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FAQ’s on Action Research

If you have questions about Action Research you may find the following publication helpful:

MacNaughton, G., & Hughes, P. (2010). Doing Action Research in Early Childhood. Open University Press.

What is action research?
What sorts of things can I research?
How do I start researching?
Who can I talk to about researching?
What can I read to help me begin and keep going with action research?
What problems might I face?

What is action research?
Action research is about researching with people to create and study change in and through the research process. In educational settings it can produce changed ways of doing things and changed ways of understanding why we do what we do. Good action research is about change. It:

  • shakes your faith in what you know and/or can do
  • makes you feel that you don't know it all
  • makes you question existing knowledge and practices
  • raises more questions than it answers
  • encourages you to keep exploring.

One South Australian teacher who was involved recently in action research put it this way:
I always thought that there was some magic formula, that when you hit the spot with the right process for teaching and learning that it would just work... that there was one way and that when I got it I would 'see the light' and think after so many years "I've finally got it". I've come to realise that that's never going to happen - it's a bit sad, but it won't... I no longer believe there is one method - for every child and every situation and every circumstance there's different methods... so you need to be able to draw from different methods and create something that works for you, and what works for you one year may not work for you the next... I used to think "it drives me nuts. We get something going and then we move onto something else", but that's a good thing because it means you're thinking about it and if you weren't being critically reflective then you'd never change, because you'd be stuck at one thing.
Preschool Director, Critical Teaching Project.

Action research is about researching with people for change rather than researching about the here and now.

Carr and Kemmis (1986) identified three 'Minimal Requirements for Action Research' from their perspective. Action research must:

  • have social practice as its subject matter and see the subject matter as open to strategic action and capable of improvement
  • proceed systematically and self-critically through the action research processes of observing, planning, doing and reflecting (the action research cycle) in a deliberate way and ongoing way
  • involve those responsible for the practice and be based clearly on principles of collaboration.
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What sorts of things can I research?
To help you think about what you might think about the following:
Good action research questions ask:

  • what else is possible in this situation?
  • what should be done differently in this situation?
  • what are the gaps between where we are now and where you want to be? (Cherry, 1999).

Good action research:

  • shakes your faith in what you know and/or can do
  • makes you feel that you don't know it all
  • makes you question existing knowledge and practices
  • raises more questions than it answers
  • encourages you to keep exploring.

Useful words to include in your question help you focus on change:
re-examine, reinvent, rethink, reconceptualise, re-imagine, refine, refresh, reform, rebuild, reconstruct, revise, remodel, re-generate, revisit.

Sample questions:

  • How can we share information about children differently between services?
  • How can we reform our assessment of children's learning so that we can share our knowledge with other services?
  • How do we expand our ways of sharing knowledge about children?
  • How do we reconstruct our reports on children's learning so that they are meaningful to other services?
  • How could we reinvent our program so that children experience greater continuity of learning between the child care and preschool sectors?
  • How can we learn more about each others' approaches to learning and assessment?
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How do I start researching?
Action research starts with the desire to change practices and/or to improve your understandings about why and how something happens. Your question should develop from this desire and focus on change. Your research starts once you have this question. You then need to plan how you will explore your question and use it to change your understandings and practices.

Action research, like all research, has some minimal requirements the research has to meet in its design and execution to be seen as valid research. In action research these requirements centre on the need for action researchers to proceed systematically through the action research processes.

The cycle involves:

1. Getting started:

  • Forming a group
  • Identifying or defining a problem, issue or opportunity
  • Initial data gathering (reconnaisance) about what happens now
  • Reflecting and refocusing individually and in a group - asking what else is possible, what should be done differently
  • Redefining the problem as a group that you want to work on.

2. Developing the research:

  • Settling on your question
  • Action planning - developing a strategy for collecting data or solving a problem or implementing an idea.
  • Acting and experiencing - collecting data, implementing action, problem-solving, testing ideas.
  • Observing, evaluating and concluding - studying the consequences of action, specifying learnings, making sense of experience, describing, explaining, developing theory and knowledge, asking 'So what?' And 'what's next?'.

3. Doing action research:

  • Continuing through the cycles in the development phase.
  • Sharing your learning with others.

Adapted from: Cherry, N. (1998). Action research: a pathway to action, knowledge and learning. Melbourne: RMIT University Press. p. 2.

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Who can I talk to about researching?
Action research involves thinking critically about the effects of how teaching knowledge and practice operates within a particular educational context. Such thinking also asks us to use other vantage points for seeing the world. Talking with others about your research is a great way of testing, critiquing, refining and rethinking your ideas, but it can also open up some unexpected challenges. For Sheralyn discussing video-tapes of young children's play with other early childhood teachers brought her face to face with the problems of maintaining relationships that worked in the interests of everyone involved:
Because our relationships were built on the basic action research premise of equal investment and participation in the process of researching, these contradictions became essential to our conversations - opening dimensions that were more complex, critical, and trusting. These levels of engaged dialogue were essential to creating new possibilities for understanding our praxis (and ourselves) and creating change. None of this was described in any text that I had read. Thank goodness for the experiences of my supervisor and her perceptive guidance which helped me to negotiate the pitfalls that come as professional and personal boundaries blur. Glenda helped me to maintain a balance between staying on track with what I had to do... and ensuring that what I was doing continued in the interests of those who were central to it (Ryan & Campbell, forthcoming).

As Sheralyn noted there is also an enormous amount to be gained from the experiences of others who can act as mentors. They can listen to you and share their experiences on a range of related action research issues such as confidentiality, useful related research, and supportive strategies for responding to the dynamics of working with other people. There are many people that will be interested and excited by your research. These include other teachers, families, children, academics and so on. Take advantage of every possible forum for talking with people about your research including conferences, journals, on-line chat rooms, meetings with other teachers, parents and children, professional development sessions, and so on.

Ryan, S. K., & Campbell, S. (Forthcoming). Doing Research for the first time In G. MacNaughton & S. Rolfe (Eds.), Doing Early Childhood Research: Theory and Practice An International Perspective. St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

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What can I read to help me begin and keep going with action research?
Hollingsworth, S. (1997). Killing the angel in academe: feminist praxis in action research. Educational Action Research, 5(3), 483 - 500.
An interesting description of how one academic has brought together her feminist principles and action research with teachers.

Kemmis, S., & McTaggart, R. (1988). The Action Research Planner (3rd ed). Victoria: Deakin University.
A practical guide to the process of action research, with great reflective questions.

MacNaughton, G. (1996). Researching for quality: A case for action research in early childhood services. Australian Journal of Early Childhood. 21(2), 29 - 33.
A clear explanation of how action research differs from other forms of researching. This reading also provides insight into the possibilities action research offers to early childhood education.

Here are some good starting points to help you find out more about action research:
Cherry, N. (1999). Action Research: A Pathway to Action, Knowledge and Learning. Melbourne: RMIT Publishers.
A great introduction to all aspects of action research from getting started to sharing the results.

MacTaggart, R. (1991). Action Research: A Short Modern History. Geelong, Victoria: Deakin University.
This book by a leading theorist of participatory action research provides an in-depth and accessible discussion about the history of the theory and practice of action research. It includes an extensive annotated reading list.

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What problems might I face?
There are many problems that can arise for the researcher beginning action research. Sharon, Sheralyn and Kylie talked about some of these in a conference paper called Bungee jumping in the classroom: Action research in early childhood (1999). As Kylie said:
Initially when the project began, there were different levels of involvement, commitment and understanding.  Everyone was extremely interested in knowing about the project - particularly in terms of how it would impact on the room and children, and how they could be involved. However there were also elements of doubt. These doubts were evident in some of the questions and statements staff raised. For example different people asked or said:

  • What do I know about action research?
  • How do I know what I'm doing and thinking is "right"?
  • I don't have any qualifications - I won't be able to help.
  • I'd like to be involved but I need to watch and see what happens.

We found that it was important to recognise and validate each concern and some of the ways we approached this included:

  • listening to each other;
  • encouraging each other;
  • reassuring each other that we could do anything we wanted with hard work;
  • unquestioningly accepting people who chose not to participate or to withdraw from the project;
  • asking questions; and
  • sharing our laughter; tears and anger over inequities within our past and current lived experiences.

What cemented the cohesion of our group and encouraged our ongoing participation in the project was an explicit understanding that we would not judge each other's knowledge, understandings of the world or involvement in the project.

Building supportive relationships and networks is probably one of the most important steps in beginning and continuing action research.

Campbell, S., Saitta S., & Smith, K. (1999). Bungee jumping in the classroom: Action research in early childhood. Australian Early Childhood Conference, Looking in, Looking forward, Looking Beyond, Darwin High School, Northern Territory.

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