In this research report I offer descriptions, explanations and theoretical analyses for how I have tried to live out my values in practice (Whitehead 1989), in relation to an enquiry that I undertook from January to April 2008. I also offer explanations for the values that informed every step I took to reflect on my practice (Schon 1983), as I deconstructed (Derrida 1978) my pre-conceptions about what a school is and how it should be run.
I organized my inquiry as McNiff and Whitehead (2006) suggest, by asking key questions:
What was my concern?
Why was I concerned?
How did I gather data to show the situation as it was and as it unfolded?
What did I do about my concern?
How did I explain my educational influences in learning?
How did I show that any conclusions I came to were reasonably fair and accurate?
How did I modify my concerns, ideas and practices in the light of my evaluation?
My main focus is on showing how I transformed my values into the critical living standards by which I judge the quality of my research and consequently my practice.
In the paper I position myself as an educational researcher who is making two original claims to educational knowledge as I offer you an account of my own professional learning. My claims are that I have learned that
1) class visions and missions are key to creating an organic approach to school improvement;
2) dialogue is central to the development of a knowledge-creating school.
I now set out how I conducted my action enquiry.
What was my concern?
My research was influenced by the writings of Gramsci (1971), Benda (1980), Code (1987) and Said (1994), and their discussions of the concept of the intellectual and their place in society. The exploration of the concept of ‘intellectuals’ and their role in society set me thinking about my role in school, from my position as an intellectual.
Gramsci says that all people are intellectuals, but not all have in society the function of intellectuals. He also distinguishes between ‘organic’ and ‘traditional’ intellectuals.
He says that every social group coming to existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals, which gives it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in economic but also in the social and political fields. ‘Organic’ intellectuals, he suggests, are created by every new class, and their function is elaborated in the course of the society’s development. On the other hand, traditional intellectuals are specialists in identified fields, such as teachers, writers, and artists.
Said (1994), who was influenced by Gramsci in his views of intellectuals, says that one of the tasks of the intellectual is to break down stereotypes and reductive categories that are limiting to human thought and communication. He continues to say that an intellectual should be an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying and articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion, to, as well as for a public.
The challenge for my action research was to start with myself as an intellectual in society and critically reflect on my role, activities and my involvement in improving the social order of which I was a part. This reflection was further problematised by the fact that I was working within an institution that only partially shared my vision and goals. The reasons for the partial sharing were the plurality of visions and goals of all individuals in the institution. I then had to understand how to position myself within this plurality of visions and missions. My own vision was influenced by my values (I discuss these in detail in the next section), and these in turn helped me to work out my mission. I needed to challenge the accepted autocratic structure of policy and school regulations formulation to improve on the cooperation and participation of all stakeholders. My concern was that, as a teacher, I was not sharing enough with my colleagues about what worked well for me and what could be improved. I felt trapped in a system that did not allow enough sharing between colleagues or adequate space for knowledge creation that would enable our school to achieve a higher success rate than at present. I felt the grip of the system that promoted competition among colleagues and yet expected them to cooperate in order to make the school operate effectively. I was waiting for someone from somewhere ‘out there’ to come and do it for us. This is when I began to reflect on how my role as a public intellectual could assist me. Given that I began to appreciate that change has to begin with the individual, working collaboratively with others, my research question therefore became, “How can I encourage all role-players to create a dialogical, knowledge creating school?”
Why was I concerned?
My first set of reasons is grounded in my ontological, epistemological and pedagogic values which I try to live out in practice.
I value dialogue where nobody aims to win, since all are involved in trying to find a shared meaning with a view of creating new understanding. This meaning is not derived from dictionaries and encyclopaedias but from shared spaces as we live out our values. Our values give meaning to our lives.
Buber’s (2002) philosophy of ‘I-Thou’ relationships introduced me to the idea of dialogue. According to Buber, communication, particularly language-oriented communication, expresses the interpersonal nature of human existence. An ‘I-Thou’ relationship stresses the mutual, holistic existence of two beings. Buber suggests that imagination and ideas are suspended in this relationship and that it lacks composition and communicates no content. He describes the ‘I-Thou’ relationship as an encounter or meeting of dialogue, mutuality and exchange. This idea, coupled with Habermas’ (1987) idea of the ‘public sphere’, promoted my understanding that accounts of dialogue in informal settings, where the public critically engage with issues that affect them in a neutral and informal setting, are the basis of social evolution.
These ideas shaped the understanding of my value for dialogue. I do not suggest that I see my values as separate and external from myself. Lukacs (1923) suggests that reification is the consideration of an abstraction or an object as if it were human or living and possibly outside of ourselves. Typically it involves separating out something from the original context in which it occurs. I do not consider myself as separate from my values and therefore my value of dialogue was further deepened by my understandings of the work of Habermas and Buber.
I also value cooperation, where collaboration results from pooling together all skills, knowledge and competencies for a common cause.
Richard Winter (1989) speaks about reflexive critique as a process of becoming aware of our own biases, in other words opening our ideas, feelings, thoughts, processes and assumptions to public scrutiny and self-reflection. He also speaks of dialectical critique as the understanding of the relationships between all the parts that make up the workplace. He speaks of collaboration and creating plural structures. In this he explains how the views of everyone in the situation are taken into consideration and also how various accounts and critiques are developed. This to me suggests that for one to be influential, one needs to be influenced by others. In creating our own knowledge, Whitehead (2005) suggests that in order to enhance the professional knowledge base, educators need to work together and begin to open themselves up to the process of reflexive and dialectical critique while they learn from one another. This can be done best when teachers cooperate and collaborate in their efforts rather than compete.
As a school we were failing to learn from other schools in the neighbourhood about what they were doing that was making them more successful than we were. We were also failing to help others to learn from our experiences in terms of the areas in which we were excelling. The school community was also failing in terms of creating a platform for teachers to share experiences and create common programmes to improve the learning/teaching environment. The creation of such a platform was not necessarily the function of management and yet proper consultation was necessary in the creation of such a forum.
What kind of examples could I produce to show the situation as it was and as it developed?
In the second semester of 2007 our school was visited by the Department of Education’s Whole School Evaluation (WSE) team (see Department of Education, 2007). The team’s function was to evaluate our school in all areas, including classroom teaching, teacher administration, office administration, school management, financial management, furniture and school grounds maintenance. The report was well compiled and discussed with the school stakeholders. I used this report as data for my research to show the situation as it was, and as I felt it needed to be changed. I have included the report in my appendices as (Appendix A). The reason for using it as part of my data was motivated by the fact that my goal was about school improvement and development.
I also used a research diary, which I continually updated from an earlier investigation I had conducted on creating a dialogical classroom (Majake 2007). Since the investigation was ongoing, I had to maintain my diary at all times since the updating could occur regularly and in similar situations. As McNiff (2002) suggests, the diary helps in providing a time-line, to illustrate general points (thick descriptions) and to chart progress. I wrote regularly and did so at the end of all dialogical interactions, both planned and unplanned. I took the advice of dividing the page of my diary into two, where I recorded what I did and what I learned (see also below).
I also used interviews, pictures and videos as data gathering devices to show the situation as it developed. The interviews were informal and I used them to gather information or to evaluate an outcome. Extracts of transcripts of the interviews are included in the appendices (Appendix B). In most cases I ensured that the interviews were conducted in a place and space where people felt more comfortable to ask for points of information about what I was hoping to achieve. In other cases I found people who told me that they believed the situation in our schools was beyond anyone’s ability to salvage and that I was bound to fail. I listened attentively, and raised my concerns with them, but never challenged what they said.
I asked permission for each and every photograph and video that I took from all participants. In some cases two or three people refused to have their photographs taken but still wanted to stay for our sessions. I ensured that I did not take pictures of them nor include them in video shots. I used the pictures and videos to document action and also to monitor and to evaluate my enquiry. Pictures are included below in my text.
I also used two questionnaires to allow the respondents to express a broader range of ideas; copies are included in Appendix C and G respectively. I piloted the questionnaires among colleagues to make sure that the questions were well structured and clear. I also piloted it among friends who were familiar with my research to find whether they shared the same concerns that were raised by my colleagues. The first questionnaire contained a blank table where respondents completed the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) of our school. This was aimed at auditing the existing knowledge, skills and competencies at school. I also wanted to find out what they thought of the school vision and mission statement. I was interested in whether they thought these needed to be modified, rejected or kept as they were.
I gathered and stored data in different categories. I gathered data under four categories (see McNiff 2005):
Me and my learning
• My experiences
• My interactions
How my enquiry changed Me and my actions
• What I changed
• What I kept the same
How I influenced the learners’ learning.
The research partners’ learning
• Their experiences
• Their interactions
How they influenced the enquiry
The research partners’ actions
• What they changed.
• Did they stay the same.
By ‘research partners’ I am referring to the people who were participants in the enquiry at my request. I invited all staff-members at my school, both teaching and non-teaching, I also invited a sample of learners representative of all the learners at school, as well as their parents. The reason I could not involve all learners was because I wanted to keep the enquiry manageable. So I sampled learners from all grades, genders, locational backgrounds and ages. I then invited the parents of the learners I sampled to become involved as participants, to make it easier for them to talk about expectations and goals. I wrote letters asking for permission to undertake my research to the Department of Education, the school, the sampled learners, parents and the staff-members; I have included a copy of the letters in the appendices (Appendix D). With each letter I also included an ethics statement where I promised that I was going to ask for their permission if I needed to use their names or pictures in my report. A copy is included in my appendices (Appendix E). The enquiry took place at my school in and outside of the classroom. I used the classroom when I wanted to meet with any of the groups mentioned above and when we needed enough space to interact, with perhaps a board to jot down a few points. I used the conference room at school to get representatives from each group when I wanted to conduct interviews and to get people to talk about issues of common concern.
What could I do? What did I do?
Here is an account of what I did.
Hargreaves (1999) argues that schools would rather talk about developing good practice than about knowledge creation. He claims that all professionals depend on working knowledge that is used spontaneously and routinely in the context of their work.
Hargreaves (1999) speaks of the process of knowledge creation as:
• Audit of professional knowledge
• Management of the process of knowledge creation
• Validation of knowledge created
• Dissemination of created knowledge.
I followed the suggestions of Hargreaves and began the process of auditing the professional knowledge at school; this was a long and involved process. I communicated the idea of knowledge creation to all my colleagues at school. I began with the accounts learned from the outcomes of my earlier enquiry “Creating a dialogical classroom” (see Majake 2007). I then made a presentation to the school management team about how we could use the available resources at school to improve our school. The school management team was interested in the proposal and pledged support for my enquiry. I was then given the task of facilitating the planning session of the school so that all stakeholders could become involved in charting a time-line that would be used to develop a school improvement plan and a school policy. I co-opted five colleagues to my team in the planning of the planning session. Our mandate was to find a venue, develop material and also to facilitate the planning exercise. My colleagues helped with the logistics while I developed and facilitated the planning. I also invited and consulted with learner representatives about the idea of knowledge creation. This was more difficult as I had to ensure that the material was relevant to their needs. I was pleasantly surprised that all the members of the executive pledged their support and were in fact quick to consult their constituency about what their needs were in relation to the enquiry.
At the planning session that I used as a platform for dialogue and the introduction of the knowledge creation process, the first area of concern was our values, and how it was possible to share values that would come to be seen as constitutional values. This dialogue was one of the most beneficial and educative as we shared our personal values and how those could be intermarried into what could come to act as institutional values. We also looked at the values base of the Department of Education to inform the process. We then dialogued on the vision and mission of the school; first it was how these were developed, who was involved, what these sought to achieve and how long the process of development would take. The outcomes suggested that the developmental process in the past had not been consultative enough and that most stakeholders did not own the mission and vision. In our dialogue, my task was to facilitate, which meant that I led the dialogue and pointed out pages where certain resources could be found, but soon the participants began to take control of the process themselves.
The planning for the year was transparent, consultative, informative, dialogical and creative. For the first time in my experience at my school every stakeholder was involved in the development of the vision, mission and a school annual plan.
After the planning session, we went back to our classes to ensure that learners were consulted on the schools mission, vision, policies and the rules and regulations. At the classroom level all possible scenarios were created and rules were developed by both teachers and learners on how to deal with possible scenarios, and we developed contingency strategies to meet possible situations. We looked at what could go wrong and how we could solve problematic situations. The development process was difficult and yet fruitful. Each teacher with their learners developed rules and also possible consequences for each violation of the rules. In this process teachers had to allow learners to voice their concerns and allay their fears about how everyone was to be affected by the rules, including the teachers themselves. A copy of my class rules is attached (Appendix F). I then collected all class rules, collated the data and developed a single document of school rules, which I then circulated to all stakeholders for consultation and interpretation. A copy of what now acted as draft school rules was circulated in all classes for critical comments and a final draft was sent to parents for input and critical commentary.
There were different reactions from different quarters, and I kept an ongoing record of comments and responses in my reflective journal. Parent X commented, “This makes the management of our children much easier as we now know what is expected of us and in their learning.” Teachers found the process to be different from the norm as in the past they developed and communicated rules and regulations to learners without consulting them. Teacher K commented, “This process was long and tiring, but it was educational and beneficial to me.” The final document was adopted at a general meeting where all stakeholders were invited and were encouraged to communicate their experiences. One of the outcomes of the planning sessions was to set aside a day in our school calendar for critical reflection. Schon (1983) recommends that the process of reflection-in-action should be central to all practice so that practitioners can ably deal with uncertainty, instability, uniqueness and value conflict. This was a date set aside when we were going to think about what we were doing; it was to be a day when we were going to listen to one another and to ourselves. People were at first uncomfortable with the change as it meant extra work for teachers and broader participation for learners in the school’s democratic process. Colleague K commented, “How about we develop the rules and regulations ourselves and take them to the learners as before? It is safer that way.” This was premised on the idea that learners were unable to make serious and important decisions. However, when the learners began to own the process and acted responsibly towards their rights, even the hardest sceptics conceded that the learners were capable of wise decision making.
I compiled a report on creating a dialogical school alongside the report of the planning session. I submitted the report to the committee that was working with me in arranging the planning session for their critical perusal and analysis. These members acted as my critical friends as they were aware of my intentions. Their commentary and critical feedback was thought provoking and invaluable. One of the comments was, “In the future we need more time to discuss each section of our plan.” I read from that comment that I had tried to do too much in too short a space of time. Another read, “We need more learners in the next sessions to represent the whole student body.” I am considering this contribution for the next dialogical process; I paid attention to what they were saying.
As discussed above, I generated evidence from my data by using my values as my criteria and living standards of judgment to see whether I was able to live them out in practice. I found in my diary an entry that reads, “Just seeing all role-players talk in a dialogical setting makes me feel as if my work is done.” I also found a picture of my colleagues seated in a circle with learners talking about what the way forward should be in making sure a sports day was a success (see Figure 1 below). A respondent also commented on the questionnaire that “dialogue will be central to team building.” The data was then converted through my value of dialogue into evidence showing my influence in the creation of a dialogical school. The value of cooperation was also lived out in my practice; I found a picture of learners working together in the development of class rules (Figure 4 below). I have a comment from a parent who says, “With this consultation I don’t think I can complain about the rules that were developed in my absence.” I also have a video showing colleagues in dialogue about what the mission and vision of the school should be to meet the new challenges.
On a regular basis I consulted with my mentor who is also the course convener of my MA programme of studies about how I could negotiate the problems I encountered. I also consulted my principal who was interested in the research findings, as these could be used to inform our school improvement plan. Finally, my colleagues in school and on my MA programme acted as my critical friends about the nature and relevance of my enquiry to school improvement, and the validity of my knowledge claims.
How did I show that any conclusions I came to were reasonably fair and accurate?
McNiff (2002) suggests that in generating data the teacher-researcher has to monitor their own actions. She makes the point that clear indications should be made about one’s intentions and motives and subsequent reflections. I then decided to match my intentions to my motives when recording feedback from all my critical friends and validating team. I did this by dividing my research diary page into two and recording intentions on the left-hand side and motives on the right, as well as critical commentary at the bottom of the page.
Parent P commented at the bottom of a class-work she was monitoring at home, “B is using this dialogue technique here at home to negotiate his house chores; maybe I need to know more about the process.”
I set up teams that were to act as critical friends from all groupings of the school population; they worked individually and as a collective. At regular intervals I would invite them as learners, teachers and parents to give me feedback on issues that affected them directly, and at other times as a combined group to give me feedback on what we did well and where we needed to improve. The most difficult group to assemble were parents as they were usually at work and used weekends to prepare for the week, so our correspondence was mostly in writing. My validation group was comprised of the colleagues who are studying on the MA programme with me; their input was valuable as they looked at the methodological rigour of my research and the linkage of my aims and claims. Their critical feedback was based on the presentations that I made to them. The document that really helped in the validation process was the school improvement plan that I developed for discussion by all stakeholders in the first week of September 2008, where all interested parties were going to make their contribution in what would be a collaborative product for school improvement.
At this stage of my enquiry I could safely claim that I have lived out my values of dialogue and cooperation, as I encouraged my colleagues in the enquiry to find each other on issues that were previously dealt with individually and in an uncoordinated manner. I can claim that I influenced all stakeholders to find meaning in collaborative practices by developing rules and policies from classroom level up while including non-teaching staff and parents. I can claim that I encouraged and promoted inclusive practices that would go some way to ensuring sustainability.
I produce further evidence to strengthen the validity of my knowledge claims. The picture that shows us seated in a circle discussing issues that affect us all (Figure 4) can be linked to my claim of encouraging a dialogical school, one that seeks to create knowledge for practice and development. The responses to the second questionnaire (Appendix G) are further evidence where one respondent said, “Working as a team helped me to see issues from a different perspective.”
I can now claim that dialogue and collaborative creativity can enhance and promote inclusional consultation structures, in that it encourages and promotes democracy and knowledge creation that is beneficial to the practitioner and informative to those who work with them.
Figure 1: Staff members working together on a plan, to make sports day a success on the playing field.
Figure 2: Learners consulted on school general rules before they were developed in class.
Figure 3: Teachers in a dialogical setting, planning the consultation process of school rules and regulations.
Figure 4: Our dialogical setting for developing class mission, vision and rules and regulations.
How did I explain the potential significance of my research?
Seeing and positioning myself as an intellectual weaned me of dependency and the expectation that others would do things for me. It placed me in a position where I realised I had the potential and influence to correct the wrongs and improve situations for the better. Beginning in my classroom allowed me to discover for myself the strength of organic approaches, where I consulted learners in my classroom about what was to be done to achieve a good and positive learning environment. Developing class rules with the learners taught me that they had a sense of right and wrong and that they were willing to take responsibility for their own learning and their lives. I had observed in the past that when I told the learners what my rules were, they treated them just like that – ‘my rules’. The process was not educational as I was using my position power. This time I used my educational influence and it worked; the learners came to own the rules and were eager to see them carried out. Using all class rules to form school rules was a natural thing to do as all voices were heard in the formulation of the general rules and regulations. There were many commonalities and this contributed to the improved quality of dialogical sessions where teachers, learners and parents talked about how they would handle issues before they occurred. The SWOT analysis helped us as a school to design policies that were going to address our inadequacies as much as they strengthened our capabilities. All this emerged from trying to develop working knowledge from within practice. Today, we are still working on school policies as a school (parents, learners and teachers). We are hopeful that the process will be as smooth as the process of the development of school rules and regulations, although problematics are bound to occur. My leadership task is to ensure that all members of the school community dialogue on issues that are of common concern and that information is shared equally among colleagues so that they can learn from one another. I also have a duty to create a second layer of leadership, people who can continue the process in my absence, and thus ensure sustainability and continuity, without which no school may adequately function.
How did I modify my concerns, ideas and practices in the light of my evaluation?
I believe that I have achieved what I set out to do, which was to create a dialogical school in my quest to improve the quality of our cooperation and dialogue. The focus was on my values and I conducted this enquiry in line with them as I critically reflected on my practice both in class and out of class. In writing this report I believe I am showing what being an educational researcher involves and how it can serve the school as well as academia-based research, which is often divorced from practice contexts.
Colleagues in my work and related contexts have expressed interest in learning from my research, particularly about the issue of involving parents in school activities, which seems to be a serious challenge in the previously disadvantaged communities of South Africa.
I have this firm belief that this research has a contribution to make to education as a whole. This belief is based on the new ideas and practices that I have developed, and the degree to which the people engaged with innovative ideas.
In closing it would be proper to return to the argument about the intellectual, as advanced by Freire (1972). He makes a valuable contribution to the argument by stating that dialogue is a human phenomenon and that a word is more than just an instrument which makes it possible. He says that in a word are two dimensions, reflection and action, and that when a word is deprived of its dimension of action, reflection suffers and vice-versa. The process of speaking the word must entail transforming the world. This means that in assuming my position as an organic intellectual in society, I had to find a means of engaging in dialogue that would benefit the world in general and my school in particular. I include a general school policy that was the final product of the dialogical process (Appendix H) as evidence of the realisation of my values in my practice.
I do not believe that my enquiry has come to an end as it has opened a new cycle of action-reflection where I need to define the systems of knowledge creation more thoroughly and also show the procedural issues of collaboration more clearly. My new direction of enquiry will therefore be based on both procedures and systems; but I imagine they will be based on more than that!
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Majake, J. (2007) Creating a dialogical classroom, Module 5 of M.A Programme at St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham.
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WSE report (Appendix A)
Extracts of transcripts of the interviews (Appendix B)
Questionnaire (Appendix C)
Copy of permission letters (Appendix D)
Ethics statement (Appendix E).
A copy of my class rules (Appendix F).
The second questionnaire (Appendix G)
General school policy (Appendix H)
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