Action Research: Method or Theory?

Some see action research as "only" a method. It is a method in that as a whole process it combines both inductive and deductive approaches to come to a deeper understanding about change in oneself, in one's practice, in one's organization and in the field through advocacy, inquiry, and reflection. But it is also a way of generating knowledge by developing theories of change, deep understanding or models of how actions influence a set of reactions. Action research takes place in complex social organizations that are difficult to characterize because they are not stable. It is a process of "progressive problem solving" (Bereiter & Scaramalia) which results in dynamic or "living theories" (Whitehead) about how change on all of these levels occur.

So how does action research compare to other forms of research? This is always an active topic in courses as students come to action research research with different degrees of experience and background in research. How do you help your students sort out action research methods and their links to other traditions?

Jack Whitehead made this comment in the
[[ list serv|PRACTITIONER-RESEARCHER]] when this discussion

The ideas from Marian Dadds and Susan Hart I really like to use on methodological inventiveness are:
" The importance of methodological inventiveness
Perhaps the most important new insight for both of us has been awareness that, for some practitioner researchers, creating their own unique way through their research may be as important as their self-chosen research focus. We had understood for many years that substantive choice was fundamental to the motivation and effectiveness of practitioner research (Dadds 1995); that what practitioners chose to research was important to their sense of engagement and purpose. But we had understood far less well that how practitioners chose to research, and their sense of control over this, could be equally important to their motivation, their sense of identity within the research and their research outcomes." (Dadds & Hart, p. 166, 2001)
If our aim is to create conditions that facilitate methodological inventiveness, we need to ensure as far as possible that our pedagogical approaches match the message that we seek to communicate. More important than adhering to any specific methodological approach, be it that of traditional social science or traditional action research, may be the willingness and courage of practitioners – and those who support them – to create enquiry approaches that enable new, valid understandings to develop; understandings that empower practitioners to improve their work for the beneficiaries in their care. Practitioner research methodologies are with us to serve professional practices. So what genuinely matters are the purposes of practice which the research seeks to serve, and the integrity with which the practitioner researcher makes methodological choices about ways of achieving those purposes. No methodology is, or should, cast in stone, if we accept that professional intention should be informing research processes, not pre-set ideas about methods of techniques.. (Dadds & Hart, p. 169, 2001)
Dadds, M. & Hart, S. (2001) Doing Practitioner Research Differently. London; RoutledgeFalmer.

Here is Prof. Whiteheads notes to this doctoral students on action research methods

HI - Jack Whitehead here - One of the distinguishing features of action research is that it involves the researcher's 'I' in a self study of their influence in improving practice and generating knowledge. In the notes to my doctoral students above, I distinguish a living theory approach to research from the 5 methodological approaches distinguished by Cresswell. I think you might enjoy some of the other notes I've produced for my students on action research at . I also tend to distinguish a method from a methodology. For example, I see an action research method as an action reflection cycle of expressing concerns, imagining improvements, acting, evaluating and modifying. I see a methodology in terms of the organising principles for how the research programme is carried out. I've published a description of a living theory methodology in the Educational Journal of Living Theories at

Ideas and Resources for collecting evidence to assess your outcomes-- Feel free to add to the list

Key informant interviews -- Often listening to what others have to say helps protect us from limited vision-- can be information over lunch
mini surveys and or polls -- these can be done anonymously on the web or can be done after sessions
focus group discussions - Small group discussion around key issues can be helpful to build understanding in a community
Flow charts or logic models -- created by a group these can help focus a group on a problem
photographs - Taking digital pictures can sometimes provide a record for later analysis. For example, time on task could be measure by
taking class photos at regular intervals.
Oral history and stories -- these are rich ways to capture what is talking place
Sociograms -- mapping of the professional and social networks to help understand how information flows from one person to another, from one group to another

If you are planning to design or use surveys.

You will find some useful advice and tips at


Learning how to be an Evaluator (for those that are planning to do evaluation as part of your action research)

While action research is different than evaluation research but often researchers are using evaluation tools. If you want to learn more about how to be a evaluator, you might want to visit the evaluation cafe or take the tutorials design by SRI colleagues. They have created a lecture series a few years back and you can listen to any of the 60+ sessions. Not all will be relevant but you might find some of them useful.

TUTORIALS on Evaluation
Link to useful professional development tutorials on evaluation at OERL that deal with questionnaires and interviews and other issues in data collection. The layout of the tutorials is very effective.

VIDEO Presentations on issues in Evaluation offered by
I recommend the webinar on logic models -- Evaluation Tools