Research in action

By

Erik Ketcherside

Education is like many fields: Practitioners can struggle to connect the theoretical — research — with the actual. In education, the practice of action research provides a path between the two. And Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Associate Professor Craig Mertler helps educators find that path.

Book cover, Action Research 6th edition

SAGE Publications has just released “Action Research: Improving schools and empowering educators,” Mertler’s sixth edition of the book he first wrote in 2004. Reviewing the book, Tamarah Ashton, a professor of special education at California State University–Northridge, said, “‘Action Research’ is easy to read, it covers the basic tenets of action research without going overboard, and it comes from the viewpoint of lifelong researching. I’ve reviewed other texts that have two of those three qualities, but this is the first book I’ve seen with all three.”

Mertler offers these thoughts — including changes in the field and advice for new practitioners  — based on his last 15 years promoting action research.

Question: What are the three most important takeaways about action research for people who may not be familiar with the concept?

CM: First and foremost, action research as a type of educational research is typically not as deeply involved and complex as more traditional forms. It’s not crucial to have large samples of participants in the project, and generalizing results to a larger population isn’t a goal. So small-scale projects are very appropriate. But the important similarity is that the process of action research provides practitioners with a systematic and scientific approach to problem-solving, one that also results in immediate solutions.

Second, action research studies should focus on an immediate need or problem. The best way for a novice action researcher to design and implement an AR project is to start with something relatively small and very focused. This allows professional educators to become familiar with the AR process from beginning to end. Familiarity with the process through repeated cycles facilitates a sense of self-efficacy and a level of comfort with it. This can lead to future cycles of action research that are more complex and involved.

Finally, it’s crucial to view action research as a systematic process for solving problems in educational settings. When I conduct workshops for educators who are new to AR, many of them provide feedback that this is something they do in their jobs all the time. While I think there is a degree of truth in that, I would argue that they don’t approach problem-solving in a systematic and organized manner, such as the AR process provides. It’s a step-by-step process that begins with the specification of a problem, the identification of potential solutions, the implementation of one of those potential solutions, an assessment of the effectiveness of that implementation, and then a thorough description of the next steps to engage in continuous and ongoing improvement of practice.

Q: What has changed in the realm of AR since you started working in it?

CM: The biggest change is that there are more and more outlets for practitioners to share their action research, and that number continues to grow — more and more journals and dedicated conferences focused on the presentation of practitioner-conducted action research. And more conference organizers are willing to accept proposals from practitioner-researchers to present their research at those conferences. All of these efforts are incredibly important to the field. Professional educators need to see and experience the value of conducting their own action research as a mechanism for improving their practice. It continues to lend more credibility to the importance of AR in educational settings.

Q: What are the three top challenges in AR … to its practitioners, in its implementation, etc.?

CM: The first and probably greatest challenge is time. Many professional educators already feel strapped in terms of finding time to take new and innovative approaches to improve their practice. They don’t feel they have time to do action research at all, or it continues to be placed on some back burner. The truth is that, while conducting your own action research does require additional time and effort, it doesn’t need to become an all-consuming activity. Personalized AR projects can be scaled to fit the problem an educator is trying to solve, or designed to fit into available time constraints. This allows practicing educators to engage in continuous improvement through an AR approach, but to balance it with the other requirements of their professional and personal lives.

The second challenge is support, or sometimes lack thereof. For practicing educators, it is vitally important to the success of any AR endeavor that the individual or team of individuals has the support of their supervisors — department chairs, grade level coordinators, building principals, directors, etc. Action research studies don’t necessarily require support in the form of money or other resources. It can be the straightforward provision of emotional support. It’s really about providing some additional time, followed by mentorship or leadership from administrators to encourage and facilitate the work that practicing educators are trying to do to become better at what they do. This is such a huge component of the AR process that, even if the time were available, many educators wouldn’t move forward with an AR agenda without this kind of support.

The third challenge is that of confidence or self-efficacy. Many practicing educators, even if they’ve learned about the AR process somewhere, don’t believe they have the skills and capabilities to design and implement a project. Again, I would argue that an action research project doesn’t need to be a huge, time-consuming or labor-intensive project. It can be scaled in order to adequately address a specific problem of practice, and to fit into an individual educator’s routine approach to doing their work. It really becomes a standard way of doing the day-to-day job of being an educator, as opposed to something tacked on to all the things we already have to do in our jobs. Approaching the process in this manner is one way to become more comfortable and self-confident in the process of implementing action research.

Watch Craig Mertler’s TEDx talk that connects the action research approach with “Personal Empowerment through Reflection and Learning.”