OK.  I need help.  My recently completed Masters emphasized “quality” traditional research.  Clearly defined research questions, carefully planned processes with reliable measuring instruments and thoroughly analyzed data.  Setting out to prove a hypothesis that helps the researcher to better understand some specific idea.  Then, action research starts coming at me from a number of different angles and I start to get the feeling from some folks that there is no place for traditional research in education (or other social science environments).  There is all this rhetoric around traditional research being quantitative, action research is qualitative; traditional uses control groups, action research doesn’t; traditional research is about generalizable conclusions, action research is about specific localized situations.

Why does research have to be so black and white?  Since when is all traditional research quantitative?  Social research of any kind, traditional or requires both qualitative and quantitative data.  How much of each is entirely dependent on what is being studied.  The action research material that I’m reading seems to indicate that action research is exclusively qualitative in nature. All research uses control groups because all research is measuring something in comparison to something else, even if that something else is the very same thing being studied but at a different time.  Action research claims not to need them.  If you are not generalizing your conclusions, what good are they?  At the very least, you need to have some conclusion that says that teaching intervention X works with students in my community at my grade in my course or you can’t use them.  Otherwise, all you have is observations of what occurred in this one very specific instance.

I may seem like I’m beating up on the action research camp, and I don’t mean to be.  I like their focus on documentation and formalizing the kinds of observations and adjustments that I make in my teaching on a daily basis.  It just seems that all the reading that I’m doing on action research is strongly anti-traditional research and I’m having a hard time finding the middle ground.  Or, perhaps, I’m finding the middle ground and am realizing that nobody else is there: they’ve all dug in to their trenches on either side of me.  I’m increasingly involved in action research projects in my job and I need to get my head around exactly what the thinking is.  If there is anyone out there also holed up behind a rock in no-man’s-land, please tell me what you know and what your experiences are.  Have you reconciled the two camps?  Have you compromised your research ideals to meet the demands of one camp or the other?  Or, do you continue to live behind the rock waiting for the shooting to stop?

2 thoughts on “Action Research

  1. Interesting questions. Not just ‘education’ but frankly everything, is now under the umbrella of skeptical inquiry. Universities beholden to corporate subsidy. Big pharm ‘selling’ to doctors and teaching hospitals. Governments forgoing due governance on favour of laissez faire. When elected officials care more about boardrooms than public bathrooms or public service you know what is going on.
    In education research, like social sciences, the measuring and analysis process should be essentially ethnographic not empirical. When educators tried to legitimize themselves under publically funded ‘schooling’ they reached for the sciences and ‘systems’ to hang truth onto but sacrificed but we all know is largely an art of learning not science. The debt is now due and the payment is our apparent contradictions and inability to socially engineer learners.
    The solution is a mystery, as parent grasp at myth and self-help to counter the bad press; yet I witness in BC a level of professional achievement and due diligence that shines above most others. Our colleagues in BC don’t need more data or controlled samples to prove they are victims of a well-intended cultural past and the current political regime that scape-goats them for selfish and foolish political capital. Both will not endure. Strong professional spirited teaching by artist who love kids will prevail. Thx

  2. Hi Al,

    Thanks, as always for taking the time to read an comment! I hadn’t even thought through the angle of post-justification of actions based on “research.” What I’m trying to get my head around is the mindful reflection and refinement of practice that I love about the action research mindset. What I fear is that there seems to be a strong push against anything that has the trappings of “traditional” research. While there are certainly aspects of certain types of traditional research that have no place in the social sciences (such as purely quantitative measures of student achievement) we would be foolish to discount an entire tradition of inquiry that has brought us so far in understanding the world. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

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