in Early Childhood Education
ERIC Identifier: ED401047
Publication Date: 1996-11-00
Author: Borgia, Eileen T. - Schuler, Dorothy
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education Urbana IL.
Action research is an approach to professional development and improved student
learning in which teachers systematically reflect on their work and make changes in
their practice. It is sometimes difficult to convince teachers that change is necessary or
practicable when those promoting change are outside the teacher's own classroom or
when an innovation is imposed from the "top down." Undertaken by practitioners, action
research involves looking at one's own practice, or a situation involving children's
development, behavior, social interactions, learning difficulties, family involvement, or
learning environments, and then reflecting and seeking support and feedback from
Patterson and Shannon (1993) describe action research as "inquiry in which
practicing teachers try to understand the particular individuals, actions, policies, and
events that make up their work environment in order to make professional decisions" (p.
8). Garner (1996) defines action research more specifically as a systematic, reflective,
collaborative process that examines a situation for the purpose of planning,
implementing, and evaluating change.
APPEAL FOR PRACTICING TEACHERS
Interest in action research is growing partly because practitioners find they can be in
leadership positions as they plan, conduct, and evaluate research on their own practice,
instead of relying on library research or double-blind experiments. Good action research
integrates theory, practice, and meaningful, concurrent application of results. While
action research is a subjective study of one situation, and the results may not be
generalizable, many teachers and researchers now acknowledge that wisdom can be
found in the voices of individuals as they live their own experience, reflect on its
meaning, and take action to change what they perceive to be in need of change.
For example, early childhood educators often use ineffective traditional rituals and practices,
such as daily rote exercises involving calendar and weather, holiday curricula, learning
"a letter a week," and isolated skill-and-drill, in lieu of methods that result in meaningful
reading or mathematics learning. While it might be difficult to stop such practices from
the outside, a teacher is likely to discover their futility upon closer investigation made
possible through action research. Similarly, for teachers who are expected to conduct
academic tasks that are not appropriate for young children, an action research study
can assist the teacher in convincing others of the value of using alternative, more
Several additional benefits of action research have been cited:
THE PROCESS OF ACTION RESEARCH
- Teachers investigate their own practice in a new way, taking a closer look at what
children actually do and what they themselves do.
- Teachers develop a deeper understanding of children, the teacher-learning process, and
their role in the educational lives of children.
- Teachers are viewed as equal partners with their
collaborators in deciding what works best in their
situation, thus reducing the possibility for unequal
power relationships that might otherwise develop among
university researchers, curriculum developers,
administrators, and teachers (McLean, 1995).
- Solutions are arrived at cooperatively.
- Teachers are often more committed to implementation of a
project that they have been involved in designing.
- Action research is an ongoing process, rather than a
program, and its principles can be applied elsewhere.
Feldman (1995) and others describe action research as a process; a unique orientation
towards inquiry. Garner (1996) proposes a cyclical paradigm: "To learn is to change; to
change is to create; and to create is to learn." Takala's (1994) steps in the process
include the following:
At each stage, there is considerable self-reflection, collaborator reflection, and dialogue. Educators
begin with a focus or question, which frequently is modified as data are gathered and
the process continues. After reflection and discussion, a research question is
conceptualized, and a plan of action is developed. The teacher implements the plan,
observing and keeping detailed anecdotal records. Kemmis (1988) described a similar
cycle as a spiral in which each cycle increases the researcher's knowledge of the
original question, leading to its solution or to a new question. Gummesson (1991) noted
that within the process of action research, data collection, analysis, action, decision
making, implementation, and change often take place concurrently.
- identify the question;
- create a solution;
- implement the solution;
- evaluate; and
- modify one's ideas and practice in light of the evaluation.
TOOLS OF ACTION RESEARCH
The research methods are selected to respond to the particular question that is
proposed. It is more common to see qualitative methods, with an emphasis on
discovery and interpretation, than to see hypothesis testing, correlation studies, or other
kinds of statistical analysis.
Preferred methods include
Documentation occurs through
carefully detailed descriptions of people, events, and settings; field notes; interactive
journals; memos; minutes of meetings; transcriptions; portfolios; photographs; films; and
tape recordings. Validity in action research is obtained when there are multiple
perspectives. Typically it is helpful to have at least three different data sources a
method referred to in the literature as triangulation (Smith, 1979). Quantitative methods,
such as surveys, checklists, test scores, and report cards, can provide another
- in-depth interviews,
- participant observation,
- case study,
- self-study, and
- telling of stories.
COMPONENTS OF ACTION RESEARCH -- FIVE C'S
Involvement in action research includes Commitment, Collaboration, Concern,
Consideration, and Change.
PROFESSIONAL SUPPORT FOR ACTION RESEARCH
Action research takes time. The participants need time to get to know
and trust each other and to observe practice, consider changes, try new approaches,
and document, reflect, and interpret the results. Those who agree to participate should
know that they will be involved with the project for a year or more, and that the time
commitment is a factor that all participants should consider carefully.
In action research, the power relations among participants are
equal; each person contributes, and each person has a stake. Collaboration is not the
same as compromise, but it involves a cyclical process of sharing, of giving, and of
taking. The ideas and suggestions of each person should be listened to, reflected upon,
The interpretive nature of action research (for example, relying on personal
dialogue and a close working relationship) means that the participants will develop a
support group of "critical friends." This kind of relationship requires risk taking, and a
kind of vulnerability exists. Trust in each other and in the value of the project is
Reflective practice is the mindful review of one's actions specifically,
one's professional actions. Reflection requires concentration and careful consideration
as one seeks patterns and relationships that will generate meaning within the
investigation. Reflection is a challenging, focused, and critical assessment of one's own
behavior as a means of developing one's craftsmanship.
For humans, growing and changing are part of the developmental cycle of
life. Change is ongoing and, at times, difficult, but it is an important element in remaining
effective as a teacher. Change is possible if one has the right nurturing and support,
and the results are worthwhile.
Action research is gaining support. In the metropolitan St. Louis, Missouri area, the
Action Research Collaborative sponsored by the Danforth Foundation has provided
financial and professional assistance through conferences and support groups to
hundreds of researcher practitioners. The Teacher as Researcher Committee of the
International Reading Association has also taken a leadership position on encouraging
action research among its members. Teachers Are Researchers: Reflection and Action
(Patterson et al., 1993) is a testament to teachers' reflective genius as collaborators and
students of their own teaching.
Enthusiasm for action research is growing as people discover its value as a powerful
vehicle for support, networking, and school reform. Educators who have used action
research say that it becomes a way of life in their work. Classroom practice and
children's experiences are changed, and in the process, there is improvement in
learning. Professional development becomes an ongoing process in which educators
and children are concurrent learners and teachers. Action research is a positive,
supportive, proactive resource for change.
This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational Research and
Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under OERI contract no. RR93002007.
The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies
of OERI or the Department of Education. ERIC digest are in the public domain and may
be freely reproduced and disseminated.
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