Action research refers to a special type of small-scale, practically-oriented studies that professionals (such as teachers) carry out in their professional settings, in order to address some specific aspect of their practice that needs improvement. Although it may appear narrower in scope than the kind of research that is carried out by professional researchers, and it is sometimes less rigorous, it is a powerful way to affect positive change, and to supplement top-down production of knowledge. But that said, I am left wondering, should teachers be made to do action research?
Increasingly, school administrators are encouraging, and even mandating action research as a part of teachers professional practice. Sometimes this pressure stems from genuine belief in the potential of action research, or because of a perceived need to alight to current trends in best practice. Whether such mandated action research is effective is not quite as clear.
At the moment, there is really not much evidence to answer this question, not least because people are understandably more keen to publish stories of success than they are to discuss challenges. That is why I was very interested to read a recently-published article  in Action Research, which describes the effects of mandated action research policies, with particular reference to intra-group politics. The article, by Ryan Flessner and Shanna Stuckey, is entitled ‘Politics and action research: An examination of one school’s mandated action research program’, and you can access it by clicking the button below:
Summary of the article
The article reports on a case study of a project that took place in an elementary school in the US. The school, which was perceived to be failing, received funding to empower teachers through action research. The authors note that, because the action research projects were somewhat inflexibly imposed, and there was not always a clear sense of ownership from all participants, they ran into a number of problems, including disconnect between team members and the role of ‘resistors’ to change. They also point out that:
Simply having time [to implement a programme] does not ensure the success of an action research program. While the data from this study conﬁrm that time is, indeed, a key factor in managing the work of action research, how time was allocated and utilized was highly controversial.
This article stands out in the literature, which often reports on the success of action research programmes, while masking potential challenges. It also highlights the real danger that what was meant to be an empowering development experience, can –if implemented without democratic sensitivity– devolve into an exercise in power.
The full reference for the article is: Flessner, R., & Stuckey, S. (2014). Politics and action research: An examination of one school’s mandated action research program. Action Research, 12 (1), 36-51. doi: 10.1177/1476750313515281
Doing Classroom-Based Research
Last Saturday, Anita Lämmerer and I had the privilege to facilitate a workshop in the ELT Connect 2015 conference that was jointly organised by the Sprachausbildung and the Fachdidaktik sections of the Institut für Anglistik, University of Graz. In our workshop, which was entitled Exploring Practice through Classroom-Based Research, we made the case for practitioner-led research,…
On theories, practice, and opportunism in Foreign Language Education
“If it doesn’t work in practice, then it’s not good theory”Julian Edge Or at least that’s what one of my doctoral supervisors used to say. The tension between theory and practice is, I think, one of the most common complaints I come across in teacher discourse (pay being by far the commonest). I have repeatedly…
About this post: This post was originally published in December 2013, shortly after the article appeared online. It was last revised in March 2020 (formatting, new introduction).