by H. Sezgi Sarac-Suzer, Hacettepe University, Turkey
The Origins of Action Research
The concept of action research is historically credited to the movement in Educational Sciences and a variety of other social reform initiatives in as early as the late nineteenth century. It also grew out of the other ventures of progressive educators, such as John Dewey, in the early part of the twentieth century to dispute the orthodoxy of the scientific research methods current in the field of education (Burns, 1999: 26). His main drive to attempt suggesting a new viewpoint was to elucidate the approaches to research and to include in research processes those directly involved in the practices of education. Dewey’s notions in research were innovative to confront common educational problems by inviting researchers, practitioners and others working in the educational community to address their efforts toward educational enquiry collectively. Dewey’s propositions for educational research are captured in the following statement:
The answer is that (1) educational practices provide the data, the subject matter, which form the problems of enquiry… These educational practices are also (2) the final text of value and test the worth of scientific result. They may be scientific in some other field, but not in education until they serve educational purposes and whether they really serve educational purposes can be found out only in practice. (Dewey 1929, cited in Hodgkinson 1957:138)
Dewey’s ideas on progressive education were extremely influential in educational research. In the 1940's, an important contribution to Dewey’s ideas on action research came from Kurt Lewin, who was not an educator, but a social psychologist. Lewin proposed a mode of inquiry that comprised action cycles including analysis, fact-finding, conceptualization, planning, implementation and evaluation. He suggested that the urge to carry out an inquiry should stem from and reside in the problems of a specific social group, and investigation should be done by the participants of this group only. Lewin’s own research revealed that in order to achieve this type of an inquiry, there is the need for support and training of participants in the development of new skills:
We should consider action, research and training as a triangle that should be kept together for the sake of any of its corners. (Lewin, 1946: 42).
Lewin’s ideas, which were originally on studying ‘minority problems’, were extended to industrial training by a former student of Lewin’s, Ronald Lippitt. In the early 1950's, Lewin’s and Lippitt’s ideas were adopted and applied to the educational arena by Stephen Core, Dean of Teachers College, Columbia University. He encouraged teachers, principals, and supervisors to use action research to improve their own practices (McLean, 1995:4). Besides this, Corey’s writings were on justifying action research as a methodology and he mainly focused on the technical procedures of it. Other accounts of action research by advocates such as Taba and Noel (1957) followed a rationalized six-step procedure, which are: identifying problems, analysis of problems, formulating ideas or hypotheses, gathering and interpreting data, implementation-action, and evaluating the results of action (12).
The popularity of action research led to the scrutiny of its scientific establishment and it was criticized as a less rigorous, small-scale version of experimental research, rather than as an alternative for practitioners. In the face of this criticism, its popularity declined in the late 1950's and early 1960's. However, as McTaggart (1991) points out, ironically, an understanding of the need for action research in other countries emerged from its decline in the United States. Therefore, in the 1970's, through the work of Lawrence Stenhouse and his successors, John Elliott and Clem Adelman, interest in action research manifested itself distinctively in the British educational context. In Stenhouse’s influential work, An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development (1975), he reflected the action research undertaken by teachers as a key component in the testability of curriculum concepts as he expressed as follows:
The crucial points is that the proposal is not to be regarded as an unqualified recommendation but rather as a provisional specification claiming no more than to be worth putting to the test in practice. Such proposals claim to be intelligent rather than correct (142).
Today, the prevailing idea is that action research should be employed for various purposes: for school-based curriculum development, as a professional development strategy, in pre-service and graduate courses in education, and in planning systems and policy development. Many scholars (i.e., Holly, 1990; Lieberman, 1988; Oja & Smulyan, 1989; McLean, 1995) advocate an action research approach for school restructuring. Therefore, the expansion of action research as a domain is increasing day by day with the applications in different areas and their easily witnessed and experienced contributions to teaching in particular.
Action Research: Description, Rationale and Process
In literature, the definition of action research is provided by many scholars, and a selection of them are as follows:
Action research is the name given to a series of procedures teachers can engage in either because they wish to improve aspects of their teaching, or because they wish to evaluate the success and/or appropriacy of certain activities and procedures (Harmer, 2002: 344-345).
Teacher-initiated classroom research which seeks to increase the teacher’s understanding of classroom teaching and learning and to bring about improvements in classroom practices. Action research typically involves small-scale investigate projects in the teacher’s own classroom (Richards, Plat & Plat 1992).
Action Research can be defined as a combination of the terms “action” and “research.” Action research puts ideas into practice for the purpose of self-improvement and increasing knowledge about curriculum, teaching, and learning. The ultimate result is improvement in what happens in the classroom and school (Kemmis & McTaggert, 1982).
To sum up, action research is concerned with trying to improve one specific point about the related issues of language learning and/or teaching through small-scale research by means of a procedural approach and empirical measurement.
Today, the roles of a teacher are chancing rapidly from a traditional perspective to a modern one. Instead of being just a follower of new methodologies, teachers are the source and creator of the theoretical basis of their own implementation techniques, becoming researchers within the territories of their own classroom and/or institution. So, teachers are becoming both practitioners and theorists of today’s language teaching profession. Nunan (1992) emphasizes the gap between theory, research and practice as “until comparatively recently, the focus of concern in much of the writing on … foreign language education was at the level of method. Methodological prescriptions were generally argued logico-deductively, and prescriptions for practice were generally devoid of data.” However, with the inclusion of the classroom teacher in research, the disparity between theoretical assumptions and real classroom occurrences has been overcome. Van Lier proposes the difficulties resulted from the dissipation of theory and practice, and the obstacles which prevent teachers from doing research as follows:
Those of us who work in teacher education know that one of the most difficult things to balance in a course is the tension between theoretical and practical aspects of the profession. … theory and practice are not perceived as integral parts of a teacher’s practical professional life. … This situation is the result of communication gaps caused by an increasingly opaque research technocracy, restrictive practices in educational institutions and bureaucracies (e.g. not validating research time, or not granting sabbaticals to teachers for professional renovation), and overburdening teachers who cannot conceive of ways of theorizing and researching that come out of daily work and facilitate that daily work. (1992: 3)
Despite the difficulties asserted by Van Lier, today more and more institutions are becoming aware of the reasons and aims of conducting teacher-initiated research. The reasons are various. Teachers may want to know more about their learners and what they find motivating and challenging; or teachers might want to learn more about their own teaching, how effective they are, how they look at their students, how they would look at themselves if they observed their own teaching. They might want to observe interest generated by certain topics, or have an idea of the effectiveness of certain activity types. They might want to see if an activity would work better done in groups rather than in pairs, or investigate whether reading is more effective with or without pre-teaching vocabulary (Harmer, 2002).
As asserted by Carr and Kemmis (1986) one of the most important reasons for conducting action research is that it “is a form of self-reflective inquiry undertaken by participants (teacher, or principals, for example)” (182). Teachers’ research questions stem from areas they consider problematic and these questions bear the aim of the improvement in teaching. As Cochran-Smith and Lythe (1990) suggest, the unique feature of teachers’ questions is that they emanate solely neither from theory nor from practice, but from “critical reflection on the intersection of the two” (p:6). Teacher research will enhance the re-evaluation of the teacher herself and her applications in teaching. As cited by Beverly (1993) Wolfe states that “teachers often leave a mark on their student, but they seldom leave a mark on their profession.” We see that through the process and products of action research, the teacher can do both.
Carr and Kemmis (1986: 202-5) suggest a classification system for action research based on Habermas’ (1972) knowledge-constitutive interests. The first grouping is ‘technical’ action research which is about investigating issues raised by external researchers that are not the concerns of the practitioners. On the other hand, in ‘practical’ action research, the facilitators collaborate with individuals or groups of practitioners to investigate a problem of mutual interest. The ‘practical’ type of research can be regarded as a stepping stone to the last type which is ‘emancipatory’ action research. In this application, the practitioner group takes responsibility for the development of practice through democratic decision-making period of research. In the last type, it is seen that the group becomes concerned with all of the steps and stages of the study carried out.
Although there has been a debate within the literature as to whether action research has to be a group activity or whether it can be an individually conducted study, today action research is taken into consideration as an element for in-service teachers’ collective study to take part in their own training and improvement of implementation. Even scholars justifying the reasons why action research should be composed of solitary reflections state that “self-reflection requires the subject to split one part of the self from the other in such a way that it can still render aid to itself” (Habermas, 1974). On the other hand, McTaggart and Garbutcheon-Singh (1987) are quite adamant about the idea of solitude in action research and state that activities undertaken by an individual cannot be classified as action research.
Action research has a number of distinctive features, as described by Zuber-Skerritt (1982). For her, action research is:
v Critical collaborative enquiry by
v Reflective practitioners who are
v Accountable in making the results of their enquiry public,
v Self-evaluative in their practice, and engage in
v Participative problem-solving and continuing professional development.
Over time, collaborative, participative and critical approaches to teacher development enable teachers to work closely together on matters of curriculum and instruction and find themselves better equipped for classroom work. Moreover, collaboration and collegiality break the isolation of the classroom and bring career rewards and daily satisfaction. It avoids end-of-year burn-out and stimulates enthusiasm. Instead of grasping for the single dramatic event or the special achievements of a few children as the main source of pride, teachers are more able to detect and celebrate a pattern of accomplishments within and across classrooms (Little, 1987: 497). Atkinson (2003) gives the example of large school official collaboration by mentioning teachers from the Mary Erskine and Stewart’s Melvill Junior School in Edinburgh, and the school’s decision to make the action-research road to staff development. In this very large primary school, the action-research approach was chosen to see if teacher collaboration could be achieved or not. So, both the action research projects and their effectiveness on teacher cooperation were scrutinized. And the result indicate that the approach was judged successful not only in terms of learning for the pupils but of involving staff in decisions and genuine collaboration. Teacher teamwork makes complexities more manageable, stimulates new ideas, and promotes coherence in a school’s curriculum and instruction. Together, teachers have the organizational skills and have the courage to attempt innovations of their own.
A variety of procedural plans have been evolved by different scholars. All adopt methodical and iterative sequences of research. The methodology offers a systematic approach to introducing innovations in teaching and learning. It seeks to do this by putting the teacher in the role of producer of educational theory, and user of this theory. The process of researching in action research brings theory and practice together.
A selection of action research processes is as follows:
(Harmer, 2002: 345)
(Diaz-Maggioli, 2003: 7)
(Riding, Fowell & Phil, 1995)
As can be seen in the diagrams above, action research embraces problem identification, action planning, implementation, evaluation, and reflection. It involves a spiral of steps. The process starts with the identification of the problem area, and the scope problem is narrowed down to make it manageable. Through investigation (e.g. observation, interviews, surveys, recording, etc.) the teacher identifies when the problem occurs, what affects it, what causes it, etc. In order to suggest a solution, talking to other teachers and/or reading is needed and the researcher considers what evidence to collect to decide whether his/her action is successful or not. Later, the hypothetical solution is implemented, and evidence to be analyzed is gathered to decide if the aim is achieved or not. After the analysis, reflection identifies the result of the research and whether the problem has been solved or not reveals; if not, the next step is taken with the beginning of a new research cycle. But if the results point out positive improvements, then new research begins.
Nunan (1992) suggests a research cycle by giving example cases for each step. In this suggestion, although collaborative work with other teachers is not included in the initial or ongoing stages, reflection of the research is suggested to be shared through reporting at the end of the process.
1. Problem/puzzle identification - A teacher identifies a problem.
‘My students do not seem interested or motivated.
2. Preliminary Investigation - What’s going on? Recording and observing class over several days.
3. Hypothesis - Content doesn’t seem to stimulate students.
Exclusive use of display questions.
4. Plan intervention - Increase use of referential questions. Make links between content and learners.
5. Outcome - More complex interactions. More involvement and interest. More ‘natural’ discourse, e.g. students nominate topics, Ss disagree with teacher, S-S interaction.
6. Reporting - Staff development session.
As another depiction of action research procedure, Richards (1990: 131) gives the example of a Japanese teacher who wanted to increase the amount of English he was using in the classroom.
...he first investigated how much he used his native tongue (Japanese) during his teaching and for what purposes he was using it. He checked three tapes recorded at different times over a two-week period and first listened to them just to determine the proportion of English to Japanese he was using. It was about 70% English, 30% Japanese. He then listened to the tapes again to find out the purposes for which he was using Japanese. He found he was using Japanese for two main purposes: classroom management and giving feedback. He then drew up a plan to reduce the amount of Japanese he was using for these purposes. He first consulted a guide to the use of English in the classroom (Willis 1981) and familiarized himself with English expressions that could be used for classroom management and feedback. He wrote out a set of expressions and strategies on 3” by 5” cards, and put these in a conspicuous place on his table. These served not only to remind him of his plan but also helped him remember some of the expressions he wanted to use. Each day he would place a different card on top of the pile. He then continued recording his lessons and after a few weeks checked his tapes. His use of Japanese had declined considerably.
Richards and Lockhart (1994: 200-1) report a collaborative action research case study which was executed by a group of teachers working in a private language school in an EFL context. The teachers started with the initial reflection that they, as a group, were unaware of how they corrected their students’ errors and whether their error correction strategies were effective or not. In the planning and action stage, they focused on teachers’ responses towards learners’ oral errors by videotaping fifteen two-hour classes at different levels. The tape was reviewed to determine the types of errors students made, which of these errors were corrected, and how teachers corrected these errors. Through observation, it was found that in beginning levels pronouns, word order and pronunciation were the most common types of errors corrected by teachers. I n the pre-intermediate classes, 80% of the errors were ignored, while in the beginning and intermediate classes only 30% of the errors were ignored. The usual strategy of correction was to interrupt the learner and repeat the correct form. In the last step of the research, the teachers reported that they generally agreed that the types of errors they corrected and the timing of the corrections were appropriate. However, they realized that a very limited repertoire of correction techniques were applied in their classrooms. Therefore, they planned to start a second cycle of this action research project to determine if they would be able to expand their repertoire of correction strategies, and how effective these strategies would be.
Action research started as a small-scale enquiry in social sciences, and today, it has had a great impact on educational research and literature. By means of action research, it is seen that an inside-out approach to professional development, reflective teaching, and collaboration can be achieved. The obstacles caused by the gap between practice and theory are overcome and teachers have a dual role as both practitioners and theorists of their own teaching methodologies. Through a critical and reflective view of evaluating the in-class applications, burn-out period and/or isolation of the teacher in the institution can be impeded. As teachers engage in action research, they increase their awareness in both classroom and whole institution processes. As Lawrence Stenhouse stated (cited in Rudduck, 1988) “It is teachers who, in the end, will change the world of the school by understanding it” and teacher-initiated research is an effective way of involving teachers in the institutional decisions and policies. Therefore, action research provides a teacher-centered approach to innovative classroom applications, curriculum development, learner-centeredness, target language improvement, collaborative and cooperative work.
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H. Sezgi Sarac-Suzer is a doctoral candidate in English language teaching at Hacettepe University, Turkey. She holds a BA and MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language. She works as a research assistant at Hacettepe University, in the department of ELT. Her research interests are teacher knowledge, syllabus design, pragmatics and material development.
©H. Sezgi Sarac-Suzer 2007. All rights reserved.