Research Methods: Action research as a qualitative research

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Action Research has been defined in various ways that portray the different scholars' perception of what the process is meant to do. Hensen et al (1996) as cited in Johnson, (2005:21) defined Action Research as the process of studying a real school or classroom situation to understand and improve the quality of instruction. Bassey, (1998:93) as quoted in Koshy (2005:8) describes action research as an enquiry which is carried out in order to understand, to evaluate and then to change and improve educational practice. A yet more elaborate definition is by Johnson (1993) as cited by Freebody, (2003) that it is

'…a deliberate, solution oriented investigation that is group or personally owned and conducted. …it is characterised by spiraling cycles of problem identification, systematic data collection, reflection analysis, data driven action taken and finally problem redefinition' (pp.85-86).

In line with this definition is Kemmis et al, (1998)who called it 'participatory research' because it involves active participation with 'the aim of helping people to investigate reality in order to change it', (p. 21). Participants get involved in indentifying the problem, planning the desired change, acting, reflecting on the processes and consequences of the steps to be taken and then replan in order to get to a desired solution. So it becomes a vicious cycle until the desired change is achieved. Cohen & Manion, (2007) suggest that because of the participatory nature the process of Action Research should not be viewed solely as a group activity as is the case with some scholars, (Kemmis et al, 1998) since this would be restricting it. Rather, depending on issues to be addressed it is possible for the project to be an individualistic matter of a single researcher. This provides the concerned individual with an opportunity to ask himself or herself what they see as the problem and how to go about solving it. On the other hand as a group activity, responsibilities would be divided among the participants placing the researcher in the leading role of facilitator. This therefore identifies the process as participatory, as well as practical and collaborative, Kemmis et al, (1998:23). Participatory, in the sense that 'people can only do action research on themselves as individuals or collectively', and collaborative because the process depends very much on social relationships of the participants, (ibid.). As such Action Research can also be identified as a social process since it engages people in examining the acts which link them with others in a socially interactive giving them (the people) an opportunity to explore their own communication skills as they interact with others.

The process addresses fundamental issues of power and power relationships, for in according power to the participants action research is seen as an empowering activity. On this issue however, Elliot (1991:54) as cited in Cohen & Manion, (2007:301), argues that such empowerment has to be a collective rather than individual level as individuals do not operate in isolation from each other but they are shaped by organisational and structural forces. In the sense that it aims to empower people Cohen & Manion, (2007) has characterised the process as emancipatory, arguing that the emancipatory element of action research puts participants in a community of equals in the process of problem investigation and solving. Also Holder, (see http://www.luanneholder.com/upload/ActionResearch.pdf) adds that 'when executed correctly, action research distributes power among the participants, involving them in a collaborative solution-finding process. Therefore, this methodology can be used to empower marginalized populations' (Creswell, p. 550). Nonetheless, the ultimate aim of action research is to arrive at a recommended good practice that will tuckle a problem or enhance performance in a given situation.

Doing Action research in education

Action Research has an unlimited scope and can be used in any field which involves people, tasks and procedures looking for solutions, or where some change of feature results in a more desirable outcome, Cohen & Manion, (2007). Action research is said to have 'a deliberate intention to change the life chances of disadvantaged groups in terms of housing employment, prejudice, socialisation and training', (Cohen & Manion, 2007:304). As such the process has been described as 'a tool for change and improvement at the local level', Cohen & Manion (2007, p.297). Because Action research is done by practitioners, it is described as 'a practitioner based research' Clarke (2005:5). In the field of education however, few practitioners believe they have got it right and as such they look for ways and means of improving their practice whether it is in terms of teaching, managing or evaluating performance, Carter, (2005). Ferrance , (2000) of the Northeast and Islands Regional Educational Laboratory at Brown University suggests that 'because practitioners are responsible for making decisions affecting the day to day operations of schools and that because they are being held publicly accountable for student achievement results, they use the process of action research to assist them in identifying needs, documenting the steps of inquiry, analyzing data, and making informed decisions that can lead to desired outcomes'. With regard to solving problems that arise in practice, Johnson, (2005) adds:

'Teachers are constantly challenged with a variety of problems for which they are required to develop solutions. As they use action research they become flexible in their thinking, more receptive to new ideas, and thus better able to solve problems as they arise(Dinkelman, 1997) cited in Johnson, (2005:29)

Some of the assumptions on which the process of action research includes the understanding that the teachers will work best on problems they have experienced and therefore identified for themselves. When teachers do a self reflective and self evaluation of their own work, it gives them a firm ground for assessing and improving their performance as they support one another in a collaborative effort to fulfil this. Also working together as colleagues in the problem solving process the teachers' professional growth and development will be enhanced, (Watts, 1985, p. 118) adapted from Ferrance, (2000), (accessed from http://www.alliance.brown.edu/pubs/themes_ed/act_research.pdf)

In practical terms the process of action research will start with a situation that calls for some kind of improvement or total change where necessary. Different scholars have approached the process of action research differently. Cohen and Manion, (2007) suggested that the process could be done in two simple stages; a diagnostic stage in which the problems are analysed and the hypotheses developed; and the therapeutic stage in which the hypotheses are tested. Also Lewin, (1946; 1948) as cited in Cohen & Manion (2007:304) codified the action research process into four main stages namely planning acting, observing and reflecting.

Whereas scholars may not agree in terms of the number and sequence of steps in the process of action research, I find the following sequence of events as suggested by Freebody, (2003:87) to be more elaborate and likely to yield a more exhaustive outcome, although they are by no means conclusive in themselves. In the first phase practitioners will define an area to be explored, determine what they want to study and try to establish why things are as they appear to be, whether it is a learning issue, a behavioural problem or students not submitting their work on time, to mention but a few of the numerous examples. In the second phase Practitioners will decide what data they want to collect, how and when they want it collected and how often. As the data is collected they will ensure that evaluation of each idea is saved for the right moment. The key to successful implementation of this strategy is to produce as many ideas as possible. All ideas collected are evaluated at a general discussion to choose the one that seems to be the best. If evaluation is done as the data collection progresses chances are that some participants might throw out ideas which they think might not work. This approach is also referred to as the creative approach to problem solving, where researchers define the problem, and generate ideas for solutions, (Johnson, 2005:30). In the third phase, Practitioners analyse and document the data collected. Data reviewed will include the immediate, cumulative, and longer term effects of teachers and students. Another way of finding solutions is by using the means-end analysis (ibid, pp. 30, 31). In this strategy researcher begins by setting the desired outcome and data is then collected and analysed with the view of achieving this outcome.

The fourth phase involves developing by way of describing and categorising the findings, and deciding how the data can be used and applied toward achieving the desired outcome. A plan of action is created based on findings and then the ideas are tested and implemented. The fifth phase involves trying out the solution reached in the process to see if it will produce the desired outcome. Every new plan programme or solution produced as a result of action research will need adjusting, during the testing phase. In the sixth phase researchers will implement the solutions or programmes that have been researched, tried and tested and found to meet the desired outcome of the process. Lastly, the cycle is repeated if there is a need to improve on what has already been achieved until the practitioners are fully satisfied with the final outcome. It is important to note that the core of action research is professional self-improvement through focussed interactive collaboration.

Some of the strengths of action research

Empowerment to all participants - teachers, are empowered when they are able to collect their own data to use in making decisions about their practice, Johnson, (2005:26). Also Kemmis et al, (1998) note that the process helps participants to explore the ways in which their practices are shaped and constrained by wider social structures and consider whether and how they can intervene to release themselves from these constraints, (also see http://iteach.org/action-research/index.php?page=advantages-of-action-research).

Action research is self reflective as well as self evaluative; it can therefore lead to open ended outcomes to improve performance.

Research is said to be participatory and collaborative - which means that the participants don't have to be distant or detached but rather be part of the ongoing activity.

Action research involves continuous evaluation and modifications as the project progresses and the cycle can be repeated until satisfaction of the researcher is achieved.

Use of reflection to generate models - because Action research refers to the systematic reflective study of one's actions and the effect of these actions in a workplace context, it provides an opportunity for theories to emerge from the research rather than always follow a previously formulated theory, (also see http://iteach.org/action-research/index.php?page=advantages-of-action-research).

Cyclical approach to research increases the generality of the findings and the researcher can bring a story to real life.

Bridging the gap between theory, research and practice - the process of action research aids practitioners to establish theories that are related to best practices in education, which in turn help teachers to created best learning experiences, Johnson, (2005:25).

Some weaknesses of action research

Koshy, (2005:21) cites some examples of what critics regard to be weaknesses of action research.

Action research is said to lack rigour and validity - However, it can be argued that it is possible to be rigorous in both gathering and analysing data within the process.

Secondly it is alleged by critics that action research findings are not generalisable - In response to this weakness, Koshy, (2005) argues that the action researcher does not set out to seek generalisable data, but rather to generate knowledge based on action within one's own situation.

Thirdly critics regard action research as a deficit model. In his response to this criticism, Koshy, (2005) argues that it is not a deficit model because developing strategies for solving a problem within a situation is not a negative action; it is about progress and the development of ideas to reach a desirable outcome.

Betrayal - The real weaknesses of the process however as pointed out by Cohen& Manion, (2007:65) is that action research is vulnerable to betrayal. Citing Kelly, (1989a) it is noted that ethical issues are bound to arise when data discussed in confidence with teachers as collaborators in the research is revealed as public knowledge or recorded as evidence in a way that causes embarrassment.

Using action research for Teacher development and professional growth

Whereas it need not be overstressed, the purpose of action research in educational institutions is to work towards an improvement or where necessary a total change in practice, (Kemmis et al, 1998). Cohen & Manion (2007) suggest a variety of areas where teachers can use Action Research effectively in order to improve or change performance. These are areas such as teaching methods, learning strategies, evaluative procedures, attitudes and values and continuing of professional development for the teachers themselves. Because the method leads to a deeper understanding of what they are doing and why they do it, it becomes a means of discovering and implementation of new approaches to performance in the particular area of operation, Carter, (2005:4), (cited in Cohen & Manion, 2007:304).

Hensen, (1996) as cited in Johnson, (2005: 27), described some of the benefits of action research in support for teachers' professional growth and development that

It helps teachers to develop new knowledge directly related to classrooms.

It promotes reflective teaching as well as thinking for both the teachers and their students.

It expands teachers' pedagogical repertoire, putting them in charge of their role as classroom teachers, and reinforces the link between practice and student achievement.

The process fosters openness toward new ideas and learning new things, consequently giving teachers ownership of effective practices, (adapted from Johnson, 2005: 27).

Whenever teachers are provided with time and the opportunity, they need to engage in action research and share their findings. Engaging in professional dialogue with peers enhances their professional growth, and development which in turn moves the field of education forward. Using action research as a tool for teacher development also enables teachers to become agents of change (Hensen, 1996) in (Johnson, 2005:27).

Following are suggested areas which have been identified by Johnson (2005:37) as guidelines in the use of action research to work on professional teacher development and growth.

Observing students - a systematic observation of students' behaviour and performance is done both in the classroom and out in playing field. Students are observed in comparison with each other, and their behaviours and performances recorded. The aim is to identify the weak areas that cause their failure so that teachers can create new techniques for effective teaching and learning.

Observing fellow teachers - teachers will develop and continually work on improving their own teaching style, therefore it is important that they observe how others are doing it. A teacher whose role is that of a mentor might be used for the purpose of demonstrating good teaching techniques. It should be noted however that even the best teachers will vary in their teaching methods, so the responsibility remains on the individual teacher seeking to develop their teaching style.

Observing own style - although this may sound ambiguous, it is not easy to practically observe oneself while in teaching in the classroom. However, Johnson, (2005:41) suggests several ways in which this could be done. Audio or video recordings of the teacher's performance in class and outside (where possible) can be done to be reflected on at a later time. This could be done by a fellow teacher. Other elements to be considered under self-observation and self-evaluation include the types and level of questions the teacher asked, the posture, and waiting time during question and answer exercises. Also to be observed are the teacher's mannerisms and the general presentation style. Where other teachers are used to collect evidence on your behalf ethical and confidentiality issues will need to be addressed.

Cohen & Manion, (2007:306) suggest a sequence of events that I consider to be most appropriate in using action research as a tool for professional growth and development. They suggest that teachers should decide and agree on a particular problem that they need to address and attempt to identify the likely causes, thereby creating a need for a solution. All possible solutions to this situation will then be brainstormed either by the individual or by the group doing the research, with the intention of addressing the real cause(s) of the problem. From a range of possible practical solutions the best option will be decided upon, and a plan of action devised for implementation. A close observation of this testing phase is made and well documented at the end of which the researcher will identify criteria for success. According to the researcher's own success criteria, a decision will be made whether the proposed solution will work or not. Depending on the level of success achieved the researcher will monitor and systematically record every step of the progress, modifying the plans of action accordingly. After evaluating the final modifications, the researcher can either decide to settle with what they got or decide to repeat the cycle until they are fully satisfied with the outcome.

In conclusion, I note the useful distinctive features of Action research described by Zuber-Skerritt, (1982). It is suggested that, Action research is a critical collaborative enquiry conducted by reflective practitioners who are accountable in making the results of their enquiry public. These practitioners are self-evaluative in their practice as they engage in the participative problem-solving approach to continuing professional growth and development. (see http://informationr.net/ir/1-1/paper2.html#zubersChromeHTML\Shell\Open\Command)

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