Saturday, September 29, 2012

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.

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