A Possible link between Research and Practice
I spent the last week at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) meetings listening to researchers describe their work and once again I am struck with the disconnect between research and practice. I listened to researchers describing their work on teaching and learning to other researchers. Teachers were not present, were not listening, and, most importantly, will not be consuming much of the research presented. Generally research is summarized and translated a number of times before it reaches the classroom, often in the form of "research supported" practices with little tie to evidence. Part of my interest in action research is that it encourages teachers to be active consumers of research as they engage in a data-informed process of sharing their insights. A greater acceptance of action research into the families of research strategies might provide the missing bridge between research and practice.
My discussions suggest that AERA researchers’ reservations about action research stems from two sources. First, the defining characteristics of action research are unclear. And, second, admitting action researchers into the “club” of research undervalues the many years of developing expertise in the methods and skills that are essential for advancing knowledge by a research community. This blog reflects on both these issues.
Understanding Action Research
It is not surprising that AERA attendees had a vague notion of action research. A multiplicity of definitions could be abstracted from different sessions sponsored by the Action Research Special Interest Group (AR-SIG). To address this the AR-SIG is engaged in a collective process of defining action research with results presented at AERA next year. But for the sake of this blog, I will define action research on three levels—personal, organizational and scholarly.
At the personal level it is a systematic set of methods for interpreting and evaluating one’s actions with the goal of improving practice. Action research is often located in schools or done by teachers, but it can also be carried out in museums, medical organizations, corporations, churches and clubs—any setting where people are engaged in collective, goal directed activity. Equally important, not all teacher research is action research. Teachers can do ethnographic, evaluative or experimental research that is NOT action research. The process of doing action research involves progressive problem solving, balancing efficiency with innovation developing what has been called an “adaptive” form of expertise.
At the organizational level, Action research is about understanding the system of interactions that define a social context. Kurt Lewin proposed action research as a method of understanding social systems or organizational learning. Action research goes beyond self-study because actions, outcomes, goals and assumptions are located in complex social systems. The action researcher begins with a theory of action focused on the intentional introduction of change into a social system with assumptions about the outcomes. This theory testing requires a careful attention to data, and skill in interpretation and analysis. Activity theory, social network theory, system theories, and tools of evaluation such as surveys, interviews and focus group can help the action researcher acquire a deep understanding of change in social contexts within organizations
At the scholarly level, the action researcher produces validated findings and assumes a responsibility to share these findings with those in their setting and with the larger research community. Many people acquire expertise in their workplace, but researchers value the process of building knowledge through ongoing dialogue about the nature of their findings. Engaging in this dialogue through writing or presenting at conferences is part of the process of action research.
Are Action Researchers Members of the Research Community?
Meetings of researchers involve sharing findings, methods and values. So it is not surprising that they should be working on who is and is not a researcher in good standing. Underlying such meetings is a concern about group consensus about quality. And it is in this process, that some AERA researchers will want to close ranks and close doors to practitioner action researchers. Why? Because action researchers are not steeped in the traditions of research and often have only rudimentary knowledge about research methods, design and tools of analysis. They do not bring years of research experience to the table. Their status as “mere” participants without rigorous training in research methods is sometimes seen as denigrating the quality of research in the social sciences—which is often under attack from the natural sciences.
However, participants in organizations do bring years of experience engaging in inquiry into practice and they have made the important gains in understanding how research can inform their plans, and how data analysis can provide deeper insights into the mechanism of change. These insights have value to the research community. They present a way to start from assumptions of complexity and use theories of action to create and study organizational, interpersonal change.
Thus, action researchers can provide a valued entry point for AERA researchers who often enter a context without a deep enough understanding to frame a useful study. Action researchers become engaged consumers of the research literature and often look for ideas for action from the studies that AERA researchers have conducted. In this way they can validate (or refute) the findings that these professional researchers offer in a variety of complex settings.
Building a Bridge to the Research Community
Action researchers can provide a bridge to connect research and practice. This bridge has a better chance of being traversed if practitioners who are crossing it are welcomed by the research community at the other side. This does not mean that the research community has to give up its traditions of research or methods of building knowledge. But it would be more productive if there was an openness in the process of understanding the varieties of research experience and a willingness to accept multiple methods of analysis. If families of researchers continue to feud over which group has the best methods and who is, and is not, a researcher, the discord will undermine the possibility of advancing frames of knowledge. Just as action researchers are moving from practice to research, AERA researchers might find it productive to use methods of action research to improve their practice. This would help create a respect for continuous learning through data-tested reflections.