An action research update: progress and other stories
A paper presented at the Research Forum, Centre for Research in Teacher Education and Development, University of Alberta,
I would like to present to you today a progress report of how I see current developments in the thinking and practices of action research, along with some ideas of how the progress can be continued, and in what form. The topic is of course problematic, especially in terms of how we understand progress. These difficulties are the same ones that bedevil debates about how action research might contribute to the future of educational enquiry and the purposes for which educational enquiry should be used.
A progress report
At a practical level, considerable progress has been made in local contexts in a variety of ways, and these local contexts are influencing wider and even global contexts. For example, the legitimacy of practitioner research as a democratising and liberalising form of educational practice has been established, and a knowledge base has been created to show the potentials of practitioners’ research as a body of educational knowledge that can inform organisational and policy theory and practice. Considerable progress has been made also at a theoretical level, with refinements in important areas such as the validation and legitimation of practitioners’ accounts, and a more critical understanding of the nature of the evidence base of knowledge claims, as well as the creation of a new discipline of educational enquiry (Whitehead, 2002). Further progress has been made at a professional level in dissolving the barriers between mainstream teaching and other professions, and disseminating ideas about the potential power of action research for the personal and professional development of practitioners in virtually every social and professional setting.
Progress has been made also at a policy level, mainly in terms of influencing policy makers to see the potentials of action research for personal professional and organisational improvement. Little progress has been made however in influencing policy makers themselves to adopt the values of freedom and respect that inform the action research principles and practices they endorse, especially in issues concerning the equitable distribution of social goods such as the freedom to think and act for oneself or participation in public debate about what counts as knowledge and the right of individuals to self determination in using their knowledge. Many policy makers have made progress in engaging in the rhetoric of the principles and practices of action research, yet often levels of commitment to personal engagement leave much to be desired. In fact, gains made by practitioners within the action research movement are in danger of being reaped by the combine harvester capacity of those policy makers who wish to turn movements such as action research to their own ends. I am speaking here of the situation in the United Kingdom; I will leave it to you to judge the situation in your own contexts.
For my part, while I am hesitant to use military metaphors, I do see this as a continuing struggle between those whom Noam Chomsky (1996) calls aristocrats and democrats. I see it as a continuation of a class struggle for recognition that has gone on throughout social history between so-called ordinary citizens who claim the right to speak for themselves in their desire for self determination, and elites who prevent them from doing so, because participation in popular debate would threaten the stability of elitist seats of privilege and their understanding of the right of some to make decisions about the legitimacy of the lives of others. The idea of class serves to distinguish between those who have and those who have not. Contemporary discourses define our age as the age of knowledge, its optimum manifestations being knowledge-creating schools, organisations and societies. Who counts as somebody is the person who has knowledge and knows how to use it. Knowledge is currently the most prized social commodity and represents status and cash. I also watch with dismay how powerful forms of propaganda are systematically developed and consolidated across the culture with the aims of deciding what kind of knowledge is valuable, and who should be legitimated as a knower. The propaganda system methodically aims to factor out participation in public debate and turn the education of young people and professionals into a strategy of social control in the relentless drive towards market rationalisation and the privatisation of states and their apparatuses.
Today I want to look at some recent gains, and then to consider how these gains are in danger of appropriation and distortion because of the overarching political propaganda machine. I see this as a dialectical process of how gains for some are then transformed into gains for others, and how the relationships between the parties act as conduits of power in establishing whose voice should be listened to, and who should be made invisible. I also see the notion of gains and losses as part of a wider transformative process whose general trajectory is influenced by the choices of those engaged in the struggle. Therefore, while I present my report in terms of the ongoing struggle for recognition, voice and participation, I also want to communicate my own understanding of the power of so-called ordinary people to influence the future, and the potential risks they run in exercising their capacity to choose.
In a recent conversation, Noam Chomsky reminded me how David Hume argued persuasively that people have the power to influence politicians. I like this idea and relate to it strongly. However, I have learnt from experience that often people encounter externally imposed constraints, and sometimes set up internal constraints, that prevent them from exercising their power and influence. The internal constraints are to do with fear and inertia (Fromm, 1979). The external constraints exist in the form of infrastructures of control and the propaganda systems that threaten punishment for insubordination. Indeed, the propaganda system itself becomes so normalised that people often have difficulty in even recognising that it is there, let alone understand that they need to break through it in order to claim and exercise their own power. People effectively come to police themselves, and don’t even know that they are doing so (Foucault, 1977). I believe this is happening systematically within the mainstream education and educational research communities, and even in the action research communities. People who view action research from an elitist perspective (that is, regard themselves as authorised to dictate how and why others should do their action research) aim to control those who view action research from a democratic perspective (that is, accept the responsibility of demonstrating their own accountability for their educational and social practices). They do this using interesting strategies which I outline below.
So now let me give an account of (1) what I see as gains for democrats (because I am a democrat), and how these gains are systematically turned into commodities to be appropriated and used as a propaganda strategy by aristocrats, and (2) how the democratic community needs consistently to be vigilant and find opportunities to prevent the commodification of their gains, and use their power for the future transformation of society, including the education of elites. Let me return therefore first to the gains I outlined at the beginning of this paper, and then go on to make some proposals.
Legitimising action research
The idea of the practitioner as researcher is everywhere. So is the idea of reflective practice. I am reminded of the term ‘semantic saturation’. The ideas of practitioner research and reflective practice are now so hackneyed and commodified that they have almost come to mean all things to all people. I can tell you of one institution where students are taught to ‘be reflective’ and then assessed in terms of behavioural outcomes.
Yet, in spite of the distortions, practitioner research really has succeeded in influencing what counts as knowledge and how we come to know. A glance through the AERA programmes of recent times will reveal that ten years ago action research was barely mentioned, whereas today it is highly visible and linked to other major theoretical traditions. The story of my own activist involvement in the development of action research in Ireland goes like this. In 1992, when I first arrived, the Irish universities I approached refused to entertain my idea that they should accredit the professional learning of practitioners. I asked British universities to act as legitimating bodies for Irish practitioners. This manoeuvre resulted in the development of continuing professional education programmes that enabled educators to have their study of their workplace practices accredited as valid knowledge. It established self study approaches to action research as legitimated forms of educational theorising. These now established precedents have contributed to new university practices of supporting the continuing professional education of practitioners across the professions. Today I am involved in the development of doctoral programmes through action research at the University of Limerick, and I am invited by some colleges of the National University of Ireland and other national agencies to lead staff development initiatives through action research. Such rapid progress is possible, I think, in small contexts with familial cultures; other strategies are probably necessary in larger contexts with different forms of culture. I am telling the story to show that it can be done, and the evidence is there for all to see, both in the society and in the knowledge base that supports these claims (see below).
However, in terms of how action research can contribute to the future of educational research and its uses, the same struggles for ownership continue, now in terms of whether action research belongs to aristocrats or democrats. The democratic version of action research I promote, drawing on the work of Jack Whitehead, places the individual ‘I’ at the centre of enquiry, out of my own value commitment that people should hold themselves accountable for their own practices, and produce validated evidence to support their claims to knowledge. I take the business of personal accountability very seriously. My claim that I have influenced social and educational change is supported by its own knowledge base. This knowledge base comprises some 65 masters dissertations produced by practitioners who claim that they have influenced educational and organisational change within their own institutional contexts (see http://www.jeanmcniff.com); hundreds of reports by practitioners doing their informal action research in education and corporate settings to explain how they are improving the quality of their own learning, and influencing the learning of others (see the influence on http://www.sip.ie); reports of practitioners in higher education settings, in terms of their doctoral and professional doctoral theses and module assignments (for example McDaniel, 2002); reports from higher education academic staff that show how they are developing new scholarships of teaching in their own institutions for educational change (for example Geary and Moody, 2002); as well as my own accounts of individual practice (for example, McNiff, 2000, 2002) and collective practice (for example, McNiff, McNamara and Leonard, 2000), and the writings of others who find my work useful (for example, Atkinson, 2000). This knowledge base represents my own gains. For the work of others, and the massive gains that have been made worldwide, see http://www.actionresearch.net, which is possibly one of the most influential web sites in the world in terms of showing the potentials of action research for universal educational and social reform. It includes reports of work here in Canada, where massive inroads have been made in supporting practitioner based enquiry in the Ontario Educational Research Council (http://oerc.net), the Ontario Action Researcher (http://www.unipissing.ca/oar) and the Grand Erie District Board, where the Superintendent of Schools (Delong, 2002) was recognised for Leadership in Action Research by the OERC in December 2000.
These gains however need to be seen within the context of how action research is embedded systemically within discourses about the nature of educational enquiry and its uses. A spectator approach to action research is widely practised in education and corporate settings, especially by those who are positioned as the providers and supporters of practitioners’ research. Self-styled elites preside over others doing their action research, and make judgements using normative criteria about what progress has been made and how it should be judged. These criteria tend to be related to performance, especially in terms of the extent to which social change happens as a result of practitioners’ interventions. When no results are forthcoming, practitioners are often accused of failure. I am reminded of my work in the 1980s, when I had responsibility for promoting then innovative programmes of personal and social education (PSE) in schools. Sceptical colleagues looked upon me as a change agent with magical powers. I was subjected to comments such as, ‘You’ve been doing PSE with these children for two weeks and they still haven’t improved.’ The same faith in quick-fix solutions to human dilemmas and simplistic causal relationships continue to dominate discourses within schools and organisations, as well as in professional education contexts. Popular 10-minute MBA programmes and ‘how to do action research’ books serve to promote the interests of corporate elites who use the idea of instant improvement to chastise more critically reflective practitioners who understand that change begins in people’s minds, and that trajectories of social evolution are influenced by what choices people make at individual and local levels.
Here is an excerpt from an e-mail I received recently from a teacher in Asia, that illustrates what I am saying:
‘I am working with four other colleagues doing our action research. … We are so worried, because we have to produce results and we have not. … We were so full of enthusiasm when we started.’
I have heard similar stories from colleagues working in some places in the US where action research is now mandated, with the expectation that teachers will improve children, or face the consequences of their failure. To me, it is a tragedy of the deepest order how ideas and movements are taken out of context by those who have the power to do so, and manipulated into forms that serve elitist purposes. I see this as a strategy employed by elites throughout the history of ideas and human enquiry.
In summary, the idea of practitioner action research is well established. What remains contested is how it is understood and practised, and what strategies of control are exercised by elites to influence who speaks and who should be listened to in discourses about action research. In Britain, some powerful voices dismiss action researchers as hick country cousins (McIntyre, 1997; Hammersley, 1997) or troublemakers (Gorard, 2002), with the message that the work of real researchers should not be interfered with by researcher wannabes. For some, teachers are not able to understand the complexities of doing research: ‘… research and teaching are significantly different roles which depend on different types of knowledge, skill and disposition. Expecting teachers to take over the task of doing educational research underestimates the difficulty of that task and the expertise it requires …’ (Foster, 1999: 395). Those of us who refuse to be corralled or mesmerised by aristocratic power use our own strategies of influence and build our own platforms of power to disseminate our stories of educational improvement for social benefit via a systematic knowledge base, and these stories are grounded in the evidence that is generated through practitioners’ studies of practice as they find ways of influencing the trajectories of social change.
These, I believe, are deeply problematic issues for the development of democratic forms of educational enquiry for social benefit within hostile contexts of aristocratic control. Yet progress has been made, and further progress can be made, and must be made, if practitioners are to continue to contribute to policy debates about what counts as human flourishing and how it should be nurtured. From the experience of trying to influence thinking and practice at local and national levels (albeit the nation in question is small in numbers), I have learnt that influencing the form and direction of social change works on a few simple principles. These include the following.
Be aware of the nature of change
Change is not an object that can be described, pulled around, painted, or put into a bag. Change is a process that people do. People change themselves; change is people. Processes of change begin in people’s minds. Being involved in social change means being involved in processes of persuasion, influence, resistance and commitment, as well as being aware of the often irreconcilable differences between freedom and pluralistic forms of living and the potentially irremediable loss when choices have to be made (
Be aware of how you exercise your influence
The following is an excerpt from the second edition of ‘You and Your Action Research Project’ (McNiff, Lomax and Whitehead, in press).
‘It is often assumed that influence is negative and sinister. This is not necessarily so. Influence happens in many ways. It is also assumed that one person can directly influence another. Again, this is not necessarily so. Coercion aside, people have choices about whether or not to be influenced. When we speak about educative influence, we imply that this involves a process in which person A comes to help person B understand that A is helping B to make choices about whether or not B should accept A’s influence. This is not a crude, coercive process. It is highly complex, and means establishing contexts in which freedom and originality of mind are safeguarded for all by all. Too often it is the case, however, that some people persuade others not to exercise their choices. For many, choices really do not exist. Others are not even aware that they have choices.’
From the experience of working in institutional and organisational contexts I am aware of how institutional cultures tend to work towards closing down opportunities for learning, usually because power and control are built into the frequently hierarchical infrastructures, so that people know without being told the kinds of responses they can expect to their various words and actions. Fred Alford’s (2001) book on ‘Whistleblowers’ is one of the best analyses of how societies, whether they are schools, corporations, or social systems, silence dissenters and ensure the privileged status of elites within establishments. If you are involved in organisational improvement or continuing professional development initiatives, ask yourself which values you subscribe to, and whether you are living according to these values, or someone else’s.
Build up a knowledge base
I believe that a powerful strategy for persuading policy makers to support democratic activity is to build a knowledge base and disseminate its contents and their underpinning ideologies. The knowledge base would contain stories of the work of people at all levels of the system. These stories would contain undeniable evidence to show how practitioners, including policy makers and administrators, can influence the nature of others’ learning, and how others are able to use their learning for social betterment. These stories however are stories of practice, not mythology or opinion, though they may draw on a variety of representational traditions to communicate their messages. In order to ensure the undeniability of the evidence, the stories, probably in the form of personal accounts of practice, need to show how practitioners use their values as their guiding principles of practice. These principles themselves act as the criteria by which practitioners are able to make professional judgements about their practice. Practitioners systematically gather data about themselves, as they exercise their educative influence in company with others, and turn it into evidence by testing the data against their values-as-criteria. These values become the living criteria by which they assess themselves and their work (Whitehead, 2000).
Having built up the knowledge base, you then have to disseminate the knowledge. You can do this using any strategy that seems right at the time – publication in books and journals, public presentation, visits to policy makers, working with other groups of practitioners. You have to be opportunistic and take every chance that comes along. You also have to create opportunities. This takes considerable time, energy and effort. An incentive for finding the necessary energy and effort is to remember that elites also spend considerable time, energy and material resources in building up their knowledge base, as well as putting in place a sophisticated propaganda system for the dissemination of the contents of that knowledge base and its underpinning ideologies, and they also spend considerable time and energy in maintaining the system. At no stage does the system maintain itself; it needs to be fuelled. Lessons about creating and maintaining propaganda systems should be studied and practised by those who wish to exercise their educative influence as much as by those who wish to exercise their self-serving influence. We are in a political world, and people will commit their hearts and minds to those who communicate messages about the validity and desirability of their particular form of life rather than to those who do not take the trouble publicly to stand up for what they believe in. Machiavelli’s ‘Prince’ is not about the exercise of unilateral power so much as about using whatever means are available to exercise one’s influence and ensure its sustainability, regardless of the nature of that influence (see Berlin, 1997).
Work at all levels of the system
I have learnt that it is important to work at all levels of the system. In my early days I used to concentrate only on supporting practitioners’ enquiries, but I have learnt how important it is to find ways of talking with managers and administrators, who often act as gatekeepers. Different forms of encounter usually involve different forms of discourse, and this means developing competence in different languages. I have deliberately learnt the language of managerialism, in order to work on their own terms with those who live by managerialist values, in order to persuade them to consider engaging in my democratic discourses. This calls for some expertise in diplomacy, and recognising that processes of persuasion mean not confusing diplomacy with hypocrisy, nor advocacy with hysteria (not easy when one is impatient or carries one’s own sense of arrogance – and these are more stories of learning). It does mean recognising that people holding deeply entrenched positions need time to change their minds, and good reasons for doing so. It also means recognising that changing one’s mind means making choices about possibly giving up material comfort in favour of supporting democratic practices, and this is often too much for some who are positioned as elites. I have learnt to be forgiving, but not too much so.
Of course there would be other considerations for managing processes of change. I do believe, however, that sustainable social change, and developing one’s capacity to support sustainable social change, means always remembering that one is a real person working with other real persons. Creating a new propaganda system to challenge the currently dominant system means shifting the paradigm in multiple directions and then building up a knowledge base and disseminating its contents as vigorously as possible. The paradigm has shifted in terms of new forms of research and theory which focus on the personal professional stories of practitioners who are exercising their educative influence in company with others, rather than on the production of statements about conceptual relationships between abstract entities. The knowledge base means the establishment of new norms of educative influence, these norms having built into them their own checks and balances that are grounded in a recognition of the sanctity of other people’s originality of mind and critical judgement, so that the norms do not become rigidified but act rather as transition nodes for societies that are always already in processes of transformation.
Perhaps, as millennial statements tend to say, there has never been a greater need for educational change, or a recognition that education can act as a main driver for sustainable social reform. We are in danger world-wide of being taken over by materialistic cultures that have already demonstrated their potentials for untold social and environmental damage by insisting that only certain privileged minorities have the monopoly on truth. Fundamentalism is everywhere. It is as much part of educational enquiry as it is of governments and politics. It is interesting to note reports however of the strengthening of peace movements and social activism in reaction to recent world events and in response to the hardening of entrenched attitudes by some prominent politicians. Public opinion has had profound influence in recent times as a moderating force against the more extreme pronouncements from the seats of political power. I believe that the same kind of influence can be exercised by practitioners on the current deliberate lemming-like political and social drives towards market rationalisation and its consequences, and the kinds of fundamentalist attitudes and practices by which its survival is assured. There really is no greater need, no greater urgency. But democratically-informed social change is possible, and perfectly realisable. Evidence exists. What it does take is courage, commitment, energy, acceptance of personal discomfort, and faith in the rightness of one’s own position while recognising that one might always be mistaken, not from a fundamentalist perspective, but because one can see one’s influence in terms of the improved lives of others. In the film ‘Up Close and Personal’ Robert Redford said that reporters are only as good as the stories they tell. I think the same principle of personal accountability is true of educators. We are as only good as the lives that we influence. So we had better make sure we know what we understand as good and how we make judgements about that in the first place.
Alford, F. (2001) Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power,
Atkinson, E. (2000) ‘Behind the Inquiring Mind: Exploring the transition from external to internal inquiry’, Reflective Practice 1(2): 149–64.
Chomsky, N. (1996) Power and Prospects: Reflections on Human Nature and the Social Order.
Delong, J. (2002) ‘How can I improve my practice as a superintendent of schools and create my own living educational theory?’ PhD thesis, University of Bath, available at http://www.actionresearch.net
Foster, P. (1999) ‘Never mind the quality, feel the impact: a methodological assessment of teacher research sponsored by the Teacher Training Agency’, Educational Studies, 47(4): 390–398.
Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish. Harmondsworth, Penguin.
Fromm, E. (1979) The Fear of Freedom.
Geary, T. and Moody, J. (2002) ‘Studying our own practice’, a paper presented at the Educational Studies Association of Ireland annual conference,
Gorard, S. (2002) ‘The Future of Educational Research Post RAE 2001’, a paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Conference,
Hammersley, M. (1997) ‘Educational Research and Teaching: a response to David Hargreaves’ TTA lecture’, British Educational Research Journal 23(2): 141–161.
McDaniel, M. (2002) ‘The Professional as Researcher’, Unpublished assignment for module on the PhD programme,
McIntyre, D. (1997) ‘The Profession of Educational Research’, British Educational Research Journal 23(2): 127–140.
McNiff, J. with J. Whitehead (2000) Action Research in Organisations.
McNiff, J. with J. Whitehead (2002) Action Research: Principles and Practice (second edition), RoutledgeFalmer,
McNiff, J., McNamara, G. and Leonard, D. (eds) (2000) Action Research in Ireland. Dorset, September.
McNiff, J., Lomax, P. and Whitehead, J. (in press) You and Your Action Research Project (second edition),
Whitehead, J. (2000) ‘How do I improve my practice? Creating and legitimating an epistemology of practice’, Reflective Practice 1(1): 91–104.
Whitehead, J. (2002) Draft paper of
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