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Reflective and Descriptive Writing


Both descriptive and reflective writing are important in documenting your action research for yourself and others. Memory is reconstructive. It uses bits of evidence to reconstruct scenes and events. Rich description can preserve one's time-sensitive way of seeing a set of actions and reactions. Without careful note-taking throughout the process of action research, it is very difficult to remember the conditions as the memories tends to reconstruct with the benefit of evolving knowledge. In any process of change, it is important to keep a research log—notes that describe what is seen and heard. A good researcher is always aware that their point-of-view is not the only one that defines reality. The more evidence of the perceptions of others that are collected, the deeper the researcher's understanding will be of the multiple perspectives on the same actions. Descriptive writing aims to be low inference. For example, writing "the students were excited and did an excellent job on their projects" is drawing an inference from an observation. A lower inference description of the same event by an action researcher might read, "The students spent most of the period focused on their projects with relatively few distractions. They did not want to leave at the end of the period. The teacher assessed each of the projects as meeting all of the objectives set for the activity."

Reflective writing can and often does contain descriptions of events—but the goal of the writing is very different. The focus is not on what happened, but why it happened and on how what happened connects to the past events and ideas and possible futures that such events might herald. The reflection is what the mirror shows of mind—one's thinking about these connections. So while a reflection may begin by describing an action or a consequences of a action, it quickly leaves the details of what happened and uses some aspect of the situation as a springboard for exploring the writer's analysis and synthesis of actions or consequences like these and why and how they are connected. For example, the researcher might have noticed something about the way people work, some problem might serve as a metaphor for something that occurs frequently, or an event might trigger relationships to situations that were similar or different in the work of others or in the researcher's own past experiences. Another possibility is that the connections might trigger some change in the way the researcher comes to see the events, some shift in perspective, or the development of a new individual or group skill might alter the way people interact with one another and the reflection might dwell on those relationships. Something learned about the people involved in the action research might lead the researcher to question the way they think about an issue. For reflective writing, the mirror shows what cannot be seen—the thinking that the researcher is doing about the action and consequences of the actions for now and for the future.

1) Personal Change-- How did you change during this cycle? You tried to solve problem at your workplace. Maybe it wasn't a perfect solution but did you feel it worked? What does it mean to you when you say it worked? Why do you think it did or did turn out as your expected? Do you see yourself as a problem solver? What has been some of your experience in solving problems in the past? Are you different in different contexts, for example would you have been more likely to have solved this problem if it was located outside of work? In your past, how have you oriented toward problems like this? Did you wait for others to solve them or would you have done it in a different way? When you and others came up with your plan, was there a time when you worried it would not work? Was there something that you can point to that you learned about yourself that helped make it work. Have you changed the way you look at problems or at least at common ones? Do you see yourself different in any way? Do you think that others see you differently?

2) Local Change-- How do you think this action affected others. Do you think they knew why you were taking the action you spearheaded? Do you think that they might have wanted a different plan? Were you surprised by their reactions? Did they appreciate your efforts to solve the problem or did they feel left out? Who owned the problem at the beginning? Who owns the problem now? Why do you think this is the case? What are the "norms"-- the unspoken rules-- that shape behavior? Did this project challenge any of these norms? Did you see any evidence of norms shifting? What about the division of labor within the group, has this shifted? Do you have a better understanding of the forces for change in your workplace?

3) Conceptual Change-- Did your ideas change in anyway. This might be your ideas about learning. Maybe you expected that it would be easy for others to learn a new system but you realized that not everyone approaches a learning task in the same way. Maybe you understood something about the way ownership of the problem or your identity as a problem solvers interacted with learning. Maybe there was something about leadership that you read and experienced in this cycle. Were their any principles of learning, change or interaction that you learned? Think back on what you read, look back on your notes. Were there any good examples of theoretical concepts? Did you see Vygotsky's "Zone of Proximal Development" in practice? Did you understand better way in which Lave and Wenger's "legitimate peripheral participation" works in a community of practice? Could you see the connections between Berieter and Scardamalia's "progressive problem solving" and Brandford's "cycles of innovation" or adaptive expertise?

(TAKEN from Tutorial 9 Reflections on Actions ...visit the tutorial for more help on writing reflections.)

What ideas or strategies do you have helping novice action researchers master descriptive and reflective writing?

Feel free to add the ways in which you structure this activity for action researchers or share any systems or strategies you find that others suggest.