Research Methods for Information Research

6. Practitioners as researchers

6.4 Supported action research

McKernan17 claimed that

“Action research is carried out by practitioners seeking to improve their understanding of events, situations and problems so as to increase the effectiveness of their practice. Such research does not have the writing of research reports and other publications as a primary goal.

“Action research aims at feeding the practical judgement of actors in problematic situations. The validity of the concepts, models and results it generates depends not so much on scientific tests of truth as on their utility in helping practitioners to act more effectively, skilfully and intelligently”.

This is only one view of what can vary from cheap research conducted by practitioners dragooned into undertaking fieldwork on behalf of academic colleagues, through to real professional development based on the idea of the reflective practitioner.

What does action research mean in practice? One example is currently being supported by my IMA colleague Sharon Markless. In this case, a small group of professionals (a school teacher, school librarians, FE lecturers and a college librarian) who had recently completed their MAs in Education were discussing how they could continue to develop their practice. They wanted to keep up the momentum gathered during their Masters studies. The group felt that attending short staff development courses would not do: these tended to be too superficial. Reading might be interesting but would not necessarily galvanise them into activity or provide the links between theory and practice that they wanted. They decided to set up an informal action research group and asked Sharon as their MA tutor to facilitate termly meetings. Several years later, individuals in the group have: enhanced the after-hours support that they provide; developed approaches to extended reading for adults with learning difficulties; collaborated with colleagues to integrate the teaching of ‘learning strategies’ into subject courses; and enhanced the handling of differentiated groupwork in the college library. They are now planning to publish a book based on their activities. The group meetings are held on Saturdays and attendance levels have always been high. Group members are clear that the improvements in educational practice that they have initiated in their institutions are due to their adoption of action research strategies.

Group members have been enabled to investigate aspects of their practice in a carefully structured and focused way; they have read relevant research but have been supported whilst they question its relevance to their own contexts and develop their own ideas out about what they have read. They have used a variety of data-gathering techniques both in their initial investigations and when evaluating the impact of their changed practices. Group members have openly reported their difficulties and have held up their own development and their emerging ideas to critical scrutiny.

Despite working in difficult contexts, faced with increasing demands on their time and, in some cases, with decreasing budgets, engagement in the action research process had prevented group members from feeling powerless, and de-professionalised. They have been able to enhance the quality of their work in areas that they care about and in ways that accord with their educational values. Action research provided these practitioners with an effective tool for their own professional development and a way of improving the quality of education within their institutions.

17. McKERNAN, J. (1991) Curriculum action research: a handbook of methods and resources for the reflective practitioner London: Kogan Page