I think of action research as an extension of a natural approach to problem solving. Faced with a novel situation we often first investigate. We then develop an intention to act, and carry it out. We notice if it worked. Action research similarly cycles between intention, action and review. To this natural process it adds certain important enhancements. The review component is strengthened. Rigour and theory are given more attention. More care is given to identify who else should be involved, and how. Flexibility is strengthened. A variety of processes are used, many borrowed from other literatures and practices.
This paper begins with a broad overview of action research from this perspective. Different aspects of my own variations on this approach are then examined and described in more detail. As I examine my use of action research, I illustrate my comments with examples. Most of these are taken from a university class I facilitated for many years.
Key words: Action research, flexibility, rigour, theory building, data-driven research, participation, meta-methodology
1. Action research in overview
Imagine what happens when you're confronted with a novel situation to which you have to respond. At least some of the time, you are likely to try to get some more information to increase your understanding. When you have a sufficient understanding you may plan an action and try it out. You are then likely to check if your action worked. Often it doesn't; but in engaging with the situation you have probably added to your learning. You are now better equipped to try again.
This is not the only response to a new situation but it's not uncommon: review the situation by collecting information, plan a response, do it. Then review again to check that your actions worked as intended, starting a new cycle. You could summarise it: review [arrow right] plan [arrow right] act [arrow right] review ... and so on.
This repeating cycle also characterises action research. Ernie Stringer's description (e.g. Stringer, 1999) captures this cycle briefly and simply: "look [arrow right] think [arrow right] act". Then look again to check, and move into the next cycle. Other writers use different words to describe essentially an equivalent cycle. "Plan [arrow right] act and observe [arrow right] reflect" (Kemmis/McTaggart, 1988, 11) starts at a different point in the cycle but is otherwise similar. Action alternates with critical reflection, which includes planning. The cycles integrate the dual aims of action (or change) and research (or theory, or understanding). Sometimes the action is emphasised, sometimes the research and theory. But both are present.
Action research might therefore be summed up as partly an extension of natural problem solving. I imagine this is why, when I describe action research to practitioners, they often say that they "already do that" (see Williams, 2004). In the sense of following the natural problem solving cycle, I expect that they do.
As Judy McKay and Peter Marshall (2001) point out, however, action research is more than just problem solving. There are enhancements. Indeed, there must be if action research is to achieve its multiple aims of generating participative change while attaining adequate rigour and building theory and understanding. Here I focus on four enhancements in particular which add to the problem solving and theory-building capabilities of action research. Each enhancement consists of extra attention paid to some aspect of a situation. Most of them require some personal discipline for best results.
The two aspects most often described are stakeholder involvement and critical reflection. Involved stakeholders are more supportive of any resulting change. The critical reflection generates theory or understanding and provides much of the rigour. Just as important in my view is the third enhancement: a mindset consisting of deliberate flexibility and mindfulness. …