Paper 4
Action research for professional development

Notes for meetings at The Israeli Center for Qualitative Methodologies, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, February 2003

Jean McNiff

Word Version Available

Frameworks for the conversation

Let’s adopt some framing questions to guide our work:

  • What do we know?
  • What do we need to know?
  • How are we going to find out?
  • How do we generate our knowledge?
  • How do we validate our knowledge?
  • How do we share our knowledge?
  • How do we legitimate our knowledge?
  • How do we use our knowledge?

We might ask these questions about action research, or about professional development, or about teaching in formal education settings. We need to decide what we are focusing on as our object of enquiry. That could be the starting point for our work together.

Part 1 Background: paradigms and paradigm shifts

1 Some useful terms

Ontology – concerning the nature of one’s being (different from but related to cosmology which concerns one’s worldview)

Epistemology – the study of knowledge and of coming to know

Methodology – how things are done

Add to these useful terms the idea of social intent. Why do we do research in the first place?

Remember – research is never done in a vacuum, and it involves all the above

  • The idea of emerging ideas and shifting paradigms

Let’s look at how ideas emerge over time, and how they come to constitute paradigm shifts. Some useful typologies are:

Typologies of knowledge

  • Know-that
  • Know-how
  • Personal knowing

Typologies of human interests

  • Technical interests
  • Practical interests
  • Emancipatory interests

Typologies of research paradigms as ways of organising experience

  • Empirical research
  • Interpretive research
  • Critical theoretic research
  • Action research

(see McNiff, 2002, for detailed discussion of these ideas)

3 The topology of professional landscapes

When ideas evolve and emerge, and paradigms shift, it can lead to conflict. Donald Schön captured the idea of conflicting paradigms in professional understanding through the metaphor of the topology of professional landscapes. Later the idea of the old and new scholarships emerged. Where does action research fit? What are its potentials? How do we move from externalist to internalist perspectives?

Part 2 What are the implications for adopting an action research perspective?

Here are some ideas. What do we think? (Please see for more detailed ideas.)

What is action research?

Action research is a term given to the process of people researching their own learning with a view to generating their own theories of practice. Action research is not a ‘thing’ or an object of study. When we speak about action research we are always speaking about people investigating their work with other people. This view is contrary to some views in the literature that assume that action research can be studied as an object, like rocks and trees. The divergence of opinion in the literature about how we understand action research reflects how we understand human enquiry in general, whether we observe life from a distance (externalist perspectives, E-enquiries), or whether we are active participants (internalist perspectives, I-enquiries), and what implications this has for the form of theories we generate.

A common sense view of action research is this:

  • We review our current practice,
  • identify an aspect we want to improve,
  • imagine a way forward,
  • try it out, and
  • take stock of what happens.
  • We modify our plan in the light of what we have found, and continue with the ‘action’,
  • monitor what we do,
  • evaluate the modified action,
  • and identify new areas of enquiry arising out of the provisional solution.

(McNiff, Lomax and Whitehead, 1996 and in production)

Who does action research?

Potentially everyone. Common perceptions are that only professionals do action research – that is, reflect on their practice and gather data on how they might improve it. However, people in bus queues and flower shows can be doing action research, through they might not call it action research. The focus of action enquiries is the ‘I’. Traditional views of education research (which is commonly regarded as a form of social scientific enquiry) are that one person observes another. New paradigm research focuses rather on people studying themselves. Action research is first-person research, a form of self study and self evaluation. An aim is to improve your own self-understanding in order to see how you might influence your particular situation for good.

Where is action research done?

Potentially everywhere, not only in professional learning contexts, though the focus on professional learning has popularised the idea of action research as a form of practitioner based enquiry. There is a common assumption that people in workplaces do action research and people positioned as knowledge workers in the academy offer theories about action research. This view perpetuates the theory-practice gap, where theory is seen as an abstract body of knowledge and practice is seen only as activity. However, when action research is seen as a living practice, the issue becomes how people can come to understand their work and think about it in a coherent way – that is, theory can become live as an aspect of practice. The issue then becomes what kind of theory is most appropriate for understanding action research processes. On the view that action research is about real people studying their own practices, the theory is embodied in the people as they offer descriptions and explanations for how they come to know and how they use their knowledge, Jack Whitehead’s (1989) idea of ‘living educational theories’.

How do you do it?

The primary focus of the enquiry is how a person can improve their own understanding of their work in their particular context. This involves investigating how we are as persons, and how we are with other persons.

Whitehead (1989, 1999) suggests that the impetus to undertake an action enquiry usually arises from the position of recognising oneself as a living contradiction. The idea of a living contradiction is in the notion that ‘I’ hold certain values but they are not realised in my practice. ‘I’ need to move towards a situation in which my values are realised in my practice. This will inevitably involve asking questions of the kind, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ It also provides the starting point to an action 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; see also other writings available at

This 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 the impact of my educative influence?
  • How will I produce evidence of my influence?
  • How will I ensure that any claims I make are reasonably fair and accurate?
  • How will I modify my actions in the light of the evaluation?

(see McNiff, Lomax and Whitehead, 1996, and forthcoming)

What are some of the implications?

Reconceptualising educational theory

On this view, theory is not an abstract body of knowledge but a form of practice, which is rooted in an individual’s values and focuses on improving personal understanding for social benefit. Schön’s work is instructive here (Schön, 1983, 1995), when he says that on the topology of professional landscapes, theory produced by people on the ‘high ground’ tends to be regarded as valid theory but is often not relevant to practical everyday work situations; while practitioners working in the ‘swampy lowlands’ can generate valuable practical knowledge that sometimes neither they nor high ground occupants regard as legitimate research. The situation is changing, however, because a critical mass now exists which challenges the dominance of abstract theory and presents a view of workplace-generated theory as a valuable form of knowing. Practitioners are able to draw on the insights of traditional forms of theory and incorporate them into their own living theories that focus on the question, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’

Personal enquiry for wider social renewal

Personal enquiry does not stop at the level of the person but inevitably involves and influences other participants. When all participants undertake their enquiries into how they can improve their practice, groups engage in collective enquiries and ask questions of the kind, ‘How do we improve our work for mutual benefit?’ On this view, personal enquiry is the basis for social renewal (McNiff, 2000). However, this does require all people to accept the responsibility of their own work. This can often be difficult for people who are accustomed to a social and intellectual tradition in which they look outwards for answers from supposedly more knowledgeable authorities.

Creating our own personal and professional identities

Many people live in situations where their identities are shaped by others. They are persuaded to become the persons others want them to be. Transcending this situation can be difficult, because it involves recognising that one is in the situation in the first place, and then resolving to do something about it. Often it is more comfortable to stay within our own prisons. While we might complain about the entrapment, the familiar can be comforting. However, to change in an educational and sustainable way, we have to see the sense of changing and want to change. This requires courage and tenacity.

The need for educational enquiry to be a caring practice

Educational enquiry should be educational for all participants. This means developing what Dewey calls educative relationships – the kind of relationships in which all participants may grow in life-affirming directions. Educative relationships are characterised by care, and the capacity to recognise the other’s individuality and originality of mind and spirit, that is, the recognition of the other as a human being who is capable of making their own decisions and speaking for themselves, and a concern to enable them to do so. Educative relationships are also characterised by challenge, because the kinds of pedagogies appropriate to nurturing educative relationships require each person to think for themselves and not to accept predetermined answers.


McNiff, J. with J. Whitehead (2000) Action Research in Organisations. London, Routledge.

McNiff, J. with J. Whitehead (2002) Action Research: Principles and Practice (Second Edition). London, Routledge.

McNiff, J., Lomax, P. and Whitehead, J. (1996) You and Your Action Research Project. London, Routledge. (Second edition forthcoming, 2003.)

Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. New York, Basic Books.

Schön, D. (1995) ‘Knowing-in Action: The New Scholarship Requires a New Epistemology’, Change, November-December.

Whitehead, J. (1989) ‘Creating a living educational theory from questions of the kind, “How do I Improve my Practice?”, Cambridge Journal of Education 19(1): 41–52.

Whitehead, J. (1999) ‘Educative Relations in a New Era’, Pedagogy, Culture and Society 7(1): 73–90.

Worksheet 1

Please ask yourself these questions about your own work

What do I know?

What do I need to know?

How am I going to find out?

How do I generate my knowledge?

How do I validate my knowledge?

How do I share my knowledge?

How do I legitimate my knowledge?

How do I use my knowledge?

Worksheet 2

Please work through these questions with a learning partner

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 the impact of my educative influence?

How will I produce evidence of my influence?

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

How will I modify my actions in the light of the evaluation?

Worksheet 3

With your learning partners, consider these questions

What kind of evidence can I produce to support my claim that I have improved the quality of my own learning?

What kind of evidence can I produce to support my claim that I have exercised my educative influence?

What kind of evidence can I produce to support my claim that I am influencing organisational and social change?

Worksheet 4

Action planning

Please write down your action plan for the next week, month, and three months.

Think of the resources you will need: time, people, money, place, equipment. How will you get them? Use the following to help you:

What do I need to know / get?

Who? When? What? Where? How?

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September Books



Read about the Value and Virtue in Practice-Based Research conference at York St John University, Tuesday 9th and Wednesday 10th June 2015. Go to for further information.
Keynote speakers: Dr Tina Cook, Northumbria University

Professor Carol Munn-Giddings, Anglia Ruskin University

Professor Julian Stern, York St John University

Professor Jean McNiff, York St John University




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