Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

Action Research, Ethics and the Risks of Practicing Freedom for Early Childhood Professionals

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

Action Research, Ethics and the Risks of Practicing Freedom for Early Childhood Professionals

Article excerpt


There are two paramount characteristics of what Kemmis & McTaggert (1986) called a `fourth generation' of action research that involve participants in the `conscious practice of freedom' and thus engage them in Foucault's terms in ethical practice. First, it uses individual and group self-reflection to improve the rationality and justice of participant's social contexts and practices. Participants are encouraged to take a sceptical position on knowledge and, using critical reflection, participants are urged to be:

... inquisitive about circumstances, action, and consequences and coming to understand the relationships between circumstances, actions, and consequences, in ... (our) own lives. (McTaggart, 1991, p. 176)

Second, participants draw on their critical reflection to plan how to act. The intent is to create the freedom to improve their social contexts and practices (MacNaughton, 1996b).

`Fourth generation' action research shares with postmodernists a scepticism of the pursuit of `truth' as achievable and is in accord with their understandings of `truth' as always partial, multiple, fragmented, historically- and culturally-specific, contested, and as never finally fixed (Weedon, 1997). How we have imagined and practiced action research also accords with Foucauldian (1980, 1978, 1977) understandings that there are many `truths', each associated with specific power effects. Within our `postmodern' or reconceptualist understanding of action research, critical reflection can hold existing `truths' up for social critique and draw on postmodernism's deconstructionist and revolutionary intents to provoke changed knowledge/power relations in the contexts in which we enact research. For this reason, reconceptualist action research offers a space in which practitioners can practice ethical teaching as they `re-meet' their truths and take a conscious decision about how best to practice equitably and justly as teachers.

Reconceptualist action research invites participants to `re-meet' their truths in local sites using specific postmodern tools of meaning analysis and poststructuralist understandings of the relationships between power, knowledge and `truth' meaning. These tools engage participants in reflection on the effects of their `truths' and the practices that result from themselves and others. For instance, Derrida's (1982) notions of deconstruction and erasure and Foucauldian (Foucault, 1980; 1978; 1977) ways of exploring the relationships between power and meaning are powerful tools for ethical meaning analysis. Put simply "deconstructive analysis suggests that texts are never what they seem" (Cherryholmes, 1988, p. 61). Putting a word under erasure indicates that you recognise its limits and silences but that you haven't yet found an alternative (Davies, 1993). When this form of analysis is combined with Foucault's argument that "systems of power require some truth to be derived to justify what they seek to do" (Mansfield, 2000, p. 59), then exploring the relationships between truth, meaning and power becomes possible. This in turn means that the conscious practice of freedom becomes a possibility, as the effects of `truths' and their practices are critically scrutinised.

Kylie explains how this can happen in the following story

Kylie and Observation

In 1998, Kylie Smith (one of the authors of this article) began an action research project to examine observation in an early childhood setting as part of her doctoral studies. This project has led to staff at Swanston Street Children's Centre exploring how to reconceptualise how, why and who observes in the early childhood setting. She wrote recently of her journey in this work to date in a paper she presented to the European Early Childhood Research Association Conference in London:

   This ongoing project involves children, parents and early childhood
   professionals at the service actively participating in rethinking
   observation. … 
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