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The action research cycle

I thought it might be useful to look at the action research cycle itself and use a technological example, which seems to be on the agenda of many physical education teachers, from my own teaching. However, firstly I will attempt to clarify the action research process. In his seminal paper Action Research and Minority Problems Kurt Lewin (1946, pp. 37-38) carefully laid out his vision for the cyclical process of action research:

Planning starts usually with something like a general idea...If this first period of planning is successful, two items emerge: namely, an “overall plan” of how to reach the objective and secondly, a decision in regard to the first step of action. Usually this planning has also somewhat modified the original idea.

The next period is devoted to executing the first step of the overall plan.

In highly developed fields of social management, such as modern factory management or the execution of a war, this second step is followed by certain fact-findings. For example, in the bombing of Germany a certain factory may have been chosen as the first target after careful consideration of various priorities and of the best means and ways of dealing with this target. The attack is pressed home and immediately a reconnaissance plane follows with the one objective of determining as accurately and objectively as possible the new situation.

This reconnaissance or fact-finding has four functions. First it should evaluate the action. It shows whether what has been achieved is above or below expectation. Secondly, it gives the planners a chance to learn, that is, to gather new general insight, for instance, regarding the strength and weakness of certain weapons or techniques of action. Thirdly, this fact-finding should serve as the basis for correctly planning the next step. Finally, it serves as a basis for modifying the “overall plan.”

The next step again is composed of a circle of planning, executing, and reconnaissance or fact-finding for the purpose of evaluating the results of the second step, for preparing the rational basis for planning the third step, and for perhaps modifying again the overall plan.

In this article Lewin (1946) envisioned action research as being effective in a very specific context in which he was involved with representatives from the local communities, school systems, single schools, minority organizations of a variety of backgrounds and objectives. The specifics of the approach are what make it applicable in educational settings, as it allows for the documenting of everyday lives and practices. Every school, while sharing some common features, is different and the diversity of their populations (and the traditions maintained within) are such that specific approaches are needed for specific institutions. The ability to identify effective case-by-case strategies that when employed in a unique situation had the greatest positive impact, rather than randomly deciding upon a course of action is what makes action research an effective agent of change.

The cycle can be imagined as:

Overall plan --> First step --> Evaluate the action --> Gather new general insights --> Planning the next step --> Modifying the overall plan

Case Study

I was privileged to work with an outstanding librarian in my last school. In her work as an educator she purchased and developed a wiki for the school to use with its students. When I first saw the potential of this system I was determined to use it in physical education but I wanted its use to be meaningful and effective so I set myself the task of devising such an intervention. So my overall plan was to use a wiki in my physical education lessons. However, this was an objective and it took me eight months to instigate the first step. This first step was to use the wiki as a platform for a process of student-designed games making in which my students would create an invasion game from scratch. The wiki would serve as a permanent location for the game which could be accessed 24/7 by the participants (myself, my students and the librarian) and by Professor Peter Hastie (in the role of an advisor) and his students (both in school and university) who would play and evaluate on the games. A huge amount of work went into this first step and yet it was with some trepidation that I taught the first lesson of eight first lessons. Each encounter with the students lead me to evaluate the action I was taking, gather new general insights on the lessons before planning the next steps.

For example: The students found that the differences between imagining a game on the wiki and playing it on the school’s courts difficult. This meant that the advisor and I had to help them with our expertise in games. However, we had to be careful not to tell the students what to do and we found ways of questioning their ideas and offering a range of solutions to difficult problems.

Throughout this process I was modifying the overall plan and trying to find better ways of using the wiki. We initially used student email addresses but designed that log-ins should be made-up names not real names. In the original project I had imagined that all the students would access and edit the wikis but the students wanted to have one ‘wiki manager’ so that they could control the design process. Two of the better games are explained below (which shows the imagination and skill of the students as game designers):

Piko Piko. This was a five-a-side invasion game played across three netball courts. There were two rectangular goals (one at each end of the court) in which players could score one point and which a goalkeeper could defend. The goalkeeper’s area was out-of-bounds to all outfield players and therefore shots were taken from a distance. Two additional goals (hula-hoops on poles) were positioned either side of the half way line and were worth two points. These were undefendable and were positioned within an out-of-bounds area. Players carried two pieces of equipment: A “basher” (a foam swimming pool noodle) which was used for controlling the ball when it was on the ground also and for tagging the ball-carrier thus forcing him to pass; and a "jug" (literally a plastic milk jug with the end cut off to make a scoop) which was used to carry the tennis ball, to pass, parry and shoot. The objective of the game was to outscore your opponents by throwing the ball through any of the three available goals. Players were allowed to run with the ball in the scoop, dribble the ball on the floor with the basher, and hit the ball with either piece of equipment. When tackled (or bashed) the player with the ball was required to pass and therefore only an untackled player could score. Each half started with a bounce ball in the centre (similar to a face-off in ice hockey). Play was restarted (either from a goal, the ball leaving the pitch or an infringement) with a free pass to the opposition.

Run the Gauntlet. This game was played on a single netball court. Two 5-metre end zones were marked out with cones and a 60 cm wooden pole (the flag) was positioned on the middle of the dead ball line within the end zone. The first objective of the game was to pass a foam American football into your opponents’ end zone before being touch-tackled four times. The second objective was to place the ball on the floor of the end zone, pick up the flag and run it back into your own end zone before the opposition hit the flag-runner with the football. Each half started with a jump ball in the centre (similar to basketball). Play was restarted (either from a successful flag run, the ball leaving the pitch or an infringement) with a free pass to the opposition.

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