particular goal, namely unfreeze, change and refreeze. Another early proponent of action research was the Tavistock group, which formed in Great Britain after World War II. This group strived to humanise work settings through psycho-analytical and psychological principles. The Tavistock Institute was established in 1947 and was instrumental in getting people to look at the world of work from beyond a Tayloristic perspective so that workers could be acknowledged as contributing, thinking, feeling human beings rather than as cogs in a factory assembly line.
Brown (2001:509) recommends John Heron's model of cooperative inquiry and suggests that "the researcher can produce valid inferences only when honouring full participation of all actors in the inquiry process". Heron emphasised that persons in reciprocal relationships use the full range of their sensibilities to inquire together and "coequal partnerships".
Brown (2001:510) further regards research as a simple everyday process of "a problem, an inquiry process, and an explanation allowing for understanding the problem, culminating in 'actions that attempt to resolve the problem being investigated'". However, Stringer cautioned about a linear 'look-think-act' and put forward a spiral notion, in which they all happen simultaneously, yet move forward to a higher point. While one participant carries out part of some action, another gathers data and also reflects on the information in order to inform the next action level. Glittenberg (2001) emphasises the empowerment of participants in action research.
Evaluation plays a very important part in action research. Evaluation is a continuous activity during action research. Glittenberg (2001) points out that evaluation starts on the first day of an action research process and ends on the last day when the participants agree that it is complete. The question, "What are we learning?" (p. 529) evaluates the process and the question "What have we learned?" evaluates the outcomes.
The content of this post originates from a published article (Groenewald, 2009) about an action research project undertaken during the fourth quarter of 2008.
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Burnard, P. 1996. Acquiring interpersonal skills - a handbook of experiential learning for health professionals. 2nd edition. London: Chapman & Hall.
Erasmus, E. 2003. The development of needs-based skills programmes for academics (pp. 43-86). In Speedy, R. (ed.) 2003. Women using action learning and action research — the South African context. Lismore, NSW: Southern Cross.
Glittenberg, J. 2001. Building a snowman while you study snow in the middle of an avalanche. In: Munhall P.L. (Ed.) (2001). Nursing research: a qualitative perspective (pp 523-533). 3rd edition. Sudbury, Mass: Jones and Bartlett.
Hammond, M.J. 2002. Feedback on Assessment: Developing a Practitioner Handbook. EDUCATION-LINE database, 04 September 2002.
Groenewald, T. 2009. Lessons derived from a work‐integrated learning monitoring pilot at a distance higher education institution. Asia‐Pacific Journal of Cooperative Education, 10(2), 75‐98.
Harmse, M. 2003. The development of outcomes-based curricula (pp 87-102). In Speedy, R. (ed.) 2003. Women using action learning and action research — the South African context. Lismore, NSW: Southern Cross.
Kalliath, P. & Kalliath, T. 2003. Applying action learning concepts to role transition in a dyadic group setting. In the proceedings of the sixth world Congress on Action Learning, Action Research, Process Management (ALARPM) and tenth congress on Participatory Action Research (PAR) held in 22-24 September 2003 in Pretoria, South Africa.
Kemmis, S. 1997. Action research (pp. 173-179). In Keeves, J.P. (ed.) 1997. Educational research, methodology, and measurement: an international handbook. 2nd edition. Oxford: Elsevier Science, Pergamon.
Louw, I. 2003. Reasons for student underachievement in mathematics 1, Faculty of Engineering (pp. 213-241) In Speedy, R. (ed.) 2003. Women using action learning and action research — the South African context. Lismore, NSW: Southern Cross.
Seale, I., Wilkinson, A.C. & Erasmus, M.A. 2005. A step-up action-research model for the revitalisation of service learning modules. Acta Academica Supplementum, 2005(3): 203-229.
Van Willigen, J. 2002. Applied anthropology: an introduction. 3rd edition. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.
Zuber-Skerritt, O. 2003. Action learning and action research in higher education (pp. 337-367). In Speedy, R. (ed.) 2003. Women using action learning and action research — the South African context. Lismore, NSW: Southern Cross.