Saturday, September 29, 2012

Further Reflections on Action Research

This is an executive summary/argument for using Action Research at a college.

As Our institution moves from a two-year college to a full-service baccalaureate institution, faculty will be increasingly asked to consider their role in the creation of knowledge for their respective disciplines and instruction in that discipline.  As the Faculty Fellow for Publication and Communication, I approach the role as one of facilitating not just faculty development in instructional methods for the classroom, but also in professional development in the personal, service, and research aspects of their work.

Concurrently, I am beginning my journey as a doctoral student in the Adult Education and Organizational Leadership at the University of Georgia.  The goal of the faculty in this program is to lead us to be scholar/practitioners using, among others, the action research methodology.

In this memo, I would like to outline the characteristics of and processes used in action research and the benefits of this methodology to our college.

Action Research Defined

Action research is a rigorous social sciences methodology that has been in use in various forms since the 1940s.  Its earliest uses were in studying group dynamics and relationships.  Kurt Lewin, one action research’s originators, along with his colleagues realized that including the reflections of their research subjects in their data and in planning research processes provided a richer array of evidence.

Today, action research exists in many forms.  Some are focused on improving social conditions and ensuring more socially just conditions; Paolo Freire’s work in South America and much action research in Scandinavia are examples.  Other versions of action research, while embracing a democratic view of human relations and power, are more focused on solving problems or creating improved conditions and operations in businesses, schools, colleges, and health care and social service-providing organizations.

However, all action research involves a core of characteristics or traits.  A composite definition would be “a research approach combining quantitative, ethnographic, and qualitative methodologies which focuses on studying and solving real problems in social systems, that collects data and plans interventions, that views those affected by the research and problem-solving as research partners, that values democracy and dialogue, that views knowledge as including knowledge that is socially and personally constructed, and that requires consecutive cycles of planning, reflection, action (intervention), and assessment, and replanning.”

Action research differs from purely quantitative research by requiring reflection and dialogue, and it differs from purely qualitative methods by allowing, even requiring, that the interviewees or survey takers be part of the planning process and fully aware of their agency in the process.  However, action research usually incorporates quantitative and qualitative methods at various points in its repeated cycles.  Further, the researcher is expected to be honest with herself about biases and submit those to the group engaging in the research or those reading the published findings.

Action research is also highly reliant on grounded theory for its research and the manner of its intervention.  It is this action or intervention that also distinguishes action research.  In a sense action research is experimental, but the hypothesis testing is being done to address an existing problem or deficiency which the organizational leader and/or employees have agreed to address or have invited the researcher to address.

Action research adds to the knowledge base by testing and providing evidence for theories in the respective discipline, or by providing evidence that modifies the theory.  These disciplines include business development and growth, education, communication, social psychology, and management, among others.  Action research also adds to the knowledge base of research methods and epistemology.

Traits of Action Research

Action research, regardless of the location or the contest in which it is conducted, and regardless of the problem that is being addressed, shares these characteristics:
  • Rigorous.  The cyclical nature, the requirement of reflection and reflexivity, and the theoretical bases and prior research demand a detailed, careful, rigorous process.
  • Democratic.  Those who are affected by the research and the action have a voice in the design, data collection, and “meaning-making” of the conclusions.
  • Open.  Participants (not “subjects”) are apprised of the goals and strategies of the study and often partners in choices of such methods.  Ideally, action research has no secrets. 
  • Theory-based. 
  • Reflective at three levels.  The researcher reflects on the problem, the research process, and the theory behind the intervention.  The participants also reflect individually and corporately, for example, as part of the initial data collection and post-action phases.
  • Cyclical.  After one cycle of diagnosis, planning, action, and assessment/evaluation, another is begun based on what was learned in the first cycle.  An action research study may include three or four cycles.
  • Resulting in publishable conclusions.  There are many academic journals devoted to action research.
  • Flexible, or as Herr and Anderson (2005) term it, “emergent.”  Since each phase of the cycles, and each succeeding cycle, depends on what is learned previously in the action research process, the researcher and participants respond to the found and constructed knowledge and may find themselves going in unplanned directions.
  • Autobiographical.  The researcher, especially, is transparent about his or her life experience, standpoints, and thought processes in the research.
  • Constructivist.  Knowledge is seen, at least partially, as socially and individually constructed through experience and reflection on experience
  • Practical.  The goal of action research is to solve a problem and to learn from the process.

Analogies to Action Research

When I was introduced to the action research process, my first response was, “This is very much like how the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) is done.”  SoTL is rooted in Ernest Boyer’s work Scholarship Reconsidered (1990), in which he argues that rigorous research about teaching in a discipline should be considered on par with research in the discipline.  SoTL is a vital part of faculty development.  Faculty members engage in SoTL informally every day, by trying new techniques in the classroom.  The action research and SoTL models allow them to formalize the use of new pedagogies.  

My second response was “This is what we did with the QEP.”  In fact, I have often wondered why SACS does not present the QEP as action research.  It might have helped their communication of the goals of a QEP and located it in a more useful place for colleges. 

Benefits of Action Research to Our institution

DSC will benefit from action research in the sense that specific and systemic problems can be addressed in formal, internally driven, yet inclusive, broad-based, dialogic ways.  Action research will facilitate reflection and lead to the possibility of faculty presentations and publications.  Action research works well in higher education and other fields which we teach here.

As a teaching institution, we expect and value quality instruction.  That mission lessens the opportunity for faculty to do in-depth, traditional research.  The benefits and processes of action research—problem-solving, participatory, reflection-oriented, cyclical-- are appropriate for us.

I would like to suggest two plans.  First, I will model action research as a Faculty Fellow as part of my doctoral research, which will involve some aspect of improving the assessment and evaluation of professional development on campus.  Second, I would like to present workshops in action research methods specifically related to instruction and service.  The best approach is to have a learning community of faculty who apply and commit to learning about action research and engaging in it with a goal of a publication or presentation. 

The question might arise, “What would our institution’s commitment to Action Research entail?”  Because it is a social sciences methodology, that commitment would largely be in terms of time spent by the researchers and participants.  The learning community approach would require one-course release time for those who qualify for participation.   Resources beyond that would involve paper and copying. 

Reflections on Action Research

Note:  I am in two doctoral classes this semester.  One is on Leading Change and the other is about Action Research methodology.  This is a reflection on my understanding of Action Research.

In reading Theory U for Dr. Watkins’ class, I came across a casual quotation in the book.  It is not a book about action research but one that is highly dependent upon it.  Scharmer quotes Kurt Lewin, “You cannot understand a system unless you change it.”  That quotation hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.  That is action research in a nutshell, if you will.  It is a process of understanding a system, and the people and processes within that system, by trying to change it. 
I am writing this essay the day after our SACS visiting team has given us our final report.  They were on our campus for three days.  As the chair of the Quality Enhancement Plan committee, I had a large responsibility in preparing for the visit.  Starting in June 2010, I led this effort.  It consumed my life, or a big portion of my professional life, for over two years.  I was originally the editor of the document, but when the chair (our Assistant VP of Academic Affairs) passed away, I was asked to lead the process.  It was a large statement of faith in me since I don’t (yet) have a doctorate, but I had acquitted myself well in leading a couple of other major projects. 
The QEP was very much like action research.  Perhaps that is why I do not struggle as much with the concept of action research as some of the others in the cohort:  I feel like I have completed a research project very much like action research.  Action research also is about systems theory and communication processes, and that is my academic background. 
The QEP process is like action research in the following ways:
1.       A change must be introduced into a system and its effects tracked over five years. I will not be in charge of that process; another faculty member who has more expertise in the subject matter of the QEP will be serving as the director. However, each cycle must be assessed carefully, reported on, and responded to; if the intervention is successful, new goals are set; if the intervention is unsuccessful, the lack of success is researched and new strategies instituted, or perhaps revised goals.
2.      The change is a result of research in best practices and theory in the field.  The QEP involves an extensive literature review.
3.      The change is a group effort.  I was not the most knowledgeable person about the subject of our QEP (developmental English).  I do have a graduate degree in English and have taught the course once or twice in the distant past, but not recently or extensively.  Our work in researching, writing, and enacting the QEP was truly collaborative.  I facilitated the process and believe it was as democratic as possible, although our SACS representative in the end had a strong influence on the document (that is common).  Along with working collaboratively in the committee, we worked collaboratively with many members of the whole campus.
4.      We used quantitative and qualitative methods for data collection.  Lots of statistics and number crunching, and lots of interviews and focus groups.
That being said, there are some differences.  The people involved in the QEP process do not think of what they are doing as research for the good of a system.  Unfortunately, we tend to think of it as something we have to do for SACS compliance.  The change feels enforced from an outside agency rather than internally driven or motivated.  In the end, the change is a good one (we were able to get a lot of money for our department to improve educational delivery), but if the college had said, “Here’s $50,000; improve development English,” it would have been easier!  In a related way, colleges can hire consultants to come in and help them develop their QEPs.  We did not do that, mostly due to lack of resources, and it did not seem to matter.  The visiting team was highly complimentary of our QEP and we received no recommendations—something about which I am very proud. 
Another difference is that the literature review really focuses more on best practices than on grounded theory.  Also, there is not a strong understanding of systems theory behind the process.   Finally, there is not a strong reflective component to the process.  Obviously, we participants thought and talked a great deal about the QEP because of its vital role in our being reaffirmed for accreditation, but other than me, I do not think anyone engaged in real reflective practice about it, even when writing his or her part of the lit review. I blogged about it and journalled frequently, but I was very ego involved.
Action research is often criticized for its lack of generalizability, a criticism I am not sure I fully understand.  That is one area where I will need to delve more deeply in my concept of AR because it seems to me that from a systems perspective, traditional research would lack generalizability as well.  Each system is itself, unique.  Systems theory is closely tied to AR, and this is one of the reasons why I am drawn to AR.  Organizations, families, churches, groups, etc. are systems, not machines. 
            The analogy of a spider web is apt, I think. We have a big spider in our yard who builds magnificent webs in sometimes inconvenient places.    The web’s shape is dependent on where the spider builds it, its environment, so the web is an open system.  The web might be part angular if woven in the corner of a porch, or totally irregular if built in a shrub (my spider gets around).  Touch any part of the web and it affects the whole web.   That speaks to the fragility of a spider’s web, but I think it also speaks to the fragility of systems, despite how systems depend on rules and regulations to stay constant.  The web is always changing in some way.  Systems follow patterns but each system is different.
This reflection on AR has been an adjunct to the other document, the memo to my academic supervisors; this one is more personal than analytic.  I am excited about AR and believe in the process, although the multiplicity of theories that we encountered in the case studies was daunting.  I like that AR is transparent, demands an admission of positionality, and is practical, flexible, cyclical, and emergent.  I am not currently committed so much to its social justice uses or the view that all knowledge is socially constructed; perhaps that will come.  To me, action research is life.  We are all growing and changing, we learn in cycles, and we must accept our limitations as research facilitators and learners.