Resources for Tutorial 6:

A) Framing your research question

As soon as one suggests the activity of framing a research question, for most people, this invokes experimental design with baselines and controls. Action research is a different way of working. Hopefully, by this point, you can describe how it is different. The biggest difference from experimental research is that action research is open-ended, iterative, and transformative. You are not mapping out the sequence from start to finish at the beginning. You are identifying a problem that you care about. You are thinking of small changes that are within your sphere of power to alter and then you are going to use what you learn from the experience to suggest the next cycle of change. Often students start out wanting to change the world -- but they come to see that significant change cannot be done alone and that the steps to large scale change often start small. In fact, after one or two cycles, there is often a common insight that comes from looking at the data. The action researcher finds that they need to change the way they see the problem.

This was particularly clear in the progression that one teacher, Anne Smith, had as she began her project. She thought her project was going to be about getting "D" students to invest a bit more effort by taking away the option of a D. But in the end, she found that she completely shifted her role towards her student and her perspective towards their work. Her students shifted from seeing her as someone who judged them, to someone who was on their side working to help them be successful. Reading her e-portfolio is good way of seeing how cycle to cycle, the understanding of the problem evolves and identities shift.

In the activities for this tutorial, you are asked to complete this exercise leading up to framing your cycle 1 action research question:
  • Select a core value
  • Identify where values do not align with practice: [area of concern]
  • Identify a problem to explore....The problem I want to solve is...
  • Consider a specific element of the more general problem where you could intervene. How do I .....?
  • Describe action and are of outcomes: If I implemented this change, would it affect....?

Your action research question involves trying to find a reasonable path to approach change. Often the issue is one of scope. You need to begin your cycles at a point in the process where you have the power to make changes. Often the change is a small one on the way to understanding how to make larger changes. Let's consider some examples as a way to help you think about your own ideas for framing your action research cycle.

Hopefully your looked through the examples and saw who these action researcher began with a plan which then evolved as they worked. You can follow the e-portfolios of some of these projects which are published in the Center for Collaborative Action Research to see how their ideas progressed. But the important thing is that each found an area where they could effect change. A cycle can be as small as changing the way you talk, or as large as rethinking the way people work together. These action researchers looked at how things were, while thinking about how they would like things to be. The change started small and the evidence that they collected moved them to the next cycle. This progressive problem solving can form a path to deeper understanding and expertise.

B. Taking Action


Some things to keep in mind as you begin your first cycle:
1) SCOPE: Your whole job or a large project is not your action research, it is the CONTEXT for your action research. You need to focus your conceptual microscope on one small part. Think strategy that you are going to use to get some part of you job or project done. If you think of a situation when you say to yourself, I wonder what would happen if I......, you have the start of a possible cycle of action research. Then you have to ask yourself is that something that leads toward my larger question? Is this something I want to understand? Will the outcome be important to you and worth the time investigating and analyzing the outcome.

2) INQUIRY: A good action research question is one that you do you know the answer to. Your action research questions should not be directed towards gathering evidence about something you have done before that you want to promote as successful or effective. Evaluation research is better suited for this task. You should be asking a question that will lead you to explore. You are trying to understand if and why something works. For example, you might have to start up a program you have done before. Was there something that did not work as well as you would have liked? In your review of the literature, maybe you got an idea of a different way of approaching it. So now you are going to try this different approach. You don't know how it will work in your setting, or with your partners. This is a good project because you are exploring something where the outcome is unknown but you hope it will move you in the direction of improvement.

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3) COLLABORATIVE DESIGN: Action researchers are less concerned with baselines, controls, and treatments--these concepts are a part of experimental research. Instead action researchers are looking at change over time from different perspectives. Each cycle is a baseline for the next one. The goal is to understand why the change works or doesn't work in the setting. The knowledge development comes from reflection on one's actions and from inquiry into how these actions cause reactions in others. This means that understanding change from the perspectives of others in the social setting is an important part of the process.


4) NONLINEAR CYCLIC PROGRESS - All of would like everything we try to be successful, but action researchers develop a healthy attitude towards calculated risks and possible failure. Being willing to try something that might not work often takes courage and confidence. The courage to explore new territory and the confidence to learn from situations that did not turn out as well as expected, are good skills in the action researchers' toolbox. Cycles that are unsuccessful are often followed by ones with more success. It often takes more than once to figure out the best ways to work.

C) 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 th
eir 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.

What ideas or strategies do you have helping students 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.

Metacognitive structures for keeping notes (or writing your blog).

1) Reflection on what you observed-- keeping clear notes of what happened with as little interpretation as possible. Instead of saying "all participants thought it was a terrific experience. It was a great success and they want more." Tell us something like...Most of the participants were actively engaged all of the time and when time was up many of them keep working for another 10-15 minutes. When leaving most expressed positive comments and we have been asked to hold a similar session next week. The second description allows the reader to make the conclusion that the session was successful.

2) Reflection on why it happened. -- These are the easiest to write and it is often easiest to start here. These reflections tell the reader what happened and then why the reader think that things turned out as they did. The researcher begins with a theory of action or predictions about what might happen. So the first reflection is on what is happening and how this compares to the theory of action. The researcher might notes things that match and things that deviate from the theory of action.

3) Reflection on how this ties to your past and future experiences. -- An event can be a trigger to look more deeply at one's past experiences and project to future experiences. This is an exploration of the mind. What how are events linked and what might this say about future directions. This is highly personal and can also deal with emotive content.

4) Reflection on conceptual knowledge structures -- An event or experience can change how we think and in doing so can change our identity. This reflection returns to the larger history of ideas and tries to place this event in the history of ideas. For example, how does this event shape your educational philosophy? Does it help you see learning in a different light? Did you learn something about group process that connects to something that you read?

I suggest that when you finish writing a reflection to a cycle, you should ask yourself two questions:

  1. Does this writing mostly describe what I DID in my action research? If yes, try searching for a statement that is not descriptive and make that the center of a new essay. For example, I was surprised that I was able to lead the session... Then ask yourself why were you surprised? What were your expectations and how were they different. What contributed to the difference? Or try taking your action research question and ask yourself why did you want to know the answer to it--why does the work matter to you.

  2. Did I learn something new from writing this? If the answer is no, then the reflection is not likely to have been very deep. Most times, the reflective process stimulates learning. Go back to the reflection and after every statement, formulate a why question based on the statement. Keep asking why until the answers are no longer useful. Move to the next sentence that keep this process up until you have reached the end of the entry.

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