Action Research and the Professional Learning of Teachers

A Paper presented at the Qattan Foundation, Palestine

January 2001

Jean McNiff

[Word version available]

Action research is acknowledged worldwide as a powerful form of learning. It is used in educational settings across the professions: in industry, hospitals, local government, and other workplaces (see for example Atweh et al., 1996; Eden and Huxham, 1999; McNiff et al., 2000). Perhaps it is most visible in education, where its popularity became prominent, particularly with reference to the professional learning of teachers. The situation is that today, a few short years since the rise to prominence of action research in the 1980s, it is recognised as a rigorous research methodology which can greatly enhance the professional learning of teachers as they study their own practice, in a way that the quality of learning of students in classrooms may be improved. Zeichner (1998) observes that self study in the teacher education movement has probably been the most significant development ever in the field.

While action research is recognised universally, it is still not accepted by some as a rigorous form of research. Schön (1995), speaking about the topology of professional landscapes, says that there is a high ground of abstract theorising, and a swampy lowlands of practical everyday work. Research undertaken on the high ground is regarded as legitimate, and the knowledge it generates is regarded as valid theory, while work undertaken in the lowlands is often perceived as what we do in any case, and the knowledge generated is regarded as common sense. He also says that introducing the new scholarship of reflective practice into corporations and institutions of higher education can mean becoming involved in an epistemological battle – in Schön’s words, this is a ‘battle of snails’ because it happens so slowly. The idea of a battle of snails has not been my experience over recent years, where I have learnt in my work as a professional educator that such battles often mean fighting vigorously for people’s rights to have their practical workplace knowledge valued, and to create their own identities. In the broader theatres of life, such epistemological battles mean fighting for ideas, work, and even lives.

I would like today to focus on two issues. The first is to do with how the professional learning of teachers can contribute to a body of educational theory which has the values of care and responsibility as main ethical principles. The second is to do with how the idea of educational theory itself needs to be reconceptualised as a caring and responsible practice, a form of praxis, whose validity may be judged in terms of the values practitioners bring to their work. This view is quite different from a traditional view of theory as an abstract body of knowledge which may be applied to practice. Instead, it regards theory as a living, developmental process of making sense of what we do with the intent of improving personal and social living through education.

Traditional views of professional education

I imagine, like me, that you have experienced as part of your professional education (what was known in the United Kingdom until quite recently as ‘teacher training’), the situation in which an authorised ‘knower’ told you what to do. I remember the experience of my initial teacher training in the 1960s when my university-based supervisor observed my practice teaching, critiqued it, offered guidance, and also suggested some useful books I might read to put me on the right track.

This model of teacher education was rooted in an epistemology which held that a concrete body of knowledge existed ‘out there’, separate from people, but which could be applied to teachers’ practices. The epistemology informs traditional kinds of theory which maintain that practice may be described and explained as an objective phenomenon. It also informs traditional views of professional education, including teacher education and management education, that the way to be a competent professional is to study the theory of education or management and to apply the theory to practice. These views, although vehemently critiqued in recent years, continue to inform a good deal of professional education today. Such an approach, however, does not require a teacher or manager to demonstrate that they have improved the quality of educational or workplace experience for anyone anywhere (see Whitehead, 1998; Fox, 1997), an oversight which, according to some (for example Morgan, 1997), potentially brings into disrepute the epistemological base and practice of such traditional forms of professional education.

If we are serious about educational ideas, if we believe that our work as educators has implications for students’ learning such that they can make choices about creating the kinds of societies they wish to live in, we have to recognise that the quality of teaching must be judged in terms of how it impacts on student learning (Huberman, 1992). Unless teacher education is assessed in terms of how it influences student learning for benefit, it can become an empty exercise, the study and application of a set of techniques which relegates teachers to the status of skilled technicians, rather than committed education professionals whose work constitutes a value-laden practice.

I want to suggest, with others (such as Hargreaves, 1996; Lomax, 1999; Whitehead, 1998) that teaching be regarded as a research-based profession. There are several implications in this idea, not the least being that a profession means personal and professional accountability to a variety of stakeholders, and that research means offering justification for doing the things one is doing. If we put the two ideas together, we arrive at a position that professionalism means accounting to those for whom we are responsible that we are acting in their best interests, and this means in turn that we have to produce evidence to justify our attitudes and actions. If teaching is to claim that it is a research-based profession (see the Teacher Training Agency, 1998; Government of Ireland, 1995), teachers must be prepared to show how and why their practice is to be judged as good practice, and produce evidence to show that they have influenced the quality of educational experience for the people in their care.

The idea of research-based professionalism, for me, begins with the question, ‘How do I improve my practice?’ (Whitehead, 1989). The question is addressed and researched via a dialectical process of investigating one’s practice, in company with others – a process of critical self-study.

The nature of self study as disciplined enquiry

I agree with the idea of Kemmis and McTaggart (1988) that action enquiries begin with a sense that something needs doing about a particular situation. I also agree with the more refined position of Whitehead (1989) who places the living ‘I’ at the centre of educational enquiries. ‘I’ is not an abstract pronoun. ‘I’ am a real-life flesh and blood person. Furthermore, ‘I’ often exist as a living contradiction, in that I say I believe in one thing but do another. I might for example believe in the idea of social justice, but often find myself living in ways that deny other people’s rights to justice. I might believe in children’s rights to speak and be heard, but deny them the opportunity of doing so.

For ‘I’ to move away from the situation of being a living contradiction, I need to find ways in which I can live my values in my practice. This will inevitably involve asking, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ It also provides a starting point to a methodological approach to educational enquiry, which can take the following form:

I experience a concern when my values are not being fully lived in my practice.

I imagine a way forward and develop an action plan.

I act, and gather data that will enable me to judge the effectiveness of my actions for living my values more fully.

I evaluate my actions.

I modify my concerns, plans and actions in the light of my evaluations.

The tension that moves the enquiry forward is focused on the desire to live values more fully in the face of the experience of their denial in practice

(Whitehead, 1999)

This methodological approach can then be developed as an action plan, which can take the form:

What is my concern?

Why am I concerned?

What do I think I can do about the situation?

What will I do?

How will I show whether I am influencing the situation for good?

How will I produce evidence of my influence?

How will I ensure that any claims I make are reasonably fair and accurate?

What will I do then?

(Whitehead, 1989; see also McNiff, Lomax and Whitehead, 1996)

For me, a crucial aspect which shows the methodological and epistemological rigour of such an action plan is the generation of solid evidence to show the legitimacy of claims that one has improved one’s practice for others’ educational benefit. Without validated evidence to support it, such a claim could rightly be challenged as personal opinion or hearsay.

Research involves the gathering of data to provide information about the object of enquiry. In action research, the object of enquiry is one’s own practice, as it influences the quality of educational experience of others. The self studies the self. Therefore it is important to gather data about one’s own practice, and the practices of others with whom one is working. This could be parents, students, colleagues, or others in the particular research setting.

Turning data into evidence involves establishing criteria, or standards of judgement, to check whether the practice is having the hoped-for influence. In terms of the methodology outlined above, is the modification of one’s practice actually influencing the situation so that one’s educational values are lived in practice? Can we show, for example, that students can make choices, or can exercise their voice, or take responsibility for their own learning? If it is possible to show that the quality of educational experience has been improved for students, one could with justification claim legitimate status as a professional who was demonstrating through research that one was engaging in caring and responsible practice for the people in one’s care.

The issue of how the evidence is judged and legitimated depends on what kinds of criteria are used and how their choice is justified. In traditional forms, the criteria take the form of checklists which are set by policy makers (and let us not forget that policy makers are often civil servants, not teachers, and the values they bring with them to their work tend to be bureaucratic rather than educational). I am reminded of a conversation I had once with a senior manager who said, ‘I have just scored 100% on a management questionnaire, so that means I am a good manager.’ Such naiveté might seem surprising, yet this is precisely the basis on which professional practice is often judged. Prospective educational managers have to undergo psychometric testing; teachers in the United Kingdom have to demonstrate that they can perform to 63 identified competencies (Teacher Training Agency, 1998). No one seems to worry about whether anyone benefits educationally. The values base of practice is systematically factored out. Human concern and its consequences, however, cannot be judged by performance indicators.

In the new scholarship the criteria which are used to assess professional practice are related to the values one brings to one’s work. Educators live by educational values, and encourage their realisation in educational settings. Educational values would include independence and freedom of mind and action, and educational settings would be contexts where people come together in free association and on an equal footing to achieve common goals (Chomsky, 1996). The evidence generated by action enquiries would involve showing how all participants did demonstrate independence and freedom of mind and action, and could create settings that may be characterised as educational.

The process of self study as disciplined enquiry

I want to touch on what I consider a fundamental issue in teacher education, and that is the quality of care which has to underpin educative relationships. In my view, unless teaching is characterised by care, it remains a job in which excellence can be rightly judged in terms of performance indicators, rather than a profession in which excellence has to be judged in terms of human values. Having the courage to care (Noddings, 1992) is however a matter of personal choice, and can often be a difficult choice to make.

In my doctoral studies I undertook my action research into my practice as a teacher of personal and social education in a secondary school. I wanted to explain my idea that personal and social education was not a concrete subject matter within a curriculum, but was a relational process which manifested as particular attitudes and behaviours. This focus led me to study the work of Stenhouse (1975), and, later, Elliott (1998), both of whom explain the difference between objectives- and process-oriented curricula. I came over time to theorise curriculum as the development of learning through what Dewey (1916) calls educative relationships, a form of danger-free living and communication in which all parties may exercise their independence and freedom of mind and action in a mutually respectful manner. My dilemma was then, and remains, how you get people to care in the first place so that they do develop tolerance and respect for others, so that they can enjoy educative relationships. I have no universal answer, but I have come closer to understanding the conditions which influence people, and my understanding has grown out of the study of my own practice in recent years (McNiff, 2000b). As a professional educator I have experienced for myself how often problematic life circumstances can leave one with choices about whether to carry on or give in in the face of hostility to one’s ideas, and I have supported teachers who also have had to make such choices. I also know how tempting it is to give in to institutional pressure to conform, and how difficult it is to choose whether to fight on.

These are choices each one of us has to make. They are not impossible and not easy. Each one of us, as Chomsky notes (1996), can choose whether to be an aristocrat or a democrat. Each one of us has to accept the responsibility of deciding the kinds of relationships we wish to enjoy with others, whether educative or destructive.

What is my justification for holding these views?

Some researchers such as Susan Noffke (1997) claim that action research may be a potentially powerful form of personal professional development, but are sceptical of the extent to which it can influence wider organisational systems (see also McNamara and O’Hara, 2000). I want to allay their anxieties, by mentioning two settings in which teachers’ personal enquiries are having considerable impact on institutional practices and what counts as educational knowledge in the wider society.

The first setting (with which I am less familiar) is in Ontario, where the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) has embraced action research principles in teacher education, and is offering career-long professional learning pathways to teachers through self study. The College has created itself as ‘a learning organisation which is enquiring into the process of relating standards and professional learning to the creation of a professional learning community which is concerned with the development of required professional knowledge’ (Whitehead, 2000: 30). The pack Action Research: School Improvement through Research-Based Professionalism (Ontario Public School Teachers’ Federation, 1998) shows how the College is implementing commitments and processes relevant to teacher education for the educational benefit of students.

The second setting is the work others and I are doing in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland. I began work in Ireland in 1992 at the invitation of a small private college in Dublin to support a teacher education initiative which later developed as a Schools Based Action Research Project (see McNiff and Collins, 1994). The Project was generally recognised in Irish education circles as successful (Hyland and Hanafin, 1996; Leonard, 1997), and initial numbers of participating teachers swelled from an intended 30 to over 80 over the three years of its duration. From the beginning I urged the college management to seek routes to accreditation for the teachers’ work. We approached some Irish universities but received no positive response. I therefore enquired among colleagues in British universities whether they would support the initiative. One university in particular was very helpful, and the college eventually franchised a modular programme for professional development which would lead to Masters degrees for participating teachers. After two years, the college managers decided not to continue with the initiative because of their own internal configurations (possibly also for other reasons), and they and I parted company. I then had to decide whether or not to go it alone. The British university and I agreed that I would be appointed as a part-time lecturer to bring the studies of the first group to successful closure. On their graduation (31 people) the university then agreed to allow me to support a second group (45 people). Now I worked as an independent researcher appointed by the university to develop the work.

In the meantime I negotiated with another British university to develop a Guided Doctorate programme. My current scenario therefore is that I am in partnership with one university for the development of MA courses, and in partnership with another for MPhil/PhD courses. As well as working with groups aiming for accreditation, I have also taught hundreds of other people by running short courses or doing presentations in a wide variety of education contexts.

Action research is now high profile in Ireland. Some fifty validated masters dissertations exist to show how practitioners have asked the core question, ‘How do I improve my work?’. Another twenty are due to complete in coming months. Fifteen MPhil and PhD theses are in progress. All dissertations and theses are self studies and all contain validated evidence to support claims that personal learning has influenced the quality of educational experience for students, and have also impacted on wider institutional contexts. I consistently produce research reports to show this process (for example McNiff, 2000a and b; McNiff and Collins, 1994) and I encourage participants also to produce their research reports for wider dissemination (for example, Lillis, 2000). I include participants’ research stories, under their own copyrighted authorship, in my own writings (see for example my 1988, 2000b and 2001). Participants have made action research their own and have introduced it into their own settings (for example Collins, 1999; Condren, 2000), and have produced research reports to show how their personal learning is influencing wider education circles (Mol an Óige, 1999). Ideas about action research are highly visible in documents emanating from the Department of Education and Science (Government of Ireland, 1995, 1999, 2000), and in curriculum matters (Fitzgerald, 1998). As a network, we have created ourselves, like the Ontario College of Teachers, as a learning organisation, though unlike the OCT, we have no institutional base. The organisation is the people; pressure to modify existing education structures has been generated through the research-based evidence of people in community, and the outcomes of the influence are evident in contemporary policy documents and education trends, as noted above.

I think what has happened in Ireland has been influenced by several factors: Ireland is a small country (about five million people live on the island); there is a strong oral tradition, and news travels rapidly by word of mouth, so what works in one context will be heard of by others; a strong community tradition also exists, so one person’s experience will be tried out by others. There is also a focus on the practical, and action research is held by practitioners as something useful and worthwhile for ordinary classrooms. On the other hand, there is also a highly elitist university tradition, and action research has not been welcomed quite so rapidly by some university personnel as by classroom practitioners. Although universities do run courses on action research, these tend to take a domesticated form, a traditional disciplines approach of communicating the history, philosophy, sociology, and management of action research and how the theories might impact on practice. I know of only one university-based lecturer in Ireland, a personal friend, who has undertaken her self study, for which she was awarded her Masters degree by a British university. Schön’s metaphor of the epistemological topologies is most apt for Irish contexts, but his ‘battle of snails’ metaphor is in some question. Quite the reverse is true.

The need for validating new forms of theory in the professionalisation of teaching

This brings us back to the issue of the kind of theory most appropriate for the ongoing professional learning of teachers.

Many of us have come a long way from the traditional theory–into–practice model. From the stories just recounted it is plain to see how teachers are contributing to a new body of scholarship as they tell stories of how they are creating their professional identities (Connelly and Clandinin, 1999). As teachers address and research the questions, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ and ‘How do I help you to learn?’, they are generating their own personal theories of practice which are embodied in their own selves. These living educational theories (Whitehead, 1989) are forming a new body of theory which not only exists in the dissertations, theses and other reports which they produce, but also exist in the people as they share their stories in community.

On this view, I believe all practitioners, in all walks of professional life, should produce descriptions and explanations of their work as personal theories of practice, to show how and why they have engaged in chosen practices, and accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions. These reports need not only be written: they can also be oral and ostensive. Like Eisner (1993) I believe we need to find new, creative ways of communicating our stories of learning so that others can learn from us according to their own learning strengths and traditions. I also believe it is the responsibility of colleges and universities to support the personal professional learning of teachers, by valuing new scholarship forms of experiential knowledge and personal self-study as much as traditional forms of scholarship. Universities need to move beyond elitist gatekeeping practices of deciding what counts as knowledge and whose knowledge is valid. Provided claims to knowledge are supported by rigorous research processes and the production of validated evidence, those claims should be taken seriously and perceived as contributing to bodies of knowledge which will support a view of research based professionalism. Universities need to reconceptualise themselves as caring contexts which encourage participative learning through the telling of educational stories.

Story telling is a dialogical process, and more. Dialogue is a living manifestation of the values of care and tolerance. In order really to hear what the other is saying, we have to listen; and listening, as Corradi Fiumara (1990) and Corker (1994) tell us, is more than physiological. Listening involves suppressing one’s own desire to speak, and a resolve to be still. It involves inspired guesswork, empathy, the capacity to go beyond the words and hear the unspoken messages.

My colleague Úna Collins and I both have hearing difficulties. We have co-edited two books on listening, though we have not a good ear between us. I learned from Úna (see Collins and McNiff, 1999) that sound travels towards us, so to hear we have to reach out. Listening is predicated on care, a practice always of reaching out for the other, a willingness not to hold back. Professionalism, says Macdonald (1995), is a willingness to profess, ‘… to reveal and justify from our own viewpoints what we believe and value … but what must be risked is the loss of the posture of neutral scholarship suffused with the aridity of living an uncommitted life’ (p. 159).

I do believe that new theories of scholarship need to show how practitioners cared sufficiently that they were willing to suspend their own prejudices and hear other voices. There are, says Bakhtin, voices in everything. If we are to improve our knowledge of teaching and its contexts, and of how we influence the quality of educational experience for others, we first need to listen for the voices. Actions speak louder than words. Our theories are manifested in and through our actions, as we care for one another. What any one person chooses to do is their responsibility alone.


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© Jean McNiff 2001

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