My wrestling with action research as a process has lead me to a book that came highly recommended to me entitled, surprisingly, Action Research, by Ernest T. Stringer. I’m reading his 4th edition, so I’m presuming that this book is respected enough to warrant the publication of a new edition. New to this edition is a chapter on the theory behind the concept of action research. I was excited to see this, given my frustration with much of the rhetoric that I’ve read thus far. I thought that I would finally understand the rationale behind the evolution of action research as a movement. Maybe, if I understood where the proponents of the concept were coming from, I could better understand the rhetoric itself.
Now, don’t get me wrong, at a certain level, I am fully sold on the idea of reflective and deliberate improvement of practice in education. Far too often do we trundle along as educators making minor changes in our day to day teaching that slowly improve our practice or, in a worst case scenario, find something that kind of works and stick with it, year after year. The idea that we should be making documented observations that lead to meaningful changes in our teaching that are based not only on our own thinking but on the direct input of those we teach and teach with is a no-brainer. Sign me up. I’ve got the t-shirt and have drunk the Kool Aid.
What I still don’t understand is all the “us vs them” writing which seems to put action research at the opposite end of the spectrum from “traditional” or “quantitative” research. Stringer does make overtures to the “other side” by recognizing that traditional research has been invaluable in the material sciences and by occasionally stating that quantitative measures do have some (albeit small) place in social research. But for the most part action research is described as what traditional research is not.
I get the sense that what is being described is an idealized view of what action research can be in contrast with what traditional research can be at it’s worst. Sure, I get it that research can be used to “prove” a point of view or to make vast generalizations that may not have limited truth at a local level. I get that traditional research is often conducted in the ivory towers of the world in an effort to support those ivory towers and less to actually advance our understanding of the universe. I get that what is researched in those ivory towers often doesn’t make any practical impact. But this is not all traditional research. If we are going to be fair, should we not be comparing the ideal of traditional research with the ideal of action research?
In an ideal world, research is conducted to advance our understanding of our selves and the universe in order that we can make our world a better place. We don’t research gene splicing simply because it is cool and all of our scientist colleagues will really geek out on our discoveries. We research it because we might be able to cure a disease with that knowledge or otherwise improve the human condition. Stringer tells us that “The legitimacy of action research comes not from the criteria associated with quantitative research but from its ability to be successfully applied to problems and issues in people’s everyday lives.” (71) Of course, there are measures of quality in all kinds of research. If you are measuring something, you’d better be able to ensure that your measurement is accurate and that it is actually measuring what you intend to measure. Legitimate research allows one to make meaningful and truthful statements about what is being researched. But research is worthwhile if it is of significant quality and it can be “successfully applied to problems and issues in people’s everyday lives.” I worry that action research at its worst is simply bad research with little basis for credibility.
In the end, I just wish I didn’t feel torn between action research vs traditional research or as it is sometimes referred to, qualitative research vs quantitative research. Both have their place and often their methods belong within the same research. They both can be conducted well and poorly. They both can advance our understanding of the world and have practical value and they both can be methods used toward research for research’s sake.
Descending the soap box…
Stringer, E. T. (2014). The theory behind the practice. In Action research (4th ed., pp. 36-72). Los Angeles: SAGE.