WHY DO ACTION RESEARCH?
Richard Watson Todd
King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi
Readers of the ThaiTESOL Newsletter will have noticed the existence of a regular column discussing action research. In this contribution to the discussion of action research, I hope to show why the editors of the ThaiTESOL Newsletter have felt that action research is such an important topic as to justify a regular column about it. To do this, I will go back to basics and examine what exactly is meant by action research and why teachers should engage in it.
What is action research?
One problem with action research is that the term means different things when used by different authors. For example, Hopkins (1985) treats action research and classroom research by teachers as synonymous; Wallace (1991) argues that the main criterion for action research is practicality; Brown (1994) and Robinson (1991) suggest that any action undertaken by teachers to collect data and evaluate their own teaching can be termed action research; and Somekh (1993) highlights the participatory insider nature of action research.
Despite the differences between these interpretations of action research, there does appear to be a common core which distinguishes action research from research in general. Action research occurs within a specific classroom situation, is usually conducted by the teacher as classroom participant, and aims to develop the situation and the teacher-researcher rather than generate additions to the pool of human knowledge.
Since action research does not aim to increase knowledge, issues of research reliability and validity can generally be downplayed in action research while practicality and immediate usefulness become more important. For this reason, action research often seems an attractive option for teachers new to research. It looks easy - action researchers do not have to worry about creating valid research designs, about statistics, or about concepts like triangulation and replicability. While these points are to some extent true, conducting useful action research still requires serious devotion of time and effort, and a lot of thoughtful consideration. However, while not easy, action research should still be an attractive option for classroom teachers, albeit for different reasons.
Why should teachers conduct research?
To improve and develop teaching, research into classrooms is needed. As teachers, we need to know what is actually happening in our classrooms, what learners are thinking, why learners are reacting in the ways they do, what aspects of the classroom we should focus on to develop our teaching most effectively, how we should change in these aspects, and what the effects of such a change are. It is important to note that more than half of the items in this list concern describing and understanding the existing classroom situation rather than evaluating the implementation of a new approach. If we do not truly understand our classroom situations first, our choices of new approaches to implement are likely to be based on personal fancy and whimsy rather than on what is most likely to have beneficial effects in the situation.
Given this need for teachers to understand their own classroom situations, it comes as something of a surprise to realise that most research into classrooms is still conducted by researchers from outside the classroom situation. A quick trawl through a few recent journals shows that university researchers are the authors of nearly all of the articles, including those that investigate school classrooms. (I should be a little careful here as I work at a university but am advocating action research at all educational levels). The problem with classroom research being conducted by outside researchers is that classrooms are very complicated specific contexts replete with their own routines and expectations which are very difficult for outside observers to understand. Classroom research into surface behaviours, such as the number of questions a teacher asks in a lesson, can be effectively conducted by outside researchers, but getting a real understanding of the underlying meaning s and purposes of these behaviours can only be done by insiders. Since most learners are not in a position to be able to conduct research, this means that the teacher is the person who should be doing most research into classrooms.
The problems with conducting research
Teachers wishing to conduct research into their own classrooms, however, are faced with a host of problems. Not least among these are lack of time, lack of expertise or skills in research, lack of support especially from within their own institution, and threats to their self-image as a teacher (Allwright, 1993; Burton and Mickan, 1993; Nunan, 1993).
The problem of lack of research expertise or skills has a knock-on effect causing further problems. Research designed and conducted by teachers new to research is likely to have low reliability (e.g. the findings are not likely to be generalisable) and low validity (e.g. the research may bot actually produce findings which address the targetted research topic). Because of these problems, the research is also likely to have low publishability - which may obstruct achievement of the teacher's real reason for conducting research, namely, to get published given the heavy stress placed on publishing research by the Ministry of Education and universities at present.
Action research as a solution to the problems
All of these problems may make teachers think twice before getting involved in research. However, these problems apply to research in general rather than action research. In focusing on action research, we need to shift our perceptions of the nature and purposes of research, and this shift in our perceptions reduces the importance that can be given to the problems discussed above.
Action research, as we have seen, aims to develop the teaching situation and the teacher-researcher rather than generate new knowledge. As such, reliability and generalisability are not really issues in action research. Action research aims to generate findings that are useful within a specific context rather than findings applicable across many different situations. Similarly, the basis for judging validity in action research is different from that used in research in general. In general research, validity is measured by the extent to which the research actually investigates what it is supposed to investigate, and because of this, research design and data analysis procedures are crucial. In action research, on the other hand, validity can be measured by the extent to which the research produces findings which are useful in developing the classroom situation. This shift in perceptions concerning the nature and purposes of research means that action research, which may not be publishable when judged by the criteria of research in general, is publishable as action research (see Edge, 2001; Sitler and Tezel, 1999; Watson Todd, 1999 for recent examples of published action research). However, the number of publications focusing on action research is limited meaning that publishability is actually still low.
Publishing an article, however, should not be a teacher's top priority when deciding to conduct action research. More important is the likely effect that conducting the action research will have on the classroom situation and the teacher-researcher.
Action research for development
In conducting action research, teachers can become emancipated (Gore and Zeichner, 1995), in that they become in control of the whole process of research and investigation of their own teaching, rather than being the tool of an outside researcher. Teachers, then, can become more autonomous, responsible and answerable through action research (Day, 1987), and so decisions concerning change can be taken by teachers themselves. One outcome of this is that action research is likely to be relevant and immediately useful in understanding and developing the specific classroom context in which it was conducted, and so of benefit to learners. Another outcome is that the research becomes both an input into and a stimulus for teacher reflection (indeed, teacher reflection is one of the key tools in conducting action research), and reflection is a necessary component of personal and professional development. Conducting action research, then, is one key way for us to develop ourselves as teachers.
As teachers, it is our duty to develop both our teaching and ourselves. Action research can help us to fulfil these responsibilities. Because of this, conducting action research should not be seen as something extra that keen teachers can do which goes beyond their usual teaching responsibilities. Instead, conducting action research should be seen as an integral part of our responsibilities as professionals dedicated to developing our teaching and ourselves.
Allwright, D. (1993) Integrating 'research' and 'pedagogy': appropriate criteria and practical possibilities. In Edge, J. and Richards, K. (eds.) Teachers Develop Teachers Research: Papers on Classroom Research and Teacher Development. Oxford: Heinemann. pp. 125-135.
Brown, H. D. (1994) Teaching by Principles: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Burton, J. and Mickan, P. (1993) Teachers' classroom research: rhetoric and reality. In Edge, J. and Richards, K. (eds.) Teachers Develop Teachers Research: Papers on Classroom Research and Teacher Development. Oxford: Heinemann. pp. 113-121.
Day, C. (1987) Professional learning through collaborative in-service activity. In Smyth, J. (ed.) Educating Teachers: Changing the nature of Pedagogical Knowledge. London: The Falmer Press. pp. 207-222.
Edge, J. (ed.) (2001) Action Research. Alexandria, VA: TESOL.
Hopkins, D. (1985) A Teacher's Guide to Classroom Research. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
Nunan, D. (1993) Action research in language education. In Edge, J. and Richards, K. (eds.) Teachers Develop Teachers Research: Papers on Classroom Research and Teacher Development. Oxford: Heinemann. pp. 39-50.
Robinson, P. (1991) ESP Today: A Practitioner's Guide. Hemel Hempstead, Herts.: Prentice Hall.
Sitler, H. C. and Tezel, Z. (1999) Two action research projects. In Gebhard, J. G. and Oprandy, R. (eds.) Language Teaching Awareness: A Guide to Exploring Beliefs and Practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 195-210.
Somekh, B. (1993) Quality in education research - the contribution of classroom teachers. In Edge, J. and Richards, K. (eds.) Teachers Develop Teachers Research: Papers on Classroom Research and Teacher Development. Oxford: Heinemann. pp. 26-38.
Wallace, M. (1991) Training Foreign Language Teachers: A Reflective Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Watson Todd, R. (1999) Using algorithms in strategy training: a case study in action research in EAP. Guidelines vol. 21 no. 1 pp. 34-55.