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Action Research

Action research is done by a person or people in their own environment in the hope of improving their practice, their understanding of their practice and their understanding of the environment in which they practice.

Henry and Kemmis (1985, p. 1) defined action research as:

a form of self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice in their own social or educational practices, as well as their own understanding of these practices and the situations in which these practices are carried out.

Put differently, action research is done by a person or people in their own environment in the hope of improving their practice, their understanding of their practice and their understanding of the environment in which they practice. Significantly, action research is not about what that person normally does, its focus is on problem-posing not problem-setting, it isn’t done on other people nor does it treat them as objects. Instead it is about helping people to improve (often ourselves but not always). It isn’t a scientific method so don’t use it to set hypothesis and test them.

Fundamentally, it’s about improving learning and changing from within.

In my case it was about changing my teaching (and ultimately my coaching but I didn’t know that at the time). I first encountered action research in the early Noughties (about 2003) and, to be frank, didn’t fully get it. I treated like any normal research approach and, on a scale of “not at all” to “brilliantly”, probably did it OK.

I was doing my Masters’ degree at the time and was looking at changing my practice. It was the start of my journey to a multi-model curriculum (although I didn’t know that at the time either) and I was starting with Sport Education. As I’ve written elsewhere the Sport Education part of it was a disaster. My Head of Department didn’t like the approach at all and pulled the plug 5 weeks into a 14 week season. But that’s OK (well it is now after lots of therapy) because I learnt quite a lot about me, my practice and my environment. The daily and weekly trials of trying to run Sport Education in a somewhat pedagogically hostile environment had a profound effect on my practice and my resolve to continually improve. I wanted to improve by learning and changing from within. I just needed to find other ways of doing it.

Ultimately, I focused on developing, testing and critically examining the actions I took in my own pedagogical spaces and action research really helped. The failed Sport Education unit is a classic example of how my drive and desire to change meet with a brick wall. I had read about Sport Education and wanted to try it out for myself. The intention was to be better but that wasn’t the case – at least not in this instance. But that’s fine. Great actually. We shouldn’t always assume that when we see or read about someone doing something ‘great’ that it will work in our practice or in our environment. If action research (or any of the approaches that get discussed in this blog) can help us see that then it’s done is job.

It’s important to note that action research isn’t one thing. You can’t follow it formulaically and get to an answer. Lots of people have interpreted it in different ways. For Me. I’m all for simple and I follow Kurt Lewin’s original idea for ‘actioned’ research. Like him, I see it as a cyclical process with five sequential objectives.

1.   Think – and identify a general problem or idea

2.   Plan – and settle on an initial way of approaching the general problem or idea

3.   Act – and teach the first lesson/session

4.   Evaluate – using observation or data gathering tools, seek to understand how you act impacts learning and how this impacts on your general problem or idea.

5.   Reflect – on the action and the learning it stimulated. Gauge the strengths and weakness of the plan and allow yourself to begin to re-think the problem a little (if needed) - which is step 6.

From reflect comes the next cycle i.e. re-plan, act, evaluate, reflect and re-think. This can be done as many times as you want.

Another consideration is that action research doesn’t exist on one level. It’s fractal (i.e. similar patterns recur at progressively smaller scales). Put differently, and using my action research process as an example, I had my whole PhD study as a cycle but I also had units of work and individual lessons and each used the same cyclical process with five sequential objectives. In this way it was cycles within cycles and no cycle was restrained by depth or time. In other words, my lesson cycles fitted in to my unit cycles which, in turn, fitted in to my PhD. 

One of the key elements of action research for me, and the reason I kept and keep using it, is knowledge is fed directly into action. It isn’t about hunches or ‘teacher sense’ it is about gathering data, evaluating and reflecting on practice and then using that new knowledge to change my actions. 

A second key element for me was that it stopped me trying to present myself as a fully trained teacher. I wasn’t foolproof, my knowledge wasn’t watertight and the subject area hadn’t stood still for my entire career. I was fallible, things changes and evolved and there wasn’t one answer. Stenhouse (1979) argued that when we present ourselves as all-knowing we give the learners in our care a false impression of learning. We tell them that learning is a fixed entity and that there are set conclusion and end points rather than voyages of discovery.

In bringing this to a conclusion it’s worth thinking about who might do action research, what is it that they might be doing and why they might do it.

Who = Someone native to the field

What = the study of things by changing them within their natural habitat

Why = to improve practice and have practitioners who are self-reflective of their social situation, focused on improving practice, and who act ethically.

Lawrence Stenhouse (1983) wanted action research to be a “process of making public the systematic inquires of teachers in order to affect other teachers, but also the larger educational community.” Thought of in this way, action research becomes a way of collecting together ideas and seeing how they inform practice. It is self-reflective and ethical but it also speaks to others and helps them to inform their future practice. It is about seeking to be the best practitioner possible but understand what they practice is and does and how it responds and is dependent on where we work and who with.

So my challenge is think, plan, act, evaluate and reflect and see where it takes you.



All quotes comes from chapter 2 of this book: Casey, A., Fletcher, T., Schaefer, L. & Gleddie, D. (2017). Conducting Practitioner Research in Physical Education and Youth Sport: Reflecting on Practice. London: Routledge.  

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On Friday 09 March at 14:19 Andy Vasily said

As I read this blog post, I was drawn back to the work that I am doing with single subject teachers at my school (The KAUST School). I think that this work has strong elements of action research embedded within the cognitive coaching model that we use. 

I've been at this role for over 18 months now and am thoroughly enjoying it, as I have the opportunity every single day to help teachers dig into their own practice. However, the reality is that not all teachers are in the same place in regards to their willingness to be a part of the process. The model that we are using at our school is all about trying to create a culture that teachers pull feedback from their coach or a critical partner rather than having feedback imposed or pushed on them. The main purpose is that we truly want to empower teachers to know and understand that critical feedback is extremely valuable in the process of deepening teacher practice. 

Depersonalizing this feedback is also a critically important step in this process that both the teacher and the coach need to focus on if they are to have success. 

The general idea is that there is always low hanging fruit....meaning that there will always be those teachers who really jump on board and are totally willing to be involved in the process. There are some other teachers who are hesitant, but seem to find value in this process and there are a few that completely avoid it. 

To me action research is made even more powerful when there is a support network in place thus building a more collaborative work environment that everyone can glean insight and wisdom from, both teacher and coach/critical partner. 

I want to share a success that we had at my school over the past couple of weeks.  

The music teacher that I was coaching wanted me to come in and collect general data related to his teaching practice. I chose to observe 3 consecutive classes with a class from grade 2. The music lessons I observed were on a Monday, Wednesday and then again the following Monday. 

The data showed that whole class teacher talk time was quite low which was good. The teacher had also asked a number of solid questions that sparked some great dialogue in the first couple of classes I had observed. 

However, the data showed that there was generally a 33% disenagement rate in regards to the task that he had assigned in both classes that I had observed. Kids had choice over the instrument that they played and choice over the sheet music (three choices of sheet music) that they played to accompany the instrument. Choice is great, right! 

Now, when I say disengagement, what I mean is that roughly 33% of the students were not doing what the music teacher had asked. Either they were going to visit friends to see what they were doing OR they were simply creating their own music rather than read sheet music. Disenagement with the assigned task but a definite curosity about music which was a good sign. 

After looking at this data, the teacher realized that he needed to restructure this series of lessons. Through a coaching discussion related to planning, he decided to change this teaching in this way. Instead of making the students individually play an instrument and read sheet music as he had done in the previous two classes, he decided to provide further options which were: 

A) Individually choose an instrument and play sheet music of their choice as they had already done (he also increased the selection of sheet music to include songs such as Star Wars)

B) Individually choose an instrument but instead of reading sheet music, they were allowed to create their own simple patterns of music.

C) Play an instrument with a partner and read sheet music of their choice

D) Play an instrument with a partner but create their own patterns of music instead of read sheet music 

Once we formulated a plan of action for the next two classes, we agreed that I would go back in an observe two more classes collecting further data. The results of this data collection showed that disengagement dropped from 33% to 6%. 

It was a rewarding moment to see how proud the music teacher was of this shift in teaching practice and the result it had on levels of engagement. It allowed him to go around and give more timely feedback instead of putting out fires here and there and reminding kids of what the task was. 

I think that this process closely resembles your 5-step process above; Think, Plan, Act, Evaluate, & Reflect. 

The best part is that this type of action research that I am working on with teachers has had a spill over effect and other teachers are now more open to this process. I'm repeated it with similar success in PE and Visual Arts as well. 

Action research requires an open-mind, and as you said we aren't foolproof and our knowledge isn't watertight nor will it ever be. However, striving to be a better version of ourselves as educators should be the ultimate aim of the work that we do. 

Ash, despite this being a PE blog, I feel that the music example speaks volumes for what is possible in PE as well when we genuinely open ourselves to observation and data collection. When we are willing to have important conversations that allow us to reflect and take action, our teaching practice will inevitably get better and we'll find much more value in the work that we do. Thanks Ash!

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On Sunday 11 March at 06:10 Wyatt Franz said

First off, I have to say thanks for the free session Andy, because as I read your response it got my wheels spinning as to my own practice. I realized I can give even more choice within my PE class - we give the students certain exercises to do for the various fitness components, but rather than say you have to do these exercises, you can choose x from these choices. Hopefully this will increase agency and engagement to higher levels.

As to your post Ash, I like the organized flexibility of your approach. Have a plan, run it through cycles, but fit it in to what it is you're trying to do. I also agree it is important to act, because there is no perfect.

The other day I was listening to Malcolm Gladwell's podcast, Revisionist History. In the one I listened to, it talked about there being two kinds of innovators - there's conceptual innovators and experimental innovators.  The conceptual innovators pretty much get it right in a short time, while the experimental innovators usually take multiple attempts to get it right, if they ever do at all. Either type of innovator you may be, you have to put the rubber to the road. 

While I wouldn't say I am an innovator of either sort, I would be more of the experimental type, and that is okay. I take a bit longer to get things the way I am satisfied, but it is about perseverance I suppose. Is it ever the right or wrong time to start a new idea or tweak a present one? That depends on the the person, the class, and/or the unit/lesson. To me that is what makes our job a great one.

I for one will use the action research plan as a way to better organize my thoughts and actions in the future, so thanks for this!

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On Sunday 11 March at 08:47 Andy Vasily said

I love the Gladwell podcast. I actually spoke about conceptual vs experimental innovation in a keynote speech I gave at Jarrod Robinson's Connected PE conference in Dubai in 2016. I used the example of Dylan and Cohen. Dylan would bang songs off one after another while it took years for Cohen to release Hallelujah then even more years before it became a hit after Jeff Buckley had recreated it. My point being that great teaching can take years of iteration, but mebracing failure is very much a part of this journey. Cohen couldn't handle failure, he was painstakingly meticulous about everything wanting to released perfect versions of songs. Failure needs to be embraced. We need to tinker, recreate, and mold our craft, making mistakes along the way. Learning is the key component in moving our practice forward. I love that you mentioned the Gladwell podcast.....check out The Big Man Can't Shoot episode. 

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On Sunday 11 March at 09:42 Wyatt Franz said

I definitely am going to listen to them all - very thought provoking. I would have to say education doesn't encourage the experimental innovators enough. But when students are tested to death I can see why. Fortunately in the International/Independent teaching world, which we are a part of allows for more flexibility in this regard. 


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